What is New Urbanism?
As cities began to expand and people settled further away in the suburbs, additional infrastructure was needed. We needed electricity to reach people further away. We needed fresh water to reach people further away, as well as roads, sidewalks, waste removal, and telecommunications. This was not only expensive, but had an environmental impact. I heard about New Urbanism and got curious. That led me to take a look into what this movement is all about.
The Smart Growth movement (which preceded New Urbanism) aimed to strike a balance between new development and protecting the environment. It encouraged reinvesting in already developed areas instead of always expanding outwards and developing previously untouched land. Instead, the movement argued, that raw, open land should be preserved for agricultural and recreational purposes.
The Sustainability movement came next. It expanded upon Smart Growth by also promoting the development of smaller and more energy efficient buildings along with increasing affordable housing and transportation options.
New Urbanism itself may be considered complimentary to the goals and objectives of Smart Growth and Sustainability. The primary objectives behind New Urbanism may not be environmentally related, but New Urbanistic development certainly has environmental benefits.
The goal of New Urbanism is to build walkable, community, and pedestrian focused cities. There is also a focus on urban infill (redeveloping existing land as opposed to continually building outwards from the center of a city) and improving public transportation, much like the other movements.
To accomplish this, New Urbanists like to promote mixed-use development making people less reliant on automobiles. Here, residents live close enough to the heart of the city or town that they can walk to go shopping or even to go to work. Everything they need is close by, such that people have less of a need to drive. Cars begin to disappear and you see more people walking to get around.
Think of a small town’s Main Street or a pedestrian mall where people roam around without having to compete with traffic. In the ideal town, everything would be built within a five-minute walk from the center of town to the edge of town.
The New Urbanism movement is trying to reform zoning in many municipalities to encourage more mixed-use development and to use more building types such as storefront houses that allow people to work where they live. It also promotes public gathering places such as town squares, plazas, and sidewalks supporting activity-centric businesses such as art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and coffee shops.
Many people reflect fondly on historic communities such as those more prevalent in the 1950s when they think of New Urbanism. They picture children walking safety to school by themselves and playing at the park with friends. They picture lemonade stands and festivals in the summer. In short, people may find the ideas attractive, but others question its practicality.
With a focus on compact development, is a five-minute walk from center to edge practical? Wouldn’t residents still drive when they want to go shopping and enjoy the vast selection of goods only available at big box stores?
Critics also question whether the principals aimed at creating small towns won’t simply lead to the development of new suburbs, essentially creating more suburban sprawl. While the movement may want to focus on urban infill, starting fresh is generally easier when you’re trying to create an overall design for an entire community.
Additionally, producing desirable mixed-use communities can lead to gentrification, as not everyone can afford to live in a New Urbanism designed town. Furthermore, for those who can’t afford to live in these towns, they become tourist magnets. People who live near New Urbanist towns but don’t live in one themselves, still enjoy walking around and being a part of the community. But that naturally leads to traffic and parking issues.
Thus like many modern as well as older movements, New Urbanism has its fair share of both followers and detractors. Hopefully, as the movement gains more traction designers and developers will be able to find ways to address some of the criticisms laid against it, such that society can benefit from its strengths without being too negatively impacted by its weaknesses.