There are some common elements of new urbanist design. New urbanist neighborhoods are walkable, and are designed to contain a diverse range of housing and jobs. New urbanists support regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe these strategies are the best way to reduce the time people spend in traffic, to increase the supply of affordable housing, and to rein in urban sprawl. Many other issues, such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and the renovation of brownfield land are also covered in the Charter of the New Urbanism, the movement's seminal document.
About new urbanism
(Adapted from "The New Urbanism: An alternative to modern, automobile-oriented planning and development" by Robert Steuteville, editor and publisher, New Urban News, 2004.)
Through the first quarter of the last century, the United States was developed in the form of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. The pattern began to change with the emergence of modern architecture and zoning and ascension of the automobile. After World War II, a new system of development was implemented nationwide, replacing neighborhoods with a rigorous separation of uses that has become known as conventional suburban development (CSD), or sprawl. The majority of US citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last 50 years.
Although CSD has been popular, it carries a significant price. Lacking a town center or pedestrian scale, CSD spreads out to consume large areas of countryside even as population grows relatively slowly. Automobile use per capita has soared, because a motor vehicle is required for the great majority of household and commuter trips.
Those who cannot drive are significantly restricted in their mobility. The working poor living in suburbia spend a large portion of their incomes on cars. Meanwhile, the American landscape where most people live and work is dominated by strip malls, auto-oriented civic and commercial buildings, and subdivisions without much individuality or character.
The new urbanism is a reaction to sprawl. A growing movement of architects, planners, and developers, new urbanism is based on principles of planning and architecture that work together to create human-scale, walkable communities. New urbanists take a wide variety of approaches -- some work exclusively on infill projects, others focus on transit-oriented development, still others are attempting to transform the suburbs, and many are working in all of these categories. New urbanism includes traditional architects and those with modernist sensibilities. All, however, believe in the power and ability of traditional neighborhoods to restore functional, sustainable communities. The trend had its roots in the work of maverick architects and planners in the 1970s and 1980s who coalesced into a unified group in the 1990s. From modest beginnings, the trend is beginning to have a substantial impact. More than 600 new towns, villages, and neighborhoods are planned or under construction in the U.S., using principles of new urbanism. Additionally, hundreds of small-scale new urban infill projects are restoring the urban fabric of cities and towns by reestablishing walkable streets and blocks.
On the regional scale, new urbanism is having a growing influence on how and where metropolitan regions choose to grow. At least 14 large-scale planning initiatives are based on the principles of linking transportation and land-use policies and using the neighborhood as the fundamental building block of a region.
In Maryland and several other states, new urbanist principles are an integral part of smart growth legislation.
Moreover, new urbanism is beginning to have widespread impact on conventional development. Mainstream developers are adopting new urban design elements such as garages in the rear of houses, neighborhood greens and mixed-use town centers. Projects that adopt some principles of new urbanism but remain largely conventional in design are known as hybrids.
Old and new urbanism
The new urbanism trend goes by other names, including neotraditional design, transit-oriented development, and traditional neighborhood development. Borrowing from urban design concepts throughout history, new urbanism does not merely replicate old communities. New houses within neighborhoods, for example, must provide modern living spaces and amenities that consumers demand (and that competing suburban tract homes offer). Stores and businesses must have sufficient parking, modern floor plans, and connections to automobile and pedestrian traffic, and/or transit systems.
With proper design, large office, light industrial, and even "big box" retail buildings can be situated in a walkable new urbanist neighborhood. Parking lots, the most prominent feature of conventional commercial districts, are accommodated to the side, the rear or basement of new urban businesses. The size of lots are reduced through shared parking, on-street parking, and shifts to other modes of transportation.
Another difference between old and new urbanism is the street grid. Historic cities and towns in the US employ a grid that is relentlessly regular. New urbanists often use a "modified" grid, with "T" intersections and street deflections to calm traffic and increase visual interest.
That blending of old and new is the basis of the adjective neotraditional, a term that carries a lot of baggage, especially with modernists, who see it as an architectural "style." However, it is more of an urban design approach that borrows from the past while adapting to the present and future. The very fact that new urbanists must meet the demands of the marketplace keeps them grounded in reality. Successful new urbanism performs a difficult balancing act by maintaining the integrity of a walkable, human-scale neighborhood while offering modern residential and commercial "product" to compete with CSD. New urbanists who cannot compete with conventional development or find a niche that is poorly served by the real estate industry are doomed to failure.
The difficulty of that balancing act is one reason why many developers choose to build hybrids, instead of adopting all of the principles of new urbanism. Some new urbanists think that hybrids pose a serious threat to the movement, because they usually borrow the label and language of the new urbanism. Other new urbanists believe that hybrids represent a positive step forward from CSD.
The heart of new urbanism is in the design of neighborhoods, which can be defined by 13 elements, according to town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. An authentic neighborhood contains most of these elements:
- The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
- Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 2,000 feet.
- There are a variety of dwelling types -- usually houses, rowhouses and apartments -- so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
- At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
- A small ancillary building is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (e.g., office or craft workshop).
- An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
- There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling -- not more than a tenth of a mile away.
- Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
- The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
- Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
- Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
- Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
- The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.
Seaside, Florida, the first new urbanist town, began development in 1981 on 80 acres (320,000 m²) of Panhandle coastline. Seaside appeared on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in 1988 when only a few streets were completed, and it since became internationally famous for its architecture and the quality of its streets and public spaces. Seaside proved that developments that function like traditional towns could be built in the postmodern era. Lots began selling for $15,000 in the early 1980s and, slightly over a decade later, lots prices had escalated to about $200,000. Today, some lots sell for close to a million dollars, and houses sometimes top $3 million. The town is now a tourist mecca.
Seaside’s influence has less to do with its economic success than the attractiveness and dynamism related to its physical form. Many developers have visited Seaside and gone away determined to build something similar.
Since Seaside gained recognition, other new urban towns and neighborhoods have been designed and are substantially built -- including Haile Village Center in Gainesville, Florida; Harbor Town in Memphis, Tennessee; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland; King Farm in Rockville, Maryland; Addison Circle in Addison, Texas; Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon; Mashpee Commons in Mashpee, Massachusetts; The Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi; and Celebration in Orlando, Florida.
Designers are also using the principles of new urbanism to build major new projects in cities and towns. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted the principles of the new urbanism in its multibillion dollar program to rebuild public housing projects nationwide. New urbanists have planned and developed hundreds of projects in infill locations. Most were driven by the private sector, but many, including HUD projects, used public money. New urbanist projects built in historic cities and towns includes Crawford Square in Pittsburgh, City Place in West Palm Beach, Highlands Garden Village in Denver, Park DuValle in Louisville, and Beerline B in Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, leaders in this design trend came together in 1993 to form the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), based in Chicago. The founders are Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, Daniel Solomon, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Elizabeth Moule, all practicing architects and town planners. CNU has since grown to more than 2,000 members and is now the leading international organization promoting new urbanist design principles.
Disney builds a town
In June of 1996, Disney unveiled its 5,000 acre (20 km²) town of Celebration, near Orlando, Florida, and it has since eclipsed Seaside as the best-known new urbanist community. In some respects, the new urbanism and Disney have been uncomfortable bedfellows. While using designers and principles closely associated with the new urbanism, Disney has shunned the label, preferring to call Celebration simply a "town." Meanwhile, the movement may have benefited from all of Celebration’s publicity -- but not without a price. Disney has come under attack for what some perceive as heavy-handed rules and management. For those who would attack new urbanism as insipid nostalgia, Disney is a fat target. The fact remains that Celebration’s urban design is generally of high quality and by most accounts serves residents very well.
In the 1991 book Edge City, author Joel Garreau wrote that Americans have not built "a single old-style downtown from raw dirt in 75 years." Celebration was the first real estate project to break that trend, opening its downtown in October, 1996 (Seaside's downtown was still mostly unbuilt at the time). Since then, scores of new urban projects have followed suit with their own downtowns and mixed-use districts.
Critics of new urbanism often accuse it of elevating aesthetics over practicality, subordinating good city planning principles to urban design dogma. Another charge is that the movement is grounded in nostalgia for a period in American history that may never have existed. A related charge is that the movement represents nothing truly new, as towns and neighborhooods were built on similar principles in the U.S. until the 1920s. However, perhaps the most frequent criticism of the movement is that some of the highest-profile projects--such as Celebration, Seaside, and The Glen in Glenview, Illinois--represent a form of sprawl themselves, in that they are built on what was previously open space.
To date, new urbanists have captured only a tiny portion of the residential market. The CSD retail model, particularly the strip mall format, presents a formidable challenge to the new urbanist ideal of walkable town centers. New urbanist developers must get better at making their neighborhoods affordable. New urbanists also must prove, over time, that their ideas are superior for both revitalizing old cities and towns and building new communities.
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