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Urban Core: New Urbanism

This is the third in a series on cities in the USofA. I don’t yet know how many there will be total. The first entries can be found here:

Urban Core
Urban Core: Lessons

It’s one of those great stories that might as well be true. The legend is that General Eisenhower, touring a conquered Germany, saw how efficient the Autobahn was for moving troops and supplies. When he became President of the USofA just 8 years later, he moved to create the same system, to be called “Interstates” over here.

The story isn’t quite right, however. The plans for the Interstate Highway System were first drawn up in 1937 as a massive New Deal construction project. But what I wonder about this story isn’t the embellishment that makes it a good legend; I wonder about what’s been left out. Specifically, who was the guy touring the Autobahns with Eisenhower who saw the larger feature of Germany at that time, the ruined cities that hardly had two bricks left mortared together, and thought that was a good idea to bring home, too?

As cynical as this lame joke is, it’s terribly true. Cities hadn’t seen any significant investment since the “City Beautiful” movement of the 1900s. That wave of reform attempted to transform the urban core into something like Napoleon III’s Paris, with great marbled halls and wide streets and – for the first time – zoning laws. This movement was snuffed out by WWI and didn’t quite recover during the selfish 1920s, laying all major reform dormant until the Feds planned Something Big� in the 1950s.

And man, was it big.

Once the Interstate system made it possible to live outside of the city and commute to work, the Baroque Era of chrome and steel left our cities as far behind as 35 cent per gallon gasoline could take us. Cities became nothing more than job centers, following the way they developed in the first place People lived here, worked there, played over there. The zoning laws became something of a Holy Writ that was the main tool by which cities did any planning at all.

By the 1980s, it was clear that something was horribly wrong. The concrete monstrosities that efficiently carried people from centers of work to centers of living were expensive, out of scale, and shamefully ugly. A group of architects, most notably Cuban raised and Ecole des Beaux Arts trained Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, started to call for a return to the old ways of arranging the places people lived their lives. They had the audacity to create places where it all happened in one connected and beautiful place.

This “New Urbanism” is what now guides how most cities redvelop themselves today. It stresses mixed-use developments where retail and housing at least have a strong relationship to each other, and social gathering places are developed where communities can have a strong physical and political center.

What’s not to love about this? I often say that the difference between New Urbanism and Old Urbanism is that the latter just happened but the former is carefully planned. This is actually a strong criticism. New Urbanist ideas in the hands of a skilled architect who cares about people is a powerful tool, but in the hands of a hack is dangerous. New Urbanism says a lot about form, but much less about scale and humanity than what appears at first glance.

The result is a kind of perversion of the movement away from the people that all this built-up stuff are supposed to be for in the first place. The old ways, which just happened, came about through experimentation and a desire to meet a strong need. They also were built as economically as possible, meaning that they were only as big as the builder was willing to take a chance on developing. Today’s world has additional costs of removing what’s there to cover plus a typical dollop of government subsidy or guarantee that makes building big inevitable.

New Urbanism has been a wonderful trend for invigorating our cities in the USofA, and the intentions are all good. What’s often missing is the small and careful view of a the people that make a project successful. What’s often not valued is the human scale, a scale appropriate to walking-upright chimps that feel as alone and afraid on a concrete plaza as they did traipsing the vast savanna. Our species likes to feel cozy, at least sometimes, and likes to know just where it is. Great big public projects, no matter how many uses they mix up for texture and excitement, can be scary even more than they are edgy and fun.

With the era of monolithic monstrosities and artificial views of how to lead a segmented life behind us, New Urbanism is the standard. That’s good. What we have yet to understand is that a vast sea of asphalt or concrete is not a friendly thing no matter what. Scale is what makes a project great, which is to say if it’s scaled for humans by humans.

The fancy new mixed-use zoning laws provided by New Urbanist thought? They’re just tools, and nothing more. How we use them is up to those of us who have to live with it.

6 thoughts on “Urban Core: New Urbanism

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