Aerial of Lancaster Boulevard, the cover image of 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism. Photo by Tamara Leigh Photography.

New Urbanism growing through great ideas

Revisiting the 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism shows how the movement and world have changed in the last half decade.

I wrote 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism to celebrate the first quarter century of the Congress for the New Urbanism, founded in 1993. It was published as an electronic book in the fall of 2017.

As I revisit this book after CNU recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, I am struck by the low level of redundancy. The book features more than 50 interviewees discussing New Urbanism in 25 separate interviews. One would expect much repetition with so many different voices and a common topic. The richness and depth of New Urbanism prevented that outcome. These conversations cover many important aspects of the built environment—the human habitat and the setting for our individual and collective lives. There is a new urbanist way of thinking about all of these aspects—in fact, most of the ideas came out of the New Urbanism.

Since 2017, the world has changed dramatically. Surprisingly, most of the interviews still sound fresh and relevant. A few predictions, particularly related to technology, did not pan out. For example, that was a time of great hype for autonomous vehicles, and one new urbanist predicted a massive adoption that has yet to occur and is nowhere on the horizon. There have also been economic and demographic changes, particularly a population decline in big US cities that no one predicted five years ago. Overall, the chapters and interviews are highly relevant today to urban planners, designers, architects, developers, and public officials.

Throughout the movement's history, change has been the catalyst for innovation. The first big opportunity came soon after The Charter of the New Urbanism was signed, and public housing in the US was in crisis. New urbanists offered better design ideas—alternatives to the mid-20th Century modernist planning that produced projects like Pruitt-Igoe—that have been influential in public housing design ever since, as you can read in Chapter 20. Something similar happened 20 years ago when many cities began to extend rail systems—and needed to design around station areas. The 20th Century park-and-ride template would not cut it, and transit-oriented development ideas soon began to spread.

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 greatly impacted New Urbanism—as all the financing for large developments dried up for many years. Some speculated at the time that New Urbanism could disappear and become a historical movement—much like the City Beautiful and Garden City movements of the early 20th Century, wiped out by the Great Depression. But that was not to be. The explicit multi-scale conception of New Urbanism (block/street/building, neighborhood/district/corridor, town/city/region) saved the movement, which adapted by focusing on the smallest scale. Some of the most important ideas came out of that time: including Incremental Development, Missing Middle, Tactical Urbanism, and Lean Urbanism. 

What has happened since the 25 Great Ideas was published is equally dramatic. A global pandemic, a housing affordability crisis, and other catalysts have spurred new ideas. If I updated this book today, I might include: The Project for Code Reform, car-free urbanism, mid-block urbanism, the 15-minute city, pre-approved housing plans (Pattern Zones), and Health Districts, among other ideas. So far, new urbanists and their allies seem to be addressing at least one new Great Idea a year. 

For example, the Project for Code Reform (PCR) is only briefly mentioned in the 25 Great Ideas because the concept was quite new in 2017 and had yet to make much of an impact. For many years, it was believed that zoning reform required a complete rewrite of conventional zoning to be effective. That was the idea of form-based codes (FBCs), one of the Great Ideas. As powerful as FBCs are and continue to be, they typically take many years and substantial resources to implement. In recent years, practitioners have recognized that a few surgical changes to a conventional zoning ordinance can quickly make a big difference. At a time when millions of living spaces are needed now, changes like eliminating minimum parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units or other missing middle housing types are widely needed without the burden of a zoning rewrite. This reform is coming from local and state legislation. Through PCR, CNU has worked with US states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Incremental code reform is a great idea for jurisdictions governing land use.

Car-free urbanism is another exciting idea to emerge through new urban design. The ironically-named Culdesac company has built a project in Tempe, Arizona, with zero parking for an entire neighborhood of 636 houses. The small commercial center serving Culdesac Tempe has a few parking spaces, but there is no place to store a car for the residents. Residents have other options to get around, including transit, car-share, micro-mobility, biking, and walking. As author and planner Jeff Speck described, this shift has resulted in some extraordinary urban design. “In many American cities, more than 50 percent of the land area is pavement for moving and storing vehicles. In Culdesac, the same amount of property will be dedicated to paseos, courtyards, plazas, and parks. While it has access to transit, it will also include coffee shops, restaurants, markets, coworking spaces, pools, and other amenities on site.” This car-free idea lowers household costs and substantially reduces carbon emissions for those who want to make more of a difference. To the economic reward, New Urbanism adds quality of life.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then opportunity is the midwife. New Urbanism historically focused on the block perimeter, but I am fascinated with the recent attention to the middle of the block. There is a world of opportunity to create housing in every city and town with an intimate design that is nearly impossible on streets that carry automobile traffic. Thousands of miles of desolate alleys and underutilized urban block centers are surely the setting for a great idea as practitioners address them one by one.

The most controversial idea currently is the 15-minute city—an extension of the five-minute walk neighborhood, a Great Idea that has never been very controversial. Somehow planning for a larger walkable and bikeable area that provides access to some version of daily, weekly, and occasional human needs has triggered fear among some of authoritarian planning. This is likely an effect of the recent pandemic and lockdowns, but there is nothing authoritarian about planning a city to be walkable. For thousands of years, cities and towns were planned this way out of necessity.

I recently watched a Netflix documentary series on Blue Zones—places around the globe where a disproportionate number of people reach 100 years old in good health. Much attention was given to the built environment that encourages such outcomes, involving substantial overlap with the new urbanist way of thinking. Many chapters of the 25 Great Ideas touch upon health, but this area is still open for more exploration.

The 25 Great Ideas looks at a movement through the lens of the many ideas that New Urbanism has promoted, but it is also an oral history. Each chapter looks backward and forward at the events that shaped a given trend or idea, providing a piece of New Urbanism's larger puzzle. What emerges is the picture of a design philosophy that is living, breathing, growing, and helping shape the world around us. A half-decade later, it is encouraging that the movement continues to produce and address new ideas that start small and spread to the point where they impact people’s lives.

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