The New Urbanism Challenges Conventional Planning

The New Urbanism has captured the imagination of the American public like no urban planning movement in decades. Amid great fanfare, New Urbanists are seeking to redefine the nature of the American metropolis by reintroducing traditional notions of neighborhood design and fitting those ideas into a variety of urban and suburban settings.

The New Urbanism began as a reaction to conventional suburban planning as it has been practiced in the United States since the 1940s. New Urbanists view the decentralized, auto-oriented suburb as a recipe for disaster. They blame these suburbs for ever-increasing congestion on arterial roads, a lack of meaningful civic life, the loss of open space, limited opportunities for children and others without cars, and a general discontent among suburbanites.

As the latest in a long line of reform movements that have sought to establish new planning and design principles that may be applied to metropolitan areas and, especially, to new suburban neighborhoods, the New Urbanism owes much to the City Beautiful and Garden City movements of the early twentieth century. The “neotraditional” view of urban planning that began in the early 1980s with the widely publicized new town of Seaside, Florida, has since matured into the New Urbanism movement of the 1990s.

Many different sets of planning and design principles are circulating around the New Urbanism banner, but most definitions include the following ideas:

  • walkable neighborhoods oriented around the five-minute walk;
  • primary orientation around public transit systems;
  • greater integration of different types of land uses at the neighborhood level.

In addition, most New Urbanists claim to be committed to the concepts of strong citizen participation, affordable housing, and social and economic diversity, though these ideas do not fit so neatly onto a list of neighborhood design characteristics. In its rhetoric, the New Urbanism strives for a kind of utopian social ideal, although most New Urbanists focus on a community’s physical infrastructure in the belief that community design can create or influence particular social patterns.

Promises and Problems

The New Urbanism is still in its infancy, and there remains a great deal of skepticism about what its proponents seek to achieve. Although millions of Americans live in “old urban” neighborhoods, fewer than 2,000 live in new neighborhoods built strictly according to New Urbanist principles. Many critics believe that, while the New Urbanism contains many attractive ideas, it may have difficulty dealing with a wide range of contemporary issues that generally fall into five broad categories: scale, transportation, planning and codes, regionalism, and marketing.

Scale: The traditional neighborhoods that the New Urbanists hope to replicate are characterized by compactness, small scale and diversity of building types. But, increasingly, the economic and lifestyle demands of urban and even suburban life seem to require facilities on a massive scale, such as big-box retailers and their industrial equivalents. Many New Urbanists concede that large-scale operations will inevitably be auto-oriented, but they still claim their ideas can work for smaller-scale retailers.

Transportation: Transportation is perhaps the most contentious single aspect of the New Urbanism, which is often “sold” to public officials based on its supposed transportation benefits. Assertions such as reduced dependence on the automobile, increased transit use, shorter trips, and a more flexible hierarchy of streets make common sense, but they are not yet backed up by much empirical evidence. Perhaps the best that can be said is that New Urbanist ideas may be a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition to change the way people travel.

Planning and Codes: New Urbanists often criticize American development codes as perpetuating suburbia’s auto-oriented nature. Codes regarding segregated land uses, street widths, setbacks and other requirements are often the province of local officials, such as fire chiefs and traffic engineers, who are loathe to change them. Some New Urbanists have worked successfully with code enforcers to find common ground in order to permit unconventional projects to proceed, yet, many aspects of planning and codes remain incompatible and contentious.

Regionalism: New Urbanists have struggled to move the public perception of their movement beyond the simple idea of designing suburban neighborhoods toward focusing on metropolitan areas. Proponents and critics alike fear that widespread application of the movement’s design principles apart from a regional context may simply cause suburban sprawl to be replaced by “New Urban” sprawl. Many New Urbanists advocate urban and suburban redevelopment and infill projects, and some have expressed support for such regulatory tools as urban growth boundaries.

Marketing: Many previous reform movements in urban planning have failed because their ideas did not enjoy widespread acceptance in the marketplace, and New Urbanism is facing a similar challenge. Real estate marketing experts say that many New Urbanist projects proceeded with little market research because the developers (who were New Urbanist devotees themselves) simply believed the idea would sell itself. Now they see that selling New Urbanism requires at least as much marketing effort as selling a conventional subdivision. New Urbanists have also learned the hard way that the promise of a diversified community, with many types and prices of homes, retail stores within walking distance, and other community amenities, requires a highly sophisticated effort to bring all the components “on line” in the right sequence.

A Powerful Idea

Although it is often advertised as a panacea, the New Urbanism is only one alternative to suburban sprawl. It will probably function most successfully in a broader planning context that may include significant investments in transit, incentives to reinvest in the inner city, and disincentives to build at the metropolitan fringe.

At the same time, it is important to appreciate the power of the New Urbanism as an idea. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this movement is that it promotes a positive image of “town life” that includes the public as well as the private realm. In a world where a “lack of community” is often blamed for many social ills, this is no small achievement.

 

William Fulton is editor of California Planning and Development Report, contributing editor of Planning magazine, and a member of the Lincoln Institute Editorial Advisory Committee. This article is excerpted in part from the Lincoln Institute Policy Focus Report, The New Urbanism.

Community Development, Land Use, Planning, Regionalism, Suburban, Transportation, Urban Design, Urban Sprawl
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