New urbanism is a design theory, practice, and movement that aims to restore what it calls principles of traditional neighborhood development (TND).
Although new urbanist thought may influence urban design in established communities, its application lies in either building infill developments of a significant size and scale, or in building new planned communities on greenfields. Greenfields is a term for land that hasn't been developed previously.
Our point of view is very supportive of traditional neighborhood development, when executed in full. On the other hand, it's not especially good in the Chinese menu approach, where we decide we want front porches, but keep wide streets and no transit, sidewalks, or bicycle paths.
Ideally new urbanist principles should be applied to large infill housing sites well inside the edge of the urbanized area, although to date sometimes new urbanism contributes to sprawl as well.
Proximity to transit, potential for some open space without being adjacent to the floodplain or hazard areas, and access to jobs are incredibly important to carrying out the lofty goals of traditional urbanist thinking.
Just as in typical development, somehow developers find it easier
to start with a blank slate and not worry about any lingering
utilities, contamination, and building fragments from the previous
iteration of the built environment.
As an architectural and urban planning reform movement that began to crystallize in the early 1990s in the U.S., new urbanism advocates mixed use development, walkable communities, diversity in housing and jobs, and traditional neighborhood design principles including a grid of narrow streets with prominent street termination points reserved for civic space.
The purist definition and principles are spelled out in a booklet called the Charter of the New Urbanism.
You may have heard of Seaside, Florida, an early and full expression of this theory. It was in the movie "The Truman Show."
Other prominent characteristics that visitors may notice immediately commonly include:
• A definable town center, even though the development is new
• Emphasis on front porches and outdoor communal space for meeting neighbors in general
• Variety of dwelling types and sizes, including great-looking apartments and row houses, aimed at mixed-income housing. The apartments might be four in a building, for instance, with a giant front porch accessible to all.
• Private lawn area de-emphasized in favor of common space
• Live-work units, usually consisting of a storefront or office space on the first floor with living space for the proprietor above
• General attempt to balance jobs and population within the development, although this goal rarely is reached.
• Small setbacks, especially for the front yard, and a compact development pattern in the majority of the space. Community parks, open space, or gardens may be shared along the fringes. Small playgrounds are sited at closer intervals.
• Small-scale grocery outlets and other businesses
• Accessory dwelling units (which you might know as carriage houses, alley houses, granny flats, or mother-in-law quarters) are encouraged
• Often shared places of worship, and shared multi-purpose governmental and community space
• Sound environmental practices, including brownfield re-use and encouraging transit use
• A mix of rental and for sale housing, and large and small housing units, blended artfully into an urban design whole
• Careful attention to aesthetics at the street level, frequently enforced through numerous deed restrictions or covenants. The code often is based on the architecture of the region. (It's a perversion, for instance, to find tin roofs in the new urbanist developments in the Midwest, copying the tin roofs in old Florida.) Usually owners must choose from a palette of external colors and sometimes of building elements and materials typical in the local vernacular (common, unschooled) architecture.
If you're thinking that these ideas bear similarity to the LEED-ND standards, you would be correct.
Larger social goals are at play here. This type of community encourages a mix of incomes and ages. Indeed, specially designed senior housing units often are included.
And the entire orientation toward the porch, street, civic spaces, walkable community, and shared open spaces is intended to let you know your neighbors and spend time with them. For example, mailboxes may be grouped at a gathering point or strictly regulated in their curbside appearance. Just like in a traditional neighborhood.
The resulting community is designed to minimize automobile travel by providing some jobs, some goods and services, and short walkable distances between community hubs. Some leaders insist that each housing unit be within a five-minute walk of the town center. In practice larger developments may have more than one center.
Fewer driving miles means a smaller carbon footprint and less air pollution.
New urbanist developments typically do not have a zoning ordinance at all, but are based on a design charter and covenants of just a few pages in length. Often these codes are based on a transect idea, where a line or cross-section radiating out from a center determines what is considered appropriate.
As a community leader, if someone tells you that new urbanism or traditional neighborhood development is the solution for your three vacant lots or that strip of vacant land along a stream, you know that person does not understand the subject. Traditional neighborhoods are for substantial size areas and redevelopments.
Later we will write about a movement to establish various types of traditional neighborhood overlay zoning districts, but most frequently these developments are proposed by enthusiastic developers.
However, I'd enthusiastically urge you to look into new urbanism if you have abandoned buildings and/or land left by the departing university, shopping mall, large apartment complex, or office campus. Former military bases and industrial sites will require clean-up, of course, but you will have to engage in some degree of environmental cleanup (see our brownfields) page anyway.
Here's how to prepare. First, do a modest amount of reading, starting with the Charter mentioned above. That plus this page will get you started. Then use your favorite search engine to locate three or four new urbanist developments within a four or five hour drive. Read about or talk to each, and figure out which one you think is the purest example of new urbanism principles.
Then plan a trip to see that development. If you want to make it just a car-load of interested folks the first time, that’s workable. But eventually you're going to have to get your city council or other decision-makers there to see, feel, walk through, and appreciate the environment.
Because it sounds goofy on paper. And the right wing would attack it as a curtailment of freedom, too many rules, too socialist to have mixed incomes in the same development, and we have to be able to determine the pecking order by how big the house is, don't we?
Don't be afraid of the City Council field trip. Because new urbanism began with architects, most new urbanist communities are big on aesthetics and make a great impression. And because the development type is so drastically different from suburbia, most of the residents are totally sold on the place.
So not too much can go wrong if you actually select the most true-to-form new urbanism development in your region, and go there. Of course let them know in advance you're coming, and usually you can get the very important guided tour.
The result of following this theory is good-looking, but there will be many questions from your planner or city officials about how it was implemented, what kinds of ordinances were required, and how certain problems are handled.
You'll want a developer, builder, or architect who has behind-the-scenes knowledge available to answer these questions.
Fortunately, here is a large but cohesive body of writing on new urbanism. Begin with the Charter of the New Urbanism and the rest of the Congress for the New Urbanism site. Also read about TOD and new urbanism on another site. Read the writings (or a summary) of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, a couple of the founders, and you'll know plenty.