A Short Defense of New Urbanism

March 15th, 2009

Steve Lackmeyer has been blogging an ongoing series related to all things planning. Digging through topics like Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses, talking about William Whyte, and opening up a debate on New Urbanism. Yesterday he posted this video which led to an interesting discussion. I thought I would share the video with you and my comment where I attempt to defend some of the cliche criticisms of NU.  After that, head over to OKC Central to join in the discussion and see what else Steve has to say.

And if you didn’t catch my rant over the weekend, just remember, “a convention centers IS NOT about quality of life.”



The subsequent discussion about the video led to some rather harsh treatment of NU.  Here is my response:

If you confuse the New Urbanist principles of planning and urban design with the architectural aesthetic of many of the NU communities, it is easy knock them as contrived. In truth, New Urbanism is a complete framework of steadfast, proven, and effective planning principles that (in most places) can be utilized within the current regulatory and developmental contexts.

It can be applied at every scale, from downtown to the outer fringe, using the transect approach that Chad mentioned [above].

Most of the criticism comes from modernist architects that feel the framework limits their creative freedom. In truth, what New Urbanism tries to do is bring up the urban design caliber of the average building designed by the average architect. Most buildings are designed, not by Louis Kahn, but by people that try to be him without the same God given abilities and without the high profile projects. The lack of contemporary architectural solutions that offer pedestrian-scaled design detail is part of the reason developers have to rely on older styles.

The other branch of criticism comes from reactionaries that paint NU as an elitist group that only builds communities for rich people. In truth, the planning principles push for mixed-income communities; and the density and development mix should make housing more affordable in the long run (as soon as the regulatory framework makes things easier and the home builders adapt). That said, so far many of the communities have been so popular that housing prices have escalated, making many of them out of reach for the average home buyer.

[and this in response to the idea that NU is not “organic” enough]

Nothing is more utopian than the ideal of an “organic city.” The only thing that keeps the whole idea from crashing down is that the definition of what constitutes an “organic city” is never provided. Is Paris an “organic city”? No. Is Chicago an “organic city”? Certainly not.

I am sure when we are all dead and gone people will be criticizing some new development concept because it is not “organic” like Seaside and Kentlands.

Suburban Nation is an excellent read and nice overview for anyone interested in getting NU straight from the source.

Or for free you can check out the Smart Code to see New Urbanist planning principles in detail.


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