Of all the planning and architectural movements I have studied, none gets more criticism than New Urbanism. How could it be so that a movement centered on the idea of a walkable city with vibrant public spaces and inclusive architecture can be met with so much ridicule?
Here is my take, but first a brief (not really) history of new urbanism:
In opposition to traditional sprawling car-centric designs, a group of architects came together to form the Congress for New Urbanism in 1993. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek, Peter Calthrope, Elizabeth Moule, Daniel Solomon, Michael Corbett and Stefanos Polyzoides drafted a document solidifying the elements of what they envisioned new urbanism to be. Modeled after pre-car European cities, the core elements of new urbanism were walkability with a diverse selection of public transportation modes, community centric neighborhoods with easily accessible institutions, a variety of housing options and plentiful public spaces where neighbors could gather. Since then, the CNU has taken off and the principles of new urbanism can be seen creeping back into our cities and even suburbs like St. Louis Park, Minnesota’s Excelsior and Grand which showcases a mixed use development of retail and housing, hidden parking and access to a park and amphitheater.
After World War II, suburbs as we know them today began to develop on the outskirts of metropolitan areas that were once serviced by streetcars. People sought to escape the noise and commotion of city life as well as to participate in FHA and VA mortgage programs that enabled Veterans to easily these plentiful new homes. The formation of the national highway system and government support of large-scale home builders who provided singe family homes on large plots, separated from their neighbor’s helped set the design standard for suburban development. New urbanism sought to bring neighbors closer together and strike a balance between “noisy city life” and “sprawling suburban isolation”.
So what’s wrong with that? Critics of new urbanism cite a few things:
- That people like having the privacy that a single family home with a garage and backyard provides.
- The style of development makes new urbanist communities more isolated from other communities’ of standard suburban design, creating pockets of disjointed neighborhoods or towns.
- New urbanist developments promote socioeconomic diversity, but rarely deliver on that principle, attracting mostly affluent white residents.
This leads us to where the most popular critiques of new urbanism frequently congregate: Celebration, Florida. Unveiled in 1996 and technically owned by the Disney Corporation, many see this “new small town” outside of Orlando as just another suburb contributing to sprawl. But in its defense, Celebration helped build the path towards different styles of design, which at the time, were not commonplace. In true new urbanist form, the pastel houses sit closer to each other and the street than in a typical car-centric suburb and it is also quite easy to browse the shops and walk where you need to.
Critics will also mention Seaside, Florida. Made famous in the movie The Truman Show it was built by Andres Duany as the first new urbanist town in 1981. Set on the Panhandle coast, homes in Seaside now sell for millions. Economically diverse? Not really. Walkable and community oriented? Yes.
New Urbanism Now
But that was old new urbanism, the new urbanism of the 1990’s. Even this year’s Congress held in May will include “critical evaluation of New Urbanism’s first two decades” and will “define an agenda to confront the challenges we face.”
The new urbanism of 2012 focuses on planning for public health, which places the new urbansim design guidelines in a context that may be easier for people to accept. As described in Andres Duany’s formative book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, our health is greatly impacted by our environment and the ways in which we interact with it. A 2003 publication from Smart Growth America’s Surface Transportation Policy Project tackles that very notion. This study finds that people in areas of high sprawl also have higher body mass indexes: and says, “People living in the most sprawling areas are likely to weigh six pounds more than people in the most compact county.”
Anyone who has lived in a suburb knows how difficult it can be to get around without a car. Any alternative to driving can be dangerous, making a bike ride to the store or park stressful, ultimately impacting the longevity of our lives by decreasing our activity levels over a long period of time.Featured in this New York Times article, Dr. Richard J Jackson from UCLA highlights many of the same themes from the Smart Growth study and is even giving the CNU 20 Closing Plenary.
The Beginning of the End of Sprawl?
Though the new urbanism of the 1990’s was not perfect, we cannot overlook what good it has brought in the urban planning and design field. Suburbs are retrofitting and infilling, making spaces more pedestrian friendly and sending rail lines out to the exurbs. These enhancements will promote healthier lifestyles and strengthen communities by getting people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. We may not love everything Andres Duany has ever done (watch some videos of him on YouTube and you’ll understand) but we wouldn’t be able to quickly address the widespread public health crisis we find ourselves in without him. New urbanism is not what it used to be and I think our opinions need to catch up with where it is now or we may begin to stifle urban innovation.
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