The New Urbanist Omelette

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

On this week's KunstlerCast (James Howard Kunstler's podcast, with host Duncan Crary), you can hear me leaving a comment. I just listened to the episode, and I sound like I took a shot of codeine cough syrup before recording it. I think the point is relevant enough to reiterate in the safety of print.

In an earlier KunstlerCast, Jim was explaining the history of Seaside, FL, having just returned from accepting the Seaside Prize. Duncan expressed some skepticism about New Urbanism, saying that a "new urban" development had gone up near him, and in his book, had failed to be good urban planning. Clearly this project had flipped a switch in Duncan's head: New Urbanism is a bad thing. 

Duncan's experience is common- New Urbanism has faced a backlash over recent years. The problem with this argument is that New Urbanism isn't the physical development in Duncan's neighborhood, or Seaside for that matter- it's a concept, a set of principles and guidelines, laid out very carefully in the Charter of the New Urbanism by a group of very smart architects and urbanists. The Charter is a manifesto, a call to arms:

We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

Sound good? How about this:

We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

So first of all, how many readers out there thought that New Urbanism = fancy molding and front porches? The New Urbanism is far more than that. The Charter is a Declaration of Independence, announcing a bold change in thinking back in 1996 for how neighborhoods, districts, and cities should be planned and built.

In the KunstlerCast episode (#51), Jim compares new development to an omelette. His point was that newer built environments need time to 'cook' before they become accepted into their surroundings. But to extend the analogy, New Urbanism is like a fine recipe. Developed by the top chefs, the recipe is written to produce the most delicious omelette you've ever tasted. Cities, developers, and well-minded folks take the recipe and substitute ingredients, replacing the organic filet mignon the recipe calls for with ground round. Then they start changing the recipe to conform more to previous recipes that they cooked before and worked for them in the past. Then a bunch of other people come into the kitchen and start throwing in their own ingredients and partial recipes. Is it any surprise you end up with a crappy omelette?

You see my point. Discussions of New Urbanism need to separate the concept from the execution. Granted, the whole point is to get good things built, so if the recipe is so open to interpretation that you're getting crappy omelettes everywhere, there's a problem. But I guess if you extend my analogy, what you really need are more good chefs who understand how to bring the recipe to life.

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



Of porches and cornices ...

I think the actual point being made was that New Urbanists let the moniker get away from them by allowing developers and huge national home builders to misappropriate the term "new urbanism" (as well as other terms).

I think that point is valid.

So first of all, how many readers out there thought that New Urbanism = fancy molding and front porches?

The question is how many people (not just readers of this website) think that? Quite a lot. And why not? Developers and builders and their marketers have successfully promoted their 'new urbanism' products as just that, and not much more.


I may just be a sous-chef, but I think the main problem of a lot of people like me who struggle to implement the goals of the new urbanism in our cities is the process of engagement. What do we think of a system that runs by getting highly paid consultant "top chefs" to propose "omelettes" with the same formulaic and unmediated tendencies of their predecessors? How many times have you observed the top chefs working charettes without actually entangling themselves with the priorities, means and actual economic/cultural life-cycles of the local communities they're engaging? Many nationally recognized firms I've seen seem to cut and paste from previous work and move on to the next formula session as quickly as they can - leaving the questions of implementation totally unresolved. That is the reason we are getting crappy instant omelettes. We're not yet working with local ingredients, or understanding the different scales of "slow-cooking" that are involved. Sorry, but, until the New Urbanists figure out how to implement their manifesto without cut-and-pasting, the only top-chef worth my patience is Jane Jacobs.

re: deliciousness

Eric, I'm not sure whose work you've been observing, but I've worked as a consulting architect on countless New Urbanist charrettes. Every planner I've ever worked with (a very short list, to be sure) is fanatical about local realities. I've regularly been hired to document entire towns in advance of or in concert with a charrette there. Of all the volumes in the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places, probably half of them have been commissioned by New Urbanist planners who want to know everything they can about a place when they design there.
And it isn't just physical study... they invite the engagement of the people, too. Behind the scenes, the charrette team typically gauges the success of the meeting by how many citizens show up. As for specifics, the firm I've worked with the most is DPZ, but because so many New Urbanists have at one time worked for or collaborated with DPZ, these principles have spread broadly. So I hate to hear that the charrette processes you've observed haven't measured up, but I believe that's atypical of the way that much of the New Urbanism works.

New Urbanism is Dead

Here is a interesting commentary on New Urbanism:

Rick Abelson,
Online Land Planning, LLC

How good can these urban omelettes be? See the Charter Awards

Perhaps it's natural for people to risk misjudging a big trend trend by reading too much into the first examples of it they happen to see. How many major dead-tree journalists took an early look at a blog or two and wrote off the whole enterprise as the shallow prattle of narcissistic amateurs? At some point — when the seventh Nobel-prize-winning economist started a blog? — they realized there was a lot more to the trend than they originally thought. Then many started blogs themselves to reach a larger audience.

When it comes to the built environment, people who know better than to judge modernism based on how it's executed in dumb, glassy office-park buildings or strip-mall carpet stores instead see a new town or a mall-turned-mixed-use town center and assume these examples tell them everything there is to know about New Urbanism. What they often don't realize is that the place they're viewing is the end result of a difficult struggle against well-established forces that work to replicate sprawl — single-use zoning codes, anti-pedestrian street design standards, a building community with expertise in sprawl projects, bankers who avoid loans for mixed-use development because they can't be sold and plugged into leveraged (and now toxic) securities like conventional house mortgages. Even established cities have things like suburban-style minimum parking requirements on their books that make good urbanism difficult to do well.

And how really can one or two projects to speak for a movement as complex as New Urbanism? Even under the best circumstances, each represents a model for creating urbanism in that particular context. The many examples of new ubanist infill development in big cities (here's a snapshot of that work from 2007) offer limited lessons for retrofitting sprawling places, revitalizing small towns, or creating new towns, for instance.

As Tim Halbur writes so perceptively, it's tremendously useful to turn to the Charter of the New Urbanism and to use its vision and comprehensive principles as a guide for urbanizing and reurbanizing places at scales ranging from the region to the city block. It's also good to recognize Tim's caveat: "the point is to get good things built." CNU's Charter Awards program works to find and recognize the work that best realizes the principles of the Charter. It's impressive stuff, based on engagement with local conditions, traditions, and communities. The descriptions of some recent winners may surprise one of the commenters who has come to expect cut-and-paste urbanism. Here are a few:

• A novel project in Crystal City (Arlington), VA that brings life to an arterial street – and new residents close to a Metro rail connection - by wrapping townhouses along the edge of a superblock interspersed with 1960s-era residential towers.
• A master plan to coordinate needed redevelopment of the waterfront of Camden, NJ, one of the United States' poorest cities, employing a detailed pattern book to rebuild Camden’s unique but severely eroded mixed-use character.
• Two projects that use new strategies to renew deteriorated public housing and damaged natural environments: one replaces low-density barracks public housing in Alexandria, VA with carefully interlocking mixed-income buildings that build density while providing public spaces and emulating nearby historic urban fabric; another transforms deteriorating Tacoma, WA public housing into a desirable mixed-income community that uses bioswales and other water features to slow runoff and remediate a polluted trout stream.
• A grouping of Habitat homes built at $55 per square foot in a contemporary version of Arkansas farmhouse vernacular and grouped in a low-impact development incorporating a public square and many smart infrastructure features.
• A comprehensive plan that makes walkable urban neighborhoods the preferred development pattern for Fayetteville, AR, now one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. thanks to headquarters activity of Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and other major firms.
• A cutting-edge regional plan for an area of the country where planning has become a matter of regional survival -- Southern Louisiana. The Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan by Calthorpe Associates integrates wetland restoration and persuasive plans to steer the growth and sprawl that threaten wetlands into livable cities and towns.
• An artful, environmentally minded 44-acre infill addition to a historic North Charleston neighborhood recovering from a military base pullout; it features an intricate, almost European street network, a carefully woven mix of uses and a range of housing, including affordable units as small as 600 square feet.
• A high-density, mixed-use town center near a Metro rail station in Rockville, Maryland -- a project that creates a satisfying square and other public spaces and sets a new standard for an increasingly common new development type, say jurors.
• A much-needed plan for seven miles of Philadelphia riverfront -- an area threatened by plans for gated or suburban-style development and now a prime opportunity to reverse the trend of regional greenfield expansion and encourage the reclamation of undervalued land along the shores.
• A project that significantly steps up density on both sides of Main Street in Woodstock, Georgia's historic central business district and creates a natural extension of the city's urban fabric in an area of intense urban sprawl.
• The redevelopment of public housing in Chicago to create a thriving renewed neighborhood of rental and for-sale units housed in a variety of venerable Chicago housing types such as 6-flat buildings, townhouses, and rowhouses.
• The thoughtful extension of a neighborhood main street in a historic section of Montgomery, Alabama, bringing new life and residents to underused surface lots.
• Two projects that advance the promise of modest, quickly built Katrina Cottages in hurricane-damaged cities and beyond – one an innovative prototype for carefully detailed manufactured cottages, the other a model “Cottage Square” in Ocean Springs, MS that shows how cottages can enhance compact, walkable neighborhoods.
• A pattern book showing the re-emerging housing industry in southern Louisiana how to honor traditions in building design and neighborhood form that are deeply ingrained in the Louisiana way of life but are in danger of being lost in the wake of 2005’s major hurricanes.
• A master plan for Long Beach, MS that responds nimbly to the community’s rebuilding needs – including new storm surge protections -- while reflecting an involved citizenry’s desire to maintain the city’s character and appeal.

Start exploring the winners for yourself and look for the announcement of 2009's winners, as innovative as ever, in the coming days.

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