Michael Watkins is passionate about walkable neighborhoods, both as a philosophy and a practice. An internationally known architect and town planner, he is the founder and principal of Michael Watkins, LLC, an architecture and town planning firm dedicated to designing and implementing a dynamic public realm.
Watkins also serves as the town architect for Norton Commons. He was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in a community where as a kid he could walk to school and the park, and neighbors still talked to one another. It’s an experience he tries to re-create in every neighborhood he has helped design, more than sixty over his career, including the 600 acre development at Norton Commons.
Watkins, who said he always knew he was interested in architecture, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in that field at University of Cincinnati, and later his Master’s Degree in Classical Design from Georgia Institute of Technology. His interest in walkable communities guided his architectural studies and practice and led him to one particularly innovative firm: Duany Plater Zyberk (DPZ).
Building Norton Commons
The architect joined DPZ to implement a community called Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Watkins lives to this day. “David Tomes, one of the developers from Norton Commons, discovered that neighborhood, and we became good friends as a result of his visits here and interest in building a walkable neighborhood in Louisville,” said Watkins. “When the time came to get Norton Commons designed, I was asked to participate as town architect, and more than a decade later, I am still there.”
Tomes said Watkins has created something the community values at Norton Commons. “Mike Watkin’s input into the community’s design and layout has helped our team build what we hope will be a ‘best-loved place’ for generations to come.”
The function of a town architect
As town architect for both Norton Commons and Whitehall near Wilmington, Delaware, Watkins said he realizes when people hear the term ‘town architect,’ they may not know what that means, or what he does. His role is both art and science because it weaves together form and function.
“It mines the gap between planners and architects, providing expert advice to both as well as municipalities and the community, during and after development to ensure the vision is reinforced and the design code is followed as the community matures,” explained Watkins. His latest activity is providing oversight for the draw for the next round of lots being developed at Norton Commons. He will work with builders on what they plan to put on those lots to make sure they’re compatible but creative. “We decided to create a slightly different atmosphere around the new park in that section. Even within Norton Commons it’s important to create variety in a community that size.”
Charles Osborn III, Managing Director for Norton Commons Development said Watkins keeps the development on track within the original vision. “Though there is quite a bit of design latitude in Norton Commons, Mike’s oversight helps ensure a sense of aesthetic integrity and flow. He’s essentially our architectural compass, and we are glad for his valuable insight.”
The town architect role is tied to the concept of “new urbanism” which is defined as a way of envisioning communities that recovers the urban tradition of the past but not replicating it. “For example,” said Watkins, “We look at the neighborhoods built before the automobile because that had to be walkable, right? But now we have to accommodate cars, too, so today’s urbanism tailors itself to accommodate some of the new lifestyle demands. That might be houses with more storage because we have so much more stuff than we used to, explained Watkins. “In addition, becoming more pedestrian-oriented dramatically impacts qualify of life–that’s part of new urbanism, too.”
How exactly does the town architect of a neighborhood help create a robust community?
“To build community, both social and physical – requires considerable refinement of large-scale masterplans,” said Watkins. “It also requires that individual buildings be embedded in the plan and woven together to create the urban fabric that supports community.”
For Norton Commons, architecture, diversity, walkability and mixed use all play a role in attracting a diverse population that find a home, a gathering space, and a neighborhood that is interdependent – a real community.
Watkins said not having to drive everywhere is of huge benefit to residents – and to the environment since it means fewer cars on the road. “If you add up the time you spend in the car when you don’t have that lifestyle available, some people spend an hour each way getting to work every day,” he said. “That’s 10 hours a week multiplied by 50 weeks a year which equals several weeks of time each year sitting in your car. Most people would much rather spend that time with their families and in their community.”
All this is important to achieving Watkins’ ultimate goal: “designing integrated neighborhoods that foster a close-knit community.”
For more information about Norton Commons, click here.