Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Urbanism: Very Misunderstood

Frank Gruber of the Huffington Post wrote a reflective article about why New Urbanism is so misunderstood as he is about to take part of the 17th Annual Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). The article gives a great refresher to those that are not familiar with the concept of New Urbanism and then dives into the opposing critiques that some have over this relatively new concept.

Gruber states:

"Well, to begin with, New Urbanists are attacked from both sides of America's cultural divide. Chances are, if you mention New Urbanism to group of forward thinking, contemporary design professionals, whether architects or planners, they will roll their eyes. To them New Urbanism, because so many of its practitioners make their livings designing new towns and developments outside of existing cities, is a facilitator of sprawl, not a solution. Then, because many of these towns and developments feature traditional architecture, New Urbanism is hopelessly nostalgic.

But if you find yourself among a group of conservatives or libertarians, such as Randal O'Toole of the Independence Institutes's Center for the American Dream, and who writes for the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and you mention New Urbanism, you'll just as likely unleash a denunciation on the grounds that New Urbanism aims to thwart the natural desire of Americans to live in a single-family house on a cul-de-sac. "

My view would definitely fit within the former and certainly do not agree with the latter half of that quote. Sometimes I feel bad for the New Urbanists because I feel their concepts gets co-opted by others who dub bad developments as "New Urbanist" projects to get them approved or sell. On the other hand though, the founders of New Urbanism have built more New Urbanist projects in suburban locales than urban ones. Whether this is just a function of suburban locales having more funds to do a New Urbanist project or just fewer obstacles to get the project done, could be the reason for this disparity.

While many contemporary design professionals think New Urbanism is a facilitator of sprawl, I somewhat disagree. As a planner who's districts covers urban, suburban and rural locales, I think New Urbanist projects can be a positive influence for suburban developments. No matter how much as planners that we dislike sprawl, it is going to happen. I'd rather have a suburban development that is centered with a focus and a grid pattern than an amorphous blob of tract housing that lacks any focal point.

My main beef with New Urbanism is implementation. It's great to have guiding principles but actually putting them in place deals with political, social and economic issues that New Urbanism tends to try to duck away from. My belief is that the bad urban form or our cities and suburbs comes from populations always trying to seek separation from others who have different political, social and economic values. The built form of where the people who seek separation reflects that. Unless we deal those barriers first we will always have communities who seek to rid sidewalks, build streets for cars over the needs of people and seek land use layout that fortify inhabitants from the outside world rather then welcome it. Until that happens you will always have those who state the natural desire for Americans is a suburban cul-de-sac.

What are your thoughts?


Eric Orozco said...

I'm all about the main goals of New Urbanism (with gusto, but with a heavy Jane Jacobs orientation admittedly). But...I don't comprehend yet the "Transect", which, it seems to me at least, is still a kind of zoning based on atomized and idealized conceptions of cities...To me the Transect doesn't address how cities actually behave and need to function to belong near a period that we call "our generation". To me, New Urbanists have this strange uber-obsession with wanting to sort things. All this sorting. Perceptually categorizing everything to death(this tree belongs to T1, this lamp post to T2, etc, etc). Instead of sorting uses, we have to make up for it by sorting forms ...Sometimes I just wanna yell out: Can't everybody chill out JUST a little with the sorting? We actually do have to think about form and use more integrally and carefully here!

I'm a New Urbanist, but I'm also highly critical of certain strange obsessions the movement seems to waste its time with. I think the main thing most New Urbanists could benefit from is heightening a sensitivity to transformation... that critical fourth dimension. We idealize formal states, avoiding thus careful thinking about use, and therefore we don't think in terms of cycles...about the dynamic processes and idiosyncratic or temporal needs of a city, the energies and entropies of its economies.

My frustration seems to be that most of my New Urbanist brethren, when it comes down to it, actually don't really trust Urbanism and contextual design solutions. (New Urbanists like to think they are "contextual", but the vast majority are very formulaic I've observed...If I see another pattern book I swear!).

And, exactly right, we just haven't figured out that critical implementation piece. That we have to address by thinking hard about the process of value creation. Developers seek predictable outcomes, and the Transect shall remain a special problem to them until we find ways to understand and communicate "Market Urbanism".

Kirk Mantay said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. But the intersections of the geographic, geometric, and in some cases, cultural differences in opinion about "what does a functional neighborhood look like" are very complex.

And as long as better public schools exist in the suburbs, than exist within the City, that mess will never become entangled.

Take a standard upper blue collar / lower white collar couple who really enjoy neighborhoods, city life, and community.

No matter how much they enjoy urban living, if they have a child, and they can't get her/him into a charter school or afford private school.....if they have any mobility at all, they'll be moving to the County.

If for no other reason than the fact that they will be profoundly disturbed at the "violation of the community" aka the old standard "violation of the public trust," that occurs daily in city schools with the brandishing of weapons, drugs, etc.

Toure Zeigler said...

Eric, I agree with you about sorting things. I understand it's purpose but it's actually difficult to implement and it forces planners to make a lot of difficult choices in coding an existing environment. Often times Ive seen planners cop out and make up in between codes which strangely just end up looking like the old zoning code.

I also think you make a very good point about the cyclical nature of development. In older cities, a building may be used for 3 or 4 different land uses over it's building history.

Toure Zeigler said...

Swamg Thing, the status of inner city schools will always dictate the way of life and disparity for our city and suburbs. Our fair city of Baltimore has the greatest gap between city and suburban graduation rates out of any big city in the country. Only 30% of city high school kids are graduating. Until there is a new guiding principle for schools, New Urbanism can only go so far...or will help those who don't need it and do nothing for the city's underclass.