“The New Urbanism” - Promoting Urban Communities

The Boston Globe

By Sam Low 

Winston Churchill once said, “we shape our buildings and they shape us.”

Shaping us through our buildings, in a slump since the failure of Urban Renewal in the 60s and 70s, is now undergoing a renaissance under the banner of a group who call themselves, somewhat ponderously, the Council on New Urbanism. Their approach to planning is anything but ponderous. It's expressed in places like Seaside , Florida , a community of brightly painted buildings reminiscent of the gingerbread campground cottages of Martha's Vineyard . But while Seaside is widely known for its traditional architectural style, the new urbanists are after something much deeper. They want to create communities. They promise to reenergize our cities through planned neighborhoods linked to lively downtowns by pedestrian paths. They aim to derail our obsessive love affair with the car and return to mass transit and walking; to do away with strip malls in favor of local shops; to create places where people meet each other in informal ways as they do in small towns.


But not without conflict. Some, including professors at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, accuse the new urbanists of falling short of creating truly urban environments. Seaside, they say, represents a kind of “New Suburbanism” because of its low density and rural location. Ada Louise Huxtable, the doyen of architectural critics, charges them with fakery, of substituting cute and contrived settlements for real ones. Others point out that such places may be communities, but for whom? The cost of buying a home there leaves out the urban poor.


Because the movement is new and its practitioners must work for a living, the critique of existing new urbanist work carries some clout. Seaside, for example, has by all accounts achieved a high degree of neighborliness through design, but its success has also been its undoing. It's become so popular that homes there can no longer be considered “affordable.” While it may be true that the settlement is contrived to recall the flavor of traditional architecture, does that make it any less real? What's most important is that by focusing on particular developments and their purported short-comings, critics miss the larger point - the New Urbanism presents a coherent set of planning principles designed to reinvigorate urban places and provide a meaningful alternative to suburban sprawl.


Most NU principles have been deduced from successful cities such as Boston which Mayor Thomas Menino, in a recent Globe article, characterized as a quilt “of many small urban villages.” The term “urban village” was first coined by MIT professor Herb Gans to describe the vibrant communal life he discovered in Boston 's West End . Ironically, in one of the city's greatest urban renewal failures, the West End was demolished so that Charles River Park, high rise towers for the elite, could be built atop the bulldozed foundations of this once vibrant ethnic neighborhood. Much has been learned since then.


In the Boston area, a number of developments involve NU principles. West End Place, for example, which is nearing completion on the last remaining parcel of that old West End “urban village.” Keen Development Corporation together with the Archdiocese of Boston will offer 183 new apartments priced to attract low, moderate and market rate residents who will ultimately self-govern the property as a cooperative. A landscaped courtyard over the parking garage will create a place for residents to meet each other informally and street level retail space will help blend the building with the hub-bub of Causeway Street and Bulfinch Triangle. West End Place embraces the NU principles of mixed-use and mixed-income occupancy. Outside the urban center, The Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation has built 500 units of affordable in-fill rental housing and 58 home ownership units in North Dorchester and East Roxbury and two large commercial buildings in the Upham's Corner business district. Working with local residents and merchants, they have created what director Jean DuBois calls “a walkable town center” so that people can shop locally without having to go to malls, and they are now developing a five acre industrial park to stimulate jobs for local residents. Another example is Harbor Point, once Columbia Point, a devastated public housing project near the University of Massachusetts Campus . Here, private developers combined forces with the exiting tenants' task force to build mixed income apartments - a diverse new community which meets NU criteria for integrating people of different incomes, ethnicity and race.


At a recent meeting in Providence , the New Urbanists elevated their goals beyond particular buildings and neighborhoods by uniting with powerful environmental and preservationist groups concerned with the flight of employment and people to the suburbs. Preservationists understand that if suburbanization drains life from the city there will be no impetus to restore historic buildings. Conservationists are concerned that suburban sprawl eats away at sustaining rural environments and they worry about commuter traffic pumping pollutants into the air. NU practitioners fear that abandoned city neighborhoods and faceless suburban developments reduce a vital sense of community.


To combat sprawl, this new coalition has moved away from debating the values of suburban versus urban life to focus on the costs of suburbanization. It has long been an axiom that development enhances the local tax base. Not true, say the new urbanists - sprawl is expensive. An example: the town of Pittsford , New York , purchased 1200 acres of farmland to preserve it from development by floating a ten million dollar bond issue. Town planners calculated that providing services and schools for subdivisions built on that farm land would cost each taxpayer an additional $200 a year indefinitely, while paying off the bond issue would cost only $67 a year for 20 years.


In the jargon of the planning trade, pristine rural areas like the Pittsford farmland are called “ greenfield ” sites, while urban areas are referred to as “brownfield” sites because they often contain pollutants left behind by past uses. Greenfield sites are “no brainer” development deals because there is no pollution to remove; because banks, familiar with the success of cookie cutter suburban developments, are eager to lend money for them; and because zoning is often non existent and building permits easy to obtain. This ease of development, coupled with GI Bill subsidies and government road building, accounts in large part for our sprawling suburbs. A brownfield developer, on the other hand, must wend his way through a maze of permitting agencies, clean up a plethora of pollutants, and convince banks to lend money for what is often a more risky return. To encourage urban revitalization, the new urbanists call for brownfield incentives - simplified building and zoning codes, flexibility in meeting standards of environmental cleanliness (or at least a meaningful public-private partnership to clean up brownfield sites), and bankers with a commitment to the cities where they do business.


Blending the perspectives of many groups has led to a larger NU vision which considers the entire settlement pattern of city and suburb - a regional perspective. New Jersey is now developing a regional plan to prevent sprawl in sensitive areas such as the Pine Barrens by forbidding sewers, highways or electric lines in them. The state is also exploring ways to transfer funds from suburbs to cities. Similar regional plans are underway in, among others, Oregon , Maryland , Florida and Washington State . And because good urban schools cannot be provided by local real estate taxes which favor the suburbs, Vermont is considering redistributing tax money among towns and cities to equalize schools across the state. “What we are all doing,” says Wendy Nicholas of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “is advocating the continued viability of our urban centers and existing communities by stemming the tide that is gobbling up our forests, wetlands and coastlines.”


The New urbanist agenda provides, perhaps for the first time, a coherent strategy that aims to not only revive urban neighborhoods and entire cities but to sustain rural towns and pristine landscapes as well. Reversing the flight to the suburbs requires massive changes in how we finance and build our communities as well as how we perceive them. It will not be easy. Who wouldn't want to live in a clean well lighted place free of crime, and with a back yard to boot? The key to enticing people back into the cities, according to the new urbanists, is to provide urban neighborhoods with these same suburban amenities (perhaps excepting the back yard) along with a sense of community engendered by focusing one's activities locally so that you meet your neighbors during the daily churn of activity - shopping, walking, visiting the bank or post office. “It's about how you want to live,” says Dorchester 's Jean DuBois, “Do you want to raise your kids in a healthy mixed neighborhood or in a neighborhood where everyone is the same?” In the end, the New Urbanism is about providing a new urban alternative, and that is a goal to applaud as we move into the next millennium.