Developers tout new urbanism as creating walkable, connected, sustainable, green neighborhoods. But new urbanism raises as many questions as it answers. (More)

While the debate in Washington seems stalled, many local community leaders are listening to scientists’ warnings about climate change. Developers know that and paint rosy images of walkable, connected, sustainable, green neighborhoods to zoning boards and community activists. But new urbanism is not a community planning panacea.

What is new urbanism?

New urbanism began as a reaction to urban sprawl. “The ideas then began to spread in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as urban planners and architects started to come up with plans to model cities in the U.S. after those in Europe.”

The Alexandria, Virginia-based consulting firm offers the following principles:

  1. Walkability – Most things within a 10-minute walk of home and work, with pedestrian friendly street design (buildings close to street; porches, windows & doors; tree-lined streets; on street parking; hidden parking lots; garages in rear lane; narrow, slow speed streets) and pedestrian streets free of cars in special cases.
  2. Connectivity – Interconnected street grid network disperses traffic & eases walking, with a hierarchy of narrow streets, boulevards, and alleys. High quality pedestrian network and public realm makes walking pleasurable.
  3. Mixed-Use & Diversity – A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on site. Mixed-use within neighborhoods, within blocks, and within buildings, and a diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races.
  4. Mixed Housing – A range of types, sizes and prices in closer proximity.
  5. Quality Architecture & Urban Design – Discernable center and edge, with public space at center. Importance of quality public realm; public open space designed as civic art. Contains a range of uses and densities within 10-minute walk. Highest densities at town center; progressively less dense towards the edge.

    This is known as Transect Planning, an analytical system that conceptualizes mutually reinforcing elements, creating a series of specific natural habitats and/or urban lifestyle settings. The Transect integrates environmental methodology for habitat assessment with zoning methodology for community design. The professional boundary between the natural and man-made disappears, enabling environmentalists to assess the design of the human habitat and the urbanists to support the viability of nature. This urban-to-rural transect hierarchy has appropriate building and street types for each area along the continuum.
  6. Increased Density – More buildings, residences, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking, to enable a more efficient use of services and resources, and to create a more convenient, enjoyable place to live. New Urbanism design principles are applied at the full range of densities from small towns, to large cities.
  7. Green Transportation – A network of high-quality trains connecting cities, towns, and neighborhoods together. Pedestrian-friendly design that encourages a greater use of bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and walking as daily transportation.
  8. Sustainability – Minimal environmental impact of development and its operations. Eco-friendly technologies, respect for ecology and value of natural systems. Energy efficiency. Less use of finite fuels. More local production. More walking, less driving.
  9. Quality of Life – Taken together these add up to a high quality of life well worth living, and create places that enrich, uplift, and inspire the human spirit.

Promises vs. performance

Those principles sound good, but new urbanism has not always lived up to its promise. First, the cost can be very high to do the kind of revamping of buildings and updating of infrastructure that is called for. Without federal and state grants, it may not be possible. Plus, adding density to a downtown area where people can “live and work”. Will people really give up their cars in exchange for walkability or light rail? Some would eagerly say yes to that question, but it remains to be seen if it can be done on a regional scale. And in practice it can be difficult to distinguish new urbanism from urban sprawl.

The majority of U.S. citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last fifty years, and automobile use per capita has soared. However, if it is done right, which it has been in several communities across the nation, new urbanism is an interesting study of development and what is trending today.

Success stories, at least in the planning stages, range from neighborhoods in Chicago and El Paso to smaller communities like Twinsburg, Ohio. But new urbanism has also seen failures, especially when projects tend to rely too much on the automobile and roads. More successful new urbanism deals with that by ensuring there are places to park and ride, for example.

New urbanism definitely has its merits and the creation of town centers has its appeal. But new urbanism might not come soon enough to make any large impacts on the carbon footprint, and planners need to learn from past mistakes to avoid merely putting a new name on an old problem: urban sprawl.