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What Is New Urbanism?
Peter Simex | DM Magazine

 

Rendering of Dallas Midtown, the planned new development on the site of the Valley View Mall

The Congress for the New Urbanism is holding its 26th annual conference in Dallas this week, a four-day festivity for city wonks that includes compelling conversations ranging from “The Paradox of Place-Based Coding: Expanding the Discussion of Regulatory Reform” to “The Art of Subdivision.” Needless to say, I wish I could disappear into the bowels of conceptual urbanity over the next half-week, but we’re on deadline for the June edition and I have too many words left to type.

 

Still, I wanted to use the excuse of the conference to briefly address this idea of “New Urbanism.”

 

If you have been paying attention to conversations about Dallas and its development over the past decade or so, you’ve likely come across the term before. Generally speaking, it is used to describe the kinds of developments or city building projects that promote all of those things we’ve come to associate almost unquestionably with good city-building practices: walkability, sustainability, mixed-use, density, transit-oriented, etc. Depending on whether you are talking to a developer’s marketing team or a bearded, bike-riding urbanite, New Urbanism might be summed up as “Live, Work, Play” or “human-scaled city building.”

 

In fact, one of the problems I see with New Urbanism is that everything from the stage-set-style West Village to the glorified strip mall with apartments called “Sylvan Thirty” can claim some affinity with New Urbanist principals no matter how much these projects are, in reality, 20thcentury development schemes wearing urban lipstick. The varying success and so many contemporary-style “pedestrian-friendly” developments suggests that there is good deal of elasticity in how urban principals are translated from intention to reality, often filtered through market dynamics, complications in city code and zoning, or just plain developer laziness.

 

But New Urbanism — with the capital letters — represents a specific set of concepts. Yesterday, one of the movement’s founders, Andres Duany, laid out many of those ideas in a session entitled “Principles of New Urbanism.”

 

Perhaps the most interesting revelation for me was Duany’s assertion that in the 21st century the New Urbanism agenda will be powered by the environmental movement. What he means is that there is a natural — if perhaps counter-intuitive — correlation between environmental and urban activists, and the increasing influence of environmentalism in matters of policy and regulation offers a means to instantiate New Urbanism principals in every aspect of public policy making.

 

“There are seven layers of agencies protecting water,” Duany said. “But who is protecting the humans?”

 

Duany suggested a “conditional surrender of the city to the environmental movement.” The goal is to get environmentalists to understand that to protect nature, you have to limit the city’s impact on the natural environment, which means making our cities more attractive and sustainable. New Urbanist principles — limiting sprawl, creating spaces that are walkable, and planning out cities, towns, and neighborhoods in which people have an easy choice between natural and urban environments — are all part of a broader effort to bring urban culture and the natural environment together.

 

In fact, the ideal city that Duany laid out during his presentation looked less like New York or San Francisco, and more like a small New England town. The model, he argued, allows for multiple lifestyle choices. Young people live above storefronts or in apartments close to a bustling downtown. Married couples move to the inner fringe where they have space for families and accumulating stuff. Older people move back into the center where their needs can be met without reliance on a car.

 

It was a bit of a bucolic, perhaps overly idealistic vision, skirting around the complicated economic and political realities inherent to contemporary urbanity, but the illustration was intended to make an important point. Urban planners cannot be moralistic, meaning, they can’t be effective if they prescribe a kind of lifestyle as the “right” or “good” way to live. Duany admitted he was astonished when a survey concluded that 30 to 40 percent of Americans like suburban-style strip mall developments — “the pure crap,” as he called it. Good planning, Duany argued, is not about prohibiting that kind of environment, but rather about fostering a complete urban ecosystem in which people can chose different ways of life — suburban, urban, rural — while still maintaining an overall balance between those various kinds of urban spaces, as well as easy access between more-urban and more-country environments.

 

How do we get there? The New Urbanists started with rethinking code, and Duany touted the movement’s horn a bit for its influence of promoting “smart code” as the model codes not only in many U.S. cities, but also in places as far flung as Kuwait and Cuba. Another important element of New Urbanism is the recognition that America will continue to be built by developers, which means paying attention both to the way market demand impacts urban space and the way transportation impacts development.

 

He critiqued the way financial institutions and a lot of developers evaluate projects, looking to immediate past successes for the purposes of underwriting. This ensures a financial system that simply repeats recent urban mistakes because it believes that the market will only support what the market has most recently supported. New Urbanists, on the other hand, push for a more “total market analysis.”

 

“We New Urbanists are people of empirical analysis,” he preached. “The next phase of New Urbanism is to make schools that teach that empirical reality.”

 

And anyone who has been following the Trinity or I-345 conversation would have been familiar with the traffic principles he laid out, illustrating how street grids naturally allow traffic to dissipate because they allow individuals to make choices about routes, rather than forcing traffic onto single arteries, or traffic “collectors.” Duany argued that those collectors — which connect engineered communities strung together by highways — have created a “socioeconomic archipelago,” in which the car permits both psychological and economic segregation.

 

A few of Duany’s comments made me wince, often when he was attempting to be funny. “Only the losers leave,” he said of people who move out of cities that are healthy and attractive. (I think being forced out by invasive development and rapid property value inflation may be an equally accurate way of describing a certain amount of urban displacement.) Regarding the segregation of industrial uses in the late 19th and early-20th centuries through zoning, Duany quipped that we don’t need to worry about many of these problems of pollution as we used to because we’ve exported the dirty labor to China.

 

“I’ve been called a fascist,” Duany joked, perhaps admitting to a charge New Urbanists leave themselves open to: their principles, in practice, are critiqued for promoting gentrification and increasing social inequality. That’s precisely the reason why I wanted to attend panel discussions at the conference like “Equitable Transit & Transportation Accessibility” and “Walkable Urban Premiums & Gentrification: Good News Or Bad?” to hear how New Urbanists tackle some of these issues head-on.

 

New Urbanism also finds its fair share of detractors in the architectural community. Duany readily admits the contentious relationship the movement has with architects — and particularly the architectural academy — because of what he derided (somewhat straw man-ishly) as architecture’s over emphasis on buildings as an extension of personal expression. It is no coincidence that the traditionally minded University of Notre Dame School of Architecture’s logo is brandished on the CNU conference’s tote bags.

 

“Style is power, but not self-expression,” he said. “We don’t always need to be peacocks. I want toads, [architects] want peacocks.”

 

Among the panels on architecture at this year’s conference, one deals directly with this controversy. After last year’s conference, architect David Rau published a critique that argued that the CNU was flirting too much with modernism.

“Depressingly, CNU22 is almost identical to a ULI conference,” Rau wrote. “Apparently, it is now officially JUST FINE to fill traditional town plans with ugly, looming, blocky, undefined modernist forms, so long as there’s some retail at the sidewalk and a park nearby.”

 

The panel “Is CNU Burning” will hash out some of those ideas.

 

For his part, Duany called architecture “camouflage,” a way of blending urban principals into existing communities. Quite provocatively, he seemed to suggest that architectural camouflage can play a role in smoothing out economic disparities in neighborhoods. He showed a picture of a street corner in Virginia where a half-million-dollar home cozied-up against an apartment that rented for $500 a month. Duany suggested it was the unilateral colonialist architecture that allowed for such different socioeconomic housing types to work on a single street corner without exerting economic pressures that either drive prices up or down.

 

Like much of his talk, Duany’s slide left me feeling informed in a way that only made me aware how much more digging into the nitty gritty details there is left to do. But perhaps that’s really New Urbanism in a nutshell, a recognition that when it comes to cities, it is difficult to be overly dogmatic. You have to react to specific realities in specific places.

 

“Everything in urbanism is attached to everything else,” Duany said. “In a nation that has both Detroit and San Francisco, you can’t say there is a simple answer.”