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Thread: Can new urbanism really work today?

  1. #1

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    Can new urbanism really work today?

    Maybe this seems a broad question, but it was inspired by a little trip I did today that made me question the reality of new Urbanism. I was driving around the suburbs of San Francisco (specifically, Pleasant Hill), where there has been a strong push to create a "new downtown." I found it, quite frankly, depressing. The City was forced to integrate typical big box users (A Bed, Bath, and Beyond, a Multiplex) with a new Main Street. While better than a strip mall, it's still the same national chains, the same formulas, all tarted up with multicolored patterns to disguise the boxy, cheaply built architecture. Don't get me wrong, there were a few nice public spaces intermixed, but it all just seemed so superficial and cheap. A few fake-craftsman houses were thrown in and, although better than the typical "four garage door monstrosities, I noticed many of these $450,000 beauties backed up to a blank (but prettiily multicolored) big box wall.

    Yes, you may say, but this is suburbia-what do you expect? Except even in the supposedly sophisticated inner Bay Area towns (like Berkeley), you see the same thing. Berekely is full of well-meaning mixed use buildings along major corridors. Every one of them, I am sad to report, is poorly built, thinly detailed, architecturally badly proportioned, and, in many cases, half empty in what was purported to be a booming economy (changing now-but that's a different story).

    I know that neo-traditionalism uses rule books and similar rigid guidelines, but, I don't know that such guidelines can do anything but create cartoon buildings that people will develop no real affection for. Maybe it is just the uniquely high cost Bay Area that results in such depressing development. But, I don;t see the new mixed use stuff or neotradional design really creating an attractive and durable cityscape.

  2. #2
    My problem with "The New Urbanism" is that it is just another fad, or buzzword for a design scheme that goes against the market. Once it fails, it is, of course, the fault of the planners.

    I believe in growth management, but we have to keep our eyes open and understand the nature of what is going on around us. You can have the purest new urban forms, but as long as there are soccer moms and suv's, then wal-mart will succed where mom and pops has failed.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Perhaps I'll agree and disagree with you both. New Urbansim, as some of the less sophisticated developers (and planners) practice it, is a cheap, cartoonish mockery of a past building style. The other day I drove past a new shopping mall with a handful of big boxes in a "new urban" design -- set back behind the parking, as usual, but there was a central drive leading back from the highway, with sidewalks and buildings bordering it, ending in a plaza -- not something I would mistake for a real urban corridor. But then I have seen big boxes that have been successfully integrated into a neighborhood. I have seen subdivisions that display all of the conditions (except for the mature trees) that make some turn-of-the-century neighborhoods great. And I have seen hybrid New Urban and typical developments that are very attractive.

    I don't think New Urbanism is a fad. Many of the concepts will work their way into the planning and development we do from now on. Lastly, I think we should recognize that the idea is not to create the same neighborhoods that were built a century ago, but to recall and apply some of the concepts that have made some of those neighborhoods so livable. And like back then, some of what we create will stand the test of time, and some will fail.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  4. #4
    I agree some with Ian's comments. I am a planner myself and the concept of "smart growth" seems to fit the "new urbanism" scheme of development much better. Ian is right when he says that the name is a fad, not the concept itself. It is indeed a very wise method of development because 50 some odd years of sprawl have eaten so much of North America's open lands. I would say that America still has more of an obsession with consumption than with nostalgia.

    I also agree with Michael's comments when he says that we shouldn't be trying to recreate, exactly, the communities of yesteryear, but to use some of the very sensible concepts such as including amenities that are within walking distance, etc.

    We absolutely CANNOT keep developing the way that we are because eventually, land will run out and we will have to start doing then what smart growth is trying to promote now. So why not utilize smart growth concepts now and still have places to grow food and get a breath of fresh air?

  5. #5
    Stephanie: You said "I would say that America still has more of an obsession with consumption than with nostalgia." In response, I would assert that America has an obsession with the consumption of nostalgia. I don't see it as an either-or situation. Cleary with auto designs like the "new" Volkswagon bug and the Daimler-Chrysler PT Cruiser and with the popularity of a TV show like "Antiques Roadshow" our country is obsessed with the past and with things that look like the past. Read Andrew Ross' book "The Celebration Chronicles" about the so-called new urbanist, Disney-owned "community" of Celebration near Orlando, Florida. His book is great and offers great insight to life in a so-called "traditional" town designed with new urbanism in mind. Read about the "white vinyl picket fences" that are supposed to replace the white picket fences of yesteryear. Great book, and if you've been a new urbanist supporter before reading it, I think you will be more critical of new urbanism once you are done.

  6. #6
    It seems that BK Miller is complaining about bad architecture more than bad urban design. I agree that 'New Urbanism' isn't a fad but the name may be a fad. I can't agree with Smith who says it will fail and that it goes against the market - who doesn't want walkable communities and the ability to run errands without having to travel half the day to get to stores and other businesses? Good design is the key regardless of what you call it. Isn't 'new urbanism' a form of growth management? Its not as black and white as it's made out to be here. Giant retailers like WalMart don't fit very well into a new urbanist scheme. When I go to WalMart, (yes, I admit I sometimes shop at WalMart) I am buying LOTS of stuff - everything from camping supplies to groceries to underwear. I can't carry all that stuff on my bike or by public transport or by foot. Some places you simply have to design around the automobile because that is the nature of the businesses. BUT, restaurants, bookstores, shoe stores and other specialty stores (basically, smaller businesses where you don't buy large quantities of stuff to take home)work very well into the 'new urbanist' concept. BTW, I hate the term 'new urbanist'. Its not new, its old. Its just different from what a lot of people who grew up in the suburbs are used to seeing, so they think its new when its really not new at all. Just like the name of this forum - are we talking about new design ideas or traditional design ideas?

  7. #7
    Okay, let's get back to the original question: "Can new urbanism really work today?" Well, from the above discussion, it sounds like it could, but no one has really taken a solid stance, including myself. I have just ridiculed the name and referred to the design basis of what new urbanism supposedly builds upon. With the predominance of auto ownership in this country, I would have to say no, new urbanism cannot work today. Because new urbanist developments tend to offer higher than average market costs for a home, whether it be a single detached unit or above a first-floor retail unit, the net result is that of exclusion. Much of what the Congress for New Urbansim extolls in terms of striving for social equity gets lost in the realities of the everyday housing market. Therefore, it is difficult to offer affordable housing in new urbanist developments. For a closer look at why new urbanist developments may not be successful, I refer you to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Alan Ehrenhaldt, the editor of "Governing" magazine, from July 9, 2000. Check it out at www.nytimes.com and do a search for "Orenco Station." Here is a blurb from the result of that search:

    July 9, 2000, Sunday
    Suburbs With a Healthy Dose of Fantasy
    By Alan Ehrenhalt
    Source: The New York Times
    Section: Editorial Desk
    1308 words

    Abstract
    Alan Ehrenhalt Op-Ed article comments on Orenco, a New Urbanist experiment west of Portland, Ore, that attempts to recapture 19th-century small-town community life; notes homebuyers are willing to pay substantially more money for less space in Orenco than they could obtain in conventional suburban subdivision (M)
    ------------------------------------------------
    Lead Paragraph
    By the time you get to Orenco, you're thinking you might be on a wild-goose chase. The brochures tout the place as Oregon's exciting new urban village, but as the train trudges west from Portland, it's hard to escape the feeling that both urbanism an...

    Good luck and enjoy!

  8. #8
    Cyburbian prana's avatar
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    Ian-
    (From David Brain)
    You seem to have a serious misunderstanding of what the New Urbanism really
    is. As Ellen Dunham-Jones likes to say, it is more a forum than a form.

    There may be some who say that they have THE solution, but that really is
    not characteristic. The point is precisely to work toward SOLUTIONS (always
    plural) to the problems of sprawl and to the challenges involved in building
    livable places that are worthy of our caring and commitment, places that
    offer some real choice in lifestyles to people of every class, race,
    religion, and hair color. There is no single solution to problems and
    challenges that are this complex-- and, if we take seriously the idea of
    place-making, necessarily varied.

    Look, for example, at the concept of the transect (of NewUrbanism). The whole purpose of
    this conceptual framework is to help us think about the full range of
    desirable human habitats and to develop an appropriate vocabulary and
    practice of design for each.

    Nobody is saying that everybody has to live in 'high density environments.'
    On the contrary. A lot of people are passionate about the urban end of the
    transect as a desirable human habitat, and disdainful of the awful suburban
    landscapes that are the default product of the real estate industry at this
    point, but very few are complete urban nazis. (Sigh. It does get tiring
    having to repeat this all the time.) The key is real CHOICE: between
    varied, dignified, and environmentally responsible places to live, work,
    play, and park our PT Cruisers (if we so desire).

    The production system currently in place produces little choice, and the
    options are continually narrowing.

    You can also look at it this way. There are places where we simply cannot
    continue to build large lot subdivisions, unless we begin to build some
    compact and walkable communities at the same time. The high density stuff
    is necessary if we want to continue to be able to offer people the choice of
    living in the low density stuff.
    "You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public open spaces.-- William H. Whyte..

  9. #9
    Dear prAna: Actually, I think I have a firm grasp of what New Urbanism is all about. The problem arises when people throw out the term "new urbanism" as a catch all phrase for development that is supposedly to be fighting against sprawl. So, when some one makes a posting to this board about traditional neighborhood design and uses the term "new Urbanism" as BK Miller (and that is exactly how BK Miller spelled the term) did at the beginning of this thread, what exactly is it we are talking about? Is it:
    New Urbansism?
    new urbanism?
    new Urbanism?
    "new urbanism"?

    ...and then there's the Congress for New Urbanism.

    My understanding of this thread, as BK Miller started it, was a focus on design and architectural elements, focusing on "Main Street" type qualities and neo-traditionalism in the San Francisco bay area. Therefore, my initial commentary was criticism on the nomenclature attributed this current fad of development and urban design. Much of what followed was in the same vein. But as my last posting indicated, I tried to bring this discussion back to the title (and focus) of this thread: Can new urbanism really work today? In my last posting, I tried to bring the conversation back to focus, and examined and criticized aspects of the implementation and practice of "new urbanism" (as an aside, I don't like to call it New Urbanism or even new urbanism, I tend to prefer the usage of "new urbanism"). Now, your post addresses the philospohy put forth by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU)... a philospohy of possibilities, an approach the CNU uses to present strategies (in an architectural and planning context) to address society's most vexing problems and issues. I take no issue with the main philophies of the CNU. My criticisms on this tread about "new urbanism" relate to practice and usage of nomenclature and terminogy surrounding the urban design elements of the so-called "new urbanism." Apparently there seems to be a disconnect between what the "new urbanists" want to implement and what actually gets implemented. It's this disconnect that I find interesting and worthy of criticism. Why call something a "new urbanist" development when in fact the design elements of these new places can be traced back centuries. Like I said before, it's not new. Why call something new, when in fact it is not new? Why not call it what it is? We don't need this type of branding ("Oh look honey, there's a New Urbanist neighborhood... let's move there!") to be associated with a philosophy, the philosophy of possibilities from the CNU, that addresses society's deepest problems.

    You want to market social equity? You want to market community? Okay, go ahead and do that, just like the rest of the corporate herd-minds who want to market, sell, brand, and commercialize every other aspect of our everyday lives, yeah go and do that, and while you're at it, call it New Urbanism and see what actually ends up happening.

    (...and what seems to be happening, is an influx of white, well-to-do middle-class Americans with their bright and shiny autos moving into these new suburban developments... so, where's the folks who make less that 50% of the median income... where's the diversity?)

    So, I guess all I'm trying to say is that we can have community, we can have social equity, and we can have it all, but just don't call it New Urbanism. In fact, you don't have to call it anything all. Just offer these opportunities to everyone and don't give it a brand name. Choice is out there, and that's what we all want, right? How can any real American say they don't want choice? Just be sure you know what you're telling your audience, but don't resort to cliches and non-sequiturs, especially when the chosen words are linked together as "new" and "urbanism." It's not new, and it's not urban. And when used, New Urbanism sounds so wonderful, such a lovely brand, that I'm sure our white, middle-class consumers will tune in attentively and consume just like they've consumed before. Meanwhile, the marginalized probably have no idea what New Urbanism is all about, and probably don't even care.

    Here in the City of Detroit (not the suburbs) where I work, we have dense neighborhoods that surround thriving and lively commericial corridors. We even have meaningful public spaces, like parks and plazas. These places were built nearly 100 years ago and the average house in the neighborhoods surrounding my work site sell for less than $40,000 and are mostly detached single-unit homes. Most families that choose to live here probably make less than $30,000 a year. This place is perfect, and I cannot imagine some one with that income or even those that live in this area that are on assistance "choosing" to move into a "new urbanist" greenfield development. I don't think they could afford it. Who needs "new urbanism" when you have Detroit?

    Like you said prAna, we cannot consume land at the rate that we have been, so why not institute a national policy to relocate jobs and residences to cities like Detroit? Of course, that would never happen. In America, we value choice, and for those that want to move to the suburbs, they will still choose to do it... even if it's in a "new urbanist" greenfield development.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian prana's avatar
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    Are you guys really that afraid of change? Is the status quo for building and planning for the previous 30 years that damn desirable? Come on people, pull your heads out of the bureaucratic hole and design something worth living in!

    BK- The project that gave you so much distress probably failed BECAUSE it "was a CITY-SPONSORED project, with heavy government involvement in planning, 200 pages of design guidelines, and investment in public infrastructure. And, it still came out awful." How can anything worthwhile and original come out of that much red tape?

    Ian- I have to get back to your comments later when I have some time! You did successfully crucify the "name" of new urbanism but still haven't argued against it's principles. Without arguing anymore about the name, can't we just agree to call the planning trend that this thread is about new urbanism? I agree, propogandist labeling is worthless, but if something isn't exactly the status quo, doesn't it have to have a name?
    "You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public open spaces.-- William H. Whyte..

  11. #11
    The problem many planners have with new urbanism is that it presents an assault on the pod planning and zoning tricks they got drilled with in school. Planners never had to learn basic design and are therefore envious and more than a little fearful of designers coming up something better.

    Critics love to attack Celebration as a variation on Stepford. It is, after all, a Disney creation and has all of the little controlling characteristics of everything Disney creates. If you actually visit the place, however, you see that it really is a fine environment to inhabit, with everything readily accessible to all segments of its population.

    Singling out vinyl picket fences as a reason for mockery is just an indicator of how desperate to find fault so many critics are. These harpies didn't actually ask themselves the real question: which is the superior material for a picket fence, white vinyl or painted wood? As a designer, I can tell you without hesitation that the vinyl is far superior, especially here in Florida.

    Furthermore, attacking new urbanism for shoddy building techniques, while accurate, is still intellectually dishonest, because virtually all modern construction suffers from shoddy construction and materials. That's just the state of modern construction, no matter where it's located.

  12. #12

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    In response to Ken (and others) regarding shoddy buildings-I have to admit that you are somewhat corrrect. I originally posted my comment because of my intense sense of diappointment at what I have been seeing in the Bay Area, the home of shoddy construction and lousy materials.

    At the same time, though, architecture and design ARE important. As I noted in my original post, it is not just an architural design issue when the backyards of the housing units face a blank "big box store" wall.

    Given the realities of modern economics (favoring large, national chains), modern homebuilding (national tract housing), and poor craftsmanship, I think my original question remains valid: Can our culture and economy produce a dignified, lasting, and attractive urban environment, even with all of the code books, and transects, and policies promoting smart growth?

    Keep in mind that the project that led to my distress was a CITY-SPONSORED project, with heavy government involvement in planning, 200 pages of design guidelines, and investment in public infrastructure. And, it still came out awful. Give me the remaining fragmants of "old urbanism" anyday.

    Paraphrasing from one of my favorite books (The City at the Edge of the World"), we get the cities our culture deserves. And, our culture, as a whole, wants four car garages, cheap chain stores, easy mobility for the Ford Excursion, and the ability to separate yourself from any economic groups different than you. All of the books on New Urbanism (or whatever you want to call it) can't change that.

    And-the recent uptick in some central cities. Temporary. Once we clamp down on immigration again, and the immigrants who were able to get in have all decamped to the suburbs (look at the successful Asian high tech entrepeneurs in the Bay Area, they are building 5,000 square foot stucco palazzi in gated enclaves in Fremont, not living in downtown San Jose), and the economic crash forces a few people kicked off welfare by our liberal hero ex-president turns to crime, the cities will resume their downward spiral.

    Boy am I gloomy. Sorry!

  13. #13

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    PrAna:

    I guess my only response is to look at the 99.9% of private sector suburban development, the strip centers and "power centers" and "mega-multiplexes" in the Bay Area suburbs (or most suburbs). I don't need to say any more.

    I am not afraid of change. I am afraid of our very own "American Dream" and the cultural attitudes toward building and cityscape. And, I admit as a planner ensconced in a public agency, I am part of the problem. But, the average citizen in my jurisdiction, frankly, would disagree with your (or my) definition of liveability. I know, this gets back to the whole issue of "educating" decisionmakers and the public. But, I guess I am in a cynical mode.

    And, in fact, many neotrads are very into strict design guidelines and design standardds, down to the color of the trim and the materials used in the picket fence. So, design guidelines in themselves are not anti-new urbanism.

    And, even the purely private sector stuff still requires infrastructure-or do you live in Houston where everything is private?

  14. #14
    Cyburbian prana's avatar
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    Fortunately, I don't live in Houston, but it is at least improving. I'm in Phoenix where suburbia rules so supreme that there is NO downtown, mass transit, history or culture! I simply don't even have the option of living in an urban environment here.

    New urbanism is not about forcing everyone to live in compact urban environments, but more about having the option to do that if that is the lifestyle that suits you. And then making that urban environment prosperous and successful and not one in which people cringe at the thought of being there.

  15. #15
    prAna: Yes, let's just call it new urbanism, or whatever it is. I think we call all agree that this phenomenon is real and has taken the planning world by storm.As a planner, I find it helpful to separate what the philosophies and theories of the Congress for New Urbanism are from the practices of planners, developers, and architects. Once that separation is made, it becomes easier for me to understand what the real issues are. Broadly speaking, my sense is that many planners find new urbanism and the principles of new urbanism quite compelling and worthwhile. The problem arises when planners, developers, and architects start thinking that new urbanism is a formula for making instant communities. Town making and town planning is not formulaic... it takes creativity and a certain amount of risk to think about how municipalities will establish themselves and grow. There has to be a good amount of clear, concise, and informed thinking to make a place become real and livable. The biggest problem I have with new urbanism is how people, either a lay person or an educated planner, transform the essence of new urbanism into a predictable physical environment that, at best, mocks typical suburban developments, and at worst, turns out to be another shoddy suburb. And in terms of breaking away from the status quo, yeah, I agree with you prAna. It's time we break away from what we've been doing for the past 50 years. But I still believe we don't have to call it new urbanism. If our society uses the term new urbanism when talking about changing the way we THINK about town building and town planning, then I'm okay with it (as in: a NEW way of thinking). But, if new urbanism is about changing the way we BUILD our towns, then I don't see any difference between this and traditional greenfield development. These are quibbles, I know, but ultimately, for me at least, new urbanism is about how we think about tog, not about how towns are actually built.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian prana's avatar
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    Ian- I still haven't had time to respond to everything you said yesterday- sorry. When you mention "seperating the philosophies and theories of the Congress of New Urbanism from the practices of planners, developers and architects," who do you understand to be reponsible for the CNU? It was developed and established by planners, architects, developers and designers. Of course, this is as sticky a territory as the name thing. Did they invent something new or just put together a set of principles that have been used throughout history, just not necessarily all at the same time? I would say the latter, but nobody had done it before them so some credit is due.

    I understand and even agree with your concerns about the instant community, i.e. Celebration or Seaside. I would have to say that these communities are still better forms of suburbia sprawl than the status quo,(even though my personal goals would be to eliminate sprawl to the greatest degree possible). And, with the theory of new urbanism barely a decade old, evolution must be given time before the perfect solution is found. And the PERFECT solution may never be found, but improvements will always be made.

    enough for now.
    "You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public open spaces.-- William H. Whyte..

  17. #17

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    To add my further two cents in: I realize I am being over-critical. Even the project is dislike is superior to many suburban standard developments. There was an attempt to create a public realm, housing is within walking distance, and there were varied uses, including incorporation of a supermarket into the project. So, I don't want to be too critical

  18. #18
    Cyburbian prana's avatar
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    Ian- Agreed!! Calthorpe and Duany have written some great books recently. For anyone interested in this thread this far down- check them out!

    I think the concepts of new urbanism are very sound and long lasting. One main problem that I see with planning such developments right now is the hesistency of municipalities and investors to build it the way it is designed, not in the design itself. Most think it is too extreme, just because it is different, and thus insist on changes that turn the development into a cheesy hybrid. They evolve into developments that we will look at in 10 years and say "It was so close but why did they do THAT?"

    I agree that new urbanism is not for everyone and as much as I like the concepts, I certainly don't want it to be the everywhere. Again, it's back to one of the most basic premises of the CNU- choice. I simply want the choice to live in a very unique environment.
    "You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public open spaces.-- William H. Whyte..

  19. #19

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    I agree with prAna's last comments. Maybe that is part of my problem with the Pleasant Hill "downtown": As a hybrid, it doesn't work as well as the traditional towns it is trying to emulate.

  20. #20
    I believe the answers will appear on the landscape soon and frequently. Celebration, Seaside, and others offer good models to follow, but they aren't priced for Joe Lunchbucket or me. However, as the principles begin to filter through the building community, it will become apparent that compact design and sense of community will make every new development more workable and appealing, all the way down to low-income housing.

    Ian Anderson (a.k.a. Jethro Tull) rightly points out that "new urbanism" is not new. Rather, it's time-tested. The new century will see new forms of towns and cities which meld the ease of modern communication and mobility with the best of traditional town planning. Really, with the cost of land being what it is, there's little other choice.

  21. #21
    ken: "Jethro Tull"? Huh?! C'mon, it's just me, Ian! I've always been known as "Ian Anderson" though that is not my real name. I like his music though! I've seen some one else log on with the "Ian Anderson" name, though that person used it after I first used it on the old boards. Go figure!

    P.S. Is Celebration really a good model to follow? It's ownership through the Disney corporation, in my mind, makes it questionable. But I guess if you are into the privatization of public space and into mouse worship, then perhaps it's an okay place. Somehow I figure if I lived there then I'd have to watch "Wonderful World of Disney" every time it came on. Ugh.

  22. #22
    Ian, I'm holding up Celebration as a good model only of it's on-the-ground plan. If you see my first post in this thread, you'll see that I take a jab at the Disney Way of Control. I couldn't live there for that alone. It does, however, provide a superior physical environment for its residents.

    Now that I think of it, though, just about all new subdivisions have fascist principles for residents to follow. House color? You get to choose from these three shades of beige. Landscaping? The approved plant list must include these five species. Grass higher than three inches? Punishable by death. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the notion of personal freedom in this country before everyone is segregated into tiny enclaves of a few residents based upon income and taste.

    By the way, the "Jethro Tull" label was not intended as an insult. I figured you must be been a fan if you'd taken the handle.

  23. #23
    prAna: Yes, you are right about the practitioners who have come together to form the CNU. Most notable are the names Calthorpe and Duany. These folks, among others, are talented architects, planners, and designers who clearly strive to build better towns and neighborhoods through their principles in the CNU. The problem is when the general public and less-than-average professionals think they can do a good job with the implementation of the CNU principles... that is, they think they have a formula for instant community. Town building is not as simple as that. When planners and other professionals do not even attempt to be creative and innovative, things can fall apart. Those that lack vision and creativity tend to latch onto the latest fad and think new urbanism will give them what they want. Those with vision and creativity will be critical of new urbanism, or any other fad for that matter (critical in a good sense: well thought out, assessing the good and bad, etc), and will choose to proceed carefully and thoughtfully. Basically, all I'm trying to say is that new urbanism is not the only approach to town building in the 21st century. Just because something is "hot" does not mean it is necessarily good. And just because big names like Calthorpe and Duany practice new urbanism does not mean that it is for everybody. Just remember what Le Corbusier gave us. Modernism was the greatest thing since sliced cheese when it began over fifty years ago... and now we rebuke its style and aesthetic as being too cheap, too one-dimensional, and not visionary enough. What will we think of new urbanism in 50 years? Will we still praise early efforts like Seaside and castigate everything else that came after it as being too cheap, too one-dimensional, and not visionary enough? I hope planners are asking themselves these questions today before they jump on the new urbanist bandwagon.

  24. #24
    I'm not really a big fan of James Howard Kunstler and his overbearing books on new urbansim, but I did find something worthwhile on page 194 from "Home From Nowhere." I hope it provides continued debate for us on the relevance of new urbanism and its impact on planners, architects, and developers:

    "A greater threat to the New Urbanism... are the half-baked knockoffs and rip-offs that are proliferating across the country, using the rhetoric about 'community' as a sales gimmick without delivering any real civic amenity. This kind of fraud is pretty easy to pull off in a nation full of people who long to live in real communities, but who have only the dimmest idea of what that means in terms of physical design."

    My own take on this paragraph would be a bit broader; instead of "a greater threat to the New Urbanism..." I would be more inclined to agree with the following phrasing: "A greater threat to exciting future possibilities for new towns and neighborhoods are the half-baked new urbanist knockoffs and rip-offs that are proliferating across the country by planners, architects, developers, and bankers who lack basic creative and problem-solving skills." Perhaps this is harsh commentary on the planning and development community, but from what I've seen and heard from "leaders" in this field as "innovative" and "cutting-edge" design here in southeastern Michigan is from the same suburban mold that caters to a white, upwardly mobile, middle-class housing market. In my opinion, this is uncreative and is nothing but the status quo. I'm thinking of Cherry Hill Village in Canton, Michigan, for example (view the plans at http://www.canton-mi.org/CherryHill/cherryhill.asp and at http://www.cherryhillvillage.com/cherryhill/index.cfm.). Can anyone show me a development here in southeast Michigan (or anywhere in the country for that matter) that integrates low-income housing (and not some silly "solution" to provide affordable hosuing at 80% of the median income when the median income is over $75,000 for the municipality) for all racial and ethnic groups with regular single-detached homes and has a traditional commercial core that exceeds 100% FAR?

    But back to Kunstler's quote, and more specifically, at the end where he relates community to physical design. Again, here is another issue I have with new urbanism: that design can somehow create and nurture "community." I don't necessarily agree with this. The whole notion of physical determinism neglects the reality of how society, culture, and existing policies impact behavior. It doesn't matter how a place is designed, it's what's in there that matters, and the "what's in there" relates to who lives in the development: their behaviors, their interests, and their proclivity toward contributing toward "community." And many of the people who decide to live in new urbanist communities (or for that matter, knockoffs and rip-offs of new urbanist attempts) are self-selected; that is, these are the people who would live there anyway, the people who are looking for community, looking for "something different." Imagine transplanting the population of Columbine, Colorado into the Kentlands of Maryland. Do you actually think those transplants would feel a sense of more "community" and would offer a more nurturing and loving environment? Perhaps. Perhaps not. My guess would be the increased proximity of neighbors would be more unnerving than calming, and more irritating as opposed to being kinder. Some folks just want their huge lots with their huge house so they can park their huge vehicles in their huge garages. Moving from suburbia to a denser, new urbanist development might feel more like a move from the cool, serene tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the suffocating walls of solitary confinement.

    What do you think, the fans and readers of the "Can New Urbanism really work today?" thread think? How real is physical determinsm? Can physical design significantly impact behavior in the new places of the 21st century? Or are we just prone to self-selection, and those that want "community" (whatever that is) will seek out places that are advertised as having "real community"?

  25. #25

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    In response to Ian: You bring up a good point. Physical determinsim can only go so far. Even self-selected residents of neo-traditionalist neighborhoods (the "real" ones designed by DPZ, for example) still have all of the class biases and attitudes of their upper middle class counterparts in big-lot suburbia.

    I'm not sure where I read this, but I found an interesting article where the author visited Kentlands. Like you noted, a self-selected group of people who typically moved from inner city neighborhoods, not large lot suburbia. What was really interesting, though, was despite all of the talk of community and mixing incomes, the residents of Kentlands still talked about the snobbery of those "living in the better side of town"-in Kentlands itself! So, neo-traditionalism will not cure human nature. And-the prices in Kentlands were, to say the least, at the upper end of the market.

    More importantly, the residents of Kentland used their neighborhood like any other suburbanite. The parents worked at jobs a long distance away. The spoiled kiddies were ferried from one organized activity to another via SUV, and the primary concern of all was maintaining property values. All while congratulating themselves on living in a "true community." And-if and until the Great Crash predicted by Kunstler occurs, suburban life will not change, even if you decorate it with pretty white picket fences and add a economically marginal neighborhood store at the center of the development.

    Real "community" comes about primarily through shared adversity, and except for the threat of undesirable apartments nearby, there is little shared adveristy that can create this community in today's suburbia.

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