I work for a private planning firm in California that has partnered in the past with large, well-known firms who are prominent in the New Urbanism movement. (One of our former principals was a founding member of the Congress of New Urbanism and an FAICP.) One of these firms has produced dozens of New Urbanist plans for communities all over the state, at least one dozen of which we've been privy to how things have played out because we "were there."
In almost all the cases we've been a part of, the plans have essentially disintegrated despite initial community support, political momentum, and at least some financial interest from the development community. And this has happened not just since the market meltdown... but in each case it occurred after a certain amount of time had passed, usually shortly after or during environmental review. just a couple of days ago, I got a seemingly innocuous email from one of our clients, letting us know in a gentle fashion that the City Council is going "back to the drawing board" now that we're only a couple months away from EIR certification for an 800-acre New Urbanist development. The reason? Developers and financiers don't think it's viable, and the community just doesn't like it anymore.
We've had many conversations in our company about how and why this has happened. By reviewing these plans (in most cases they have taken the form of Specific Plans), it's often apparent that, despite an internal coherence, they are still islands of New Urbanism in seas of sprawl. So for instance, although there might be mixed uses that theoretically encourage people to shop, live, and work in the same neighborhood, thus reducing traffic-related impacts, the entire development is still an island that cannot support many of the needs of that population, and the anticipated reductions in traffic are never that impressive, if they show up in the model at all.
Now, I know that there are successful cases of New Urbanism. However, in every successful case I've seen, they happen where there is enough market demand for developers to build the dense environments required (e.g. Arlington, VA). What I've more often seen in California, however, is a forcing of these dense tracts into communities that have not, and probably never will, support denser environments than absolutely necessary. And if there's a way for the market to succeed without as much capital investment, it will happen that way.
For me, I have additional reservations about New Urbanist developments. The fact that they try to replicate a type of development that was borne out of hundreds and even thousands of years of gradual village growth in Western European nations in a packaged format is particularly disturbing. It's as if American architects traveled to Italy, Spain, and France, fell in love with the way of life in those places, and then made the enormous mental leap that if we replicate some of the physical aspects of those environments, we'll have that way of life here, too. So we have books showing us how facades should provide jogged variation, how windows should look down on pedestrian promenades, and how outdoor cafes should creep down onto the street. Cars are always anathema, and appropriately so, since those European neighborhoods were built before automobiles. So you have architects enamored with these places trying to recreate them in this country, with different people, different market realities, different physical environments, and most notably, vastly different times. I don't begrudge them for trying; I think those places are cool, too. But to think that a physical re-creation can bring about the level of cultural, environmental, and, essentially, temporal change responsible for those environments in the first place is folly. And without those foundational components, that reality will never come about--if the place is built, it ends up being a hollow re-creation, like a Disneyland exhibit.
It's a lack of authenticity.
I'm in a funny situation. Here I am working for a company who once had a well-known New Urbanist at the forefront of these ideas. He took long sabbaticals to the Italy countryside, touring as an accomplished amateur photographer, and, since I now work on his computer, I can see all these photos he took, all these places he studied, places that no doubt inspired him in his visions for what form-based codes could do to integrate New Urbanism with Euclidean zoning frameworks. And I love those places, especially since I can see them through his eyes. I don't look down on his idealism; in something that lasted throughout his lifetime, it was pure, it was authentic.
But I do believe there is risk in sacrificing potential to see the great futures possible in unique places themselves, and to foist another vision from another time and place into communities that are just not the same. I think we can focus so much on other places that we become increasingly, irrevocably disenfranchised with the cities and neighborhoods we grew up in, and fail to see how those communities can build on what is already there to make a seamless transition from their own history.
Lastly, I think New Urbanism encourages an overly-simplistic approach to planning. As if we can just pull out our tool box and go to work. It's a package of ideas, ideals, and functions, more often used as a marketing tool, not just to sell planning services to local governments, but to bring new planners into the professional associations that encourage such a framework. As they say, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.