The Next Urbanism

‘Tis the season to rejoice and enjoy the brotherhood of all mankind, as well as that of our in-laws…

As we ease into 2012, I am officially announcing a New Urbanism victory across North America, as we recently witnessed the end of building suburbia and its physically isolated, segregated lifestyle. Proof? Just this week, the award-winning New Urban News, a publication dedicated to all things New Urbanism, officially changed their title to “Better! Cities and Towns.”

As Robert Steuteville explained on their website, “When we launched New Urban News in 1996, the trend toward walkable, mixed-use planning and development was in its infancy. Cities were still at a low ebb — many of them just beginning to revitalize their downtowns… Today much is different. The sprawl-producing industry has been badly damaged in the financial crash. Markets have changed. A new generation of young adults has emerged with a strong preference for walkable places, while previous generations are also seeing the value of mixed-use neighborhoods.

Reinforcing my point, this year’s TED Prize was awarded to The City 2.0 to emphasize the cultural, social and physical significance of our collective return to the city, and its role in shaping our future. The TED Prize differentiates this 2.0 version from failed modernist attempts to urbanize our cities by explaining that it “is not a sterile utopian dream, but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom. The City 2.0 promotes innovation, education, culture, and economic opportunity.”

Last month, I wrote about the entry-level urbanism of the Vancouver model that successfully urbanized downtowns across US west. My criticism of the model, a tower on podium with a townhouse wrap, is that it has safely sealed off the interior of the blocks with its few secured residential (private) entries. In fairness, according to former city planner and current UCLA PhD candidate, Neal LaMontagne (find him on Twitter @nlamontagne), Vancouver is building upon its success with an innovative eco-density approach to more livable urbanism.

As we continue Learning from Vancouver*, today’s debate centers around towers versus street level design and hiding the necessary density that shares infrastructure, cuts public expenditure (streets, highways, services), and reduces carbon emissions. The next step, Urbanism 2.0, is to understand the relationship between buildings in regards to how we interact with people above the street, across the street, and between buildings. City blocks should be providing easier access to public and private areas both vertically as well as horizontally, which is the  3D Urbanism Jan Gehl has illustrated in his new book, Cities for People, and has been documenting since his 1971, Life Between Buildings. Urbanism 2.0 will design towards the limits of our senses and the scale of human livability.

The Next Urbanism, 2.0, is building towards immersive city blocks at smaller development increments. These new blocks are well-connected and permeable with greater social interconnectivity.  The Next Urbanism will assemble complex places that mix to scale the varied intensities of retail shops, industrial shops, manufacturing and sales on-site, housing, and offices. Add to this the need to re-urbanizing first tier, streetcar suburbs (today’s development battle line), and it’s clear New Urbanists will need to be as effective at this as we were in combating suburban greenfields over the past 20 years.

The rise of our new social technologies and networks are (re)enabling trust between strangers and we are now able to collaborate more efficiently and share information, infrastructure, and costs, enabling a renewed sense of community divergent from community in the past. Now, coupled with our new economy, technology is thereby reinforcing our need and use for connected places within our neighborhoods and city blocks. Think of the neighborhood-by-neighborhood social fabric of turn-of-the-century Paris, its impact on our ex-pat Lost Generation and how that interaction shaped our culture over the last century.

Hemingway and friends. They found each other with a simple #Hemingwaysidewalkparty.

In the late 20th century, the New Urbanism rightly recognized that cities are an amalgamation of neighborhoods, districts and corridors, with neighborhoods forming the basis for where we live, work, play, worship, and interact with the people who provide for our daily needs. The true value of urbanism and technology occurs when we are able to physically connect and share information, resources, ideas, and  empathy with each other. These face-to-face interactions build the social fabric that will (re)define our ability to endure and thrive culturally into the 21st century.

–Howard Blackson

*Learning from Las Vegas, originally published by the MIT in 1972, was one of the most influential and controversial architectural books of its era. Its authors—architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour—famously used the Las Vegas Strip to argue the virtues of the “ordinary and ugly” above the “heroic and original” qualities of architectural modernism.

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  1. The “end of building suburbia”? I think that overstates the case. If anything is built in the future, I suspect that some of it (based on pre-Housing Bust patterns, and based on the fact that suburban populations are still growing in most regions) will be suburbia. The difference is that it won’t be 100 percent of what is built, nor will it be the most high-value segment of what is built.

    To put it another way; 20 years ago people lived in cities because they could not afford suburbs. Today, many people live in suburbs because they can’t afford cities.

  2. Thanks for the note… but, 20 years ago it was illegal and non-conforming to live IN the cities.

  3. John Howell says

    I don’t know anyone who aspires to buy a new home that is built like an apartment. It took me my entire youth to earn enough to buy a house with some land so I could escape my neighbors. I doubt very seriously that people are just going to desire living in ever denser urban areas. Some people don’t mind it, but the same people who move to the ‘burbs are the ones who will opt out of the ‘new urbanism’, myself included. Also, not everyone is a big fan of getting rid of their cars, which is almost a prerequisite of modern ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. No parking, narrow lanes and driver unfriendly codes might make bicyclers happy, but then they don’t even pay for the roads they ride on. People with cars love the freedom it gives them. Just because someone ‘decrees’ that cars are bad doesn’t mean the world is just going to give them up. In fact, it would appear to me that ‘new urbanism’ is actually a few people who want to dictate to many people how they should live.

  4. ” In fact, it would appear to me that ‘new urbanism’ is actually a few people who want to dictate to many people how they should live.”

    That would be true, John, if Howard were talking about an optimum living arrangement. But he’s not. The focus of the piece here is on how to design dense urbanism in a way that best serves those who live there. It is one living arrangement, and it is one preferred by certain types of folks.

    Your mistake is in assuming that new urbanists champion this lifestyle only. But in fact, quite the opposite is true. New urbanists value all living arrangements, from the most rural to the most urban, and focus only on design within each. In doing so, we strive to provide maximized choice and opportunity for all, wherever one finds themselves. That means country living that capitalizes on all the assets afforded by nature and agriculture; family-friendly sub-urban living that still allows for walkable conveniences for children and adults; and dense urban living for those who value it.

    Contrarily, current development practices, which it would seem you’re speaking for, offer the suburban lifestyle as the ideal above all else. Many aspects of it are codified in the zoning regulations that govern modern development. To me, that’s a limiting of choice and an affront to the idea of a free and open market. Government regulations should not be standing in the way if some people want to live in a vibrant downtown and others want a rural setting unencumbered by miles of strip retail. The market should be free to provide what people want. The house with some land that you value (quite reasonably and for many good reasons) is only possible if balanced with higher density options for those who want them.

  5. @John Howell: If you are referring to people not wanting to live in a home abutting the one next to it, I think that is obviously false, as evidenced by all the town homes built within the last decade. If you are referring to square footage, row houses can easily be as big as detached ones; it’s amazing how much space you save when you eliminate the superfluous front and side yards.

    But overall you are wrong to assume that this model is trying to be forced down anyone’s throat, quite the contrary. It is mainly focused on fishing from the gutter of history the pieces that make as city a well-functioning, nice place to live. Also, as theorists such as James Howard Kunstler point out, the age of cheap energy that has enabled this car-centered culture in America, is coming to a close, so we had better build cities that maximize that soon to be diminishing supply of energy.

    Want to “escape [your] neighbors”? live in the country; there is no reason to live in the suburbs.

    Finally, while there have been suburbs in one form or another since biblical times and there likely will always be suburbs, as long as civilization exists, they have never been the emphasis for ideal living until the post WWII era, and that is the main problem: not their existence, but their prominence.


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  2. […] colleague, Howard Blackson, said as much in a recent blog post. But the most compelling evidence can be found in just about any municipal comp plan from anywhere […]

  3. […] colleague, Howard Blackson, said as much in a recent blog post. But the most compelling evidence can be found in just about any municipal comp plan from anywhere […]

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  5. […] connect people and deftly share common spaces and views. See my previous posts on the Next Urbanism here and here regarding this urban design condition. Exploring connectivity beyond street level. A […]

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