Will the real New Urbanism please stand up?

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This morning I heard some talk on the radio about "New Urbanism." The backers of The Channels -- the $788 million plan to build islands in the middle of the Arkansas River -- have made reference to the New Urbanist movement.

The discussion I heard this morning linked New Urbanism with radical environmentalism -- specifically, support for Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, calls for moratoria on road and airport construction and expansion, putting solar panels on every building in America, and calls to divert the U. S. defense budget for the complete remaking of the American landscape.

I've been hearing about and reading about New Urbanism for the last 10 years or so, and that's not the movement I'm familiar with. The New Urbanism I know is about relearning lessons from our past about how to build neighborhoods, towns, and cities that are pleasant and safe places to live.

The traditional approach to urban development got lost around the end of World War II, when the theoreticians took over and began to use the power of government to make city development fit their theories. The theoreticians were more interested in putting things in neat categories, rather than understanding and appreciating the complexity present in a healthy city. Government engaged in market-distorting activities that subsidized the construction of new suburbs and the building of infrastructure to serve those new suburbs over the restoration of existing neighborhoods and existing infrastructure. Zoning codes required the strict separation of homes from shops from workplaces, on the grounds that there was something inherently unsanitary about living within walking distance of a grocery store. New neighborhoods were built without basic civic infrastructure like small parks and sidewalks. When older, traditional neighborhoods were devalued by the government-subsidized construction of new neighborhoods, or split in two by Federally-funded freeways, the Federal government then provided funds to bulldoze those traditional neighborhoods, often to remake them after the suburban model. And Federal and local government policies have in turn molded private lending and development practices to encourage more of the same.

The post-WWII approach to development, which has dominated local and Federal government policies for over 50 years, has more in common with Communist centralized planning than the free market and traditional American values.

New Urbanism is an attempt to relearn the traditional way of building cities and adapt it to modern circumstances. New Urbanists are involved in preserving traditional, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods where they exist and in creating new developments in the traditional style, while incorporating the kind of modern amenities that we expect in our homes and workplaces. Sometimes these new developments are infill, replacing obsolete industrial or commercial sites ("brownfields", dead malls, rundown strip shopping centers) or vacant land in the midst of a city.

Some examples of New Urbanist projects:

Here in the Tulsa area, New Urbanism's influence can be seen in the proposed East End development and the Village at Central Park, and in the neighborhood plans for Brookside, 6th Street (the Pearl District), Brady Village, and east Tulsa's 21st Street corridor.

When I think of New Urbanism, the names of three urban planners immediately come to mind: Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Peter Calthorpe. These planners have been involved in countless innovative new developments and redevelopments around the world.

While I've heard New Urbanists tout the environmental benefits of more compact traditional neighborhoods, I haven't heard them advocating any radical anti-human environmental policies. So I was surprised at what I heard on the radio this morning, and I did a Google search on the phrase "New Urbanism."

The first hit was a site called newurbanism.org. Sure enough, here were all the radical proposals that were being mentioned on the air this morning.

I did some digging through the site, but I never could find out the name of the individual or organization who had set up the site. I went to completewhois.com to find out who owned it, and this was the result (the same info was provided for admin and tech contacts):

Registrant ID: 39693217-NSI
Registrant Name: New Urbanism.org LLC
Registrant Organization: NewUrbanism.Org, LLC
Registrant Street1: 824 King St, Suite 103
Registrant Street2:
Registrant Street3:
Registrant City: Alexandria
Registrant State/Province: VA
Registrant Postal Code: 22314
Registrant Country: US
Registrant Phone: +1.1231231234
Registrant Phone Ext.:
Registrant FAX:
Registrant FAX Ext.:
Registrant Email: email@newurbanism.org

Note that the phone number is fake, and you can't find a phone number or a name anywhere on the website.

The real, credible website for the New Urbanist movement is www.cnu.org, the Congress for the New Urbanism. You can read a history of the organization, founded in 1993, here. You will not find a radical Earth First manifesto here. In fact, here is a Flash-animated tour explaining what New Urbanism is all about.

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» Hijacking New Urbanism from BatesLine

When I posted my entry, Will the real New Urbanism please stand up?, I also e-mailed the Congress for the New Urbanism to ask them what they knew about this website called newurbanism.org. That's the site that comes up as the first result on a Google s... Read More

The following comment, by Tom Gulihur of CalCoast Realty, was posted on a much earlier entry, Will the Real New Urbanism Please Stand Up? Gulihur is a California-based real estate broker and financier with a fascinating resumé and deep Oklahoma ... Read More


Twatch said:

Our current urban/suburban configuration is the result of the brainiac planners of the day believing America of the 1950's was stifling, unsophisticated and inefficient. Why then should we believe the brainiacs of today have it right when they want to go back to whence we came? I have no problem with anybody's idea put to the test of the marketplace with their own resources and no Government coercion; after all it would then be the PEOPLE making the FINAL decision. For those who believe that the central planners and social engineers haven't hijacked the concept Michael Bates espouses, they need to go to the USA government website at http://www.sdp.gov/ and research sustainable development in all of its aspects. Follow their links to the United Nations website and Agenda 21 if you care to understand what is really happening. Michael I think it would be very intriguing to hear your analysis of Agenda 21 and its impact on America.

Amanda said:

"Although not part of government, a movement within U.S. architecture and planning called “newurbanism” has produced one model to promote and implement sustainable cities, the Ahwahnee Principles. Some of the leading professionals in urban design--including Peter Katz, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Michael Corbett, Stefanos Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule and Peter Calthorpe--met in Fall, 1991, to develop a set of community principles based on new and emerging ideas in community design and planning (Ahwahnee Principles 2003; Corbett and Valesquez 1994). The Ahwahnee Principles recognize that existing patterns of auto oriented urban and suburban development seriously threaten our quality of life producing congestion and air pollution, loss of natural areas and open space, and the continuous investment in roads and public services which are not sustainable."

Jamie Pierson said:

Ha! You must be sneaking peaks at my column before we go to print. I say the same thing in the paper tomorrow.

Tom Gulihur said:

I come from land rush era Oklahoman stock on both sides of the family and I lived in Oklahoma until I was ten years old, when my family moved to LA, like true Okies. Parents and grandparents are OU alums and paternal grandparents are OSU alums. I love Oklahoma in a nostalgic way, but I understand why many people outside of Oklahoma blanche at the corny Wal-Mart mentality there (and the rest of the South and Midwest).

But some real estate development business is bringing me back to OK. There's a downtown revitalization occurring in Tulsa and I'm involved in a project there. I've been reading gobs of information on Tulsa and urban renewal there and want to explain a fundamental challenge that Tulsans need to overcome. I've seen San Diego's urban renewal and have studied New Urbanism enough to understand how this has to work. First, the public has to buy-in to most of the concepts of New Urbanism or the whole thing will flop. Here is a quick version of what it requires:

· Create dense and intense development at the urban core using form based zoning code. That means don't classify building by use, but rather by their shape. Encourage mixed-use buildings but not only retail-office-residential; enable all mixed uses similar to the early 1920’s in America (it should basically look like Disney’s Main Street USA).

· Create a pedestrian-friendly environment. Expand public transit to de-emphasize the use of the car. Of course this is difficult in an economy that is based on big oil and Detroit steel (now Japanese and German steel too).

· Design an attractive public realm. Plant corridors of street trees, install traffic-calming devices, open corridors of greenbelts with paths and walkways to enable pedestrian and bicyclist activity, build 'vest-pocket parks'. Honor public institutions through architecture and placement. A well designed public realm, whether it’s a residential neighborhood (think of Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.), a public square, a village green, a park or a retail shopping street, they should all encourage people to want to ‘hang out’, ‘hang around’ or walk through it and walk to it. All this hanging out and walking around has a second major benefit to society besides the individual’s personal enjoyment of the experience, is that CRIME IS REDUCED where there are a lot of citizens with their eyes open. Democratic values are also strengthened when the public realm is strong.

· Build using environmentally sustainable techniques. Use all active and passive solar technologies available and use recycled or recyclable building materials.

· Mix housing types in random and close proximity. Don't just build high-rise condos that all cost from $300k to $500k because that fosters elitist classicism. This is the biggest challenge facing New Urbanists everywhere because of the conventional way residential projects are financed according to target market segments that naturally form socio-economic groups that lead to isolation of other groups. A truly democratic and vibrant culture occurs when a CEO and a janitor can live as compatible neighbors, although that's an extreme example.

It's important for the public to learn more about New Urbanism, which is also called Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), Transit Oriented Development (TOD), Smart Growth, or other similar concepts. The American leader in this concept is Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Their architecture and urban planning firm is at DPZ.com and at CNU.org (The Congress for the New Urbanism). Better yet, read Duany's entertaining book, SUBURBAN NATION, THE RISE OF SPRAWL AND THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. Then you will ‘get’ New Urbanism.

Some conservatives see a political subcurrent to it and there really is an environmental concern and inclusionary aspect to it. But hey, the icecaps seem to be melting from global warming aren't they? Ten years ago you could argue against that assertion but it's different now. The inclusionary aspect of democratic society is an important part of New Urbanism that doesn't necessarily disagree with a conservative agenda, unless it includes environmental abuse.

In my experience, residential development always leads retail development because retail business owners cannot follow the ludicrous mantra of 'build it and they will come'. Retail will die on the vine if there it is not surrounded by a sea of 'rooftops', meaning the rooftops of consumers. So there's always a lag of retail development behind residential development. And the biggest complaint of the first wave of downtown dwellers when a city starts a downtown renaissance is that there is no convenient or good grocery store downtown. And there are the homeless, who often represent a security problem for wealthy urbanites.

But if Tulsa wants to be the next SOHO or downtown Vancouver, or Portland, or San Diego then it needs to loosen up the archaic liquor laws, IMHO. You need to get a Trader Joe's in downtown for sure, and TJ's needs to be able to sell its selection of wines and beers, which is probably only about 10% of their business, but a crucial 10%. So you guys need to dump the blue laws and welcome to the 21st century. Get out of the Wal-Mart fundamentalist attitude, open your minds and live and let live.

Tulsa has always enjoyed a more cosmopolitan flair than larger Oklahoma City (from where my family hails), although some people on the left and right coasts would snort at the words 'cosmopolitan' and 'Oklahoma' in the same sentence. What Oklahoma has all over the snobbier coastal societies is a warm friendliness that says 'you're OK!', to borrow a partial phrase from Transactional Analysis and Rogers and Hammerstein.

Good luck Okies! I'm rooting for you. But you'll need to loosen your liquor laws and learn about New Urbanism before real progress can move forward.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 2, 2006 11:03 PM.

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