Monday, January 09, 2006

New Urbanism: Too Elitist?

More on the "is New Urbanism a good idea?" theme. Comments welcome, below:

Longtime west Charlotte activist Sue Friday sent this note:
"I just don't think anyone should be advocating new urbanism. I doubt you and I could afford to live in Seaside. The problem with NU is that it encourages people to set themselves up in elitist communities and feel good about it. Birkdale, built away from everything out in a cow pasture and on the wrong side of 77 is a prime example. I think part of its "charm" is exclusivity -- price and distance from undesirable people. Places like that damage Charlotte, drain off strength, $, and energy. It would be so much more exciting if it had been done as redevelopment in some of the older, poorer neighborhoods accessible to everyone. What has been done to the northern end of the county and the small towns there is inexcusable. The worst part is how smug so many of the planners and developers are because they can paste on a NU label."

I disagree. Here's my response:
"Lord knows, there's plenty of elitist development going on around Charlotte, and most of it isn't New Urbanist at all. I don't think it's fair to condemn New Urbanism because it's being applied, in many cases, in suburban locations like Birkdale. In Charlotte, the 'burbs are where almost all the large-scale development is going on. Why condemn New Urbanism -- one style of design -- just because it's being used in greenfield development? Would you rather have a Birkdale looking the way it does, or have another standard-issue regional shopping mall there, a la Northlake?
Yes, we'd both prefer that more development was happening in older, poorer neighborhoods. But it isn't Birkdale's New Urbanist design that caused it to be built where it is or target the markets that it does. The villain in that is the whole larger picture of metro-area development economics.
Since suburban development is going to happen anyway -- much as you and I would prefer to see underused, in-town sites developed instead --why shouldn't it be better designed, better for the environment, more suited to support public transit and more like the neighborhoods that have stood the test of time? Plenty of New Urbanist developments aren't elitist -- although Seaside sure isn't among them. One key New Urbanism principle is to include a range of housing at a range of prices, by including more "affordable" options: apartments over stores, garage apartments and live-work units, etc. etc. Seaside has those places, but Seaside got so popular even the tiny places built to be "affordable" aren't, any more.
Like you, I like places with more age on them. They have more soul. I'd much rather live in Elizabeth than Baxter. I'm not going to be attracted to anything new, even New Urbanist new. But new stuff keeps getting built. And I think New Urbanism is a better option for it than replicating Piper Glen or Hunter Oaks or Foxcroft the ga-zillions of subdivisions named for the landscapes the developer destroys.

The head of the Knight Program for Community Building at University of Miami, where I have a yearlong fellowship, sent a note responding to comments from one or two fellows who criticized New Urbanist developments because they aren't redeveloping existing city neighborhoods, etc. His name is Chuck Bohl. Here's what he wrote:
"In the words of one new urbanist realist, 'New Urbanism cannot prevent tooth decay.' It is not a panacea for all of the challenges of community building, and neither is zoning, housing policy, traffic engineering, social services, economic development, community development and environmental regulation in a vacuum.
"New urbanism restores physical planning and design to the toolkit, and, rather than the urban renewal and heroic Modernist architecture and planning of the 1960s, it espouses relearning how to make walkable, mixed-use places with an attractive public realm of great streets and public gathering places, civic institutions, and a mix of housing types. [New Urbanist] principles have been applied to HOPE VI [public housing] projects, manufactured housing neighborhoods, and all manner of urban infill."


Anonymous said...

Always the Developer as the "evil". Developers react to markets (peoples desires and needs)and build only as they are allowed to build under a multitiered governmental regulatory environment. It is the governmental regulatory environment that mandated low density residential,grouped like uses together with each use in it's place, and every place screened and buffered from its neighbor. Those governmental rules mandated the developments you deem incorrect. Only recently have mixed use and higher density residential been viewed as "correct". Yet, New Urbanism seems to have an snobbery against any other form of development ever being a correct solution.Couple that with New Urbanism being brought to us by the same Planning and Architectural Elite who mandated low density residential, everything in its place development and zoning not so long ago and you have an elitist movement.Attend multi-family or higher density rezoning hearings if you want to know John Q. Public's feelings on New Urbanism in his backyard.

Anonymous said...

Whether it is new urbanism or just good development, it is going to be important to Charlotte's future. What we are seeing in Charlotte is the revitalization of many in-town neighborhoods that have "good bones" and are quality places to live 50-75 years after they were built. Take a drive or a walk through neighborhoods like Sedgefield, Wilmore, Wesley Heights (to name just a few) and you will see neighborhoods transforming before your eyes. It just so happens that these "old" neighborhoods have many of the same characteristics that are now being replicated in new urbanist neighborhoods. On the other hand, we have the same old tired conventional surburban subdivisions being built in the NE, NW and SW that look dilapidated just a few years after they are completed. While our older neighborhoods are being revitalized and seeing dramatic increases in value, many newer neighborhoods are experiencing little to no appreciation in value. This is not good for those homeowners or for the general taxpayer who has to make up the difference when new development doesn't keep pace with the cost of providing services to it. New urbanism is something we need more of in Charlotte, not less. We all need "good bones" and New Urbanism creates a community with good bones.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you folks talk in plain english what the heck is new or good bones?
Why do you find a need to speak this way,does it make you feel special?
We are talking about old and new neighborhoods?
Talking about being elite!

Ben Arnold said...

This is not even a debate. New Urbanists are self-described visionaries whose primary concern is aesthetics. Any posturing done in support of high-density development for the purposes of effecting meaningful social change is unsupported by their project portfolios. Many new urbanists clamor for walkable cities because cars and strip malls offend their sensibilites not because walkable cities provide live-work opportunities which could benefit low to moderate income residents who cannot afford a car. Case in point is New Urbanist proponent Jim Kunstler whose body of work has slowly shifted from urban design critic to energy policy critic. Kunstler decries the vanishing "sense of place" inherent in today's society. He wants to sit in an outdoor cafe immersed in interesting roof lines and brick paver walks, he doesnt care if the retail store adjacent is an upscale boutique or if the apartment above rents for $3000 a month. All that matters is that his aesthetics are satisfied. And this is the status quo amongst the New Urbanists. Sure, talking about high density and affordable housing may help get through some contentious charettes, but they never materialize. This is why the New Urbanists have jumped on the "peak oil" bandwagon. How would they sell their product in a future when, perhaps, alternative fuels offer cheaper transportation, thus further encourging urban dispersal. They would have to pitch products for what they are: eye candy and nothing more.

Anonymous said...

In all metropolitan areas it is important to have a diversity of housing types and styles. Not every person wants to live in a new conventional subdivision and on the flip side not every person desires to take the time and effort to restore a old home in an established urban neighborhood. Different people want different products and environments. That is why New Urbanism is becoming popular. Conventional zoning (Euclidian zoning) does not allow for mixed-use mixed-income developments to be built. That is not what its original intent was, which is the separation of uses. Therefore, another methodology is needed to provide a product the market is demanding.

The comments on New Urbanism as an aesthetic based development style, that is false. If you were to look at how towns developed prior to WWII you would see that developers used a design book that required builders to establish certain styles and features that would give the neighborhood character. It was a purely private sector innovation. After WWII when suburbanization occurred rapidly, the design book became a lost art because new development was standardized by a single builder. It is not very had to make all homes look alike on a 50 to 100 acre parcel of land.

Finally, is this elitist? NO! As someone had previously mentioned, providing the market a desired product is not elitist, it is good business.

Ben Arnold said...

style and character are fundamental components of an individual aesthetic. New Urbanism, or tradidional urban development, are based on these same "style and character" developments which existed before WWII. So how is New Urbanism not based on aesthetics? These development patterns were, and continue to be private sector intitiatives, but how does that preclude them from being aesthetic based? And finally, being an elitist and a good businessman are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in many cases they are self-supporting.

Anonymous said...

How can something several miles outside a city center be called "new urbanism"? Shouldn't those developments be called "new suburbanism"? It would be much more accurate, but alas, not have the same panache...

Anonymous said...

I am sorry if using terms like "good bones" to describe neighbhorhoods that have quality design characteristics is considered "elitist". It certainly wasn't my intent to sound that way, but is my way of describing neighborhoods that have the right combination of housing designs, planting strips, sidewalks, street widths and neighborhood amenities like schools, parks, and neighborhood serving shopping nearby. These are the qualities that are included in livable neighborhoods whether they are new or old, in-town or in suburban areas.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining in plain language what the terms good bones mean.
If this world is to work and get better we all need to learn to communicate in terms where everyone understands.

Disgusted in Union Co said...

I agree with parts of both Sue's and Mary's arguments on this one.

The term "New Urbanism" is used as a panacea by many, and often serves to cover up the flaws of an overall bad project. Disguising a big-box strip shopping center as a "downtown main street" when it is nothing of the sort, a la Birkdale, is not necessarily good design. It is, as Sue bemoans, nothing but a hub for an elitist subdivision serving high-paid commuters. It is not the center of a self sustaining urban/suburban/rural municipality: it is an interstate exit. So the negative argument of some respondants applies: it is a perfect example of how the definition of "New Urbanism" can be satisfied simply by pasting a few asthetic features onto buildings much like putting makeup on a pig. Is "pretty" better than "ugly"? Well, maybe - but not if doing so cheapens the very concept of what makes a true urban design, and lulls the public into accepting "phony" in yet another venue.

Another problem with spewing the "New Urbanism" moniker carelessly is that often simply promoting increased density for increased density's sake passes for applying valid New Urbanism principles. In yesterday's Charlotte Observer there was an article about a developer's attempt to buy out an entire neighborhood of modest middle-class 1970's era homes whose only offense is to be located along a strip of Colony Road which has evolved into nothing more than a testimonial to greed and excess. The developer wants to buldoze these "eyesores", and replace them with possibly twice as many bloated trophy houses on postage-stamp-sized lots. Good New Urbanism principles at work? Sure...higher density: check. More detailed architecture: check. One income level - high: ch...oops, that's not what we really want in true New Urbanism, is it?

In the Union County town of Stallings, an entire block of modest, working-class brick 1960's-era homes along Potter Road was recently demolished. The homes faced the thoroughfare and were part of a diverse fabric. Their replacement is some sort of horrible collection of multifamily units that, according to the developer's pretty picture on the sign, looks the same as every other such infill clone. And you can be sure that no longer will the fronts of homes face the thoroughfare; no, passers-by will be treated to garages and the backsides of buildings. New Urbanism?

In a metropolitan area as poorly designed as Charlotte, application of proper New Urbanist principles is difficult if not impossible. So, in deference to Mary's assertions, I would agree that applying some good design principles is better than applying none. We must be careful of bandying the "New Urbanism" label around too carelessly, though, lest we begin to accept half measures in areas where we would be better served by holding out for the real thing.

Anonymous said...

It is very important to establish the differentiation, that NU is not in itself an architectural "style", but a way of taking on the task of designing adequate places to live. The fact that most of the architects who are involved and who develop the NU projects are followers of a very distinct Traditionalist trend should not make people limit their understanding of the whole potential of NU, not only as an architectural style.

Chilton said...

I tend to agree with critiques of NU. It is, indeed, elitist. Look at the demographic realities of Celebration, Kentlands, and Seaside. Most NU developments are 95%+ white, affluent and auto-dependent. In addition, much of the infill development occurring in urban redevelopment that follows NU principles (look at Atlantic Station in Atlanta) are exclusionary and fail to live up to NU dogma. That said, I prefer it to low-density, single-use Pulte schmalz.

Euclid said...

I don't believe NU is inherently elitist by any means. If it has become less affordable in some (or even many) instances, it is a result of simple supply/demand forces.

It should also be noted that originally, the more affordable housing in these developments was sold at affordable levels, time and appreciation have made these developments more exclusive.

That said, at this point I don't believe the New Urbanists have succeeded in overcoming this problem (and some may not care to). I believe this is one of the biggest challenges New Urbanism will face in the coming years.

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