Is it a fad or the way of the future?
The planning concept of “New Urbanism” has been around about three decades, but has not quite crept into general usage by the general public in North America. Nevertheless, the term has often been on the tip of the tongue among urban planners, architects and developers for almost two decades. Beginning in 1996, projects funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were encouraged to utilize the planning and architectural concepts of New Urbanism. Until the real estate market of the United States began collapsing in 2007, an increasing percentage of new private sector developments in North America and Europe incorporated some or all of the principals of New Urbanism.
In simplistic, layman’s terms New Urbanism might be defined as taking the most desirable land use and architectural features of communities from the past and adapting them to the technological needs of the present. However, in reality, the meaning of New Urbanism varies considerably among the speakers, who use the term. To many builders and developers, it merely means “making new buildings look like old buildings,” or “developing new communities that look like neighborhoods in the early 20th century.” To an urban planner in a major metropolitan area New Urbanism might mean the creation of moderately dense neighborhoods which provide the optimum demographics to support public transit systems. To a planner of a semi-rural retirement community, the term might mean re-creation of the ambiance of small town America prior to the 1950s, on a raw tract of undeveloped land.
Books and encyclopedia articles on New Urbanism often state that the movement is an effort by North American planners, architects and developers to obtain the positive qualities of European communities, while forgetting the negative aspects of small town living in North America prior to the automobile age and end of racial-ethnic segregation. The New Urbanism movement of North American is usually equated to urban design concepts that have been implemented in Europe beginning the early 1960s. Are these two concepts the same or even comparable? We shall discuss that later in this series.
The Charter of New Urbanism, adopted by the Congress for New Urbanism in 1993, reads:
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principals: Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population. Communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit, as well as the car. Cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions. Urban spaces should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology and building practices.
If one reads the myriad of articles, books, blogs, academic papers and magazine articles New Urbanism takes on the aura of a religious movement, not just a strategy for planning and designing new real estate development.
Origins of the New Urbanism Movement
The basic elements of North American New Urbanism can be seen in the Urban Village movement that began in Europe during the late 1960s. The people of Europe had gone through half a decade of hell during World War II. The massive rebuilding of this continent in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s resulted in cities full of cold, sterile, modernist architecture. While architects might loved the simplicity, large scale and abstract forms of steel and glass architecture, the people of Europe generally hated it.
The earliest signs of the Europeans’ objection to automobile oriented cities were in the early 1960s in Scandinavia. For several years, the City of Copenhagen had closed its main shopping street for two days at Christmas. However, in 1962 the street was kept closed as an experiment. Storeowners and shoppers were told that this was a temporary situation required for street repairs. However, the street was never reopened to traffic again. The pedestrian street system was enlarged several times during the remainder of the 20th century. Today, the Strøget (the Sweep) is the longest pedestrian street in Europe and within the largest pedestrian-only zone in Europe. During the summer at least 250,000 persons a day visit this world tourist attraction. Even in the dark, cold days of Scandinavian winters, at least 120,000 persons day walk the Strøget.
Beginning in the late 1960s, and especially in the 1970s, North American cities began experimenting with the conversion of key downtown thoroughfares into pedestrian streets. The movement had all the religious tones of the current New Urbanism movement. For example, urban planners hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) went around their region urging cities and towns to close off key downtown streets as a means of competing with suburban shopping malls and reducing use of automobiles. Every pedestrian street constructed in the TVA region was an economic disaster and has been converted back to a conventional street.
The earliest manifestations of the European public’s revulsion toward modern architecture were in the architecture schools of northern Europe during the late 1960s. The change in student philosophies more or less corresponded to the Hippie Era in the United States. Students returned to using traditional building materials and community development patterns of the 1800s, but generally arranged them in modern architectural compositions that echoed traditional styles.
By the 1970s these students were professional architects. Since Northern European countries require all buildings to be designed by architects, the theories of the rebellious students quickly became the reality of most new developments as soon as they had their own practices or were senior designers in large firms. Also in Northern Europe, architects, urban planners and citizen committees have dominant design influence on most structures. Realtors are almost an invisible profession and developers must have all designs approved by architects employed by local governments. Thus, both in private and public sector roles, the new architects were able to rapidly change the way their communities were being developed
It should be emphasized that there is one very important difference between the European Urban Village movement and the North American New Urbanism movement. The Urban Village movement originated in a general demand by the citizens of those countries to change the way their communities were developing. European planners, architects and developers responded to their demands. In North America, New Urbanism began as experiments by urban designers or progressive developers. Acceptance of new planning ideas required marketing the concepts to the consumers. Sometimes, the consumers just didn’t buy it.
In part 2 of this 4 part series, the readers will learn about the examiner’s own experiences with the Urban Village movement in Europe.