Seaside 3The other day a visiting Polish architect asked me what I thought of the new urbanism movement. It is a good question. On the one hand, the continued expansion and growth of the Congress for a New Urbanism is impressive. I recall the first meeting, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993. Barely filled a small room. Today the annual conventions attract halls full of enthusiastic members. New urbanism  was jump-started by Seaside, whose celebrity and undoubted success—financial as well as architectural—encouraged real estate developers, community and neighborhood groups, city planners and architects, to take a long hard look. Many liked what they saw. But while new urbanists have attempted to shed their small town/suburban/Truman Show image, they have had no similarly successful and exemplary big-city project. No High Line. No Disney Hall. No Fifteen Central Park West. What are the important ideas that have affected American cities in the last 20 years? The development of waterfronts. The renaissance in constructing urban parks. The move of genXers and retirees into downtowns. High-rise urban living and Vancouverism. The popularity of urban bicycling and bike-rental programs. Ditto for Zipcars. Urban farmers markets and community gardens. Urban charter schools. The dramatic expansion in attendance of urban cultural institutions, especially art museums. Urban tourism. Downtown trophy buildings. The emergence of influential big-city mayors. Have any of these been the result of the new urbanism movement?



  • Paddy Steinschneider says:

    Actually, all of those things, with the exception of high-rise living and downtown trophy buildings, owe at least part of their ascendance and implementation to what is collectively represented as new urbanism. The only dependable definition of New Urbanism is the Charter itself. The “new” is really just the result of a new generation returning to good urbanism, which was almost forgotten in the 60 years of the Great Sprawl Experiment, which finally ended in the Great Recession of 2007. Our economy, environment, and culture have almost been bankrupted by the hyper-change brought by the sprawl that came with the arrival of the 1949 Housing and Community Development Act and the Federal Highway Administration.

    Tactical urbanism, a rekindled enthusiasm for infill projects, and a willingness to focus on the downtowns and small villages that were so adversely affected by the sprawl mentality have all been pushed by new urbanists, whether or not they want to identify themselves as such.

  • Witold,

    Thanks for noting that the Congress for the New Urbanism holds well attended annual congresses. Usually about 1000 to 1500 designers, developers, local officials and community activists gather to share ideas and promote urbanism. People leave invigorated and go home to try to change the world. Sometimes they even succeed.

    CNU has also helped change the world. CNU led the successful effort to rewrite Federal design standards for public housing(HOPE VI). CNU collaborated with the Institute of Transportation Engineers to write new guidelines for streets in urban context. It allows and encourages narrower lanes and tighter turning radii. The Federal Highway Administration has endorsed this manual for use in urban context. CNU has helped popularize replacement of freeways with boulevards and played a key role in the widespread adoption of form based codes as a replacement for separate use zoning. Current policy in HUD,FHA,Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac home lending and subsidy programs punish mixed use development. CNU and our coalition partners pressured HUD and FHA to reform the rules to encourage mixed use and now reform has begun with loosening restrictions on the financing of mixed use buildings. This all part of CNU’s effort to remove obstacles to urbanism.

    You also mention charter schools. CNU, admittedly, is not a leader in creating or promoting charter schools. We have spoken out against state minimum acreage standards which make it difficult to site schools in existing neighborhoods. Yet our board has endorsed charter schools and some of our members have actually built them. Peter Calthorpe, one of CNU’s founders has actually created and with his wife Jeane operates a charter school in Oakland. furthermore CNU, uniquely among environmental and design groups, supports school choice vouchers as a way to help families live in cities.

    CNU has not focused on creating iconic architecture; the architecture profession already spends way too much time on that. Also we don’t need to stick our noses into everything. For example, many hands created the successful urbanism of Vancouver including some who are members of CNU, but we need not label it as new urbanist to appreciate it. CNU has played a leading role in the anti freeway movement, but appreciate that others have as well. The new urbanist movement has helped revive an appreciation for urban form that had nearly vanished in the post war period. Certainly there are other movements and organizations that have helped that happen(although you didn’t name any). CNU and its members will continue to do our part to support walkable sustainable urban development and redevelopment.

    John Norquist

    • Witold says:

      You’re right on all counts.
      But CNU shouldn’t take too much credit for Hope VI, the project that was a model for that program was Harbor Point in Boston, designed by Jane Goody in 1982, when Seaside was still the glimmer of an idea on the drawing board.
      My point was that in our media-driven age, for better or worse, a single project can change people’s mindset–as Seaside certainly did. I just don’t see a new urbanism big city project that has done that, the way that, say the High Line did, or as I suspect Brooklyn Bridge Park will. A project in downtown Albuquerque doesn’t cut it, nor even rewriting codes in Miami–who takes Miami seriously?

  • Short answer: Yes.

    CNU and the new urbanist movement in all of its various, diverse forms has helped to inspire, influence and drive all of the various changes that you mention.

    It’s a movement. It’s not about one, specific, individual trophy project. It’s about lots of people doing lots of different projects and activities, moving together in the same general direction.

  • Howard Blackson says:

    Odd argument… as I don’t buy that the other one-off project examples are more influential b/c they are more urban than Seaside?!? Yes, Seaside exploded on the scene, but Calthorpe’s TODs and CNU’s FBCs continue to dramatically reshape our nation’s policy and regulatory landscape. CNU has defined, codified and made accessible Tactical Urbanism, Urban Design, and Place Making. So, a downtown project in Albuquerque, Little Rock and/or Los Angeles (Torti Gallas, Moule Polyzoides, Studio One+Eleven), when added with the new projects via an FBC in Denver, El Paso, Montgomery, Miami, and Ventura plus TODs in Sacramento, Seattle, or Dallas makes a much deeper difference on our nation’s built environment than one High Line in New York City.

  • Not sure it qualifies as “big city,” but the Providence renaissance is an example of a downtown revitalization that has been almost entirely driven not only by new urbanist principles but by the direct participation of Andres Duany, DPZ and the Congress for the New Urbanism. CNU has held a string of charrettes since 1994. The city’s zoning code and design overlays were created by planners directly influenced by the CNU. The daylighting of the Providence River with 12 new traditionally styled bridges, a mile of river walks and three urban parks was the result of new urbanist thinking led by architect and planner Bill Warner. Even more directly, the conversion of the old downtown core into a mixed-use residential and commercial center was accomplished largely by Arnold “Buff” Chace using principles imported to Providence via his association with Andres Duany, DPZ and the CNU, which have been embraced by the city’s planning department. The renaissance of New England’s second-largest city certainly qualifies as an example of the new urbanism. And new urbanist principles lead effort to revitalize most of the other cities and towns in Rhode Island as well.
    It is curious why the widespread movement away from modernist planning and design principles led by CNU is so difficult for people like Witold Rybczinski to acknowledge.

    • I would add only that the only major development in downtwon Providence unattributable to CNU is the Providence Place mall, which is flourishing largely, I think, because it embraces the new urbanist return to traditional form.

  • Rob Steuteville says:
    • Phil Hayward says:

      Yes, but it is also an error in the other direction, to assume a kind of physical determinist (or cargo cult) fallacy that has the direction of causation running from form to process rather than the other way around.

      All planners and politicians and advocates for specific types of planning should read Alain Bertaud’s “Cities as Labour Markets” and William Fruth’s “The Flow of Money and Its Impact on Local Economies”.

      The UK has been practising something like “smart growth” or “new urbanism” for decades. I hold that a lot more success would occur – because a lot of the “design” principles are good – if the approach omitted fringe growth boundaries that drive up the price of urban land substantially and initiate numerous unintended consequences in economic outcomes and socio-economic outcomes.

      There are several dozen cities in the UK. Planners all over the world like to think they can emulate London and one or two other successful ones. But London is the world’s biggest centre of global finance; it is one of the biggest centres of global media; it is the capital of the UK and indeed the entire British empire (as it was); it has numerous historic tourist attractions. Urban planning is absolutely irrelevant to most of the reasons for London’s success.

      Even the success of cities like London, that urban planners so often regard as worthy of emulation (by copying the built form in a cargo-cult approach) involve downsides, mostly for ordinary less skilled people and the kind of industries that might employ them. London is increasingly a playground for global billionaires with less skilled services provided by recent immigrants from third world countries who tolerate the overcrowding necessary to exist in a city with housing price median multiples of 9 in spite of an average living space per person that is already the lowest in the entire OECD even before disparities in the ability to pay for space are taken into account.

      The USA and even Europe (to a lesser extent) have a lot more varieties of direction in which cities can evolve. Not only does the UK have no Houston, it does not even have a Wolfsburg (Germany’s highest-income city, associated with car making). Even in a shrinking city like Liverpool, the urban growth constraint system ensures land values and house prices that are many times higher than that necessary for employers of less skilled labour who generate primary economic income (manufacturing and associated services); and for lower housing costs for less skilled workforces.

      The McKinsey Institute, Alan W. Evans, and Paul Cheshire and various colleagues at the LSE, have all authored literature that is widely accepted to show that growth containment urban planning has caused the UK economy to have a productivity gap relative to other OECD economies with less constrain on the growth of their cities. This might be as great as 20%, or 3% per annum compounding. This is completely contrary to the beliefs of urban planners who think there are only benefits to containment of horizontal urban growth, including in productivity.

      What has misled even experts who should know better, is studies that show, correctly, that denser locations in, say, the USA, are more productive than less dense ones. But what if both the density and the productivity are endogenous to economic evolutionary processes? Manhattan is productive and dense because Wall Street is there, not because urban planners mandated anything. Silicon Valley happens to be productive and not dense. Detroit was once as productive as Wolfsburg is now, without density in both cases.

      When urban planners try to mandate density by a growth boundary, they do not automatically attract Wall Street to relocate there instead of Manhattan. They DO, however, prevent the next Silicon Valley from occurring, as well as preventing and even destroying sources of primary economic income that employ less skilled people, simply because those sources require more land per dollar of income generated; and lower cost housing for a competitive workforce.

      The USA is still even with China in that both nations have 20% of the world’s manufacturing. Germany has also retained manufacturing very successfully. But the UK? If it was not for a whole lot of historical accidents that gave the UK the world’s biggest global finance industry and a whole lot of other near-weightless sources of economic income, the UK would be one huge rust belt without the USA’s rust belt’s mitigating features of low land cost, low density living, and low traffic congestion. So would a lot more of the US be had it imposed an urban planning system on all its cities like the UK’s one that was imposed in 1947.

  • A fertile “incubator”, CNU has seeded and germinated new urban concepts and tools into entire ecologies across sectors: Housing, Infrastructure, Transportation, Health. Even the Department of Defense, to conserve energy, enhance foreign relations with more efficient and compact land use, adopted new urban Unified Facilities Criteria back in 2012 for all facilities and installations with the skillful work of Dr Dorothy Robyn and Mark Gillem. The DNA of Transportation, Infrastructure, Housing have been redesigned, reseeded with new urban human scale. Health is integrating new urban criteria within US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with rallying cries from the Surgeon General. So a question for you — will Finance be the last engineered slab of separated uses? Will rating agencies guidelines catch up with the market, and will CREFC or other real estate industry data sources be able to measure the tremendous volumes of private and institutional investments in walkable, new urban, human scaled real estate? Fannie Mae has posted dramatically lower mortgage default rates on properties with walkability in tthier portfolio analyzed by Professor Gary Pivo. Will Economists deconstruct the steps to finance a live/work/walk infill project and find that Mobile Home Parks and Self Storage Units remain standard finance and asset class categories, yet walkable infill and “Main Street” remain invisible in finance standard. And as liquidity flows, even roars again, through the underground piping of asset class standards, will we be able to measure the deep aquifers and decades of investment that flow into “The Invisible Asset Class” of walkable infill “Main Streets”…new urban college towns, university districts, transit-hub development, neighborhood commercial districts, historic town square, hip and cool adaptive re-use? Will Finance integrate the ecology of new urban investment, or will new urban investment simply continue to grow and flourish “outside the system”? A question for you!

  • David High says:

    I think the comparisons you made require different metrics, and that should have been made clear in your post. A single work of architecture is photographed and explained very differently from a holistic approach to the built environment. The “success” that you think eludes New Urbanism might exist; it just shows up on the streets, not in magazines. As an academic, shouldn’t you help your readers create a benchmark for success that goes deeper than a glossy centerfold?

    Many planners I know are very influenced by New Urbanism. In my city, they are the ones who are working for the bicycle/cultural/food system changes you ask about. To the extent that a generation of planners studied (and embraced) the charter, much of what you ask about would be a result of New Urbanism.

  • joe from Lowell says:

    I am a planning board member and former practicing planner from Lowell, MA. My city got urbanism right the first time and, due to lagging political influence, only managed to destroy a little of it in the urban renewal dark ages. Here’s my perspective:

    Perhaps New Urbanism hasn’t show us old dogs any new tricks, but it has given us the confidence to stand up for ourselves and our historic community pattern against those who would write it off as obsolete. When even big suburban developers are working to recreate Lowell, it makes it very difficult to argue that we should destroy the real thing.

  • Michal Dominczak says:

    I figure out the problem like this:
    Witold Rybczynski ended his note with a question: “Have any of these been the result of the new urbanism movement?”
    And a couple of people have just been trying to answer this question…

    I have been doing research on Form Based Codes in USA for seven months and for me our movement (New Urbanism) should be (and in fact it is) a kind of counterrevolutionary “long march” across institutions – the march of designers, developers, local officials, community activists and “all people of good will”.

  • dk12 says:

    The ideas that came out of many of the early CNU meetings have had a tremendous impact on planning strategies and policy over the past couple decades. Things like “complete streets,” “transit oriented development,” “mixed used development,” “activating the street,” “walkable/bikeable environments,” are now common planning practices. Pointing to any individual project post celebration or seaside is absurd because many of the CNU principles are now mainstream and, in many places, actual law (and you’re looking for big city examples? try NYC’s “sustainable streets” initiative). and cities aren’t just downtowns – the bulk of the population lives in dense, lower-rise neighborhoods outside of downtowns – and in many cities, are just as desirable as penthouse apartments.

    I think the problem you’re having is that you’re attempting to identify and analyze a single “new urbanist” project that exists in some kind of a perfect architectural bubble.

  • Eric says:

    CNU does things on an advocacy level that do affect cities greatly, like modifying mixed use lending requirements. CNU is a more effective organization than APA or AIA in that regard.

  • Marc says:

    “My point was that in our media-driven age, for better or worse, a single project can change people’s mindset–as Seaside certainly did. I just don’t see a new urbanism big city project that has done that, the way that, say the High Line did.”

    But also in our media-driven age, a project that is trendy today almost always turns into tomorrow’s laughingstock and slated-for-demolition boondoggle (or at best is forgotten). The 20th century was littered with “iconic” urban renewal “big footprint” projects that all turned into boondoggles.

    The whole POINT of today’s urban revitalization is NOT to tie it to any single “iconic” project. As Jacobs stressed, truly resilient cities are systems of organized complexity, and not sorted-out, inert sculpture gardens a la “iconic” Dubai or Shanghai. I would be very worried if CNU DID have iconic urban projects like Seaside, because these would represent the death of urban complexity and the urban milieu, and the hinging of revitalization hopes on discrete, sorted-out, silver-bullet schemes.

    Urban starchitectural sculptures will have their 15 minutes of fame and be demolished tomorrow, while the CNU-influenced proliferation of decent “background building” infill will endure. Particularly thrilling for me is how even Modernist firms who would never consider themselves New Urbanist have absorbed CNU-pushed, common-sense infill practices like avoiding blank walls, building out to the sidewalk, etc.

    CNU probably should do even MORE behind-the-scenes work – twisting the arms of more DOTs, stripping out more outdated zoning codes and parking mandates, getting rid of the FHA and associates, diving deeper into transit planning and public school reform – rather than wasting time on ephemeral iconic stunts. Nice as the High Line is, the CNU’s behind-the-scenes tinkering has had WAY more impact on urban revitalization than some linear park – that park is in fact a deeper PRODUCT of CNU tinkering even if its designers think they came up with the idea on their own (which of course they didn’t)!

    • Eric says:

      CNU has made no effort to reform parking requirements.

      • Sandy Sorlien says:

        To the extent that CNU is the sum of its members, of course CNU has been trying to reform parking requirements. The 2003 SmartCode adjusted them downward and the “children of the SmartCode” went further and threw them all out. (See, e.g., the 2010 Neighborhood Conservation Code and the 2013 Pocket Code.) Let’s go with that no minimums approach and think about setting maximums instead, and then let’s listen to parking expert Don Shoup (member of various NU listservs) for managing availability and pricing. VTPI is also a great resource for parking reform. CNU members tap all these resources as necessary when working in individual, um, cities. It has to be done at that level because zoning is a local issue.

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  • Bill Dennis says:

    It is worth watching this recording of the opening plenary for CNU 20 in West Palm Beach two years ago – especially the middle part with Lizz Plater-Zyberk enumerating the accomplishments of the CNU. –

  • While I am a fan of your book, this commentary is unfair and not straightshooting. It is so extremely disapointing. I expected more from you after reading the book.
    A couple of examples of shoddy thinking:
    – the High Line is not an complete success (except by the wacko boosters of New York’s architectural-real estate complex). The creators sold out to REBNY and rezoned in a terrible way, resulting in glass and steel high rises cheek-by-jowl to the line. The place is downright creepy most of the time (complete with exhibitionists enjoying their bizarre proximity to the tourists). The place is for tourists, not for New Yorkers. Frankly, after a few years of the hoopla, I think it was better when it was it the state of decrepitude.
    – New Urbanism can without question make beautiful places and they should continue to do so, but they cannot create the underlying economics of a real town. That is not their fault, it is the fault of the developer who picked the site. Don’t blame New Urbanism for something out of their control. The movement will succeed when they can marry the underlying economics with their principles.

    Nonetheless, thank you for “history is a gift, not a constraint”

    • Witold says:

      I am not a huge fan of the High Line (see my NYT op-ed) but my point was that its popular success, esp in the media, helped to launch Landscape Urbanism, just as Seaside helped to launch New Urbanism. As for the economic success/failure of projects, it seems to me that if one takes credit for successes like Seaside and Celebration, one can’t duck out of failures.

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