New Urbanism | The Case for Looking Beyond Style

Within the Avant-Garde Establishment (AGE), the New Urbanism has been defined by a strategy to willfully mischaracterize it. The few live debates have consisted of dreary factual corrections by the New Urbanist side. Now Metropolis provides the opportunity to establish the actual record:

The most debilitating aspect of this criticism is the hypersimplification—as if the New Urbanism were a rustic version of starchitect culture. The New Urbanism is in reality an expanding web of ideas, techniques, projects, and people. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is an institution chartered 18 years ago with a budget, a board, and a staff. The New Urbanism coalesced through the 1980s around certain independent initiatives: the Pedestrian Pocket studies of Doug Kelbaugh and Peter Calthorpe, the antimodernist polemics of the Krier brothers and Colin Rowe, the typological rigor of Stefanos Polyzoides, the conservative housing of Urban Design Associates and Dan Solomon, the Americanism of Vincent Scully, and the emergence of Seaside as a physical artifact. The unifying impetus was the decline of CIAM (the 1928 organization that gave birth to the modern movement) into zoned suburban sprawl.

The CNU was founded in 1993 by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule, Peter Calthorpe, and Dan Solomon. It was built on the chassis of CIAM—which we identified as the last design movement to have changed the course of urbanism. This was an early instance of the nonideological pragmatism that became the MO of the New Urbanism. From CIAM came the concept of a movement, rather than the individualized position-taking of the generation of 1935. Also from CIAM came the protocol of an elite meeting to formulate the principles that would allow it to become an open-membership organization limited only by a presumed agreement with the resulting “Charter of the New Urbanism.”

As the Charter makes clear, the New Urbanism projects at all scales, but its primary mission has been the reform of suburban sprawl, which has long been the most debilitating and neglected of America’s urban crises. This is not to say that New Urbanists have avoided the inner city. Our firm, DPZ, for example, has prepared effective urban plans of at least eight major urban cores. After all, the best way to discourage sprawl is to foster cities that people love. The long-serving president and CEO of the CNU is John Norquist, who was also the long-term mayor of Milwaukee and the author of the hard-to-beat-for-having-its-head-screwed-on-straight The Wealth of Cities. According to New Urban News, about half of New Urbanist projects (which number in the hundreds) have been infill.

And yet, few want to know that. The otherwise omniscient Kenneth Frampton was recently heard to say, “The New Urbanists … are they still around?” “They make porches for white Southerners, don’t they?” is Rodolfo Machado’s joshing version. Unfortunately, architecture students from our elite schools believe this more easily than the truth: New Urbanists wrote HUD’s HOPE VI standards and are thereby responsible for about 111,000 new and renovated units of affordable housing—virtually the entire supply of the last 15 years, with a good proportion designed by CNU members. As far as the idea that the New Urbanists have been relegated to small-bore housework, Calthorpe and John Fregonese’s firm alone is responsible for virtually all of the regional planning west of the Alleghenies—which is to say most of the regional planning in this country.

While the intention of reform is singularly clear, the means to achieve it are not. A diverse array of techniques has been rescued from oblivion and tested in hundreds of built projects. New Urbanist architecture’s visible “nostalgia” is easily dismissed by critics, but its power is really in software and other methods: the ultraprecise market-research technology devised by Todd Zimmerman and Laurie Volk; the complex association structures evolved by the attorneys Doris Goldstein and Dan Slone; the new manual of the Institute of Transportation Engineers inscribed in the blood of a half-dozen brilliant NU engineers; the new LEED Neighborhood Development standards; scores of smart developers operating within the bastion of the ULI; Sandy Sorlien and her pervasive form-based codes, one of which, SmartCode, is modular freeware designed to transform the operating systems of the 27,000 American planning departments.

The CNU is the only design organization that truly has no professional silos. The code’s operating system, the Transect, is a taxonomic engine designed to evaporate specialization. How is it possible to claim such success? For starters, because New Urbanists engage problems with CIAM-vintage reformist intentions rather than postmodern expressive ones. The New Urbanism is not relativistic. Postwar suburbia is considered bad news, period. It will not have a future. This positivism—as the Columbia professor Robert Beauregard noted—has made us powerful. While the notion of suburbia is occasionally noted by a member of the AGE (perhaps from the window of a train from New Haven), it’s seldom engaged beyond a sketch and a jot. Other than the two serious excursions of Venturi and Scott Brown to the exotica of Las Vegas and Levittown—and the brave new berm theories of the Landscape Urbanists—the field is currently owned by New Urbanism.

The problem, it seemed to us, was not one of inadequately designed “unprecedented typologies.” Suburban sprawl does not call for aesthetic intervention. It is nothing less than the principal cause of climate change. The car-dependent lifestyle of the American middle class (as well as its export version) is the major contributor to atmospheric and aquatic degradation. And that is just the beginning, as the attendant social and economic problems become even more urgent. When aging boomers are torn from their cars, when the national impoverishment fails the infrastructure, as cheap energy winds down—then the drifting wreck of suburbia will require salvage work. This is the great design challenge of the 21st century.

Now, impossible to avoid, what matters the most to the AGE: style! This is what the Charter states: “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” That agnostic statement should have been the end of it. But the AGE cannot forgive that we have refused to carry the burden of their agenda: to impose modernist architecture on the middle class while it is listening to us. Why the traditional architecture? Must it be so? Well, yes. A comfortable style is the camouflage that eases the acceptance of our radical reform agenda. The New Urbanism is ambitious enough to have taken on the reform of urbanism. Architecture becomes our tool, not our end. Besides, the traditional houses beloved of most Americans have become quite good. If critical eyes were not so coarsened by the gigantic gesticulations of avant-garde architecture, they might discern the knowing subtleties of those buildings with pitched roofs. Around the New Urbanism’s thousands of commissions have arisen a number of superb traditional architects. Some have taught themselves to be as good as architects have ever been. And more important, they are becoming organized around pattern books and guilds that deliver quality with an economy and efficiency commensurate with modernity’s true definition: “the problem of large numbers.” They have taken the territory abdicated by modernists who are flummoxed by the middle class. Between connecting to the American middle class and connecting to the architectural establishment, what choice could New Urbanism have made?

The American middle class is one of the “power grids” that propel the New Urbanism. Years ago, Christopher Alexander advised: “We all know what the appliance is … What we need to do is design the plugs that connect it to the existing power grids.” Note the plural. The middle class and the developers who house them, the professionals with their standards and manuals, the politicians and their laws (codes), and the health establishment—they have been the major power grids that the New Urbanism has designed the plugs for. The schools—ornery, confusing, distracted, and relatively powerless—were easy enough to sidestep, but they are a problem nonetheless.

Over the last 30 years, the plugs have been designed in four sequential phases, and all are now simultaneously available to propel implementation. The first was market-driven by the success of Seaside. It turned out that many people wanted walkable lifestyles and that it was possible to develop such communities profitably. This brought the developers on board, and they now number in the hundreds.

The second plug emerged slowly as NIMBYism arose from the failed promise of suburbia. Instead of lives surrounded by nature and enjoying freedom of movement, the opposite was delivered. The New Urbanist charrettes arose as a vehicle to convince the furious that our proposals were part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The charrettes created the unprecedented hybrid of bottom-up and top-down planning: the Charter and the charrette provided principle and process. Emily Talen has argued persuasively that this has finally stabilized the top-down/bottom-up pendulum that had been the history of American planning. The ability of New Urbanist technology to support transit, as well as mitigate economic, environmental, and social problems, has connected us to the political establishment. Obama’s massive infrastructure funding will be filtered through New Urbanist criteria, as developed by Calthorpe for California and hence the rest of the country.

The third phase was propelled by the “discovery” of sedentary lifestyle obesity and the attendant pathologies. It has further intensified the ethical imperative of New Urbanism, but not more than the fourth phase has. This is the belated insight by the environmentalists that urbanism can be a tool as powerful as the explicit protection of nature. Indeed, it is emerging as the primary tool in the green toolbox. LEED ND is already infiltrating municipalities as a shadow planning code.

What plugs have failed? Despite the technical success of LEED ND, New Urbanism has not properly connected to the populist side of the environmental movement, which does not yet coincide with the middle class. This is due to our failure to deploy visual biophilia. It is not enough that our urbanism mitigates climate change by being compact, connected, complex, and convivial. It is also necessary that it look explicitly green. This stylistic void is currently being exploited by Landscape Urbanism—a very interesting movement that is now being analyzed by the Center for Applied Transect Studies, a New Urbanist think tank. If all goes according to plan, a new New Urbanism may evolve from the CATS studies.

The other faulty plug has been our failure to gain admission to the academic power grid. Some say that the requisite avant-gardism cannot by definition assimilate the New Urbanist success in the real world. But there are many other reasons, including pitched roofs, that are as arbitrary and intractable. This remains a serious problem, as it weakens the New Urbanist mission when the idealistic youngsters required for the vast reform are culled away. The academy, even when sincere, values questioning, multiplicity, and constant mutability and consequently finds us rigid, certain, moralistic, and tedious in general. The New Urbanism can hardly engage a discourse that abhors taking a position. There is no way that we can be accepted in the ethos of dithering that Josep Lluis Sert set up at Harvard 50 years ago. But perhaps there is a break: the academy’s embrace of Landscape Urbanism shows it taking a positivistic position that nails it to the mast. Now we can engage, and we expect that whatever is effective in Landscape Urbanism—not excluding the biophilic aesthetic—will be absorbed into New Urbanism. As always, there are no prerequisites for acceptance of any notions that pass that good old American pragmatic test: “Whatever works best in the long run.” This aspect of New Urbanism has famously exasperated our only well-informed critic, Alex Krieger, who once accused us of being “impossible to debate, as you instantly assimilate all good ideas.” And why not?

And finally, to scrape the bottom of the AGE’s polemic by bringing up The Truman Show: please notice that the plot revolves around suckers who believe that what is shown in movies is for real. Go visit the communities. Urbanism cannot be judged from pictures. Only by living in them for a while can you really tell what it is like to do so.

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