What are the economic, environmental, and social implications of automobile-dependent, single-use-based patterns of development and what are the alternatives? This presentation is an introduction to the principles of New Urbanism, including a brief history of the Congress for the New Urbanism, characteristics of great towns and neighborhoods, and an examination of successful New Urbanist towns, urban infill projects, and tactical strategies.
The potential impact of the New Urbanism on the future of Oklahoma cannot be overstated. It is well known and well publicized that the two largest demographic segments with the most influential buying power in the housing market today are the millennials and the boomers, and they are going to have significant impacts on the built environment in the immediate future. Nationwide both groups are clamoring for the urban experience of walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. The most forward-thinking and resilient cities have been responding to these demands for a couple of decades now, generating long-term wealth through their ability to attract and retain the creative class and the businesses they generate and support. Although Tulsa is behind the curve in investing in this new housing paradigm, this is an especially exciting time for Tulsa as more and more people are beginning to realize the positive implications – socially, environmentally, and economically – of good design for the way we live.
The New Urbanism has been around for over thirty years and spans a wide range of issues at its focus: from a desire for more aesthetically and culturally enriching towns and cities as alternatives to conventional sprawl, to environmental concerns, to social interests, to health benefits, to economic concerns. At its core, the New Urbanism is about improving the quality of life for all citizens and helping communities to flourish over successive generations.
Background & Principles
To start, The “New” Urbanism is really nothing new at all. Aside from some new policy-making tools, it is essentially a movement that has evolved from where traditional urbanism left off in the 1920s. Several factors came into play in the history of the United States that led to today’s dominant form of sprawl development (what James Howard Kunstler refers to as the “Geography of Nowhere”, where every place feels just like everywhere else without much of a distinction, without character, without much to love and to be proud to call home). Some of these factors included the intentional dismantling of America’s street car systems by the automobile industry, the implementation of the Federal Highway Act, Urban Renewal projects on an unprecedented scale, a shift in federal loan regulations incentivizing the abandonment of housing in downtowns, and the gamble on the experiment of single-use zoning ordinances.
The New Urbanism came onto the scene in the 1980s with the hope of providing alternatives to sprawl development and finding ways of revitalizing our cities. Proponents of the ideas behind the movement began as early as Jane Jacobs in the 1960s with her still influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Other support for valuing our cities came out of the start of the historic preservation movement around this time, and among the first environmental advocates such as Rachel Carson with her work Silent Spring. In 1991, a group of academics, practitioners, environmentalists, and community leaders got together in Sacramento and drafted what came to be known as the Ahwahnee Principles. Following on the success of this effort was the establishment of the Congress for the New Urbanism or the CNU. The CNU has drafted a Charter of the New Urbanism and it enumerates 27 design principles essential to making sustainable neighborhoods. The following principles are key among them:
Walkability to a Mix of Uses
Our fundamental way of navigating the world is on foot and the healthiest, most dynamic, safest, and most prosperous cities are built around the notion of being able to walk to a diversity of uses for daily needs. A good measuring point for walkability is the ¼ mile radius, which is about a 5 min. walk, and the distance on average that one is comfortable walking to get to a typical destination point (whether it be to go shopping, to go to work, to go to school, to go to a park, to go to church, etc.).
One of the many issues we are struggling to combat in the single-use model of zoning is the lack of access to basic goods and services for anyone too young, too old, or not otherwise capable of driving. This makes aging-in place a difficult thing to do in suburban neighborhoods, causes a feeling of being trapped and unable to explore independence in teenagers, and places considerable burdens on those living below the poverty level.
Hand-in-hand with walkability is bike and transit access. What more and more people desire is to be able to reduce the number of cars they own or in some cases to be rid of them altogether. Keep in mind that the New Urbanism, however, is not about getting rid of the automobile. It is pro having options, and providing safe streets and complete streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, street cars, and automobiles is a part of what makes a successful neighborhood. According to the most recent report published by the AAA, the national average cost of owning and maintain a sedan is $9,000 / year. Imagine what having an additional $750 / month to put toward savings or a mortgage could mean for the average family if that was an option.
Placemaking & Spatial Definition
Spatially defined gathering places are the medium of civic life. Public life unfolds in the streets and squares of our cities where any number of activities may take place from organized events to chance encounters with friends and neighbors. There are certain characteristics of places that make them successful, and key among them is a well-defined space by buildings – what can be likened to an “outdoor room”. In our built habitats we have a natural instinct as human beings to desire enclosure. Think about young children and how they love to find spaces that are scaled to their size: a nook in window seat or a small fort under a table. The solvent of placemaking, however, is surface parking lots. We are not nearly as likely to stop our cars in the middle of traffic to have a conversation with a friend we encounter on our way somewhere as we would if we were walking on a sidewalk, and big surface lots at the front of a building do little to encourage engagement with others.
A Hierarchy of Public Spaces & Civic Buildings
The historical city consists of background and foreground buildings, with prominent sites reserved for the most important civic buildings. Much of the navigability and collective identity of a city revolves around the clear distinction between public and private buildings. Imagine, for example, the cultural aspirations embodied in the appropriately sited acropolis in Athens. By contrast, what is the message we convey when we make no distinction between the quality of design, materials, and location of our schools, post offices, courthouses, libraries, etc. from the cheap construction so often employed in strip-commercial shopping centers? There is also an important legibility of a great city that has an appropriate hierarchy of spaces and buildings. Imagine, for instance, the sequence of moving through Boston from the most public plaza to the most private dwelling. You begin in a great public square, move down a grand boulevard, turn onto an avenue, cross over to a neighborhood street, enter into a semi-public forecourt, step inside a semi-private lobby, ascend a staircase, and arrive at your private apartment looking back over the city you have navigated below.
Two New Urbanist projects of early significance are Seaside, FL and the Kentlands, MD. Seaside was the first new town to be built following the traditional urban design principles of making walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods since WWII. It has a beautiful public square, a commercial street on axis with a church, and a school on a gracious lawn. It began in 1981, with initial lots sold for $15,000. The quality of public space and the subsequent desirability of Seaside as a tourist destination was a huge financial success. Within a decade the lots escalated to $200,000 and today most of the lots on average sell for around a million dollars.
The overwhelming financial success of early New Urbanist projects raises criticisms that these new town developments are beautiful but they only cater to the wealthy. The next major new town development sought to address this in the Kentlands. Unlike Seaside, the Kentlands is the permanent home of its residents, and it boasts a much broader range of dwelling types at varying price points, from 4-story apartment buildings to 3-story live/work units to attached rowhouses to detached single-family houses to ancillary carriage house apartments. This traditional integrated mix of unit types enables the catering of multiple price-points within the same neighborhood. The Kentlands incorporates a school, a church, a network of public parks and green spaces, a main square with commercial uses on the ground floor, and big-box retail on the edge of the town. It is also in close proximity to Washington, D.C.’s metro line services.
These early projects demonstrated the possibilities for new town development where new types of form-based code were adopted that enabled the spatial qualities necessary for successful mixed-use towns. While new town development remains a key part of New Urbanism, many developers are looking today at the much more complicated process of incorporating these planning principles in the context of existing cities. Desirable sites today include brownfield redevelopment and urban infill projects with the transformation of downtown sites that have long-remained underdeveloped.
State of the Movement
Since the early projects a wealth of New Urbanist development and design topics have been explored. Leading advocates of the movement today are turning their attention to the topics of form-based codes, transit-oriented-development, complete streets, healthy lifestyles, children’s mental development, crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), resilient cities, sprawl retrofit, agrarian urbanism, lean urbanism, and tactical urbanism.
Regional and local successes are proliferating from large-scale public/private partnerships to small-scale improvements invested over time. In Oklahoma, two New Urbanist new towns are beginning to take shape. Carlton Landing at Lake Eufaula was the first of its kind to break ground in the state and is cultivating a traditional craft of load-bearing brick masonry. The more urban counterpart to Carlton Landing is the Wheeler District in Oklahoma City. Located on the river, this new town plan is still in the planning stages and will accommodate permanent residences within biking distance to the city’s downtown. Beyond the scale of these new towns, there are many areas of improvement where the principles of the New Urbanism can be employed in our neighborhoods and cities. These include strengthening transit corridors, improving neighborhood centers, and utilizing undeveloped land on infill sites at the scale of the block or the individual lot.
Again, we have reached an exciting time of transformation here in Tulsa and in our region. We made the New York Times list of the top fifty must-see places in 2015 because of our rich cultural heritage and the wise investments in the built environment made by those who came before us. What will be our chances of making that list in the coming generations if we do not engage again in the principles of making walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and cities?