Our Town?

The nostalgic New Urbanism is running into trouble in the real world

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The so-called New Urbanism—the one new movement in architecture that is actually building on any scale worth noting—is based on some very old ideas about the importance of community, accessibility, and diversity; about porches, town greens, and corner stores. It embraces some potent ideas about town planning, primarily the realization that sprawl must be stopped and zoning codes rewritten. And now that a handful of neotraditional communities are springing to life—from Laguna West, California, to Kentlands, Maryland, and Seaside, Florida—New Urbanist theories are being tested by the realities of practice. With this testing have come concerns about just how much genuine community can be built into these new old towns.

The architectural academy is voicing criticism about the nostalgia factor implicit in traditional town aesthetics and the hint of privilege that comes when carriage houses come before affordable housing. “The social claims of neotraditional planning are absurd,” Margaret Crawford, head of the architectural history program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, told the Los Angeles Times (March 18, 1995). “New Urbanism has some good designs and ideas but it is fixated on an outmoded way of life.”

Even more relevant criticism comes from those experienced with building new old towns. In Progressive Architecture (Aug. 1995), John Torti, president of the full-service building firm of CHK Architects and Planners in Silver Spring, Maryland, complained that the New Urbanism “falls down in the implementation.” Architects and developers, Torti explains, are quick to admire the concept; but then the second tier of decision makers—school boards, lenders, marketers, street departments—compromise the plans by refusing to rethink outmoded conventions. An example: Narrow streets, a key element in small-town aesthetics, are difficult to get approved by street engineers determined to give cars the widest possible berth. The only recourse is to make the street private and pass the burden onto homeowners. This is one more reason—along with high standards in materials and design—why homes in these developments tend to cost more than average. Although the original New Urbanists have always tried to design for economic and social diversity, cost discrepancies threaten to make the new old towns practically gated communities. As architectural historian Vincent Scully notes poignantly in an essay in The New Urbanism, by Peter Katz (McGraw-Hill, 1994), “[If] Seaside and the others cannot in the end offer viable models for [housing the poor in a shared community], they will remain entirely beautiful but rather sad.”