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New Urbanism: Humanizing Cities, Connecting Neighborhoods

November 20th, 2014 by

In the early 1980s, I attended a symposium on architectural design at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where many of the country’s leading architects of the time were discussing their current thinking and presenting their work. Today, some 30 years later, I can only recall three speakers from that event: Michael Graves, who had just completed the post-modernist Portland Building; Laurinda Spear from a young firm, Architectonica, who presented some cool, new Miami-based minimalist work (the hit TV series “Miami Vice” showcased the firm’s buildings); and an architect I had not heard of before, Andres Duany (who had just left Architectonica).

Duany talked about his newfound passion of small-town placemaking (the concept of building communities around public places) and context-appropriate traditional design methods. His talk included a bit of history, including his rediscovery of the work of early 20th-century town planners like Clarence Perry, Raymond Unwin, and John Nolan. He then presented early design ideas for an 80-acre Gulf Coast resort in Florida called Seaside, the first neighborhood development of its kind in more than 50 years, and the seminal birthplace of what was to become known as New Urbanism.

Of all the architects I heard at the symposium, I was struck by Duany’s humanistic design approach as he, unlike the other architects who presented “object” buildings, promoted the need for walkable communities and human-scaled spaces and places around and between the buildings.

Duany, along with other architects rooted in the criticism of modernist planning, began to develop a set of community-design principles that would be known first as Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) and later as New Urbanism. Perhaps most notable in the group was Léon Krier of Luxemburg, with his urban visions and models for reconstruction of the European city, who provided much of the theoretical underpinnings of the young movement.

New Urbanism recognizes compact development and walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods as the building blocks of sustainable communities and regions. The Charter of the New Urbanism articulates the movement’s principles and defines the essential qualities of urban places from the scale of the region to the individual building.

St. Charles Place, New Orleans

St. Charles Place, New Orleans

New Urbanism’s defining elements include a discernable center to the neighborhood (often a square or green); dwellings located within a five-minute walk to the center; diversity of dwelling types; elementary schools close enough so that children may walk to school; accessible playgrounds; tree-lined, relatively narrow streets that form a connected network and create an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles; buildings fronting the street to form “outdoor rooms,” with parking relegated to the rear; and civic buildings placed prominently at the neighborhood center or at the termination of a street vista.

Beginning in the early 1990s, New Urbanism gradually influenced many aspects of urban planning, real estate development, and municipal transportation and land-use strategies. Early New Urbanist practice incorporated the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) strategies of Peter Calthorpe, and initiated the public participatory design process of the “neighborhood design charrette” and anti-sprawl advocacy.

The organization formed to debate ideas and to promote policy, The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). In the mid-’90s, they strategically aligned themselves with the EPA to formulate the first Smart Growth policies. With HUD, they developed the HOPE VI program, which replaced many failed concentrated public housing projects with neighborhoods of mixed income and mixed-type housing, including several projects here in Baltimore. CNU has been influential in the development of “Form Based Zoning Codes,” “complete streets” design, and in sustainable urbanism (or light-imprint development practices). The organization also partnered with the U.S. Green Building Council to develop the standards for the LEED-ND rating program.

Heritage Crossing

Heritage Crossing HOPE VI, Baltimore

The economic downturn of 2008 and the rise of the millennial population spawned new ideas like “agrarian urbanism” to address lack of access to fresh, local food produce, as well as the quick, low-cost, (often permission-less) neighborhood interventions of “tactical urbanism” that aim to make a very small part of the city more lively or enjoyable — think guerrilla gardening and pop-up events like PARK(ing) Day or the proposed urban art park adjacent to the Jones Falls as rendered by our own Samir Taylor.

New Urbanism

Propsed Urban Art Project Rendered by Samir Taylor

We’ve also witnessed “incremental urbanism” (smaller lots in lieu of assemblages of whole blocks) and most recently, the discussion has turned to “lean urbanism,” which occurs where risk-oblivious citizens — typically young people with a sense of adventure — rebuild community below the radar of the bureaucratic and regulatory process.

In bankrupt and mostly abandoned Detroit, where there is essentially no government oversight within entire districts (i.e., no zoning board, few building inspectors, or a health department), there are small, growing neighborhoods within the city showing signs of incremental development and an incredible vitality and sense of potential, all because the red tape impeding new ideas and development has been removed. This is reminiscent of the early history of the Left Bank in Paris and Greenwich Village. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Is New Urbanism still relevant today? Besides the continued importance of advocacy for sprawl reform and the promotion of sustainable mixed-neighborhood living, New Urbanism has provided us with the lexicon of our craft and reintroduced us to the design principles unique to developing wonderful and desirable new buildings and neighborhoods. The qualities and characteristics of good placemaking seen in cities like Charleston, Paris, Barcelona, Savannah, Havana, and even Annapolis have been studied, analyzed, and codified.

500 Acre Master Plan, Shenyang, China

500-acre master plan, Shenyang, China

Today, those design principles can guide and inform our own planning and architectural design, especially at the scale of the block, street, and building — the true scale of placemaking. It is the recognition and application of those principles that animates and gives vitality to the public realm within our neighborhoods. To paraphrase Andres Duany, “The difference between urbanism and architecture is not its size or scale; it is the duration and breadth of vision.”

What are your favorite walkable cities and communities? Let us know below, or reach out to me to continue the discussion.