There Goes the Neighborhood

I mentioned two blogs ago that I’m a fan of New Urbanism. Unfortunately there are a lot of critics claiming it to be a failure, or at least not nearly as successful as hoped by its adherents. I’d like to offer my own critique, but first a very brief overview on the topic.

New Urbanism is the movement towards re-envisioning our built environment as integrated, walkable communities not unlike those before the suburban explosion of the Post-WWII era. It focuses on more compact and dense neighborhoods throughout small towns and big cities. It is an attempt to curb pollution and global warming by reducing dependency on cars; an attempt to reduce crime by keeping more eyes on the street through mixed uses, personal investment and involvement in the neighborhood and the fostering of a sense of community; an attempt to offer a range of housing types for all incomes; and an attempt to liberate children, the elderly and others without automobile access. Many also prefer the aesthetics of the traditional town – like Savannah, GA; Georgetown, D.C.; Chestnut Hill (Philadelphia, PA); and Beacon Hill (Boston, MA) to name a few.

This is being followed in three primary forms – redevelopment, in-fill development and new towns. Redevelopment is the re-use of existing buildings in our cities and towns which are no longer being used for their primary purpose or have become derelict. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these projects no matter what part of the country you live in. Old warehouses being turned into studios, lofts or luxury apartments with retail and/or office space on the ground level. Old department stores have found the same use, among other structures. In-fill development occurs in those empty spaces between developed parcels. Perhaps there’s a gap between an existing downtown and a nearby hospital. That vacant land may become another mixed-use development with apartments over offices and shops. Then there are new towns, designed and zoned to allow similar mixed-use properties surrounded by small-lot, single-family housing.

The most visible are often the new towns. They really tend not to be towns at all, but “town centers” set amid largely suburbanized areas that have no real center, downtown or main street. These are the ones targeted by critics as evidence of the failure of new urbanism. Such critics are half correct in their assessment. These new towns are trying to grow communities by fiat which had been grown organically generations ago. Before mixed-use, traditional town models were outlawed by most zoning codes, the towns which new urbanists try to mimic developed naturally over time due to the needs of the community as a whole. By trying to force the rapid development of something which does not grow rapidly in nature, these town centers are often viewed as artistic experiments in hippie town planning. However, what the detractors fail to notice is that there is a very real interest in such places. Usually a small group of people move to these centers and open up shop. In suburbia – not the natural habitat of people who prefer towns – that’s a success, albeit a small one.

In-fill development is perhaps the least visible of the three. We’ve all passed by a vacant lot (enormous or tiny) between existing development for years and then quickly glance at the construction crews that break ground on some new project. If it’s a large project – like a new school, civic center, or any other large project – it doesn’t really fall into the category of new urbanism. Once again we come to the requirement of mixed use. In my own city there’s an empty area just up the street from the large area hospital which is finishing up stage one of it’s mixed use project. High-end apartments (1 to 3 bedrooms) above shops and offices. Starbucks is already open there, waiting for the tenants to move in and buy their wake-up juice. I’ve noticed in a few metropolitan regions that these apartments tend to get rented out relatively quickly. The shops and offices take a little more time, but I’ve been noticing fairly rapid movement. They may be small businesses, boutiques and artsy-fartsy shops, and the apartments tend to be expensive so critics have railed against that as a failure to achieve new urbanism’s stated goal of a variety of housing types for all incomes. I’ll get back to that later.

Then there are the redevelopment projects. Once again, in the realm of new urbanism this should focus on pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use redevelopment. Older warehouses, department stores, hotels, etc being converted to apartments or apartments and offices/shops nearby and within walking distance of older neighborhoods are becoming common across this great country of ours. Because these buildings may hold identities in the collective memories of the citizens they are more noticeable than the in-fill development mentioned above. Once again, these tend to be on the higher end of the affordability spectrum. Once again critics rail against it as a failure. More on that to come.

In-fill and redevelopment sometimes aren’t considered new urbanism. Perhaps a more accurate term would be urban husbandry – the care of the urban fabric. (The term was coined by Roberta Brandes Gratz.) But a lot of these urban husbandry projects have come to fruition due to the new urbanism movement. Although new urbanism focuses on the discipline of urban planning and architecture whereas urban husbandry focuses on community advocacy, they really are partners with the same end goal – livable communities.

One of the biggest arguments of the critics is that suburbia is the choice of the people – they’ve selected it with their wallets over new urbanism. I beg to differ. Mixed-use development had been outlawed for so long that any new community built had to be in the familiar suburban model since the 1950s. And one of the reasons these new urbanist properties are expensive is due to a limited supply trying to accommodate a larger DEMAND! If there were no demand, the prices would drop significantly. And as the stronger example of success in new urbanism comes from redevelopment and in-fill projects, precisely where the existing urban fabric from generations ago already exists, I believe that the movement has much stronger legs than its detractors claim. But, much like the walkable, pedestrian-friendly cities and towns it tries to follow, new urbanism must be allowed to grow organically. The movement is only twenty years old, give or take. The suburban expansion had gone unchecked for over seventy years before municipalities began to allow mixed-use zoning once again. It will take time to see what the new urbanism can achieve.

I for one am happy to be a proponent of new urbanism. However, I don’t think it should be forced upon anyone. Zoning should allow for mixed-use development at higher densities which would support mass transit; it shouldn’t mandate it as the only option. More options mean more freedom! Plus, even though I’m an anti-social, moody son of a bitch, I like living in a neighborhood with plenty of people, on a bus line to get me almost anywhere I need to go in this fine city. I feel connected to a larger community living where I live, loner that I am. Who knows what our cities and towns will look like in the future – but who’s to say they shouldn’t be allowed to look and feel like they did back in the day.

Recommended Reading

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
This gives a great history of suburbia and the new urbanism movement trying to offer an alternative. Duany and Plater-Zyberk are two of the leading urban planners and founders of the movement.

The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe
If you’re feeling nerdy and want to see something a little more technical (but still readable) on the topic, this is the book for you.

Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania by Thomas Hylton
This is the one that started me on my new urbanism path. It’s beautifully written and photographed. Even though Hylton is focused on Pennsylvania, it can be applied to any state.

Cities Back From the Edge by Roberta Brandes Gratz
This is a great book about the philosophy of urban husbandry. You can see clearly how well it correlates with the new urbanism.

The New Urbansim by Peter Katz
A great coffee table book with lots of pictures of new urbanism projects in America and Canada. Also a good conversation starter.

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