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Guest Editorial
by Robert Steuteville, New Urban News

The New Urbanism Challenges Modern Automobile-Oriented Planning and Development

Through the first quarter of this century, the United States was developed in neighborhood units. Large and small cities, towns and villages built up to that time consist of a compact grid of streets and blocks with a mix of housing types, commercial and civic uses. Humanscale and well suited for pedestrians and social interaction, these neighborhoods are energy-efficient and have stood the test of time.

The pattern began to change about 75 years ago with the emergence of modern archi- tecture and zoning and ascension of the auto- mobile. The Great Depression and World

War II put a stop to major residential development for 15 years, so the real impact of these forces on community planning and form was not evident until the late 1940s. At that point, a new system of development was implemen- ted nationwide, replacing neighborhoods with a rigorous separation of uses that has become known as conventional suburban development (CSD), or sprawl.

CSD assumes a car or truck will be used for nearly all human transportation.  Lacking a town center or pedestrian scale, CSD spreads out to consume large areas of countryside even as population grows relatively slowly. Those who cannot drive are severely hampered in their mobility, while poor people are forced to spend a large portion of their incomes on cars.

Automobile use per capita has steadily risen as suburbia has taken over the  American landscape. The majority of U.S. citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, CSD has dominated new development in historic cities and towns, rending the urban fabric with strip malls, auto-oriented civic and commercial buildings, and garage-dominated streetscapes. Outside of the U.S., CSD has been exported worldwide, with similar destructed impact on landscape and society.

The New Urbanism is a reaction to the all-consuming sprawl. A growing movement of architects, planners and developers, the New Urbanism is based on the belief that a return to traditional neighborhood patterns is essential to restoring functional, sustainable communities.

Still in its infancy, the trend is beginning to have an impact. About 150 new towns, villages and neighborhoods have been planned in the U.S., using principles of the New Urbanism, and at least 75 are under construction.  Moreover, many small "infill" projects and comprehensive municipal plans are employing principles of the New Urbanism  such as interconnected street networks, town centers, mixes of uses and housing types, and humanscaled design.

Moreover, the New Urbanism is beginning to have widespread impact on conventional development. Just as Starbucks raised the quality of coffee in competing restaurants and cafes, mainstream developers are adopted some new urbanist design elements such as garages in the rear of homes, neighborhood greens and mixed-use town centers. Projects which adopt some principles of New Urbanism but remain largely conventional in design are known as hybrids.

The New Urbanism trend goes by other names, including neotraditional design, transit-oriented development (TOD) and traditional neighborhood development (TND). Borrowing from urban design concepts throughout history, true TND does not merely replicate old communities. New houses within neighborhoods, for example, must provide modern living spaces and amenities that consumers demand (and that competing suburban tract homes offer). Stores and businesses must have adequate parking. TND offers parking on the street and in smaller lots to the side and rear of shops and workplaces. Town centers must accommodate modern stores, including national chains and large retailers.

That blending of old and new is the basis of the term neotraditional, and represents what is new about the New Urbanism. Successful New Urbanism performs a difficult balancing act by maintaining the integrity of a walkable, humanscale neighborhood while offering the modern residential and commercial "product" to compete with CSD. The difficulty of this balancing act is one reason why many developers choose to build hybrids, instead of adopting all of the principles of the New Urbanism. Some new urbanists think that hybrids pose a serious threat to the movement, because they usually borrow the label and language of the New Urbanism. Other new urbanists believe that hybrids represent a positive step forward from CSD.

San Diego's Uptown District is a New Urbanist
project, featured in this issue's UnSprawl section.

Photo by S. Buntin.

Principles of the New Urbanism

There are numerous statements of "prin- ciples" cited by new urbanists, including the lengthy Charter of the New Urbanism, which addresses social issues, regionalism and transit in addition to neighborhood design. The heart of the New Urbanism is in the design of neighborhoods, and there is no clearer description than the 13 points developed by town planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. An authentic neighborhood contains most of these elements:

  1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square of a green, and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 2,000 feet.
  3. There is a variety of dwelling types  usually houses, rowhouses and apartments so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  4. There are shops and offices at the edge of the neighborhood, of sufficiently varies types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building is permitted within the backyard of each house.  It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (e.g. office or craft workshop).
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
  7. There are small playgrounds near every dwelling  not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  8. The streets within the neighborhood are a connected network, providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination, which disperses traffic.
  9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a strong sense of place.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, religion or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security and physical change.

Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

New Urbanist Prototypes

Seaside, Florida, the first modern TND, began development in 1981 on 80 acres of Panhandle coastline. Seaside appeared on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in 1988 when only a few streets were completed, and it since became internationally famous  serving as the set for the hit 1998 movie The Truman Show. Seaside proved that developments that function like traditional towns could be built in the postmodern era. Designed by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Seaside has been very successful investment for developer Robert Davis and early homebuyers. Lots began selling for $15,000 in the early 1980s and, slightly over a decade later, the last lots sold for close to $200,000. The town is now a tourist mecca.

Seaside's influence has less to do with its economic success than a certain magic and dynamism related to its physical form. Duany and Plater-Zyberk studies the best historic cities and towns and came up with a formula combining art and know-how  to create a great place. Many developers have visited Seaside and gone away determined to build something similar, and a few are succeeding.

Since Seaside gained recognition, other neotraditional towns have been designed and substantially built  including Haile Village Center in Gainesville, Florida; Harbor Town in Memphis, Tennessee; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland; Laguna West in Sacramento, California; and Northwest Landing in Dupont, Washington.

Meanwhile, designers began to use the principles of the New Urbanism to revitalize cities and towns. The new urbanists are working a renewed ambition and willingness to employ traditional architecture and planning in urban areas. In the meantime, leading new urbanists like Peter Calthorpe, Ray Gindroz, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk gained the confidence of municipal authorities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). New urbanist projects built in historic cities and towns includes Crawford Square in Pittsburgh, Pleasant View Gardens in Baltimore and the downtown of Port Royal, South Carolina.

Celebration, Florida:  A Feet- Friendly, Functional Downtown.
Photo by S. Buntin.
Disney Builds a Town

In June of 1996, Disney unveiled its town of Celebration, near Orlando, Florida, and it has since eclipsed Seaside as the best-known TND. Celebration is big  about 5,000 acres, and will eventually have 20,000 residents. Half of the land will remain open space.

In some respects, New Urbanism and Disney have been uncomfortable bedfellows.  While using designers and principles closely associated with the New Urbanism, Disney has shunned the label, preferring to call Celebration simply a "town."  Meanwhile, the movement has benefited from all of Celebration's publicity and its aesthetic and functional success  but not without a price. Disney has come under attack for what some perceive as heavy- handed rules and management.  For those who would attack New Urbanism as insipid nostalgia, Disney is a fat target.

However, Celebration's community design serves most residents well. "The entire focus of our lives has changed," says homeowner Ray Chiaramonte.  "Instead of doing everything some place other than close to home, we now can eat, do errands, celebrate special occasions and just hang out near our own home. The changes are most dramatic for our children, who now have a  freedom they never had in our old neighborhood."

In the book Edge City, author Joel Garreau wrote that Americans have not built "a single oldstyle downtown from raw dirt in 75 years." Celebration may be the first real estate project to break that trend, opening its substantially built downtown in October, 1996. Other TNDs like Seaside, Haile Village Center and Harbor Town are following suit.

But the new urbanists still have plenty to prove. They must design and build viable retail centers to compete with CSD nationwide  not just in a few projects. They must capture a broad portion of the residential market. TND developers must find ways to offer homes at reasonable prices. New urbanists also must prove, over time, that their ideas are superior for both revitalizing old cities and towns and building new communities.

If they can accomplish those goals, and early projects offer hope that they can, the New Urbanism is poised to become the dominant real estate and planning trend of the next century.


Robert Steuteville is editor and publisher of New Urban News, a newsletter for professionals, public officials, and citizens interested in the New Urbanism and neotraditional development. Mr. Steuteville and the publication can be reached at New Urban News, P.O. Box 6515, Ithaca, NY 14851. (607) 275-3087.
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