Is New Urbanism really what it says it is?
First, let’s compare New Urbanism to its European cousin, the Urban Village movement. In reality, the Urban Village movement of northern Europe is a grass roots value of the majority of those nations’ citizens. Planners and architects in those nations began actualizing those social and esthetic values in the 1960s, but the general public supported those new concepts. The example given of the pedestrian village project in southern Sweden in our previous article is typical. Scandinavians have a long tradition of democratic involvement in the community development process. They wanted changes and they got changes.
The closest thing the Urban Village movement has to a “high priest” or “chief spokesman” is Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles began criticizing the sterile and transient nature of modern British architecture in the 1980s. He developed a list of criteria, which he labels sustainability. These criteria address site planning details, architectural style and building materials. A major complaint of Prince Charles is that modernist architecture is faddish and constructed with poorly performing materials with a short life expectancy.
Many architects around the UK whined that a member of the royal family knew nothing about architecture and urban design so he should keep to his own royal business of feeding the tabloids. However, Prince Charles was merely articulating the feelings of the majority of British citizens. They disliked what the government planners were planning and the architects were designing. British architects are often viewed as elitists, who are out of touch with the mainstream of the nation. Unlike Scandinavia, however, the British citizenry had less political power to force changes. His Royal Majesty gave them that power. Both the media and British architects complain about the Prince’s heavy handed methods for censuring architectural designs. For example, Prince Charles threatened to resign from the presidency of the UK’s National Trust AND to cease the Royal family’s substantial monetary contributions, if it didn’t change the modernist design for its new headquarters.
Not only has Prince Charles’ constant chiding of the development community sparked both positive and angry responses, but he himself put his money, where his mouth was. His family run business has developed projects that were more sustainable and traditional in style than typical of the UK today. The best known is the Poundsbury development in Cornwall.
New Urbanism has a sense of a religious revival around it. If the Urban Village movement can be characterized as, “That’s how we’uns do it ‘round chere Mr. Big City Architect!” – New Urbanism would be a gospel choir at a revival singing, “O come followers of iniquity! Be saved by doing it our way!” This religious revival aspect is nothing new in the history of urban planning movements in the United States. It began in the late 1800s with the efforts to clean up the slums of large Northeastern cities, and continued with the City Beautiful movement, the Garden City movement, the Newtown movement and now the New Urbanism movement.
Where would North Americans prefer to live if given a complete range of choices? That is a very good question, and probably has as many answers as the number of citizens questioned.
Proponents of New Urbanism have harked the positive qualities of their communities so often in the first decade of the 21st century that the media typically took the message as fact. No matter the location or the specific characteristics of a project, reporters today generally present New Urbanism projects as the solutions to all of North America’s urban development problems, We will take a look at the major claims by New Urbanism advocates and put them to the Examiner Test!
· New Urbanism communities offer a more efficient use of undeveloped land.
Answer: Yes, a community that contains an average of 4-8 dwelling units per acre is a more efficient use of land than one averaging 1-3 dwelling units per acre.
· New Urbanism communities reduce the cost of urban infrastructures such as roads and utilities.
Answer: Potentially, yes, but the final answer is also dependent on the location of the project. If a project is constructed in a vacant tract bypassed by developed, it definitely reduces the demand for constructing new roads, water mains and trunk sewers. If a New Urbanism is developed in an isolated tract beyond the urban fringe, it would require just as much new regional infrastructure and conventional developments. Within the community itself the total quantity of road paving, water line lengths and sewer lengths would be reduced.
Projects such as Seaside, however, have a much greater impact on the hydrology of a region. Almost 100% of the land surface becomes impermeable to rain water. This accelerates stormwater runoff rate, thus requiring larger storm sewers and catchment basins.
· New Urbanism communities reduce the demand for electricity as compared to conventional residential communities.
Answer: Definitely no, especially in the Sun Belt. In order to increase housing density, developers eliminate most of the large shade trees that are typical of low density neighborhoods. The New Urbanism community is a heat sink that absorbs solar energy. During the warm months, residents of many New Urbanism developments must use substantially more electrical power to cool their homes than homes of comparative size that are shaded trees and have large grass lawns.
· New Urbanism commercial centers are a continuation of traditional development patterns prior to the late 20th century switch to automobile oriented development patterns.
Answer: In most cases, yes or almost: Small cities and towns in North America relied almost totally on on-street parking next to the sidewalk throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The advent of shopping centers changed the pattern to parking lots. Some New Urbanism communities have a mixture of on-street and off-street parking. Others only have off-street parking. In general, though, the commercial buildings in New Urbanism communities have shared side walls and rear service alleys like late 19th century commercial districts.
· New Urbanism residential neighborhoods are a continuation of traditional development patterns prior to the late 20th century switch to automobile oriented development patterns.
Answer: In most developments – No! If you look at recent birds-eye photographs of the large New Urbanism communities there is a view of seemingly endless roofs. Most American cities did not have citywide expanses of framed houses with no shade trees. Shade trees, schools, churches, major thoroughfares, parks, canals, and railroad rights-of-way punctuated the landscape and defined neighborhoods.
Smaller New Urbanism developments, especially the heavily landscaped ones in South Carolina, do resemble the Battery neighborhood in Charleston. It had denser develelopment near the water’s edge. However, most of the houses in Charleston and Savannah were masonry, not wood framed. This was done to reduce the hazard of fires spreading.
This criticism is especially valid for New Urbanism developments on the Gulf and South Atlantic Coasts. In coastal towns of the Southeast, houses were traditionally separated sufficiently to allow breezes to blow through the neighborhood, and also heavily planted with Live Oak trees for shade. In New Orleans middle and upper class houses had side courtyards which were shaded by their neighbor’s house. The only traditional streetscapes in the Southeast that resembled Seaside, were considered slums by the middle/upper class residents of towns.
· The architecture of the New Urbanism communities is a continuation of traditional architectural styles prior to the late 20th century switch to automobile oriented development patterns.
Answer: It depends on where the community is located. New Urbanism communities in the Middle Atlantic and New England states tend to mimic Georgian and Federal style townhouses that were common in those regions in the 1700s and first half of the 19th century.
The New Urbanism residential developments in Smyrna, GA bore no resemblance whatsoever to the traditional architecture of its locale. Its region has no tradition of building Federal or Victorian style townhouses. After Smyrna became a street car suburb, most new houses were either Craftsmen, eclectic bungalows or Spanish Colonial Revival styles. All houses were detached on spacious yards with large trees.
The New Urbanism communities on South Carolina’s coast utilize authentic South Carolina coastal architecture. Such planned developments as Newpoint near Beaufort and I’on near Mt. Pleasant also reduced the typical New Urbanism housing density sufficiently to allow preservation of some existing trees and planting of new trees and lawns.
For the most part, the architecture of the New Urbanism communities along the Gulf Coast of Florida bear no resemblance to traditional Southeastern Coastal Plain architecture. Seaside’s architecture can best be described as eclectic, late 19th century New England coastal cottages, painted white or pastel. The traditional residential architecture of the Gulf Coast and Georgia’s Coastal Plain resembled bungalows on tall brick piers; and for a good reason. They were designed to maximize the flow of air around and through the house, while shading most vertical walls. The piers kept floodwaters and poisonous snakes out, and provided a comfortable home for yard chickens. Floridians always preserved any Live Oak near the house to shade it.
· New Urbanism communities provide healthier social environments as compared to conventional suburban developments because of their front porches and shallow front yards.
Answer: That is a claim that was also made in the 1970s by proponents of the Newtown movement. The argument is that the closer one is to other humans, the more social interaction occurs. It is one that is difficult to prove or disprove because the residents of New Urbanism communities are not drawn from a random sample of all American citizens. Also, defining what is “healthy” is relativistic to personal lifestyle choices, socioeconomic status and ethnic backgrounds. One household or individual might find such a community ideal for their desired lifestyle, while another would be generally miserable.
For example, a couple transplanted from a midrise in Manhattan might find living in Newpoint, South Carolina practically like a living in the country, while a family that formerly lived in a log cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan might be crawling the walls; desperate to see woods and wild animals. Humans have varying levels of tolerance for crowding, whether or not there is a front porch on the house. Once a threshold of forced human contact is reached, the individual tends to retreat to a private space where all human contacts can be controlled.
New Urbanism is not a revolutionary approach to urban development, but rather a slightly modified continuance of ideas that were promoted by such people as Frederick Law Olmstead and Joel Hurt over a century ago. Applications of its principals are likely to continue under some label for the foreseeable future. However, the interpretation of New Urbanism as a strategy to achieve the ambiance of European cities is likely to be frustrated in most areas of North America, unless the communities already have a comprehensive public transit network in place.
Even if certain communities are able to emulate their European counterparts, they can never really quite be the same, because both the United States and Canada continue to be dependent on the automobile for most inter-urban and regional transportation. Even if one rides a bus or electric rail transit to work, there are very few regularly scheduled buses or light rail systems that can take up travelers to the mountains for the weekend.