The evolving concept of New Urbanism in North America
The first use of the term “new urbanism” may be associated with the 1980s, but the concept actually goes back to the same era that the New Urbanists are trying to emulate. It is really a continuation of a century old planning tradition in North America. During the late 1880s and 1890s, innovative collaboration between engineer-developer, Joel Hurt and Landscape Architect, Frederick Law Olmstead created communities with most of the standard features of New Urbanism communities today, with the exception that they were racially segregated and contained extensive landscaping.
Joel Hurt was a brilliant engineer from Alabama, who first worked for railroad lines in Post-Reconstruction Virginia. He then moved to the boom town of Atlanta, where he soon started a horse-drawn streetcar line. During that period he also founded the Trust Company of Georgia, which is now Sun Trust Bank. After buying large tracts of land east of Atlanta, he decided that horse drawn trolleys would require too long a trip for potential residents. In 1885 he designed the nation’s first successful electric rail system, the Atlanta and Edgewood Electric Railway Company. Hurt’s inventions and designs became the prototype for all electric trolleys, light rail and trains until the recent advent of maglev propulsion.
Inman Park: Hurt’s inventive mind next turned to the large tract of land at the end of the rail line. He called it Inman Park and began development in 1889. It was named after the CEO of the Southern Railway System and included as its first residents, members of the Candler Family, which started Coca-Cola.
The community was intended for the elite of Atlanta, but eventually upper middle class families began buying most of the lots. All of the houses had front porches and front walks. All of the yards were extensively landscaped with specimen quality trees and shrubs. Side yards tended to be narrow on all but those houses built for Atlanta’s elite. He even built a 10 acre park and botanical garden connected to the homes by paved sidewalks and walks. All houses were convenient to transit. It was the nation’s first electric railway suburb.
Druid Hills: In 1890 Joel Hurt contracted with Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmstead to design an even more innovative community for middle class and upper middle class residents. Olmstead named the project, Druid Hills. He included in his professional services, design covenants governing landscaping, land use and architectural details. Specific tracts of land were designated for commercial and institutional usage back in an era when there was no such thing as land use zoning. The project also was to be on an electric rail line, but didn’t even have a road through it. Olmstead designed Ponce de Leon Ave, to connect Atlanta with Decatur, GA. Hurt designed an electric railway to run down the boulevard of the two one way streets that composed Ponce de Leon Ave.
Druid Hills was delayed by the Depression of 1893, and really didn’t get going until 1907. Most of the houses in Druid Hills were built in the 1910’s and 1920s. All have front porches, narrow side yards, compatible architectural styles, sophisticated landscape plans and front sidewalks. Some blocks with larger houses have service alleys.
Druid Hills today is still one of Atlanta’s most prestigious addresses. It contains approximately 12,800 residents. It is also the home of Emory University, the National Centers for Disease Control and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Druid Hills has been the model for thousands of real estate developments around North America in the decades since its inception. Oh, yes and there was one very famous resident of Druid Hills during the 1950s. Her name was Daisy Massell. They did a movie about her! It was called, “Driving Miss Daisy.” The Piggly-Wiggly was over in Druid Hills planned commercial center, Little Five Points.
Streetcar suburbs and garden cities: Suburban developments oriented to public transit became commonplace in North America during the 1920s. Although Joel Hurt’s first project was intended for the large mansions of the extremely wealthy, it became mainly a home for middle class families in bungalows or single adults in sub-divided houses. Many other middle class suburban towns developed along Atlanta’s extensive electric railway system. In addition, old towns, such as Smyrna, GA where actress Julia Roberts grew up, essentially became streetcar suburbs. They all had the same “look” as New Urbanism . . . gables, high pitched roofs, front porches, sidewalks along the streets, narrow side yards and shallow front yards. Most were in walking distance of neighborhood retail stores and trolley car stops.
The extremely wealthy during the Roaring 20’s generally preferred to live in locations where street cars did not make their neighborhood highly accessible by middle and lower class citizens. Their automobile oriented estates represented the beginning of North America’s shift to automobile dependency.
Architects and Landscape Architects continued to ponder the ideal form of growth for cities. The concepts of the Olmsteads were refined and expanded to be a model for entire towns. This is known as the Garden City Movement. There were several such communities built around London and a few in the United States. The best known Garden City is Greenbelt, Maryland just outside the District of Columbia. Initially, it did not have the extensive electric railway service of the communities that Joel Hurt built, because by the mid-20th century, electric trolleys were becoming viewed as old-fashioned. Today, though, it is fully served by the Washington, DC Metro System. Greenbelt has aged gracefully and is still a highly desirable place to live.
Newtowns: The Garden City movement evolved into the Newtown Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Garden Cities were no longer large villages at the urban edge, but now large cities built on massive, isolated tracts of land far away from any transit service. The reason was that land values made it impossible to assemble large tracts at the urban edge. The newtowns that were actually built tended to be just supersized, and architecturally, refined versions of standard suburbs. They were automobile-dependent and really represented a different concept than Joel Hurt’s electric railway communities. These will be discussed in a future series.
Seaside, Florida: Nowadays, most books and encyclopedias state that the first authentic New Urbanism community was Seaside, Florida on the Gulf Coast. It was a retirement and vacation home community that was constructed much more densely than typical Florida developments of the late 20th century. The first phase of construction began in 1983. It also had many architectural features that harkened back to early 20th century America. It also had one aspect that was NOT generally present in most American communities during that era . . . mandatory architectural design standards. Olmstead’s design covenants for Druid Hills were unusal.
The first few blocks of Seaside received extensive publicity in the professional design media, which eventually got it publicity in the mainstream media. The reporters were impressed by the mandatory front porches, narrow yards, small rear yards and commercial areas that resembled the stage sets of the movie, Back to the Future. The project was hailed as a major step toward construction of energy efficient communities. The combination of unique architecture, social amenities and national publicity caused Seaside to grow rapidly throughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Many more projects like Seaside, were begun in other parts of the Sunbelt. “Progressive” developers saw the New Urbanism as a way to increase profits per acre for projects, by increasing the number of sales and decreasing the utility infrastructure costs per unit. Architects hailed the compatible details and paint color schemes of the project and urged their clients to do the same. By 2000 there were at least some projects in almost every state and province of North America that contained at least some New Urbanism traits.
As the concept of New Urbanism spread around the country, it often became watered down. Often, the newer developments did not fully incorporate the full intent of the Charter of New Urbanism. Increasingly, developers viewed New Urbanism as just another design fad. From their perspective, for a new development to be New Urban, in only needed to contain buildings with something like historical architectural styles, side walks and front porches.
Smyrna, GA: Smyrna was a former antebellum crossroads hamlet turned streetcar suburb, turned a forgettable suburb with no downtown. During the 1990s the city’s leaders hired the highly respected firm of Sizemore and Floyd to design a series of public and commercial buildings that would create a new downtown in the spirit of New Urbanism. They also hired a free-thinking urban designer, who has lately written articles for the Examiner, to be their planning consultant. Once the public buildings and first block of New Urbanism type houses were completed, Smyrna sponsored or encouraged mixed use New Urbanism developments at several locations throughout the city. Perhaps more than any other existing city in the nation, Smyrna completely adopted the New Urbanism Charter as its mandate for the future. It was rewarded for that commitment about a decade ago by being named the Downtown Revitalization Program of the Year, by the Urban Land Institute.
Things didn’t go quite as planned in the subsequent decade. There is no doubt of the remarkable economic success of Smyrna. It is now the home of many corporate giants such as Home Depot and the Glock Firearms Company. However, success brought with it a steady erosion of the city’s 1990ish New Urbanism idealism. During the past two decades the city has LOST most of the houses constructed during the era when it was a streetcar suburb. In other words, the success of adopting a New Urbanism planning approach has destroyed the elements of the city, which inspired the New Urbanism Movement. Seven story supersized versions of townhouses with massive asphalt parking lots have replaced bungalows with front porches and massive oak trees for shade. There is a great deal of irony in all that.
In our final article of this series we will give an objective Examiner look at the pros and cons of the New Urbanism developments in North America.