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  • Walking Back to the Days of New Urbanism

    by Carly Sieff

    We have all heard ad-nauseum that obesity rates in the United States are increasing radically. But what has changed so dramatically in our lives to cause these rates to double in the past 50 years from 13% in 1962 to 26.1% in 2011 (CDC)? Trends in housing show that destinations are getting farther from origins, as houses move closer to the cul-de-sac and retail becomes part of a strip mall creeping towards the highway. Naturally then, streets have become more dangerous; they are filled with fast moving drivers, afraid to leave their automobile until they are safely pulled into the garage. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ of physical activity, that which was previously engrained in the walk and bike commutes of our daily lives, have practically disappeared for most of us. But I believe I am not alone is denying the need for 4 tons of sheet metal, a 200 horsepower engine, requiring a 180 square foot parking space and emitting 425 grams of CO2 just to get me a mile down the block. If only we could recreate the land use and transportation network of the city and its travel preferences before drive-thrus and strip malls.

    The benefits we reap from walking and biking regarding obesity prevention have been proven time and time again in academic research. One study, for example, demonstrated that a 5% increase in walkability is associated with a per capita 32.1% increase in time spent in physically active travel and a 0.23-point reduction in body mass index (Frank et al 2007). Benefits also go far beyond weight loss. New Urbanism communities demonstrate improved environmental health through a reduction of emissions associated with driving; increased social capital resulting from interactions and shared experiences; decreased mental illness and anxiety that comes with driving and inactivity; and financial savings through reductions in car maintenance, gas, health-related costs and gym memberships.


    Stapleton, Denver, Colorado (DT)

    So how do we create a town where residents not only can, but want to walk to the grocery store, bike with their kids to school, and bike to dinner? In order to reap the benefits of increased active commuting, we need to pass policies and revise town ordinances with the pedestrian, not the car, in mind. This begins with disincentivizing driving by instilling parking costs in order to accurately reflect the cost of driving. We also need to reduce the quantity of parking; a sea of parking designed for the 5th busiest day of the year decreases density, creates a dangerous barrier for pedestrians, and sends the message that driving is the default option. We can do this by changing ordinances to include parking space maximums rather than minimums for new developments. Mixed-use developments can also share parking to optimize their facilities.

    Increasing the density and variety of destinations through zoning for mixed-use developments with smaller sites allows residents to access more places within walking distance from their home. A number of design elements that can be written into town ordinances contribute greatly to a pedestrian-scale. Small inclusions such as street furniture, trees providing shade, public art, bricked sidewalks and architecturally detailed facades can ‘activate’ a space. These features allow for coincidental interactions with neighbors, stimulating environments, and increase safety through the ‘eyes on the street’ effect. To address what can be a dangerous and contentious interaction between transportation modes, a Complete Streets policy considers bicyclists and pedestrians, in addition to cars, in the planning and design of streets. This means wide sidewalks, protected bicycle infrastructure and traffic calming devices that keep everyone safe.

    It may sound like implementation of these policies is ambitious, but that doesn’t mean this vision is impossible or even unreasonable. In fact, this smart growth development is beneficial for all stakeholders: the developer, town policy-makers, business-owners and residents. It is estimated that homes in New Urbanist communities, containing many of the policies described above, sell at 15-20% higher than conventional neighborhoods (Song and Knapp 2003). Asheville, North Carolina demonstrated an 800% greater return on investment for a business in the mixed-use downtown as compared to a strip mall near the city limits. Similarly, an acre of mixed-use retail yields $360,000 more in tax revenue than an acre of strip mall. This doesn’t even begin to get at all of the intangible benefits that directly and indirectly increase health, safety and improve the environment.

    Is this an instance when our own progress and technology has backfired? Can we even revert back to a time when the car wasn’t engrained in our culture, lifestyle and land use? I believe that if we can succeed in reversing the effects of the automobile on the planning and design of our cities, walking and biking to the grocery store will become the default. And we will all be a lot happier and healthier for it.


    Carly Sieff is a master's student at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning also working at Alta Planning + Design. Her previous work experience includes the League of American Bicyclists, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Highway Safety Research Center. She is currently studying bicycle and pedestrian planning, while also biking every day for exercise, recreation and transportation.
    Comments 12 Comments
    1. PennPlanner's avatar
      PennPlanner -
      Nothing new in the article. Same old statistics and same old ideas.

      I live in a walkable area. I appreciate it and can't imagine living in an outer suburb where I'd have to drive everywhere. But I'm pragmatic enough to know that Americans love their cars. They vote with their dollars to live in low-density, car oriented suburbs. The only way you're going to get a large scale movement back to higher density and walkable areas is to put a tax so high on cars that it becomes cost prohibitive to own them.
    1. chocolatechip's avatar
      chocolatechip -
      This article sounds like it was copied from student papers written in 1999 and now presented in a complete vacuum, obliviously unaware of anything that's happened in the last 5 years. For example, one of the cited benefits of New Urbanism is that mixed use housing commands 15-20 % more market price. I'm pretty sure that statistic was generated prior to the market crash. Now we have people being ejected from their homes due to overextended mortgages and plummeting housing value, zero housing development growth, declining property tax revenue, and the child author of this article talks about how New Urbanism is great because it creates more expensive housing. Excuse me? Where are the jobs supporting these most desirable housing purchases? New Urbanism was a glossy magazine of the future as it was imagined in 2005. Mixed use neighborhoods have been around for eons. Suburbs have been around for almost as long. The car is here to stay forever. They might not run on gas for another hundred years, but they're here to stay. Highways are here to stay. Pretty sure a good amount of strip malls, in some shape or form, are here to stay. "New Urbanism," however, is dead, and will be joining the dustbin of Marketing Ideas Architects Came Up With To Sell Pretty Pictures.
    1. wahday's avatar
      wahday -
      Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
      This article sounds like it was copied from student papers written in 1999 and now presented in a complete vacuum, obliviously unaware of anything that's happened in the last 5 years. For example, one of the cited benefits of New Urbanism is that mixed use housing commands 15-20 % more market price. I'm pretty sure that statistic was generated prior to the market crash. Now we have people being ejected from their homes due to overextended mortgages and plummeting housing value, zero housing development growth, declining property tax revenue, and the child author of this article talks about how New Urbanism is great because it creates more expensive housing. Excuse me? Where are the jobs supporting these most desirable housing purchases? New Urbanism was a glossy magazine of the future as it was imagined in 2005. Mixed use neighborhoods have been around for eons. Suburbs have been around for almost as long. The car is here to stay forever. They might not run on gas for another hundred years, but they're here to stay. Highways are here to stay. Pretty sure a good amount of strip malls, in some shape or form, are here to stay. "New Urbanism," however, is dead, and will be joining the dustbin of Marketing Ideas Architects Came Up With To Sell Pretty Pictures.
      You raise some good points, especially about housing cost. As I work in affordable housing, we are aware of and sensitive to the kinds of amenities people are and are not willing to pay extra money for. The current economy, at least in my area, is very tight, wages are not increasing, and housing values have not dropped significantly. This means, a significant wage gap continues and, because of future uncertainty, people are less willing to invest up front in things that will save them money in the longer run. This impacts both close-in urban developments vs. outer edge affordability as well as energy efficient design vs. more affordable but less efficient design. In some cases it doesn't make a lot of economic sense for people to make some of the decisions they do, but unfortunately, it is the way people behave (meaning they opt in to poorer quality housing that costs more to get to and from every day).

      In the same way that bad economic times could really take advantage of workers like planners and what we know about "good design", our society could also take advantage of more efficient, higher density housing development as a way of curtailing future costs for both municipalities (less infrastructure to develop) and buyers (lower operating costs for both home and car). But these are different enough from the previous norm that I think it feels like a chance or a risk to many. And when times are tight, people take fewer risks (or at least what they perceive of as risks). Its another factor that plays into the high rate of rental housing right now. People are uncertain about the future and are reticent to become encumbered with a home, a loan, and a neighborhood that might improve, or might take a dive. It just seems too risky to many.
    1. hilldweller's avatar
      hilldweller -
      I agree that New Urbanism is dead. Even before the housing collapse the desirability of NU (or whatever was being passed for it) was being greatly exaggerated by the planners and architects of these projects.
    1. DetroitPlanner's avatar
      DetroitPlanner -
      I never understood new urbanism. If people liked it so much then why are they moving out of the same types of land uses in the center of cities?
    1. Whose Yur Planner's avatar
      Whose Yur Planner -
      While there are a few die hard NU's, the movement has pretty much stagnated. In fact, APA has moved on. Will there still be some new NU develops, sure. By the same token, there will still be some TODs. At the end of the day, NU simply did not live up to it's hype. Further, the NU proponets never acknowledged the fact that it wasn't for everybody.
    1. Cismontane's avatar
      Cismontane -
      NU died a final, horrible death as an intellectual movement at CNU 20, when, after much rhetorical fireworks, carping and cat-fighting between the founders of the movement, Daniel Solomon finally declared, "“Andrés Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in. This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we?” Thus ended a movement. RIP. Truth is though, the beginning of the end came a long time before even the onset of the depression. I remember one elder statesman of a professor I had at MIT, in the early 2000s, called one of his lectures - focusing on NU - "The Flatulence of Leon Krier."

      The simple reality is that no urban design movement dependent exclusive on two dogmatic extremes - form-free polemicist rhetoric on the one hand and global zoning code universalization and legislation of form on the other - was going to survive for long. A theory of design relies more on everything in between these two extremes .. a universe of theory, precedents, tectonics, and trial-and-error design experimentation. You can't just say, "Cars bad, pedestrianized streets good. Thus the world should be classified into zones T1 through 6, with every typological and formal detail of those zones pre-ordained for the whole bloody planet" and expect to be very convincing for long. The real theory of NU lies between those two statements, and yet the movement's leaders never bothered filling in this massive chasm of a gap.

      Thus, they became the Pharisees of urban design, instead of its apostles, dictating what is good and what isn't without the slightest explanation of the whys and wherefores thereof, much less a sound empirically-based defense. Show me the evidence for why porches have to be this wide or this deep? Explain to me why streetwalls can't be broken before X feet have elapsed? Why this many intersections are needed in your street grid over Y area instead of that many intersections? Show me studies, evidence, human behavior, precedent.. nah. Can't be bothered. Just do what you're told. We'll do your thinking for you.
    1. MacheteJames's avatar
      MacheteJames -
      Looks like Duany realizes that the movement as we knew it is done and is now making an attempt to salvage NU:

      http://helmofthepublicrealm.com/2013...-new-urbanism/

      If nothing else, I still must admit the whole concept of the rural to urban transect changed the way I thought about the built environment.
    1. imagineverything's avatar
      imagineverything -
      Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
      NU died a final, horrible death as an intellectual movement at CNU 20, when, after much rhetorical fireworks, carping and cat-fighting between the founders of the movement, Daniel Solomon finally declared, "“Andrés Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in. This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we?” Thus ended a movement. RIP. Truth is though, the beginning of the end came a long time before even the onset of the depression. I remember one elder statesman of a professor I had at MIT, in the early 2000s, called one of his lectures - focusing on NU - "The Flatulence of Leon Krier."

      The simple reality is that no urban design movement dependent exclusive on two dogmatic extremes - form-free polemicist rhetoric on the one hand and global zoning code universalization and legislation of form on the other - was going to survive for long. A theory of design relies more on everything in between these two extremes .. a universe of theory, precedents, tectonics, and trial-and-error design experimentation. You can't just say, "Cars bad, pedestrianized streets good. Thus the world should be classified into zones T1 through 6, with every typological and formal detail of those zones pre-ordained for the whole bloody planet" and expect to be very convincing for long. The real theory of NU lies between those two statements, and yet the movement's leaders never bothered filling in this massive chasm of a gap.

      Thus, they became the Pharisees of urban design, instead of its apostles, dictating what is good and what isn't without the slightest explanation of the whys and wherefores thereof, much less a sound empirically-based defense. Show me the evidence for why porches have to be this wide or this deep? Explain to me why streetwalls can't be broken before X feet have elapsed? Why this many intersections are needed in your street grid over Y area instead of that many intersections? Show me studies, evidence, human behavior, precedent.. nah. Can't be bothered. Just do what you're told. We'll do your thinking for you.
      One of the best arguments for focusing on form is the old study done by William Whyte on The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.
      You can watch it for free on vimeo: http://vimeo.com/6821934
    1. Cismontane's avatar
      Cismontane -
      Quote Originally posted by imagineverything View post
      One of the best arguments for focusing on form is the old study done by William Whyte on The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.
      You can watch it for free on vimeo: http://vimeo.com/6821934
      I never argued against Whyte's work or on focusing on form. I am an urban designer, after all. What I'm arguing against are overly proscriptive systems with rules expurgated without the slightest credible or empirically defensible reference or justification. Planners and architects are thinking professionals. We don't like codes that can be executed by trained monkeys. My world cannot be generated sim-city style by rules for 6 zones from T1 to T6.
    1. Lancefield's avatar
      Lancefield -
      It's really very simple. It call comes down to urban density. It doesn't matter how you design or structure the town, if it's not at a density where people can pragmatically walk from A to B, then they will drive. And as soon as people prefer to get into their cars, rather than walk, then the whole concept of mixed use is dead.It's a choice that people make:- large plot of land, car-bound, have to drive everywhere, zoned city(no mixed use) and no public realm to speak of, etc- smaller plot of land, walkable, mixed use, etcThe urban density threshold is around 50 dwellings per hectare (gross), which is very high by US standards.See - www.urbandesignideas.blogspot.co.uk - for a full exploration.
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      Here's a link to an op-ed piece on New Urbanism, inspired by the recent CNU conference in Buffalo, NY:

      NU and Urban Reality