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Thread: Reflecting on the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Reflecting on the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism

    The New Urbanism horse has been pummeled pretty hard in this forum over the years, but the 20th anniversary of the Congress of New Urbanism is a good point to take stock of what the movement has accomplished in the last two decades, a period which witnessed major demographic shifts and a painful economic restructuring. What do we make of CNU's influence on urban planning, and what has the movement meant in terms of a translation into actual built environment outcomes? Is the push for neotraditional urban design progressing, stagnant, or failing? Has it been comprised by an emphasis on automobile-dependent projects on the urban fringe? Is urbanism any more of a desirable living arrangement as a result of the CNU? It's time for an honest assessment of NU, the neverending esoteric debates over sprawl vs. walkable communities are getting tired at this point.

    Here's a link to an article about the 20th Congress of New Urbanism, by an author sympathetic to the movement:
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/des...20th-cnu/1970/

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    The New Urbanism horse has been pummeled pretty hard in this forum over the years, but the 20th anniversary of the Congress of New Urbanism is a good point to take stock of what the movement has accomplished in the last two decades, a period which witnessed major demographic shifts and a painful economic restructuring. What do we make of CNU's influence on urban planning, and what has the movement meant in terms of a translation into actual built environment outcomes? Is the push for neotraditional urban design progressing, stagnant, or failing? Has it been comprised by an emphasis on automobile-dependent projects on the urban fringe? Is urbanism any more of a desirable living arrangement as a result of the CNU? It's time for an honest assessment of NU, the neverending esoteric debates over sprawl vs. walkable communities are getting tired at this point.

    Here's a link to an article about the 20th Congress of New Urbanism, by an author sympathetic to the movement:
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/des...20th-cnu/1970/
    These are good questions. Here on the Front Range you can see many quasi-NU/TND developments, I just took a detour through one last week. These developments are an improvement on the cr*ptacular subdivisions seen before. I think the bar was raised a little higher by the movement, but not high enough and not for most developers. From an ecological point of view, I think they fall flat.
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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I guess I have some mixed feelings. Yes, much of what the NU-ists promote is sound, compact, efficient and more responsible forms of development (on many levels Ė energy use, capital outlay, continued maintenance of infrastructure, community health, crime deterrence, etc.) but its not as if these are the ONLY folks promoting such ideas. I think one of their biggest triumphs, though, was to approach the packaging and dissemination of the idea as a well-designed branding campaign. Even friends who know very little about planning have heard of New Urbanism (even the name is catchy), So, in terms of popularizing the idea among the masses, they have been far more effective than the APA, for example (which has been promoting the same things for the same amount of time).

    The NU developments I have seen firsthand have, by and large, tended to cater to a higher, more well-heeled class of residents and also occupy former greenspace, both of which are problematic, especially in light of what the movement aims to achieve. Though I realize, from a market standpoint, that you nave to get the ball rolling somehow, and one way is to build product for those who can easily afford it. I have not seen a lot of infill NU developments, by contrast. Which isnít to say they arenít out there Ė I just havenít come across them. My impression of the places I have seen is also that even though the trappings are there as far as design, there is a sense (and this is totally subjective) that the builders embraced the artifice of NU design but perhaps not the spirit. They can look sterile and lacking in dynamism.

    IMHO, for these principles to REALLY work, they should:

    a) be a foundational aspect of all new construction in a muni. Its not just about making one subdivision that embraces these principles, but for them to be the standard for subdivision development in general. Once you have aggregated enough places organized around shared core design principles (which is not to say they should look the same), then issues like walkability, access to transit, daily needs, and employment become much more viable. No single subdivision can accomplish all of that in a vacuum (though the Mesa del Sol project south of us attempts to do so Ė and I have a long list of reasons why it wonít ever become what they claim)

    b) These design principles need to be internalized and replicated at all scales by the designers/builders. Like a Christopher Alexander Pattern Language. Itís a lot less gratifying on an experiential level to not have these elements follow through at all scales. And that is often what I have seen when larger housing developers try to take on this concept. I also think there is a difference between trying to create this kind of intense texturing of design, spaces, etc. when you build it all at once. The places like Medieval cities and older US mixed-use settings that NU bases a lot of their principles on were built out over longer periods of time where adjustments, modifications and patinas accrue. That textured physical form is very gratifying to experience, but I don't think you can design it all in ahead of time. It has to build up over time.

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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    These are good questions. Here on the Front Range you can see many quasi-NU/TND developments, I just took a detour through one last week. These developments are an improvement on the cr*ptacular subdivisions seen before. I think the bar was raised a little higher by the movement, but not high enough and not for most developers. From an ecological point of view, I think they fall flat.
    Same here on the Canadian front! Typically you find these developments in the middle of nowhere, no transit, and building stopped about six years ago because we saw the bubble coming before everyone else did. Therefore you get half empty subs that look great, but still don't function like cities.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

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    Cyburbian
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    These are all fair criticisms. (Far more insightful and meaningful than the criticism that emanates from the architecture academies: "Ohmygod! Ionic columns and front porches! Ahhhh! Evil historicist pastiche!)

    But some uncomfortable questions have to be directed the other way too: The common meme is that all/most NU work takes places on greenfields, but as Duany exasperatingly argues, half their work has been urban infill. This stuff gets little attention because it's often contextual and quiet. But as for the greenfield "new towns:" could it be that a lot of NU work (and all suburban/exurban construction per se) takes places on greenfields because the planning/procedural rigamarole in built-up areas is just too much to handle?

    Existing suburban areas are understandably designed for stasis: people move here because they don't want to see densification. Little NU infill can occur here - NIMBYism will block it, and it's arguably not all that unreasonable. As for urban infill, well that's even harder. A builder has to juggle redevelopment under the impossible burdens of absurd taxation schemes (which is why TIF and PILOTs are increasingly used as desperate workarounds), racial politics and minority contracting rules, minimum parking mandates and egress codes (good look working with narrow, small urban lots if most of the space has to be dedicated to parking and circulation; this is why these lots are combined into "superblocks" to lure in giant national developers, thus squeezing out the small-time guys), historic preservation scriptures, and a vast array of other bureaucratic obstacles. And NIMBYism is still in force. Every urban infill project that has occurred has been a small miracle!

    In the US at least, I think this thoughtful post is dead on: we see mostly greenfield development because that's practically the only place left where we freely allow growth to occur:
    The claim of Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox that census figures show growth primarily in "the suburbs" is little more than a truism. Growth simply occurs where there is room to grow on a clean slate, whether that growth is in high-density or low-density form.
    http://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2012...trictions.html

    As for the lack of transit, well the NU guys can't work miracles! Building and running a new transit line is a nearly impossible task in the US anymore - these are no longer the days when private streetcar companies could freely build speculative lines to their new suburbs! The aforementioned racial and class politics are still in force, plus there are funding issues (who's going to pay to run the transit?) and crime concerns. At this stage, simply enabling/allowing/legalizing hack cabs, dollar vans, and Chinatown buses to service NU "new towns" may be the best way forward for improving their transit access.

    Finally, about the "bad" higher-income residents in the typical NU new town: New construction is almost always pricier than old construction. And like all housing developments, "new town" houses are bought and sold on a free market (or as "free" as the US housing market currently is with all the FHA/HUD distortions out there). Maybe supply is short and demand is high? If this is the case, wealthier people will naturally out-price poorer people who want to live in the same developments and - presto! - you'll have a development dominated by a single class of people! This isn't all that strange: the same problem afflicts prewar urban neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Beacon Hill, or Georgetown.

    All in all, I think the whole NU thing has been a big plus, even if it's been somewhat transitional and incomplete. At least it's not peddling in utopian 1950s/1960s visions where people with no housing choice are forced into isolated superblocks. (BTW, I think NU's most encouraging success has been in the redevelopment of old housing projects under the federal 'HOPE' program: so far their traditional low-income/mixed-income rowhouse developments have held up fine for a couple decades now, whereas the stuff that preceded them often failed in the same period of time (or less). If people have a sense of ownership and control over their physical settings (their own rowhouse and yard), if there is a connection to "eyes on the street" street frontage, and if the development is properly cared for under a "Broken Windows" strategy, then it seems to age much better than the old anomalous, placeless, ownerless tower blocks that fell apart so quickly.)

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner View post
    Same here on the Canadian front! Typically you find these developments in the middle of nowhere, no transit, and building stopped about six years ago because we saw the bubble coming before everyone else did.
    Any near Shelby Twp or thereabouts? going back for a wedding in a few weeks and we'll have time to kill as I avoid my families' madness
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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Any near Shelby Twp or thereabouts? going back for a wedding in a few weeks and we'll have time to kill as I avoid my families' madness
    Not that I am aware of, though Washington Twp is 'creating a downtown' along Van Dyke. Best bet? Head for Clinton Twp to see Taubman's new mall where sissy dogs are allowed to be eaten by pit bulls. http://www.shoppartridgecreek.com/mall_directory/map
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

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    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    A bit late, but I jsut wanted to say that I found marcszar's comments very easy to agree with.
    As someone who lived about 9 yrs in the US but mostly in Europe, I perceive NU as part of a movement that is very necessary and positive for the US, notwithstanding that it often falls short of the ideal.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    These are good questions. Here on the Front Range you can see many quasi-NU/TND developments, I just took a detour through one last week. These developments are an improvement on the cr*ptacular subdivisions seen before. I think the bar was raised a little higher by the movement, but not high enough and not for most developers. From an ecological point of view, I think they fall flat.
    I think you need a very large parcel to make a true mixed use TD/NU development with a range of transects possible. Most NU projects I've seen are, in reality, quasi-NU; they might be missing a commercial component (due to lack of critical mass, or an inconvenient location), they only include a very limited variety of housing, or they might resort to the same "seconds save lives!" wide streets as what's encountered in the surrounding sprawl.

    Residential development with interconnectivity, smaller lots, parks with street frontage, alleys, and so on are a vast improvement over loop-and-lollypop subdivisions, but there's still a lot of unrealized potential. Outside of the Midwest and West, though, where it's easy to assemble large tracts of land for new towns, and there's a high growth rate and demand for new housing, it'll be a challenge. I see some potential in the community where I work, in the Northeastern US, but a slower growth rate means development will be much more organic, taking place over decades rather than months. No Daybreaks or Stapletons, with hundreds of new units every year, That could be another reason why NU is slow to take off in the Northeast. In a slow growth or no growth area, It may take only a couple of years to sell our a subdivision with 20 one-acre lots, but it'll take a decade or two if it's 150 units. There's a greater total ROI from 150 units, but a much slower rate of return.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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