New Urbanism as a design movement has been extremely successful in its first 30 years, especially in its providing an alternative to suburban sprawl. It has led to the building of numerous projects, large and small, which have firmly established pedestrian friendly, mixed use development as the “new” paradigm for habitation patterns in the United States. Suburban residential developments, big box malls and strip shopping centers are a dying breed. This in itself is one of the biggest transformations ongoing in American society, influenced through a philosophy about the way we design and build our communities. (The effects of this will unfold for many decades to come).
However, we believe that New Urbanism is currently in a state of crisis. It is not an overt crisis sparked by a particular event or phenomenon, but is an underlying current of degeneration, slow but steady; and it is slowly pushing the movement towards the tipping point, beyond which, New Urbanism will be relegated to the abyss of obscurity and non relevance.
There are several reasons for this transformation, some prominent ones being:
- Success: Its adoption into main stream industries of design, construction, and development has meant that more individuals now boast of being New Urbanist designers, developers etc., not all of which exhibit the same level of integrity and skill that was the hallmark of the vanguards. The result is an overall lowering of the quality of built work.
- Lack of a thorough monitoring / accreditation system: Correctly done, it can be a great tool to improve quality of built work. The instating of a Town Architect, for example, was prevalent in earlier NU projects and had a very positive impact on the quality of built work. Frequent Design reviews based on Form Based Codes, Pattern Books and Regulating Plans achieved similar high standards of construction. Moving forward, it is absolutely critical to emphasize the long term value of such practices to clients from the very inception of a project. Also, there does not exist a comprehensive rating system to evaluate NU projects. As a result, anyone can call their development New Urbanist and this further reduces the benchmark for future projects, starting a downward spiral as far as quality is concerned. A streamlined, non-bureaucratic accreditation process to evaluate the design, construction and maintenance of NU projects must be instated as soon as possible. There are a lot of lessons and caveats we can learn by observing the LEED accreditation system.
- Economic Meltdown: During the Great Recession, New Urbanist green field projects were hit hard (relatively speaking, NU greenfields are faring much better than their oversupplied suburban counterparts) and financing still remains scarce. This has meant that New Urbanists have had to venture into new territories and compete with sociologists, public policy experts, economists, planning departments, and even developers for projects. Since most urban design and architecture firms were all very busy right before the meltdown, the lag time in adjusting the modus operandi has proved lethal for many firms! In observing the NU firms that have fared better than most, the theme of flexibility jumps out as being a pre-requisite. Firms that are more willing to collaborate, reinvent the process of design and implementation and scope out work in unlikely territories will continue to thrive in the future.
- A Global Tilt : New Urbanism as a movement emerged to counter an American condition and so far, it has been singularly focused on the American context. Much of the projected growth in the coming decades will happen overseas. The current charter and ideology are yet to catch up with global growth trends. At the same time, the overseas market is overly focused on “catching up” to America’s mid 20th century, low-density development and the suburban lifestyle it manifests. Sadly, the new “flattened” global village has come to associate this unsustainable paradigm with notions of prosperity, individual freedom and democratic society. This will be one of our generations toughest hurdles in working with foreign clients and influencing future growth patterns. It would be greatly beneficial to craft an expose of the fallacy of this model of development, explaining how the recent economic downturn was directly sparked by it and is now engulfing this model in its raging fires. Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute has written a series of impressive articles regarding this subject already. A collective body of work on this subject can greatly help make the case for New Urbanism in the future.
- Landscape Urbanism & Modernism: The promise of Landscape Urbanism and Modernism is too provocative to be ignored, especially in emerging economies where a great premium is paid for nature in overcrowded cities and towns. Biophilia is sweeping a planet ridden with guilt due to the steady rate at which we have exploited our natural resources. Even though most of the work coming out of these schools of thought is lipstick on a pig, visually it is way more appealing than the paradigm of the good urban form that New Urbanists present in our projects. This is a huge problem and may end up being our Achilles heel. Our hope is that this green mirage will collapse under its own weight as the new economy will not be able to afford the grandiose promises made by its proponents. Proactively speaking, one immediate effort can be to incorporate emerging green technologies into the New Urban model of development. Let the next NU project have walkable streets as well as ubiquitous charging stations for the Nissan Leaf. Sustainable infrastructure can immensely help counter the threat of a LU takeover.
- Lack of tools in the toolkit to effectively deal with rural towns: The over-urbanization of towns into cities and cities into mega-regions is as much a product of as it is a deterrent to rural hamlets, farming communities, and villages. Part of fixing the urbanization problem will be to address the gutting of our breadbasket communities.
So, in order to continue being a driving force in shaping settlements, what will the New Urbanism of the future look like?
To answer this question in the coming weeks, we will critically examine a number of New Urbanist projects. While there is not a singular project that embodies a silver bullet solution, several projects done in the past decade have tackled some of the above mentioned challenges more successfully than others. We will examine these works and highlight what works best. A common theme will be projects that have the capability to Adapt, Grow & Propser in the new socioeconomic global landscape. Stay tuned....