Not Quite the Urban Utopia

When Andres Duany planned the village of Cornell, he built in walkability, density, and mixed-use. The outcome, however, falls short of the New Urbanist vision; driving is the norm and retail is scarce. What happened?

"It was with higher density in mind that the provincial government - which in the early '90s owned the land - approached Mr. Duany and his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, to develop Cornell on what was then greenfield.

Mr. Duany and his team got to work, preparing what he said was 'one of the best models' he had created. But a change of provincial government and a hand-off to a private firm called Law Development Group meant a change of plans and, while the blueprint had been completed, it was just shy of being coded into law. That form-based code would have ensured that everything from the segregation of land use to architectural aesthetics to the gridding of the streets would be carried out as planned.

'The tragic historical circumstance of the development changing hands is what has led Cornell to become what it has,' Mr. Duany said, adding that he did not have access to Law Development and, since being in a sense nudged off the project, has not been back to Cornell in more than five years. 'Most New Urbanism is done as a matter of law. In this instance, it's been a matter of persuasion.'"

Full Story: In Markham, the dream of an urban village that never was

Comments

Comments

New Urbanist places are creatures of their metropolitan context

Cornell's particular circumstances aside, New Urbanist practitioners should focus on retooling existing urban areas rather than trying to create them out of whole cloth. It should be no surprise that TND oases like Cornell and Celebration don't function as intended from inception because they are only a small feature of the large metropolitan desert that surrounds them. If the dominant metropolitan infrastructure dictates long car trips between single use areas of residence, employment, retail, and recreation, it will swamp whatever hoped-for effects a small pocket of TND development will bring. Moreover, the New Urbanist development's incongruity with its larger environment creates an inescapable feeling of inauthenticity, much like I experience when I visit a "town center"-style shopping mall.

The cities and towns that New Urbanists try to emulate did not arise from a master plan that specified how everything is supposed to work from the outset. Rather they started with a simple street layout and set of codes that provided the framework for an evolutionary process undertaken by individual actors. This allowed for the emergence of complexity characteristic of our cherished urban places. Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten this concept (or perhaps never formally learned it) in the 20th century as we adopted a pre-determined, mechanistic view of how cities work. If planners and architects can reverse the damage done to our established population centers then we might see results at the metropolitan level - that is, the scale at which modern people live.

Not Quite the Urban Utopia

This should come as a surprise to no one, least of all city planners. Since the mid 1990's many of us have decried the notion of "new urban" development in the greenfields. It is not urban and it certainly is not new. These developments (Duany, Calthorpe, etc...) are antithetical to the notion of urban planning. They are what they appear to be, a new style of suburb that does not produce quite as much environmental guilt in the new residents. In fact, they are more dangerous as a result. Peter Calthorpe started to see the light along these lines some years ago, but I am not sure it retained its luminosity. He and the others have been out building "cities" in the sands and waters of Dubai.

This is the real threat of the "new urbanism." It steals our attention as planners, designers, and architects from the important matters at hand. The important matters are our existing cities, and their infrastructure and other needs. We know that people are moving back to the cities in droves (last two US censuses...censii??). We need to focus our energies there. We should not be continuing to build new suburbs and encouraging people to leave the city. It is not environmentally progressive, and it has become passe.

New Urbanist development is as easy as any suburban development. It sucks up just as many resources, extends just as many roads and freeways, and chews up nearly as much farmland and greenbelt. Let's focus our energies and talents where they will make the most lasting differences and the greatest environmental savings. If Mr. Duany wants to be really challenged his shop should throw away the "new urban greenfield" concepts and focus his energy on real, exisiting, "not new" urban places. Bt then, that requires more thought.

New Urbanists And Regional Context

People who criticize the New Urbanists for ignoring the regional context and ignoring existing urban areas should remember that:

- Portland OR's regional plan began with a study by Peter Calthorpe. This plan has led to a large increase in housing downtown, and it also includes some new greenfield developments that are much more walkable and transit-oriented than conventional suburbs.

- Andres Duany organized New Urbanists to replan the entire region around NOLA following Hurricane Katerina, with the goal of revitalizing existing urban areas and making the region more walkable and transit-oriented.

But how often do they have the opportunity to reshape an entire region? So far, they have done what they can do. Maybe Obama's push for smart growth will let them do more.

Charles Siegel

In praise of old urbanism

I haven't looked closely at their plans, but the idea of New Urbanists taking over the planning of New Orleans gives me the heebie-jeebies. NOLA is a great city, albeit one with a number of big problems --- poverty, crime, and flooding. But a lack of good urbanism was never the problem in New Orleans.

New Urbanists bring a top-down, large-scale approach to urban design, creating a simulation of urbanism that's really just an improved suburbia. But the development pattern of older cities like New Orleans and other was very different -- sure, there'd be the occasional large development, but largely the idea was to set a basic framework for an area, laying out the streets and utilities and plotting out the land into parcels. The actual decisions about what would get built were made by developers who would build a few blocks at a time or even individually by the people who bought the parcels, and the result was a very fine-grained and well-integrated differentiation of the urban space. This was individuals or small developers making choices about what to build within the context of existing or adjacent neighborhoods.

The focus on New Orleans needs to be (a) strengthening the levee system and the overall environmental health of the delta, and (b) helping individual homeowners and shopowners rebuild their neighborhoods. Maybe the New Urbanists are doing this, and I'm barking up the wrong tree. But if they are doing it, then it's something altogether different from what New Urbanists have done in the past.

NOLA Sprawl

a lack of good urbanism was never the problem in New Orleans. New Urbanists bring a top-down, large-scale approach to urban design, creating a simulation of urbanism that's really just an improved suburbia.

The city of New Orleans proper has excellent urbanism, of course, but the surrounding region has lots of sprawl. I think the main thing the New Urbanists were trying to do there was to rein in the sprawl of the region and replace it with walkable town centers. That is indeed an improved suburbia.

In Portland, of course, they have been trying to replace the suburban sprawl with walkable town centers and also to add lots of housing in Portland proper, both in walkable neighborhoods and in downtown. That is improved suburbia and an improved city.

Are you against improving suburbia? Given that Americans are not going to abandon suburbia, it clearly needs to be improved and made less auto dependent.

the development pattern of older cities like New Orleans and other was very different -- sure, there'd be the occasional large development, but largely the idea was to set a basic framework for an area, laying out the streets and utilities and plotting out the land into parcels. The actual decisions about what would get built were made by developers who would build a few blocks at a time or even individually by the people who bought the parcels, and the result was a very fine-grained and well-integrated differentiation of the urban space.

That was the development pattern not just of older cities but also of older small towns and street-car suburbs, and I wish we could bring it back. Do you have any practical ideas about how to bring it back? In reality, most developers are much larger now then they were back then, and people all have automobiles now, so if we just abandon planning, we will get shopping malls, business parks, and tract housing rather than fine-grained urbanism.

Charles Siegel

Old vs. New Urbanism

Charles - you make a good point about the areas outside of Orleans Parish.

Do you have any practical ideas about how to bring it back?

I wish I did! I think the key may lie in the financing, but I don't know much about financing. From a zoning point of view, there could perhaps be limits on developing more than a certain number of parcels on a block at the same time, or under the same ownership, etc., but I'm not sure of the legality of that.

All the same, I think this can be done while retaining land use regulations and development standards.

This is kind of my pet idea and I enjoy floating it around to try to improve it and figure out specifics of how it could work.

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