How much can New Urbanism evolve and still be New Urbanism?

This was originally going to be a response to a comment that Mr. Corbusier left on this post. But I got a little carried away so I decided to make it a post of its own.

Mr. Corbusier,

The quality of your response was far more than my off-the-cuff comment deserved. I only wish that I was more capable of upholding my end of the bargain.

You are quite right to observe that my term “commercial architecture” refers to architecture that was not conceived of by architects. That was my whole point in bringing “commercial architecture” up. I should have made that more clear.

If you can bear with me, I shall try to elaborate on that point a little more. Hopefully that will give you a better idea of what I was trying to get at.

As I see it, the post-war architecture of this country was shaped by Eisenhower and Sam Walton. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, of course. But the point is that we did not become a nation of suburbs and big box retailers because architectural theories of the time called for those things. In fact, such things were the exact opposite of what the Modernist theories called for.

Now the fact that professional architects have had very little influence on how this country developed is not surprising. Architecture the world over has developed organically with professional architects only serving as bit players in a larger drama. The structure of how we live is too complicated to be controlled by one profession.

But the post-World War II period does seem unprecedented in one architectural respect. I can’t think of any other time in history when the ideas governing the minds of the professional architects were in complete hostility to what was actually taking place in the vast majority of construction. Granted, the architecture that the professionals design has always been different from what the common man was building. But the difference was in kind, not in principle.

For example, Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for what would become Washington D.C was for a city far grander than any small town of the day. But the people who lived in those times would not have found any principle in L’Enfant’s plan that was opposed to how their little towns were laid out. In fact, you could make the argument that L’Enfant’s plan was just a scaled up version of how the typical American town was laid out.

But there were no such shared principles between Modernism and the shopping malls and suburban developments that the baby boomers were building. The gulf between what the culture wanted and what the architects wanted to provide was unbridgeable. They might as well have been on different planets.

I don’t know if you agree with that view of architectural history or not. But such a view is why I said in my comment on your blog….

On the other hand, it is at least theoretically possible that the principles of New Urbanism could become a realistic type of architecture for the average person. To my mind, then, the natural comparison for New Urbanism would be to the commercial architecture that is being put up where most Americans live. In other words, can New Urbanism replace strip malls, subdivisions, and Mc-mansions?

To rephrase my point, why compare New Urbanism to Modernism when Modernism never had anything to do with reality in first place? Why not compare New Urbanism to how people actually built homes and places to shop over that last thirty to forty years?

We can come at this comparison from two different ways. We can compare New Urbanism ideals against ideals that govern what is actually being built. Or we can compare what New Urbanism actually accomplishes compared to what “commercial architecture” actually accomplishes.

I am a bit of dreamer, so I don’t mind discussing abstract things like ideals. But I think you and I both agree that the ideals of New Urbanism will never be fully realized. So the direction of conversation seems to be moving in the more practical direction.

But this poses us some problems. There is not much out there that has been built according to New Urbanism principles yet. So our discussions of what it might accomplish are almost as pie in the sky as a discussion of what New Urbanism’s ideals would be. Still, there are points on which I would like to hear more from you if you have the time.

For example, you say….

I do not believe that the failure for New Urbanism to generate the pedestrian traffic it promises throws it to the dustbin of urban planning fads. Rather, I think it will evolve from its naive academic roots towards a more workable and flexible theory driven by the commercial realities of the times.

Let us say that you are right. Let us say New Urbanism will evolve from its naïve academic roots. What is to keep New Urbanism from evolving right into the “commercial architecture” that we already have? Remember subdivisions and other forms of “commercial architecture” came about because of developers chasing the profit motive. What is to keep the profit motive from turning New Urbanism into the same old thing?

To put it another way, how far from its naive academic principles can New Urbanism evolve and still be New Urbanism? What are the lines in the sand as it were?

Another point that I would like to discuss more would be where you say…

As you may have noted, it’s easier to find a lot more foot traffic in the big box retailers than in any quaint historic town square.

As you said, I brought this point up earlier. But there is another side to this point besides just noting the failure of New Urbanism to generate pedestrian traffic. It also challenges us to think about the reasons for wanting pedestrian traffic to begin with. Do we want pedestrian traffic to save energy? Do we want pedestrian traffic to build a sense of community?

The foot traffic at a big box retailer accomplishes neither of those goals. And it is easy for me to imagine someone building a New Urbanism type development that has the foot traffic of a big box retailer and yet is no more successful at meeting either of those goals. Would such a development have accomplished anything of added value?

I guess the core of my all my questions revolve around this statement that you made…..

But a retail-based urban density clothed in New Urbanism is still a more pleasing alternative than your strip mall or big box power center with oceans of parking and zero street life.

Would you care to elaborate more on why a New Urbanism type shopping area is more pleasing than a big box retail area? If I don’t have much of a social connection in either place, what do I gain? A better looking environment?

Obviously this question is a little hard to discuss in the abstract. So let me tell you about a town near where I live.

This town has everything a proponent of New Urbanism could want. No matter where you are in town, you are never further than three or four blocks away from a bank, the school, the library, a place to work (a large and well run factory), a grocery store, and a variety of other small stores. Not too far from the town center is a lumber yard. The town has its own municipal power company that gives cheap power to anyone who lives in town.

The place is beautiful. You would never believe that such a large factory could fit so well right in the middle of a small town. It has everything you would think that a perfect town would need. Everything is well kept up. It has sidewalks and a town center with parking so everyone can get out and walk around.

But as best as I can tell, the town is turning into one glorified suburb. To start with, you have to understand that house prices in this town are far higher then equivalent houses in the suburbs of the closest city (about twenty miles away). Judging from anecdotal evidence I would say that most of people who live in this town work in the city that is twenty miles away. Because of this, most of the people who work in the factory that is in this town or the other local jobs can not afford houses in town.

This is not because their pay is poor. The factory workers could easily afford houses in the suburbs of the city 20 miles away. They just can’t afford to live close to where they work. So you have the ironic situation of people driving 10 to 20 miles to go to work in this town, and most of the people who live in the town are driving 20 miles or more to go to work. Needless to say the social fabric of this town is coming apart.

Now a lot of what I told you is based on anecdotal evidence. But it is indisputable that the prices in this town are higher than the equivalent house in the suburbs of the near by city. Furthermore, there is so much traffic on the road leading to the nearest city that there are plans in the works to put in a multi-lane highway to replace it. So I doubt my anecdotal evidence is too far off.

Obviously this has not happened overnight. There still seems to be a fair amount of community spirit amongst the old timers. But the bottom line is the same. Yuppies like the look of the place so they are turning it into a suburb. And this is happening in spite of the fact that the necessary architecture for a functioning community is in place.

This is what I see happening to New Urbanism style developments. You hope to avoid this by effectively integrating the retail space. But from everything I have heard from those who like to shop, the popular places to shop are those retail areas that are too big to be serviced by a local community. In other words, the sheer number of things that you can buy seems to be the primary draw for even the up-market shoppers.

If this is true, effective retail areas are going to have to be outsized relative to their immediate community. Otherwise, everyone will drive off to the shopping areas that have “everything.” By extension, this means that an effective retail area will have to pull in large numbers of people from outside the community. Thus, even if you live near those shopping areas, most of the people you see will be people you don’t know and have no connection to.

In other words, all I see New Urbanism accomplishing is the functional equivalent of placing houses near a golf course. You may create value-added housing for those who just love to shop. But nothing will really be community based.

As I said, I am interested in hearing your thoughts. I am not dogmatic about how I think New Urbanism is going to turn out. I am just trying to express how things appear to me right now. I can imagine a world where it might be different. In fact, I often wonder what will happen if energy prices really skyrocket (though I can see how even this scenario might work against New Urbanism’s principles).

One last thought before I go. If I was an architect who had to work in urban areas to make a living, I would be trying to make New Urbanism work. The alternatives are just to depressing to work on. But that does not mean that they are not what the future is all about.

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