Part 2: Is New Urbanism a New Civitas

Cities all over are on the rebound. But this isn’t you parent’s urbanism; it’s a New Urbanism. These two words are often equated with mixed use, public transit, walkability, and my personal favorite ambiguous term, livability. New urbanism may encompass these some of these ideas, but it also represents a new ideology in planning that in some ways is not that different from Modernism. Before we start jumping on the bandwagon we should know where we are headed.

First of all there may be a new urbanism and a New Urbanism, just like there is architecture and Architecture. The conflation of the two is common. An article by Michael Sorkin, a particularly grumpy urban critic, sheds some light on what is behind New Urbanism proper.

He explains that it “grew out of an attempt to join two tendencies in contemporary architecture–neotraditionalism and environmentalism,” and describes its two strains. One, the DPZ brand, is based on Krier’s revival of traditional town planning. The other is a bit broader and less cohesive and is associated with Peter Calthorpe, Dan Solomon, and Doug Kelbaugh. This, Sorkin describes, is “more interested in mass transit, open space, and pedestrianism.”

Sorkin, generally disparaging, first offers some complements, noting the “denser patterns of settlement instead of suburban sprawl, nonpolluting public transportation, and the revival of the life and culture of the street are all subjects of urgent importance to any conscientious urbanist.”

This sentiment quickly vanishes and he begins to make some points that should make those who value New Urbanism’s rejection of Modern planning think twice. For Sorkin and others,

New Urbanism reproduces many of the worst aspects of Modernism it seeks to replace. …New Urbanism promotes another style of universality that is similarly over-reliant on visual cues to produce social effects. The endlessness of the little clapboard houses, twee front yards, and manicured town greens is asphyxiating. Most practitioners of this style of urbanism stop short of the millennial claims of someone like Leon Krier–who considers traditional architecture the manufactory of healthy yeomen–but the uniformity of their production, the polemic of stylistic superiority, and the creepy corporatist lifestyles are scary indeed.

Like Modernism, New Urbanism overestimates architecture’s power to influence behavior. The idea is that replicating the forms of the New England town green will move citizens in the direction of the good, democratic conduct that presumably arose from such arrangements in the past.

This sentiment is not unique to Sorkin. Kelbaugh, who Sorkin identifies with the “other” group of New Urbanist, has also written about New Urbanism’s reliance on form to generate social change as a universal and utopian tendency. While some degree of change in behavior can be associated with alternative physical design this deterministic model is a direct descendant of modernism and has proven to be questionable at best.

New Urbanist communities have failed to generate the social mixing it espouses. Not only are they wealthy and exclusive, but the federal Hope VI program, which demolished modern public housing structures in favor of New Urbanist schemes, has had underwhelming results in mixing income, race and class groups.

The formal aspects are appealing not just in nostalgic terms, but in also in addressing the contemporary needs for denser, more walkable and integrated communities. But the copy and pasting of historical forms on top contemporary plurality has not, as of yet, proven successful.

Sorkin blames this on the degree of control and regulation and suggests that it is inherent to the New Urbanist ideology.

“In the same way that Disneyland’s miniaturized, ersatz nostalgia relies on a huge apparatus of manipulation and control, New Urbanist towns are underpinned by a labyrinth of restrictive convenants, building regulations, homeowners association codes of behavior, and engineered demographic sterility….

…Robert A.M. Stern, Celebration’s planner, elevates such rigid controls to the status of democratic principle; quoted in a recent New York Times Magazine article, he makes the Orwellian claim, “Regimentation can release you.”… …Behind the delightful facades of that glorious folly lay a sinister apparatus of imprisonment.

While compaction is a key antidote to the soul-deadening, landscape-ravaging pattern of traditional suburban development, the New Urbanist version reflects an even more sinister development in American culture, the enclaving of communities against the threat of genuine plurality, a new style of apartheid. At present, more than 30 million Americans live in gated communities, sealed against marauders real and imagined. What masquerades as freedom of choice is a new urbanism of exclusion, and no amount of forced cooperation can conceal this.

It should be noted that since Sorkin wrote this, almost a decade ago, things have changed, for better and worse. Gated Communities are the fastest growing housing type in the nation and increasingly developers are turning to, in some ways bastardizing, New Urbanism to placate the ills of suburban monotony and slow housing markets. Developers chose from a grab bag of amenities ignoring the holistic concept of New Urbanism’s principles. Urbanity is marketable, even in the suburbs.

Obviously, this isn’t all New Urbanism’s fault. Even Sorkin admits that his “hostility to New Urbanism isn’t absolute.” The suburbs need more compact and dense developments and transitioning from the auto dependent development is necessary.

What New Urbanism fails to accomplish, and what it claims to provide, is a healthy social dynamic. Instead, it currently exists as a marketing strategy, selling itself as a new urban value. This is the value of living in an urban environment that isn’t all that urban. The new part in this equation is an urban that is homogenous as the suburbs. It can often be seen in central parts of the city, but the image and values being pushed are of a safe and private suburban mentality. As Sorkin argues, “Nature–and democracy–prefer more dynamic forms of stability, compounded from order and disorder both. It’s just this useful disorder, this sense of contention and flux, that New Urbanism dreads.”

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4 Comments

Filed under planning, urban design

4 responses to “Part 2: Is New Urbanism a New Civitas

  1. Somewhat timely, as you know the city has been ‘bulldoze happy” lately, a couple of salvageable home son Baymiller were destroyed in the interests of “Public Safety”. Never mind they sit in a historic District. I’ve started a new series on my blog called De-Urbanization, the Bulldoze Effect about how the city is bulldozing not only our history but destroying the viability of urban neighborhoods.

  2. “The endlessness of the little clapboard houses, twee front yards, and manicured town greens is asphyxiating.”
    Strawman. That is not what new urbanism is about at all.

    “New Urbanism’s reliance on form to generate social change as a universal and utopian tendency. While some degree of change in behavior can be associated with alternative physical design this deterministic model is a direct descendant of modernism and has proven to be questionable at best.”
    I don’t understand. Design, urban and architectural is FORM. There is nothing else. If the space doesn’t influence people’s lives, then what’s the point? Why have environmental design at all? Am I missing something here? If so, I am willing to be educated….

  3. justforview

    Mike thanks for your comments. They are obvious questions that I don’t really address. It’s good that you pointed them out.

    Your right about the strawman, I told you he was a grump. It takes away from the strength of the argument, but theories exist as an operational framework and his criticism, IMO, is that it gets reduced to that in practice.

    My point about form isn’t to declare it obsolete, just that it isn’t as direct a relationship as architects are taught to believe. This normative structuralist conception that a perfect architecture would lead to a perfect society is one of the fallacies of Modernism, which I think New Urbanism has a tendency to fall back on.

    In addition to form, there are the ephemeral aspects of architecture and urban, or environmental, design. This non-structuralist idea is difficult to grasp, because it postulates that there isn’t a behavior isn’t dictated by form. Instead, form is a container where multiple, unpredictable things can happen that are often contrary to the architects intention. Skateboarding is one example that has recently been discussed, but in a city we are constantly reinventing the function, without doing much to the form. An adaptive reuse of a church for example, won’t mean that when people enter they will be overcome by the glory of god, as the architecture of churches intended.

    My stance is that neither is ultimately true and that there needs to be a balance. Obviously we learned from the modernist, that building a tower in a park doesn’t make people happy and fulfilled as anticipated. New Urbanism to a large extent believes that compact walkable neighborhoods will counter this problems and social ills of poorly built places. This may be true to an extent. Especially in creating more sociable suburban communities. But it won’t happen without some resistance, or conditioning. It isn’t a direct result of the architecture.

    Does this make sense? Obviously we still need to build. But even as a graphic designer I was trained to believe that my design could change behavior, which may be true to an extent but none of this is ultimately true. There are other factors, many of them ephemeral, i.e. the unbuilt environment, that affect our communities and cities.

    The question then is should we build as if there is a “right” way, or should we let the right way be determined by needs. New Urbanism in my opinion has much of this correct, but I have to admit that it is an opinion and that it is not inherently the right thing.

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