The New in New Urbanism

A Response to Witold Rybczynski's Criticism of New Urbanism

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"(W)hile new urbanists have attempted to shed their small town/suburban/Truman Show image, they have had no similarly successful and exemplary big-city project. No High Line. No Disney Hall. No Fifteen Central Park West." So wrote architecture critic Witold Rybczynski on his blog recently.  As you might imagine, this caused a stir of reactions among new urbanists, epitomized by the following response from Bruce Donnelly, an urban planner, writer and new urbanist:

Rybczynski seems to be asking for iconic and influential examples of New Urbanism, but evidently discounts Seaside, Celebration, and other good examples. Perhaps that's because we use comfortable and familiar design to ingratiate our principles.

Certainly, our plans and codes are iconic in a way. I'd say Miami 21 is the most significant so far. It has both regulatory and educational value. But it isn't so much that it's iconic in itself. The aspect that's iconic is the idea that a code should explain and enable not some, well, Euclidean ideal, but its city’s best existing qualities. It is our ideas, not any particular projects, that are iconic.

CNU's Highways to Boulevards is one. Lots of people have deplored urban expressways, but the     CNU’s Highways to Boulevards initiative identifies the problem and also the solution. In that way it's typical of what the New Urbanism offers almost uniquely. We identify the problem, a solution, and a path between the two that most people think strange, even perverse.

Another example, which seems obvious to us but which seems odd to most people, is filling sprawl. I don't think we realize how odd it is in our culture to look at Wal-Mart parking lots and mourn absent streetscapes.

Finance is another. Most people try to figure out how to make money doing what sells, but we try to figure out how to make enough money to sell what we want to live in. Ecologically-minded people do part of that: figuring out how to make the limits we need to live within palatable, but they don't do the full-scale reverse engineering we do. We reverse-engineer all the way back to why we want what we want – not just how to do what we want more efficiently. What we do is almost the negative of a paradox. We figure out how Zeno's arrow hit its mark.

Perhaps at this point we're too comfortable working our way backward to timeless desires, and have simply come to accept that we are being tired and old-fashioned. However, we should remember that we really are in New territory. We might like the "messy vitality" of pre-war urbanism, but we should remember that back then, the messy part was considered ugly and the vital part was considered suspect – and probably furr'in. We might like walkable, livable communities, but we should remember that those concerns were considered effeminate or unsophisticated. We're historically anomalous in making an ideal of what used to be considered a bad compromise.

If anything, we should embrace and document this perversity. If we're accused of inauthenticity, we should explain just how "authenticity" screws people out of livability. If we're accused of looking backward, we should ask how else, exactly, we are meant to pack up our culture for an uphill and northerly retreat from rising waters. And if we're accused of a dearth of New ideas, we should be prepared to explain how we got our critics to think what we wanted.

I think that we hold back too much from the full promise of recombinant urbanism. To the extent that we're an American movement, we should assimilate lessons voraciously from the cultures that still (almost inexplicably) come to us. We should position ourselves against the astringent aesthetic of most architectural "journalism," with a full-bodied appreciation of just how cool is a three-mile-long baroque garden axis, or a self-supporting boveda vault one brick thick. Modernity has some 'splainin to do. Aggressively eclectic problem solving and design is probably our second wind now that we're in striking distance of our initial goals.

So we have two answers. The first is that we helped our culture to do on purpose what our great grandparents took for granted and our grandparents thought wasn't modern enough. The second is that we have begun to fight back against the notion that it is our historical duty to distance ourselves from our heritage.