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Can new urbanism really work today?

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
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.
 

Linden Smith

Cyburbian
Messages
141
Points
6
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.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,078
Points
33
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.
 
Messages
12
Points
1
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?
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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.
 

EZP

Member
Messages
3
Points
0
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?
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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!
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
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.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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.
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
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?
 

Ken

Member
Messages
11
Points
1
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.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
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!
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
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?
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
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.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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.
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
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.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
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
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
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.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
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.
 

Ken

Member
Messages
11
Points
1
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.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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.
 

Ken

Member
Messages
11
Points
1
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.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
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"?
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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6,464
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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.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
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29
I wish I could remember it. I think I actually had a hard copy-which ended up in the recycling bin.

The one caveat is I remember it being written by a planner who is a bit of a skeptic (his basic theme is that we need to revive our older "traditional" towns before we build new ones-and he actually walks the walk.)

If I run across it, I will post it.
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
Ian & BK- it seems it is down to three, huh? I agree with a lot of the last few posts. I think some of problems about the self-selected residents of these communities will solve themselves. Granted, just as some of these communities have been built simply because it is the fad, some have moved to them simply because it is trendy. Through the natural evolution that will inevitably take place in the design of these neighborhoods and in future ones, so too will the residents evolve. Some will end up being great communities and some will simply be promoted as communities when they are not. I'm not sure that made sense, but I think you can get my point.

Ian- I think you took the physical determinism argument too far when you said 'that design can {not} somehow create and nurture "community."' I agree that it IS what is in there that counts, but I think design has a huge part of that! Status quo, typical suburbia is made up of single use, single family, cookie cutter homes where every neighbor has approximately the same income, debt, family size and everything else. That doesn't seem to be much of a community! "Communities" need mixed-use, mixed incomes, etc, etc in order to be successful and that is what NU is striving for. It's the design that can either lead to this mixed use or neglect it and continue with typical suburbia.

BK- To say that "Real "community" comes about primarily through shared adversity" is so sad. Do you not find anything positive that connects you and your neighbors? Or is it just bitching (as you and your neighbor simultaneously pull into your driveways at 5:45) about housing market values falling because there is a newer subdivision another mile away that is more popular than yours? That three minutes of communication does not make a community! I don't mean that to attack you personally, the example was just a hypothetical of what I see as typical suburbia!
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
I think we need to define what "community" is. I would argue that a subdivision with homogenous races, incomes, and lifestyles can indeed be a viable "community." In that type of place, the majority, which is practically everyone, has plenty in common and probably is more likely to hang out, feel comfortable with conversations beyond small talk, and let their children play with the other children. You know, "birds of a feather flock together." The same thing can be said for Kentlands or where ever. The design of the two places (i.e. Kentlands v. typical suburbia) differ markedly, but more than likely, most in either place may feel some sort of "community."

Compare this illustration of "community" to one that is based on religious and ethnic similarity in a huge metropolatin area such as southeast Michigan. The Chaldean community, though mostly centered in Dearborn, which is just west of Detroit, is scattered throughout the four counties and dozens of suburbs that comprise the southeast Michigan region. These folks are close in terms of knowing who's who and familial relations, but they are rather dispersed. This group is indeed a community and it's definition is not defined by whether they live in suburbia or a new urbanist greenfield development.

So tell me, what is it that we mean by "community"? If you ask me, "community" is a nebulous term that probably has as many definitions as there are humans on this planet. "Community" is one of the fuzzy, touchy-feely words that plays more to the heart than to the brain.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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6,464
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29
prAna:
I don't mean to be that bleak. But, people today are "busy," often commuting to distant places, with their own families, interests, etc. And, because of the consumable media (tv, radio, movies, and the computer, of course), people don't have to locally entertain themselvs as much. Localized community seems to gel today during adversity.

I guess what I mean is partly exhibited through Ian's last post. "Community" in today's society is often geographically quite dispersed. Frankly, I have more interesting conversations on the web than I do with my next door neighbors. Maybe that is sad, but the "community of interests" seems to be a reality today (and an entire topic in itself). I guess what bothers me is when developers market neo-traditionalism that ignores this reality.

I agree with you that design does matter (hence, my design-oriented "rant" that started the whole thread. But, although I'm not sure it can "create" a strong community, it may facilitate interaction if there are a lot of community parks, sidewalks that encourage walking and casual contact, and architecture that doesn't provide a blank wall of garage doors.

Ian: The other new thread on this forum perfectly illustrates what you are saying. Homogeneity can breed community. (Cary sounds a little scary to me, but then I am not the demographic it was built for!)
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
The either-or situation you pose is interesting. Is it possible, as planners, to provide opportunities to achieve a mix of BOTH of the qualities you mentioned in the either-or situations? Is that what we try to do, to minimize homogeneity while trying to enhance the quality of life for everyone? And is new urbanism the best alternative we have today to achieve these goals?
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
That's a lot of questions. I would think the goal, whether conscious or not in many planners, would be to minimize homogeniety while enhancing the quality of life. Correct! Does it happen? Probably less than the majority of the time. But why?
Maybe because of a bias that we are all taught as planners? Maybe because of systems that have been set up previous to us, i.e. single-use zoning, "accepted" city planning strategies or the need to please those with $$$?

Personally, I will strive to raise my daughter as well rounded and as exposed to new situations as possible. That seems obvious, but option #1 above doesn't really allow for that. Getting very personal now, we don't practice any religion in our house, but we have and try to teach a respect for many religions whether it is close to what we might believe or seemingly very far from our reality. I think that if you are exposed to only one religion, that is automatically THE correct religion in your mind and that is just foolish.

Is New Urbanism the best option? Maybe, maybe not, but its theories and goals seem to be closest to achieving that quality of life we spoke of. Is it evident in every New Urbanist development? Doubtful, and in fact, No. But that gets back to the evolution that I think must take place in order to achieve the BEST possible community. Some NU areas will evolve so as to provide this quality of life and the other areas will hopefully show planners the component that worked against the overall goal.

It might simply come down to the fact that the status quo isn't working well to achieve that high quality of life, otherwise there would be no need for a change and NU would not have ever been an option. Is a brand new vehicle a better form of transport than one that is 20 years old, leaks oil and overheats? Definitely, but is that same brand new vehicle as good as what we could have in 20 years? Doubtful, but right now it is the best option unless walking for the next 20 years is appealing to you. (DO NOT CREATE A THREAD OUT OF THAT LAST EXAMPLE!! IT WAS SIMPLY A POINT, NOT A CONVERSATION!! I only own old cars and can't wait until I can use mass transit everyday for everything.)
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
How about about using mass transit for going to Home Depot? What about going to Sears and purchasing a boxspring and mattress? (I just had to be the Devil's Advocate! Hee-hee!!)
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
I don't want to get rid of my car, nor do New Urbanists. I simply want the option to be able to bike to work, or to the cafe or to the bookstore to pick up the Denver Post and search for jobs and a house elsewhere.

In fact, I just picked up a great 1972 Land Cruiser. Full size with 33" tires, a lift, loud as hell (definitely not typical NU!), but I don't want to have to drive it daily. If I could do 90% of my errands and daily routine by mass transit, biking or walking and only use the truck to go to Home Depot or camping, I wouldn't care if you called my community New Urbanist or status quo suburbia. The fact remains that I can't live like that in what we know in 2001 as status quo suburbia, so I would like to help create and live in such an environment, and right now, it seems to most resemble the New Urbanist ideal.
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
So, did you get the new issue of Planning in the mail today? I did! There'a an interview with Andres Duany that begins on page 10, titled, "Is New Urbanism Growing Old?" The last question, on page 13, seems to be an interesting one, perhaps carefully chosen (irony), or perhaps no intention at all (endearment). The interview session ends like this:

Q: So a suburban mentality based on environmental principles is getting in the way of urban development? (Martin Zimmerman, campus planner UNC-Charlotte)

A. Absolutely. You need urban places, you need places that have both aspects, and you need natural places. You need all three. But the environmental movement is attempting to ruralize the city. That's an error because the city is not at its best, is not at its most attractive, when it is most rural. The city is best when it's very hard-paved, like San Francisco or New Orleans or New York City. And those cities have millions of residents who are not out trampling the suburbs.(Andres Duany, Florida architect)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't a contingency of the environmental movement embrace new urbanist principles? And isn't it also true that the CNU charter has some wording and principles that relate to environmental values? So, if both of these are true, could the above question from the interview be rewritten like this:

So a "suburban mentality based on environmental principles" (that is, new urbanism) is getting in the way of urban development?

Or perhaps more clearly:

So new urbanism is getting in the way of urban development?

And the answer to the original question was:

"Absolutely."

I don't mean to misconstrue any of the original meaning here, but do you see the irony?
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
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29
Many of New Urbanisms critics continuously bring up this issue (which I know has been discussed before): the use of New Urbanist principles to justify urban sprawl and facilitate further disinvestment in existing cities.

A perfect example was on Cyburbia's news briefs a few weeks ago, discussing a developers' well-meaning attempts to create a new village outside Philadelphia. While Philly has had some population growth, the REAL issue facing the area is rapid population decline in the City of Philadelphia. If NU just is used to justify or rationalize this suburbanization, I'm not sure its a good thing for metro areas like this (Just like NU would be a bad idea in outer exurban Buffalo. )
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
Come on, Ian! That was weak. You are now equating New Urbanism with "suburban mentality based on environmental principles" because some New Urbanists value the environment and some environmentalists value New Urbanism????

First of all, as smart as Andres Duany is and as much of the New Urbanism movement is based on his beliefs, I would be willing to bet that even he would say that HIS is not the absolute definitive voice for New Urbanism. That seems like a pretty safe assumption.

Secondly, if you can find three environmental groups that agree on ALL aspects of environmentalism, I would be absolutely amazed. It won't happen because the topic is so broad.

So...basically you just took a small piece of "A" and a small piece of "B" and you concluded that A=B??
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
Yep, that's what I sorta did. Please don't be so alarmed. I did qualify my statements by saying that I didn't want to misconstrue any of the original meaning (perhaps I did, perhaps not; I encourage you to read the article for yourself). I also made a point to show that there was some irony in Duany's answer to the interviewer's question; I don't think I made a careless and broad overgeneralization.

You may have surmised from my posts throughout this thread that I'm not a big fan of new urbanism. Much of my criticism of new urbansim comes from the fact that they are indeed greenfield developments and attract a homogenous population... issues that we have discussed quite a bit up to this point. I think we have (in this discussion at least; I haven't heard any dissenters yet) reached an agreement that greenfield development and homogenous populations tend to be the de facto status of new urbanist developments. My point is this: these two characteristics tend to typify typical suburban development... and also typify all developments, so far, that have come out of the new urbanist pipeline. So what's the difference? Design. New urbanists call their developments compact, pedestrian friendly, and friendlier to the environmnent because they cosume less land. Based on this logic, to me at least, new urbanist developments are indeed a "suburban mentality based on environmental principles."

Interestingly, in that interview, Duany agrees ("Absolutely.") that a suburban mentality based on environmental principles is getting in the way of urban development. I find this exchange extremely relevant because it seems to deconstruct the label "New Urbanism." If new urbanist developments are indeed a suburban mentality based on environmental principles, and if they get in the way of urban development, then why is "New Urbanism" called "New Urbanism"? Like I said before, it's not new and it's not urban. If new urbanism was really urban development, then it wouldn't get in the way of urban development... it would in fact be urban development.

And by the way, isn't urban development friendly to the environment, too? By keeping development contained and in a dense area, aren't we doing the environment a favor by not developing the greenfields of the hinterlands?

P.S. I mean no disrespect to Andres Duany through this analysis of his interview. He is a brilliant man who knows how to promote an idea and I have great respect for him.
 

whittx

Member
Messages
61
Points
4
My gripe on Celebration, Avalon Park, et al. isn't the design going into it, but the fact that they are all located 20 or so miles from the center of the area, with major highways going through them. In a way, they are really nothing more than an upscale suburb that you still have to leave to go to work and thousands still have to drive into to get to work. When you see the typical suburban office park on the outskirts of Celebration, that is where you see its true colors, not the retail center and lake areas.
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
Even I have those same gripes about Celebration and Avalon Park, but you can't deny the good that NU is doing to rebuild areas of downtown Portland, Denver, Boulder, and San Diego. Obviously I am biased and more knowledgeable about the west coast cities, but cities in the Carolinas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and the New England states all have great examples of how well New Urbanism can work in existing urban areas that were on a downhill slide economically.
 

Jet

Member
Messages
1
Points
0
Hello there folks!

Well, what an interesting conversation going on here.

Ian, in response to your posting of June 10, I invite you to come to Monroe, Michigan, where a true TND is being built. It is called Mason Run and here are the details:

1. Phase One is a 55-acre infill brownfield site which was a former industrial mill and immediately adjacent to a 1930s neighborhood. Approved plans for 520 residential units. Later phases to be built on adjacent 150 acres for a total build-out of 1,400 units.

2. Mixed-use residential -- single family, duplexes, triplexes, and mansion apartment buildings.

3. Lot sizes ranging from 32 to 50 feet with most allowing for accessory apartment carriage houses.

4. Single-family price point average of $140,000. Developer and City are about to submit a HOPE VI grant to raze an adjacent HUD complex (110 units) and incorporate households into the development via sale to the local non-profit housing coropration. Target for total build-out is 10% affordable units.

5. No commercial in first phases because the site is within 1/4 mile of Downtown.

This project is a result of COOPERATION between the City and developer, starting with negotiating the brownfield deal to creation of the lot and building design rules (a "Pattern Book"). At this time, 20 units are under construction and all are sold out.

Sorry for the all the details, but here are my thoughts on various issues posted to date:

1. The moniker "new urbanism" is silly and we don't use it here -- what's being built here is just good urban design.

2. You are right about Cherry Hill Village and other SUB-urban TND attempts -- with very limited exception, they are hybrids which will over time may improve the contemporary crap but will not provide the true urban experience which A LARGE PORTION of consumers would prefer IF THEY WERE ONLY SHOWN A MARKET PRODUCT. CHV gets a tremendous deal of media coverage because it's in a growning sprawl community in a large metro area. Mason Run would blow it away but it's considered off the earth's edge because Monroe is not in the media's reader/viewership area.

3. Despite being told the contrary, there is a scism within the CNU on urban infill versus greenfield TND developments. Duany and the elites believe that "there is just not enough space in urban cores to site all the new residents" and that "bureaucratic roadblocks" prevent more urban infill sites from being developed. I disagree with both of these points (BTW, Duany's "transect" is nothing more that the lecture and studies we got on monocentric urban design as second semester graduate planning students).

4. "Good Urban Design" is more than a fad, but it will take time to grow into general acceptance by practitioners and elected official. Its principles will slowly be incorporated into local codes, sometimes easy, sometimes with a fight. Remember, the same timeframe (50) got us the contemporary suburban design guidelines with us now. At some point, we will accept as common the concept of "build-to lines" instead of "set-backs".

That's all for now. I hope this contributed to your concerns and Ian, you can come downt to see the "real deal" project anytime!

JET
 

Ian Anderson

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
JET: You rock! Thank you for the briefing. A project that invokes TND and doesn't call itself a new urbanist showpiece? I'm impressed! Any place on the net with Mason Run plans or other visual delights? I appreciate the commentary on the "transect" concept. My sense is the CNU includes this "concept" (more like a marketing slogan, if you ask me) in their principles because they want to appear to be all-inclusive in order to gain broad, popular appeal while trying to minimize the environmental image they may have acquired over time. Good luck in Monroe. I'll have to come by sometime.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
As the person who started this thread, I have to say that it has been a very interesting discussion. I would like to see the new project in Monroe, JET, in a couple years (Maybe when I visit my folks again in Ft Wayne, Indiana?)

And, despite the cynicism at the beginning, I actually saw this weekend a true mixed use urban project that is not a cheap, bland suburban knockoff. This time, Berkeley Developer Patrick Kennedy got it right! I am talking about the new Gaia building in downtown Berkeley. Fantastic detailing for a new building! A mixture of market rate apartments and affordable housing! Community arts spaces! Retail. Although it is a very large building (people claimed it causes traffic congestion-come on, people, its downtown next to rapid transit, get out of your frigging cars and walk yourselves!!!), it really adds something. Panoramic Interests has a website so you can see the building!

Bottom Line: There is Hope!
 

prana

Cyburbian
Messages
565
Points
17
Alright- I just responded to the other post also and they are almost combining. I agree that "community" is fuzzy at best but let's see if I can pose some either/or choices.

Raising your kids in a demographically homogeneous area with one income level, one very dominant race, religion and political agenda and single use zoning to allow only homes of 1800-2600 square feet
OR
a diverse area, with blue collar and white collar families, varied races and religions, and a political demographic that resembles the last presidential vote?

I've lived in both. I feel bad those that live in the first example. I went to high school in Salt Lake City, in one of the most upper income areas of the city, and it frightened me how many of those kids had never met an African American until one transferred to our school. We had 3800 kids in school and ONE was African American!

There was a high percentage of my school who had never left the state of Utah. This was not because of a lack of ability or money, but because of a sheltered lifestyle.
 
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