The distance we’ve come in a decade

New Urban News turns 10 and reviews how the movement has advanced.

Ten years ago this spring, the first issue of New Urban News

appeared. To mark the anniversary, we decided to reread the decade’s worth of newsletters and see what they reveal about New Urbanism’s progress.

Dissatisfaction with sprawl and an automobile-dependent lifestyle was an urgent topic in the mainstream press by May 1996, when our initial 12-page issue came out. Yet few new urbanist alternatives to conventional development had been built. Though the celebrated Seaside resort community in Florida had been underway since the start of the 1980s, the first national survey by New Urban News found that only 44 traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) had broken ground or gotten under construction in the US by the early 1996, and most of these were in the early stages of development.

In light of the “new suburbanism” tag that some critics used when discussing New Urbanism, it’s worth pointing out the first finished project was in fact an urban infill in the largely minority city of Oakland — the opposite of a suburban greenfield site.

New urban infill projects were also advancing in other city or small-town locations, such as Dan Camp’s beautiful Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi; a project in downtown Hayward, California; the redevelopment of Suisun City in California; Victorian Gate in Columbus, Ohio; and the Central Neighborhood in Cleveland. Although most new urbanist production was on previously undeveloped outlying land — as might be expected in a nation whose population was growing by 3.2 million people per year — it took little time for city-based development to start proliferating. A signal moment arrived during the CNU annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1996, when HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros announced that the government would make an initial investment of up to $100 million to build as many as a dozen TNDs in federally designated “Homeownership Zones.” That commitment, which called for mixing differing kinds of housing together, blending compatible uses, and having a network of streets, a center, and an edge, quickly expanded as HUD used the HOPE VI program to replace failed public housing projects with mixed-income developments.

greater infill success

Since then, numerous urban projects — supported by varied sources, including private investment, city governments, and nonprofit institutions — have sprouted in big cities like Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and San Diego, and in smaller cities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Hercules, California. In October 2001 New Urban News reported: “The stereotypical conception of the NU project as [a] nostalgia-tinged, neotraditional ‘village’ with porches and picket fences lives on in the media and in the public consciousness. Today that image is further from reality than ever.”

One sign of the movement’s increasingly urban character — and of its growing attention to regional concerns — has been “transit-oriented development” (TOD). “TOD is an opportunity for us to knit the station back into the community,” Jeff Ordway of Bay Area Rapid Transit said in the December 2000 issue. By that time, the San Francisco Bay Area, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon, were all moving forward with transit villages. Nationwide, New Urban News identified 12 TODs under construction or completed and 17 others in various stages of planning.

In July 2002 a Brookings Institution study found flaws in that trend, observing, “What passes for transit-oriented development these days is usually conventional-style development built adjacent to transit stations.” But the past few years have seen significant progress. Areas around rail stations are increasingly viewed not just as “nodes” where people catch a train but as “places” — settings where a sizable number of people will enjoy working, shopping, and living. The public is starting to recognize the link between transportation and urban design.

In the 1990s, fears were expressed about “hybrids” — developments touting a few new urbanist elements but lacking crucial components such as a network of walkable, extensively connected streets. The concern was that Americans would become confused about what constituted new urbanist or traditional neighborhood development and that this would deal irreparable harm to the movement. The fears were exacerbated by the failure of some proposed new urban developments to get built, either because developers backed out or because governments rejected them when they conflicted with conventional separate-use zoning. Nevertheless, in most regions, a number of genuinely new urban developments have been constructed and have fared well in the market. That New Urbanism is increasingly understood and accepted can be seen in the turnabout of the Urban Land Institute, which now promotes many new urban and “Smart Growth” ideas.

acceptance by the planners

The planning establishment, which Andres Duany used to excoriate, has become quite receptive. In January 1997, New Urban News identified zoning laws as the chief challenge to New Urbanism, and cited municipal resistance to “a mix of uses and housing types, narrower streets, smaller setbacks and other deviations from standard zoning codes.” By contrast, three and a half years later our pages were telling about trailblazing local governments promoting sound development patterns — in places such as Fort Collins, Colorado; Huntersville, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas. In the five and a half years since, the shift has become pronounced. The American Planning Association established a New Urbanism division in 2002, and a growing number of governments have adopted either mandatory or optional codes that facilitate new urbanist development.

To some extent, this reflects the progress that has been made in systematizing New Urbanism’s principles and procedures. Duany, who for some time saw the Lexicon of the New Urbanism as a universal standard for designing neighborhoods and towns, shifted by mid-2000 to refining and propounding the Transect, which organizes development along a gradient from most urban to most rural. The Transect, employed in 2000 by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. in planning for Onondaga County, New York, and by Torti Gallas & Partners in a plan for Albemarle County, Virginia, has become a key new urbanist concept. It serves as the basis of the SmartCode, now being adopted by governments throughout the US. Code reform may have a long way to go, but it is rapidly advancing.

At the level of the building and the block, one remarkable trend has been the acceptance of live-work units and liner buildings. Live-work units suddenly are showing up in cities and suburbs alike. They confirm that new urbanists were right all along in insisting that the government-enforced prohibition against mixing uses had outlived its usefulness. Liner buildings — relatively shallow buildings that can contain shops, offices, or housing and that are meant to hide dull structures such as parking garages or theater auditoriums — have ceased to be just an interesting idea. They have been incorporated into much of the best recent development, such as Christopher Leinberger’s mixed-use redevelopment of downtown Albuquerque.

Continuing challenges? There are plenty. Probably the toughest obstacle is resistance from the transportation engineering profession and state transportation departments. Too many transportation specialists continue to see streets and roads simply as conduits for vehicles, not as settings for community life. Overcoming the recalcitrance of the transportation establishment will likely be one of the chief missions of New Urbanism in the immediate future. The fact that new boulevards and pedestrian-friendly streets are spurring significant real estate investment in cities like Milwaukee and San Francisco will register sooner or later on government officials across North America, and the reign of single-minded transportation engineers will come to an end.

the challenge of affordability

Now that it’s been demonstrated that New Urbanism can win market acceptance and turn a profit for developers — as evidenced by the willingness of large companies like Forest City to undertake big new urban projects — the pressure will be on to show that New Urbanism can deliver housing for people of modest income. There was a time when many new urbanists viewed accessory units (“granny flats”) as a principal means of sprinkling affordable dwellings among more expensive units. Today it appears that some more comprehensive approach may be required — or else New Urbanism will be criticized as serving mainly a middle- and upper-income clientele.

It has been an eventful 10 years. A movement that started out challenging the status quo has made a large impact on planning, development, and the character of communities in the US and beyond. As new urbanist ideas continue to alter the shape of American development, it appears inevitable that New Urbanism will be held to a high standard, possibly being blamed for whatever is wrong with America’s cities and towns. That tendency has already manifested itself in some of the mainstream press’s coverage of post-Katrina planning on the Gulf Coast. Such are the rewards for success in the public arena.