The New “New Urbanism” – What It Means Today

The first time I encountered the New Urbanist philosophy as it pertains to architecture and design was about 15 years ago while I was studying Interior Architecture at the University of Oregon.  I didn’t take to the idea right away.  We were introduced to New Urbanism with the Seaside, Florida, development by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ).  Back then, it was the first of it’s kind in the US… an experiment in lifestyle and environment controlled by the architecture and enforced by some very strict CC&R’s. 

It bothered me that people would buy into paying high dollars to be told how to live and build on the property they owned.  Made me wonder if it inspired the author of “The Stepford Wives.”  New Urbanism sounded to me like a fancy name for socialism… or worse yet communism?  (I am not without a little experience there having spent a year in my late teens in the early ‘70s on a communal farm which was not among my fondest of memories.)

Worse yet, Seaside was very easy on the eyes.

                                                                 

It appealed to my traditional sensibilities with it’s farmhouse old Florida architecture with quaint brick walking paths and pristine sandy beaches.  The whole layout encouraged walking rather than driving and front porches encouraged neighborly interaction.  Then there was the live-work component of the neighborhood that allowed for some to be there full-time year-round without commuting.  That was a cool idea.  While Seaside is primarily a resort/retirement community as it’s not too close to a metropolitan area, there were opportunities for families to live there on a full-time basis.  There was a central small business component that had restaurants and stores  -even a post office.  A completely self-contained  pedestrian community that proclaimed an alternative to urban sprawl.  Throw in the occasional community parks –well need I say more.  I was beginning to see the light. 

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Urbanism if you want to read about New Urbanism and when it started.  “New urbanists support regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe their strategies can reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in urban sprawl. The Charter of the New Urbanism also covers issues such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and the redevelopment of brownfield land.” ~Wikipedia

Next there was Rosemary Beach, Florida. Rosemary Beach Architecture Same concept but different architecture. Then there was Celebration, Florida, that was being built.  Walt Disney won my heart when I was but 5 years old… Even though Walt had passed 30 years before the inception of Celebration, it clearly embodied his view of community and reflected my impressions of Disneyland Design.  “In June 1996, the Walt Disney Company unveiled its 5,000 acre (20 km²) town of Celebration, near Orlando, Florida. Celebration opened its downtown in October, 1996, while Seaside’s downtown was still mostly unbuilt. It has since eclipsed Seaside as the best-known new urbanist community, but Disney shuns the label, calling Celebration simply a "town." Disney has been criticized for insipid nostalgia, and heavy-handed rules and management.” ~Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Urbanism

                     

One Celebration home many of us have come to know this year is the HGTV Port St. Lucie Green Home for 2009.  This home fits the bill for architecture in tune with the local venacular but also because it’s green:

      

Now there are New Urbanist developments across the US and in other countries as well.  Not all are self-contained towns like Seaside and Celebration, but are simply housing development that follow some or all of the tenants of New Urbanism.  I had the opportunity to see a couple of such developments  -one in Hillsboro, Oregon, (Orenco Station -PacTrust and Costa Pacific Homes http://www.terrain.org/unsprawl/10/)

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and another in North Richland Hills (Hometown NRH –DPZ www.hometownnrh.com), Texas.  Both neighborhoods, like many other New Urbanist communities connect to urban centers by light rails systems encouraging commuters to forgo clogging freeways and polluting the air and adapt to public transportation.  You notice there are no driveways from the street at Hometown NRH as garages exist but are usually detached and entered from a back alley.  Had we stayed in Texas, I think we would have bought a home there.  But as nice as the neighborhood was, there didn’t seem to be any place to go in the event of a weather emergency –such as a tornado.  Like all of the rest of the homes in the Mid Cities, storm cellar construction is financially impractical, if not impossible, due to the limestone bedrock in most places (so I was told).

    

I once owned a cute little cottage in a lovely little neighborhood in Roseburg, Oregon, prior to going to UO, called Laurelwood Park.  This was an older neighborhood and my house was built in the 1920’s as were most of the others there.  The neighborhood didn’t have any through streets and there was a wonderful community park in the center.  This place was famous, not so much for the accidental “New Urbanist” character of the place but the sense of community and neighborliness of the people who lived there.  Was it a result of the neighborhood’s layout, quaint architecture or the personalities of those that lived there (many of whom were second generation residents)?  I’m inclined to think it was all of those things.  There were events that have had a life-long impact on me that had nothing to do with the buildings or urban layout.  There was a weekly party called “Laurelwood After Five on Fridays –LAFF” which had a flag that was planted on the host’s lawn so everybody would know where to go for a really fun way to kick off the weekend.  It started out as a traveling cocktail party, but evolved, depending on the nature of the hosting household and the time of the year.  It was sometimes a pot luck, holiday party or even an ‘after the football game’ party as there was a high school next door.  Prior to the beginning of school starting each August was a gathering of all of the families and teachers in the park for punch, cookies and a dance and song called “Alice The Camel” that gave all of the children and teens the opportunity to meet and greet new residents and future classmates. 

When the Laurelwood Park subdivision became the Laurelwood Historic District, I sold my house for a significant profit which allowed me to achieve my goal of getting a college degree.  I have sometimes wondered if selling out was a mistake.  Though I have sought to find a home in a neighborhood that had that kind of character a number of times, I have been unsuccessful.  While the New Urbanist communities have all of the trappings that would be conducive to the character I long for, I know it will be the personalities of the people who live there and their interaction with one another that will make them communities that are enjoyable to live in. 

Now DPZ has developed hundreds of projects around the world that include new communities and neighborhoods as well as urban infill projects, suburban retrofits and even affordable housing.  I think the latter, most recent feature has resulted from criticism of New Urbanist neighborhoods that have sought to attract households of middle income status or above had invited a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) reputation.  I was a board member of a non-profit housing development company called the Neighborhood Economic Development Company (NEDCO) while a student at UO and bought one of their low-income homes in a neighborhood they’d built thinking this was an opportunity to recreate the neighborhood sensibility and camaraderie I’d enjoyed as a resident of Laurelwood.  This was not a DPZ project though many of the New Urbanism principles of urban planning were employed.  Both the homes and the people that owned them soon fell apart.  The homes were cheaply made and were nearly impossible to resell.  The resident turnover was quicker than any rental community I’d ever lived in as homeowners were soon outnumberd by renters.  This sad situation was compounded by the constant drama that is a reality of living in a neighborhood full of people who are always living on the edge of financial disaster. 

Since Hurricane Katrina DPZ has developed Katrina Cottage   “a more viable and humane alternative to the FEMA trailer."  I hope these folks will be able to develop this community into a neighborhood and that it will not be just another transitional band-aid rental community.   http://www.dpz.com/projects.aspx

 

New Urbanists have adapted their urban planning philosophy around the world as global solutions to solving environmental  and economic issues while blending with local vernacular, cultural standards and traditions. "Located in León, Mexico, the La Primavera project demonstrates how the discipline of the neighborhood learned from traditional urbanism may be applied to the scale of the city…Nevertheless, certain site characteristics posed a challenge to bringing traditional urban theory into practice. One of the most significant of these is a series of long irrigation canals that crisscross the property. The grid of agricultural parcels created by the canals dictates the orthogonal pattern of the neighborhoods, the shape of the civic central plaza, and the layout of the commercial frontage." ~DPZ

      

I’m still looking for the perfect neighborhood and think that it may not exist.  Yes, there are many, many communities that are planned based on the tenants of New Urbanism, but the right combination of architecture, neighborhood and community that I experienced in Laurelwood may not exist just yet in a newly developed or refurbished neighborhood.  Relationships take time… and in the case of Laurelwood, it took almost a century.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t champion New Urbanist ideals.  In fact, the state of our current economy and environment requires it.  We must now plan new pedestrian neighborhoods and retrofit our existing communities that are the result of poor or unplanned neighborhoods that have become impersonal, transitional and characteristic of urban sprawl.  I look forward to the day when the maps are laced with high-speed train routes instead of freeways and houses create more energy than they consume.  I look forward to the day when I know my neighbors because I’ve lived next door to them for many years and am not more concerned with how they affect the resale value of my property.   Will it happen?  Time will tell.

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