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The Happy Death of New Urbanism

I didn't even bother reading the Richard Carson article...architects hive me the hives.

The failure of New Urbanism has nothing to do with being un-American. It has failed for three reasons:

1) Almost of the "New Urban" developments were characterized by very high-end units in very suburban and exurban areas. People who can afford to pay very high prices for housing tend to be very security and privacy concious...trees, shrubs, high walls, windows, security systems. It's all about controlling access, not sipping coffee and chatting with your neighbor across the way. That's simply too urban!

2) There aren't enough people with money to go around to fill all those new-urbanist homes, and

3) It was a dumb idea to begin with, an attempt to create a hyperreal city in the suburbs.

Thanks god it's dead! Our local new ubanist proponent is an over-paid lawyer who lives in a private sprawling house in the suburbs with a Lexus license plate that says "NEWURB"...Get Real!


Buffalo Planner said:

3) It was a dumb idea to begin with, an attempt to create a hyperreal city in the suburbs.

I love it when we get new blood around here who think like me!!


Does that make THREE current threads about this article? Mr. Carson certainly inspires discussion.

Howard Roark

New Urbanism is not new or dead, nor will it exist much in the way that DPZ probably would like it to. Instead of likening it to a planning movement like “the compact city” or “the garden city” it seems to be going the path of an architectural movement like Modernism or Postmodernism. That is, instead of following DPZ dogma (and they do see it as religion) it is being diluted and translated by people who interpret it in ways they find palatable to their tastes. This is the way architecural styles become mutated when they grow into the public domain.

In the future we could see more half hearted attempts at NU pop up it cluster form, intermixed with the big box vernacular that they are trying to get away from, it could become a developer darling in small doses for upscale buyers, but I don’t think that it will ever evolve into the “planning policy” that it’s creators see it as. It is far too tactile and not strategic enough to work in that capacity.

Some of Carson's critiques of the movement were dead on, but "unamerican" is at best a stretch, I always thought that telling people how to live was one of this country's strengths.

(The proceeding sentance was irony and intentionally inserted to create a momentary burst of good humor for the reader, the author regrets any misinterpretation of said sentance, and can not be held responsible for any grivences the reader may encounter)


The Happy New Urbanism

Hmmmm, clearly not even close to being dead as it has proved so inspirational (positively and negatively) to all of the posters of the various threads. It is obviously having a significant impact on provoking discussion. Beyond that, its impacting development whether in its ideal forms or less.

Maybe the discussion could shift to: Why do some fight it so?

Even in the speculator rich, everything is bigger here, and property owner's rights mecca of Texas one does not have to travel far to find its impacts. Although much of the NU development around here is aimed at working and middle class housing so apparently is much more common than in the Buffalo area??


Dear Leader
Staff member
What about this ... the failure of New Urbanism to catch on is really a matter of the right idea at the wrong time.

Le me explain ... New Urbanist communities tend to be dominated by higher-end housing. Maybe it's because upper middle class breadwinners are increasingly children of contemporary suburbs. They want something different, something with a certain cachet, so a NU development might appeal to them.

Now, let's take a family with lower middle class or middle class roots. The breadwinners may be children of the city; they could have grown up in a lower middle class 1920s era neighborhood, a place that has its charms but which is more often than not gritty around the edges. All their lives, they've had images of the contemporary American dream as the ideal living situation; a house on a cul-de-sac in the 'burbs, with a two car garage, a big yard, and neighbors that aren't so close that you can see into the rooms of their house just as easily as yours. A NU community might not appeal to them, because it's not like their idea of the American Dream; it's a glorified version of the rough neighborhood where they spent their childhood.

Why another generation? Because we're seeing the emergence of the suburban lower middle class, of 1950s and 1960s era development that is declining like the older urban neighborhoods the generation before. In some cities, the urban neighborhoods of small, old houses are increasingly exclusive, while the older inner ring suburbs are home to the working class. NU recreates the built environment of these now-desirable areas, and thus in those areas are seen as more desirable among a wider range of homebuyers.

In some cities, urban neighborhoods are seen as desirable; these places tend to be booming, affluent regions with relatively little poverty. The urban neighborhoods with the amenities and built environment provided by New Urbanist neighborhoods have been gentrified beyond affordability. Take Denver, for instance ... NU is taking off in that region.

Now, let's go to Buffalo or Cleveland. Unlike Denver or Seattle, there's a larger working class. Many live in relatively dense neighborhoods with a well-connected street grid and pedestrian-oriented retail within easy walking distance; the comfy areas that exhibit the qualities admired by New Urbanism promoters. The folks living there, though, usually want out. When the working and middle class fled the 20,000 residents/mi2 neighborhood of my childhood, they didn't go to the Elmwood, Parkside or North Buffalo neighborhoods, despite the large houses, charming retail districts, and distance from "da' hood." "The houses are so close together." They all went to Tonawanda, or like Mom and Dad, Amherst. They swapped a 1,500 square foot bungalow on a 3,000 square foot lot in the city for a 2,000 square feet ranch on a 12,000 square foot spread. Corner lot, too, so there's only one house nearby ... about 20 feet away from a short windowless wall.

When my folks last visited me when I was living outside of Orlando, I took them down to DPZ's Celebration. They were impressed ... impressed that someone would recreate North Buffalo so well in the central Florida swamps. "It's pretty, and there's lots of people around ... but the yards are so small, and the houses are so close together." Mom and Dad preferred my third acre spread at the end of a cul-de-sac. They were proud that their kid made it out of the city, and was living in the suburban environment that they tried so hard to get to themselves. The house was just like theirs ... a big, sprawling ranch on a big sprawling lot.

In a region where the collective attitude is "suburbs bad," NU will probably be successful; Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento. In places where the suburban built environment is admired and sought after among the masses, like Buffalo, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia, NU will have a much harder go at it.

What do I see for suburbia in the next 10 or 20 years? Maybe not dominance by New Urbanism, although that would be ideal. I see the increasing dominance of what I call "a kinder, gentler suburbia" -- lifestyle centers that resemble Main Streets, early 20th Century vernacular and Arts and Crafts-inspired residential architecture, suburban streets that continue to exhibit a loop and lollypop pattern, the decreased dominance of the garage door, and increasingly strict sign and architectural design regulations. There will be a few NU-like influences, like roundabouts and front porches. The car still dominates, although the built environment will look a lot prettier from the driver's seat.

el Guapo

Dan, You have nailed it.

Now, let's take a family with lower middle class or middle class roots. The breadwinners may be children of the city; they could have grown up in a lower middle class 1920s era neighborhood, a place that has its charms but which is more often than not gritty around the edges. All their lives, they've had images of the suburban dream as the ideal living situation; a two car garage, a big yard, a cul-de-sac. A NU community might not appeal to them, because it's not like their idea of the American Dream; it's a glorified version of the rough neighborhood where they spent their childhood.
Fits my personal perceptions to a "t." Except I wanted my chunk of suburbia as a result of years living in shitty military quarters and neighborhoods where my folks knew the house would sell quickly when the tour was over. I saw (and still do see) suburbia as where the people with stable lives lived. Imagined or not - it works for me.

BKM said:
I think Dan has perceptively nailed it. Dan for Land Use and Planning Emperor!

This begs the question: Is Dan really-really smart or is he just smart compared to bturk and I? Wait, maybe I don't want to know that answer. ;)
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Bucky alum

Here here Dan. As a person not in the field, I'm a business guy and I agree completely. My girlfriend and I laughed at the New Urbanism in my hometown of Middleton, Wi. But I don't want to move to corp Hq in Houston Tx(sprawl). And after spending last week in Toronto, I wouldn't want to live in a high rise condo, (too sterile, too much like where I work), but where would I want to live (downtown Philly). I think as the average person sees more of the world as airline tickets have dropped amamzingly fast in real dollars over the last twenty years it has changed people, especially the 20 something of today.

Most of my friends have been to Europe and see the community there and notice the lack of community in much of america. I think the key for New Urbanism is a grouping of homes(small lots) with a central market , drycleaner and a few stores and restraunts within easy walking distance of your home. At the same time access to the main city has to be convienent and part of a larger whole. Narrow homes with many parks that are like a grouping of backyards...

Ah hell what do I know. I want to move to Europe...



I agree with you, Bucky. I have no interest in living in a typical California subdivision. I just find them totally unattractive. Now, given that I want to live reasonably near work (ironically, a city whose character is largely commuter suburbia), I have chosen a townhouse near downtown Vacaville.

It is definitely a compromise. :(

I have no yard, which is a negative, the neighborhood is improving dramatically but still a little ragged in places, and downtown Vacaville is still pretty sleepy. Still, I can walk to two beautiful parks-including a creekwalk. I am ten minutes from rolling hills on my bicycle. There is even a cafe-and old time diners-within a ten minute walk. We even have two white tablecloth restaurants, now:).

I think most people really want "small town" America with all the benefits of a metropolitan area. New Urbanism can be marketed to this niche.


I've agree with Dan, perception is very important. For example in the Toronto and Portland most people know about and favor many new urbanist ideas. However in nyc, the most lively pedestrian city in the US, the number 1 tourist attraction, with plenty of new urbanist areas, many people and planners are trying to emulate the modern attractive suburbs.
Likewise I think that the reason new urbanism has not been embraced by many low income urban blacks is that they have less choice about where they are living. Some might wonder why wealthy whites suddenly want to move into this area that they've spent their whole life trying to get out of. The grass is always greener...As long as there are choices of urban or suburban areas to live I think that there will be lots of migration back and forth. Which ever one is percieved to attract most of the wealthy will generally be believed to be the superior form, and will be replicated.
My girlfriend works at an upper east side jewelery shop where she meets plenty of wealthy people. These people feel that Manhattan is the only place to live and she would like to live as close as possible to the city. Her cousin who lived in a poor part of Queens got out as soon as she could and can't understand why she doesn't want to move to Long Island. You live in the city, ewww!


Bounty Hunter

From http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/12/29/BA.DTL

Main Street mirage
Retail complexes mimic quaint urban districts

John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer

You've heard of virtual reality? The Bay Area now has two examples of the bricks-and-mortar equivalent: artificial urbanity.

Known in the trade as "Main Street retail," it's a real estate trend that can be described prosaically as a shopping center with housing on top. If you're a developer, you're likely to spin the movement as something much more profound -- a 21st century take on neighborhood centers of yore, where you run errands and meet friends and live a good portion of your life.

Sounds great -- except that at Santana Row in San Jose and Bay Street in Emeryville, reality falls laughably short of the hype. Viewed strictly as development projects, they aren't bad, especially Santana Row. But if this is what passes for community, we might as well unroll our sleeping bags in the nearest mall.

Each complex includes stores along a street with apartments above the stores, and blocklong structures cloaked in a variety of nostalgic building facades. But there's no library, no post office, no school, certainly no City Hall or fire station.

What makes such artificiality so frustrating is that the hype strikes a genuine chord. In the Bay Area, for instance, you shouldn't need to live in San Francisco or parts of Oakland and Berkeley to find housing close to shopping and cafes.

Even in the suburbs there should be places where different strands of life weave together the sort of role that old-fashioned Main Streets played, at least in hazy myth.

That notion of something real is exactly what the developers of Santana Row and Bay Street promise but don't deliver.

When Santana Row opened on Nov. 7, delayed two months by a spectacular fire that destroyed the realty Investment Trust described the San Jose project as a quest for haps a new urban paradigm for er how ""we're trying to create an urban district, like Greenwich Village, like Soho."


Sanata Row is in fact a lovingly detailed stage-set for consumption where shoppers pay $285 for a scarf at Burberry's and residents write monthly checks of $3,300 for two-bedroom lofts. There are nods to local roots, such as a dozen mature oak trees from the site that were put into storage before construction and then replanted, but the tone is set by the presence of Gucci near the entrance.

In other words, it's all make-believe. But give the creators credit: This is cubic zirconia of the highest grade.

Federal Realty layered detail upon detail, doing everything possible to hide that this is a 23- acre project built all at once. Some blocks are gaily painted in a Mediterranean style; others are stucco-fied takes on turn-of-the- century warehouses. The goal is to make it look as if things came together over time in relatively small pieces.

The overall plan was drawn up by Street-Works, based in Virginia near Federal Realty's Maryland home. The buildings were designed by three different firms, including BAR Architects of San Francisco. An additional designer, Paula Ress of Seattle had a separate budget to add unexpected details - ceramic strands pf garlic on one building flamboyant balcony railings on another. One of the 17 fountains consists entirely of roofing materials scavenged from France.

The result often tips toward too precious. Still, this is a great place to take a stroll: The northern block's shops are set inside spaccious BAR-designed arcades, for instance; sidewalks are wide and the paving varies from block to block. There are benches, tables and a linear plaza modeled on the Rambles in Barcelona (more cynical visitors will recall Disneyland's New Orleans Square).

Ultimately, Santana Row stands as a monument to the hubris of the late '90s. All the flourishes that make it distinctive also drove the $500 million price tag - and Federal's decision in March to cancel future projects in a similar vein.

Emeryville's Bay Street, in contrast to Santana Row's high-boom splendor, sticks to the basics.

Walking through the 16-acre complex before the opening, an executive with development firm Madison Marquette commented, "I'm crestfallen when someone calls this a shopping center. It's an urban village."

But when drivers on Interstate 80 see a gigantic box covered in fake brick, a shell hiding 16 movie screens and 1,000-plus parking spaces, village isn't the word that comes to mind. This is a megasize mousetrap designed to snare East Bay shoppers who now visit Corte Madera or Walnut Creek for their Banana Republic/Pottery Barn fix.

Community amenities? There aren't any, except for a meeting room tucked out of sight next to the parking garage. The open space consists of a promised strip along a culverted creek and a small plaza crammed with knick-knack-laden kiosks. Mostly there are shops, many many shops, all with familiar names.

The one effective design stroke is that the mezzanine food terrace is aligned to offer stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Architect Charles Pigg of Los Angeles also framed the terrace nicely with metal columns and a high roof. Beyond that, the ""place- making'' gestures are all skin deep. The front of Old Navy has mock-inductrial tin; Barnes & Noble is capped by a tower that looks round - but from the back you see it's incomplete, as if a piece was sliced from a pie.

One consolation is that with time Bay Street will get better. It opened much too soon, no doubt at the dictate of retailers; construction workers still outnumber shoppers on weekdays, On a recent visit, buzz sawa were grinding through steel near the lone outdoor cafe. The stench of paint was so heavy that one shopper was heard telling his girlfriend he had a headache. IT will remain a construction site next year as apartments rise above the shops, but at least the pedestrian realm will be finished, and some missing basics such as benches and landscaping will be added.

Artificial urbanity wouldn't be so bad if the lasting impression were urbanity, not artifice. Imagine how much better our two faux towns would be if the developers had lived up to their hype. Bay Street could turn a storefront into a sort of little City Hall for people who want to know more about Emeryville. Santana Row could transform one of its surface parking lots into a spacious park where you can fly a kite as well as sip cappuccino.

Because the fact is, the basic approach makes sense. People may rely on supermarkets or big-box behemoths for most purchases, but those spots don't fill the need for social interaction. They're not part of a larger scene.

And in a region desperate for housing, folding some of it into older cities is a great idea. You don't want to parachute apartments onto every 7-11, but all communities should include neighborhoods that offer access to services without the need for a car.

For now, it's difficult to take seriously the notion that these projects benefit anyone besides credit-card companies. But the potential is there. That's why the trend should be encouraged and encouraged to improve.



-- HYPE: "The character of Bay Street Emeryville is drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play. Designed as an eclectic urban village . . . Bay Street Emeryville is a vibrant fresh community . . ." -- Bay Street Web site.

-- THE REALITY: Twenty acres containing 74 shops and restaurants and a 16-screen theater along a two-lane private road. Construction begins next spring on 366 residential units above the shops, 56 reserved for lower-income families.

-- NEIGHBORS: Train tracks to the east, traffic-jammed Shellmound Street to the west, Ikea to the south and a hotel site to the north.

-- HISTORY: Bay Street sits above Northern California's largest historic burial ground of American Indians. But the site was hardly pristine before the Nov. 20 opening; factories operated there for 70 years, rendering the ground toxic before the city purged it.

-- ACCESS: Makes the state budget look rosy. Shellmound Street has been in gridlock ever since Ikea opened in 2000, and the multiplex will only make things worse. Not only that, Bay Street's 1,900 parking spaces are tucked behind the eastern shops -- drivers must push through strollers to reach them.

-- HYPE: "Santana Row is mindful of an earlier time, when friends and neighbors, families and children, gathered in the cultural center of their community . . . to share an idea . . . to tell a story . . . to reflect on their past and contemplate their future." -- apartment brochure.

-- REALITY: Forty-two acres zoned for 700,000 square feet of shops, 1,200 residential units, a hotel and arts cinema. The 25-acre first phase includes 255 apartments and 78 shops and restaurants set to open by spring, which is also when the hotel premieres.

-- NEIGHBORS: Houses to the east, the Winchester Mystery House to the west, a small office tower to the south and mammoth Village Fair mall to the north.

-- HISTORY: Many Bay Area residents assume Santana Row turned to ashes in the much-publicized fire of Aug. 19. In fact, the blaze was confined to one block -- and the concrete parking garage that doubled as a foundation for apartments was saved. Stores will open soon; no telling when residential construction resumes.

-- ACCESS: The approach via Stevens Creek Boulevard jams up on busy shopping days. Plenty of parking though: 4,267 spaces conveniently wrapped around the "cultural center."

E-mail John King at jking@sfchronicle.com.
Wasn't there a big fire at this development or something similar to it? I remember reading not too long ago that there was a massive fire at a complex that was nearly complete...


In defense of NU

OK, great comments on the death of NU, indulging in self-contenment and visceral reactions...Why is that so?

I feel that NU is far from dying and objectively a still very vital movement and with a growing popularity in an average US public.The New Urbanist movement has quite consistently identified and analyzed the major flaws and shortcomings of Post-War suburban planning methods and developed an operational strategy based on the best historic models of European and US cities as well as on time-tested principles allowing to build good cities in a contemporary context.

If the results are not perfect in many aspects, it is an obvious lack of good faith not to acknowledge their qualities, and particularly, not to admit their superiority to current suburban sprawl scenarios!

NU is definitely a very rich and potent US invention, and will evolve into a more complex, and efficient urbanistic methodology over the coming years, and it will assimilate more thouroughly new knowledge and applyances from New Sciences (Complexity Sciences) and New Technologies, and develop more subtlely a better understanding of the complex inter-relationships between architecture, urbanism and territorial planning, etc.

I find it quite disappointing to read ever and ever again the same uninformed and cliché-like trashing of NU and the same cliché-like indulging in the equation of a Happy Suburbia with the Nature of the American myth of Freedom and Individualism, Openess and Space, as well as a quite hypocritical sense of social justice and popularly affordable habitat which the "elitistic upper-class" NU presumably ignores.

I would on the contrary assert that there is nothing in the NU philosophy and practice of NU which opposes fundamentally the specific traditions of the US and nothing which would oppose the generalization of dignified housing for a large majority of Americans. I even believe the NU justly encompasses the best ideals of community, of civic sense and of responsible individualism in the best possible paradigms of urban neighbourhoods, towns and cities, allowing, to inhabit the earth most wisely and economically and rebuild a durable modern urban civilization!

Happy New Year to all
Lucien Steil


Now, let's go to Buffalo or Cleveland. Unlike Denver or Seattle, there's a larger working class. Many live in relatively dense neighborhoods with a well-connected street grid and pedestrian-oriented retail within easy walking distance; the comfy areas that exhibit the qualities admired by New Urbanism promoters. The folks living there, though, usually want out.

I'll vouch for the accuracy of that statement as it pertains to Cleveland. The suburban mindset is very strong here. Most city residents want out and very few suburbanites want to live in a place that resembles Cleveland's old neighborhoods. I have been dealing with this attitude ever since I moved to this area in 1998. As a newcomer to town, I naturally asked for apartment-hunting advice from my new co-workers. Every single recommendation I got was a suburban location. When I asked about the new apartments going up downtown, people would always say something like, "oh, you don't want to live in the city." Of course, I wanted to live in the city, so I ignored all the advice and moved downtown. Two years later when I decided to purchase a house, I got the same advice. Most of my friends thought I was nuts to build a home in a NU-style community in the city when I could have so much more land in the suburbs for the same price without the "hassles" of the city. While there is some NU development happening in Cleveland, almost all of it is within the city itself on brownfield sites. The standard suburban development continues on the fringes, and the idea of "smart growth" is viewed skeptically by the large working class community. Actually, the biggest advocates of "smart growth" are the wealthy who don't want the middle class moving too close to their large rural estates.

Richard Carson

Yes... Rich Carson (that's me) is a member of this club. I am glad my article sparked such a great discussion. I keep getting people to ask me for facts to back my argument. Why? It is simply what I believe. Does anyone want to factually prove to me that God exists?

However, to ask me to articulate my vision is fair. And I am doing it in the next commentary to be run on Planetizen. It is more breath taking than the cute New Urbanist day dreams. It is a paradigm shift from the past and the present. It isn't "neo" anything.

This is a message for those of you who really disagree with me. To say that is a fellow planner is "full of hot air," a "sad suburban wannabe," and a "public figure subject to ridicule" reduces the debate to the gutter lever. I suggest some of you can do better.

I used to be a member of the New Urbanist listserv. But to be honest the level of hate fill responses turned me off. I realize the New Urbanist don't agree with and I don't agree with them. But we are honorable people and we don't demonize each other in a pathetic attempt to make our arguments. For what it is worth, Andres Duany was always civil in our discourse. So I respect the man for that. However, some of his disciples are zealots with no respect for the dialectic he promotes.
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