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Alys Beach, FL, is a Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company project now under construction. Using Bermudan precedents, the design groups buildings into small compounds, unified by perimeter walls. Photo: Sandy Sorlien



Don’t Think of Seaside!

Critiques of the New Urbanism abound, some legitimate and some not.

By Sandy Sorlien

The New Urbanists have done some impressive post-Katrina work in Mississippi and Louisiana that has seized the attention of the mainstream press, architecture critics and other vocal entities. This means that the critiques and misconceptions are flying, along with the positive reports. George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant!, 2004) would say it’s a mistake to repeat them here, even to refute them, but I can’t resist. So many of these misconceptions show a disregard for the principles of the New Urbanism, I wonder if some of our critics have even read our two-page Charter. Of course, there is a difference between principles and built results, and there is some legitimate criticism out there, which I’ll address below.

Misconception #1: The New Urbanism is only about new traditional towns.
Truth: The New Urbanism is about sustainable patterns of growth from the block scale to the community scale all the way to the regional scale. New Urbanist practitioners include engineers, retail experts, ecologists, code writers, land-use attorneys and transit experts, along with architects and planners. Most New Urbanist design is based on the rural-to-urban Transect, a framework to keep development compact and rural areas open. Transect-based thoroughfare design is sensitive to context, so in settled areas, design favors the pedestrian. Transect-based coding can also protect the character of older neighborhoods everywhere.

About half of New Urbanist projects are infill in existing towns and cities, or on the sites of defunct malls, including Hope VI projects for low-income families. Transect-based coding has been invaluable in analyzing the lost urbanism of the Gulf Coast towns, and in writing design prescriptions for their repair.

Misconception #2: New Urbanists want to take away your cars.
Truth: There are 15 pages of thoroughfare and parking standards in the New Urbanist SmartCode. "New Urbanists will save the automobile," declares New Urbanist leader Andrés Duany, "by restoring it to the condition shown in the car ads: either gently cruising beautiful plazas being observed by sexy people sitting in cafés, or speeding wildly across the open landscape. Both fun; both premium New Urbanist Transect Zones. Ironically, it is not the New Urbanist critique, but the accommodating suburbia that has destroyed the automobile – by turning it into a prosthetic device."

Misconception #3: New Urbanists will make you live in attached housing next to loud teenagers. (Or, if you are a loud teenager, you will be forced to live next to intolerant geezers.)
Truth: Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) offers more choice in living arrangements than conventional zoning does. There are more housing types, more price points, more frontage types, more mixed use and more things to walk to than in a conventional subdivision. If you like attached housing or apartments above shops, you will find them in each TND; if you like single-family with a big yard, you will find that too. The key to the sustainable pattern of traditional neighborhood design is that it’s based on the pedestrian shed, or a five-minute walk to common destinations like parks, meeting halls and shops. One does not have to drive for every errand, nor act as chauffeur for your child’s every activity.

Misconception #4: New Urbanists are opposed to Modernist architecture.
Truth: Yes, some New Urbanists are opposed to Modernist architecture because they do not think it has, to date, contributed reliably to a pedestrian-friendly, human-scaled public realm. But most New Urbanists believe it can contribute, as there are many strains of Modernism. The Charter for the New Urbanism says "This issue [linking architectural projects to surroundings] transcends style." The outspoken traditional architect Léon Krier refused to sign the Charter because of that line, but he was the only one. In fact, many New Urbanist projects offer Modernist houses: Rosemary Beach, Seaside and Aqua in Florida and Prospect in Colorado, to name a few. The distinction not being made by our critics on this issue is that between traditional urban design standards and traditional architectural styles. The former are essential; the latter may not be.

Misconception #5: New Urbanists trample on the rights of the disabled with their elevated porches.
Truth: The New Urbanist SmartCode includes "visitability" provisions for all residences. More importantly, we urge advocates for all the disadvantaged to see the big picture. Compared to conventional development, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods allow more autonomy for all those who cannot drive – not only the disabled, but the elderly, the very poor and children.

Other Issues
A legitimate beef is that the New Urbanism is only for the well-off. The truth is that it is intended for everyone, but yes, most New Urbanist towns have been, so far, out of reach for the working class because their real estate prices have increased rapidly. These are very desirable places to live. (And keep in mind that Seaside, the most-cited example of the New Urbanism, is both its earliest example [now 25 years old] and one that was always intended to be a resort.) Solution? Build more of them.

Within each New Urbanist community there is potentially much more income diversity than in a single-family-only subdivision, the type of community where most of suburban America now lives. You can rent or buy a carriage house, mews house, outbuilding flat or apartment in the same neighborhood where the upper-middle class lives. At this time, New Urbanists are strengthening the affordability language in the SmartCode.

A common non-criticism is that New Urbanist projects are nothing more than new versions of old towns. If that’s all they were, one might ask: "And your point is?" But actually they’re more than that in an important way. They’re traditional towns and neighborhoods that accommodate the automobile without letting it destroy the public realm.

The New Urbanism has identified the DNA of our most-loved places and written it into codes for a sea change in development patterns, while accommodating the modern conveniences of our 21st-century lives. Growth is inevitable; the question is: What form will it take? New Urbanist form-based, Transect-based codes can overcome the powerful inertia of sprawl, the degradation of the public realm and society’s segregation by income.

We look forward to a future when single-use residential pods, commercial sprawl and a life spent in traffic are patterns of the past that no one will want to revive.  


Sandy Sorlien, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, is a photographer and code writer who lives in Philadelphia, PA. She was head of the Codes Team for the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005, and has returned to the Gulf Coast five times since then for planning work, most recently for SmartCode charrettes in Pass Christian and Gulfport, MS, and St. Bernard Parish, LA. She teaches urban photography at the University of Pennsylvania.
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