Topics of Interest
"Smart Growth" and "The New Urbanism"

The "New Urbanist" approach to urban design emerged during the mid 1980's from the work of Andes Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in Florida, with their immensely successful town of Seaside, and from "sustainable" community designers, architects, and theorists on the west coast, such as Peter Calthorpe and Douglas Kelbaugh.  The communities generated by this new breed of urban designers seek to reverse the suburban sprawl paradigm that has been dominant since the early 50's.  

New Urbanism is a complete 180 degree turn about with regard to the zoning and urban planning ideas which have been mainstream for four decades.  The cul-de-sac, feeder street, and arterial strip which were the darling of 50's and 60's subdivision are now to a demon which forces all local traffic out onto crowded arterial highways, even if to only visit a friend a few blocks away.  Parcel (postage stamp) zoning, which had been in place for decades, allowing only a single specialized use of each lot, has given way to zoning which encourages mixed-use development where residences may occupy the upper floors of a development, and workplaces, offices, and retail may occupy the lower floors of the development. Density, mixed-use, and "Smart Growth" become the main operative words replacing sprawl and separation of land use

The new urbanists praise the street grid and type of urban neighborhoods constructed in the 1920's, a time when there was a balance between pedestrian movement, vehicular thoroughfares, and public transit in the form of street car and city rail systems.   The new urbanist neighborhood, whether it in new growth areas or infill development, spins a web that tightens the density of the urban fabric with streets and sidewalks that allow walk-able as well as vehicular movement.  By tightening this fabric, the street once again becomes a public space for people, as well as cars. Building setbacks which were once encouraged to maintain an expansive suburban feel are now discouraged. Mixed use buildings with street level retail are set-back from the street only by the width of a sidewalk.  Homes are encouraged to have front porches and to relate to the age-old pedestrian way, the sidewalk.

Denser neighborhoods with sidewalks and front porches to encourage pedestrian activity, can be applied in many areas of Western North Carolina. However,  the slope of the terrain and natural land features determine to a large extent traffic movement patterns, which tend to be arterial, with feeder branches and ultimately in mountain coves, cul-de-sacs. The cross-directional street grid that applies so well to coastal Florida, must be revised here to work with the shape of the land.  Still, many of the new urbanist ideas like encouraging higher density neighborhoods as an alternative to suburban sprawl can be applied to the Asheville area.  Asheville is seeking to implement many of these ideas in its 2025 Development Plan.  

Recommended Reading:

1) The New Urbanism, Towards an Architecture of Community
       Peter Katz,  1994

2)   The Next American Metropolis, Ecology, Community and the American Dream
Peter Calthorpe, 1995

3)   Common Place: Toward Neighborhood and Regional Design
       Douglas Kelbaugh, 1997

4)   The Death and Life of Great American Cities
      Jane Jacobs, 1961, 1989

My Back Pages
The following except to an article by Douglas Kelbaugh outlines several "Urbanisms" or concepts of urban development.  None of these three apply in total to physical  development outcomes, but each is a force which in some combination with the others determines the manifested urban form.

"Three Urbanisms....
Beyond the conventional, unselfconscious development that is changing the face of our downtowns and suburbs, there are at least three self-conscious schools of urbanism: Everyday Urbanism, New Urbanism, and what I call Post Urbanism....

Everyday Urbanism is neither utopian nor tidy. It celebrates and builds on ordinary life and reality, with little pretense about the possibility of a perfectible built environment. Its proponents are open to and incorporate ephemerality, cacophony, and simultaneity. It, for instance, champions the way migrant workers overcome their marginal environments in resourceful and imaginative ways, appropriating space for commerce and festivals in perking lots and vacant lots, as well as private driveways and yards for garage sales. It values vernacular architecture and street life in vibrant, ethnic neighborhoods, like the Latino barrios of Los Angeles and Mexicantown in Detroit. Everyday Urbanism promotes locally owned industry, public markets rather than chain stores, and street murals rather than civic art. Its key words might be grassroots and justice.

New Urbanism, on the other hand, is idealistic, even utopian because it aspires to build new or repair old communities in ways that mix people of different architectural types. It sponsors civic architecture and public space that attempt to make citizens feel part, even proud, of a culture that is more significant and more universal than their individual, private worlds and part of a natural ecology that is more sustainable. It maintains that there is a structural relationship between social behavior and physical form and that a sense of place is essential. The model is a compact, walkable city, served by transit with a hierarchy of private and public architect and outdoor spaces that are conducive to face-to-face social interaction-Elm Street and Main Street. While appealing to traditionalists, its 24-hour/7-day mix of uses also appeals to the dotcommers of the new Economy. Its key words might be balance and continuity.

Post Urbanism, which is de rigeur among the hottest star architects, and the most popular with faculty and students around the work, is not utopian. It is heterotopian, that is, full of difference and opposition. It welcomes disconnected, hypermodern buildings and destabilized urbanism. It discounts shared values or a common ethos as no longer possible in a fragmenting world of isolated zones. These zones which include spaces for the "other" as well as for shoppers and free-range tourists, are viewed as liberating because they allow for new forms of knowledge, new hybrid possibilities, new unpredictable forms of freedom and, perhaps most of all, for spectacle. Projects are usually self-contained, with little faith in the work of others to complete the urban fabric that Post Urbanists champion. Signature building designed by name architects and a sprawling, auto-centric city like Atlanta are held up as exemplary. Its key words might be flux and audacity....

The three paradigms lead to very different physical outcomes. Everyday Urbanism, which is the most informal and the least driven by design, has trouble achieving beauty or coherence, but is egalitarian and lively on the street. New Urbanism, with its Latinate clarity and finite formal order, achieves the most aesthetic unity and human scale using familiar architectural types and styles, but usually by being overly-traditional, even trite, in its architecture. It embraces Euclidean geometry but eschews Euclidean zoning. Its connective grids of pedestrian-oriented streets look better from the ground than the air, from which they can sometimes look formulaic and overly symmetrical. Post Urbanism is as formal as New Urbanism, but in a more open-ended and abstract way. Its site plans always look the most spectacular, with their acute fractal geometries and sweeping circulatory systems. However, its designs are often over scaled and empty for pedestrians. Tourists in rental cars experiencing the world through their windshields are often a better-served audience than residents on foot, for whom there is little human-scale nuance and architectural detail to reveal itself. (Post Urbanists might suggest that we are all becoming tourists in our own city, just as tourists are, conversely, becoming citizens of the world.) Although New Urbanism takes ecological sustain-ability the most seriously, none of the three paradigms are responsive enough to this imperative, which we ignore at our own peril.

Everyday Urbanism may make sense in developing countries where global cities are mushrooming with squatter settlements that defy government control and planning, and where underserved populations simply want a stake in the economic system. But it doesn't make sense in the cities of Europe, where the luxury of working in and with a mature urban fabric makes Post Urbanism viable. In American cities, which lack the continuous, traditional fabric of European cities, I believe we need to steer a middle course closer to New Urbanism, a course that learns from the social justice of Everyday Urbanism and the artistic sophistication of Post Urbanism. We need not give up tectonics for urbanism, or vice versa. We can be balanced and passionate at the same time."