The relationship between the city and the surrounding natural environment has always helped to define the character and quality of urban life which is why Architects and Planners are constantly having their practice oriented towards sustainable development. This is not a new concept- visionaries of the 20th century such as Frederick Law Olmsted (Integration of public parks), Ebenezer Howard (Garden City Movement) and Frank Lloyd Wright (Broadacre City) all had utopian visions for the city in order to enhance quality of life while respecting nature.
This, however, is a new global warming era of technology, sprawl and automotive in which those former theories are no longer applicable in its entirety. This is where a new urban movement takes place denominated New Urbanism. It originated in 1991 from a meeting at the Awahnee Hotel in California between architects and designers – among them Peter Calthorpe, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Michael Corbett, Stafanos Polyzoides, Daniel Solomon and Elizabeth Moule. The reunion took place in order to meet with California policy makers to advocate in favor of New Urbanism Principles for future and urban development along ecologically sound lines (LeGates and Stout, 2007).
Its guiding principles inspired by Camillo Sitte’s defense of organic public spaces, Jane Jacob’s enthusiasm with diversity and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideals of walkability make New Urbanism now an appealing school of thought. Its design ideas include:
– Metropolitan regions with a clear center
– Compact development that leads to the preservation of cultural heritage and open spaces
– Mixed uses
– Transit and Pedestrian oriented development
– Lively public realm / “Street Ballet”
– Densification that leads to social equity
A Charter for New Urbanism was written for the Congress of New Urbanism in 1993:
“THE CONGRESS FOR THE NEW URBANISM views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.”
While the movement has valid questioning regarding the existing Euclidian Zoning system (division of land by uses) and intense private transportation system, New Urbanism developments across America have been target to several critics regarding affordability and sustainability such as Celebration, FL (Image 1 ).
Image 1: Market built Downtown of Celebration in Florida
Built in the 1990s by the Disney Development company with an investment of approximately US$2.5 billion, Celebration came to be another low density development and has been called the stage of a “Stepford Wives” movie which refers to its “cookie cutter” artificial design (NY Times, 1999). The census of 2010 showed that 91% of the inhabitants were white and property values in the town were the highest in the county (Image 2). In Celebration, as opposed to the initial Awahnee ideas of walkability, 91% of residents who worked outside their homes drove to work (Glaeser, 2011).
Image 2: Aerial view of Celebration, FL – High income properties and too accommodating for automobiles.
Other criticism entails that New Urbanism developments are not born out of the existing local culture and imposes characteristics that contrast with the environment. The fact that its design principles were adopted by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the construction of HOPE VI projects did not help the movement’s popularity since ultimately HUD housing failed its goal to address affordable housing deficits.
However, no movement can be seen solely through a Manichaean lens. New Urbanism may yet be used by brave designers willing to implement its ideas in a revised way, in order to revitalize neighborhoods or urban centers while fostering community and respecting the environment.
Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City. Penguin Books, 2011, p. 215
Le Gates, R. Stout, F. City Reader. Routledge. Fifth Edition. 2007.
New York Times. “At Celebration, some reasons to celebrate”. 1999.
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/07/realestate/at-celebration-some-reasons-to-celebrate.html