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New Urbanists Point the Way Forward

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New Urbanists Point the Way Forward

But is anyone listening? April 18, 2008

The New Urbanism and suburban sprawl have something in common: they’re uncool. New Urbanism is uncool because it is basically traditional; modernism is still the thing in architecture, notes Andrés Duany, the most influential New Urbanist. And sprawl has been so uncool for so long that the sociologist Herbert Gans had to rise to its defense more than 40 years ago in The Levittowners. So it’s a little odd to hear Duany and his acolytes talk about making sprawl “as uncool as smoking,” as they did late last year at the New Urbanists’ Green Architecture and Urbanism Conference.

Why all the worry about what’s cool? Perhaps the New Urbanists should cherish their outsider status. A gifted crew of architects and planners, they have changed the conversation about urban planning in the United States. They reject conventional postwar developers’ essentially quantitative, two-dimensional, single-use-oriented blueprints for residential subdivisions and office parks in favor of a qualitative, three-dimensional, mixed-use approach to designing neighborhoods and towns that generally involves reliance on traditional architectural styles. In many ways it’s a conservative approach to building communities, which probably accounts for its not being in fashion.

Since the movement’s pioneering couple, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designed the Florida panhandle community of Seaside back in 1980, the number of successful New Urbanist communities has steadily increased across the country. These include “greenfield” projects on undeveloped exurban land and inner-city, government-subsidized neighborhood developments that have replaced dysfunctional Urban Renewal–era housing projects. Still, while the New Urbanism set the stage for the current displacement of shopping malls by pedestrian-friendly, streetscape-oriented “lifestyle centers,” the New Urbanist share of U.S. property development remains minute. From tiny “infill” developments in sparsely-settled suburbs or deteriorated city blocks to large-scale urban plans, the project total probably comes to less than 1,000.

And so the vibes at the conference, which took place at the Lyceum in Alexandria and in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, resembled those of a countercultural cabal. After more than a quarter-century of New Urbanism, proclaimed Stefanos Polyzoides—who, with his wife Elizabeth Moule, heads a top-flight urban-design practice in Pasadena, California—“there’s no indication that the system of building in this country is even dented.” In other words, sprawl still reigns, and so do the sundry forms of architectural dysfunction afflicting the nation’s public realm. The New Urbanists have changed the conversation, but they haven’t changed the world. At least, not yet.

Not surprisingly, the New Urbanists have been in search of a deus ex machina that would bring their community-building ethos into the mainstream. Their first hope was “smart growth”—basically, the imposition of regulatory guidelines concerning things like density and access to public transportation. The New Urbanists tend to regard the triumph of the automobile with skepticism and would like to think it reversible. Al Gore would agree, and as vice president he took a stab at promoting a smart-growth “livability agenda”—with underwhelming results. Smart growth, for the record, now entails advocacy of a new stratum of government: federally mandated regional authorities would control key planning decisions for core cities and their suburbs as well as the sharing of major urban assets, not to mention federal dollars.

If smart growth hasn’t taken the New Urbanism very far, how about global warming? The New Urbanists tend to be well-heeled liberal types deeply concerned about what sprawl is doing to Mother Nature, and as one conference speaker said, “Carbon is gaining currency.” The conference invitation proclaimed that “New Urbanism and traditional building have many convenient solutions for the inconvenient truth of global warming.” This sounds like a great way to make New Urbanism cool—in more ways than one. Too bad the claim is hot air.

For starters, climate change is an extremely complex phenomenon that cannot be modeled or predicted with certainty. We can only guess at the extent to which its causes are anthropogenic. (Plater-Zyberk was the only conference speaker I heard who acknowledged that global warming science is uncertain.) Further, no evidence emerged at the conference that “green” urbanism and architecture could lead to anything like a decisive reduction of domestic carbon emissions, let alone global ones. One speaker cited a paper by smart-growth advocates predicting that a large-scale resort to compact, New Urbanist–style development would cut America’s total transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions by no more than 7 to 10 percent, relative to “current trends,” by the year 2050. As transportation accounts for one-third of overall U.S. emissions, that amounts to trimming projected emissions by less than 4 percent.

Several speakers did offer salutary critiques of the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council’s widely ballyhooed LEED criteria. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is largely devoted to making that which is already cool—modernist architecture—even cooler by making it greener. Cities that have adopted LEED standards include Washington, D.C., which is phasing them in for private as well as public construction projects under a 2006 law. Entities erecting office buildings earn one of four levels of LEED certification by adopting a range of natural-resource-saving elements, including recycled building materials, solar panels, “green roofs,” composting toilets, and waterless urinals, as well as design features that maximize exploitation of natural light and ventilation while minimizing energy consumption.

But in fact, LEED represents a patchwork attempt to rid modernist construction of its intrinsically unecological character. It’s no coincidence that modernism, which was conceived as the expression of a new scientific-industrial epoch, emerged with the advent of cheap fossil fuels. The midcentury glass-box office tower is a serious energy hog. There is no thermal sink, such as traditional masonry construction affords, to moderate the effects of temperature change over the course of the day. The box just fries in the sun and freezes in the cold. (Remember the mirror glazing that cropped up during the 1970s and fried the building across the street instead?) What’s more, the glass box’s cheap, skimpy, panelized cladding deteriorates rather quickly as a result of thermal expansion and contraction, so a new “skin” is often necessary after 20 years or so.

Nowadays, the environmentally correct glass building likely boasts not one but two layers of low-emittance coated glass with an insulating layer of argon gas sandwiched between them. But this doesn’t solve the problem. Modernist buildings, whether clad in glass or not, simply aren’t built to age gracefully—not only because of the way they’re constructed, but also because they aren’t designed to be loved. They are either commercially expedient products of the consumer culture or, less often, expensively histrionic but ultimately ephemeral fashion statements of the sort that Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel concoct.

Modernist construction, then, is typically a matter of reduced up-front construction costs and elevated maintenance costs. (It’s pretty much the same story in the subdivisions, where construction of ordinary tract houses and McMansions alike has become increasingly shoddy.) New Urbanists like Polyzoides are entirely correct to speak of the Cannon Building’s august, sumptuous, solidly crafted, and enduring classical architecture as “frugal.” Truly frugal and indeed “sustainable” architecture involves making buildings that people will love for many years to come.

If the New Urbanists are to fulfill their movement’s vast potential as a force for cultural renewal, though, they must do a better job of addressing the public. One obstacle is their insular mentality. In February, I attended a lecture in Washington by New Urbanist guru Léon Krier. The Luxembourg-born architect designed the charming (and financially successful) community of Poundbury on land owned by the Prince of Wales in southwest England. Krier always has intelligent things to say—to the small crowds who are more or less on his wavelength.

But to the average Joe, Krier probably comes across as a nutty professor. As with so many New Urbanists, Krier tends to see sprawl as an abstraction of everything he dislikes about modern society. He is indifferent to the ways in which sprawl is deeply rooted in the American experience, especially the postwar experience of fabulous material progress. The supercilious attitude that Krier and his followers display toward the American way of life—which sprawl has epitomized for some time, like it or not—is easily taken for upper-middle-class snobbery. This simply reinforces the New Urbanists’ status as a yuppie cult.

Sprawl is going to be with us for a long time to come. Meantime, there are plenty of “gizmo-green” alternatives out there to salve the consciences of exurbanites aspiring to environmental correctness: wind turbines, hybrid cars, geothermal heating and cooling systems (President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch house boasts one), and community gardens for “locovores” (folks who want to eat locally grown food so as to reduce transport-related CO2 emissions). Or environmental types can replace their fuel-oil boilers with stoves powered by organically fertilized corn—or just hang the laundry outside instead of relying on the dryer, as the New York Times recently noted.

So if New Urbanist leaders like former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist want to align themselves with Gore on the climate-change issue, fine. But should Gore and his coreligionists turn out to be false prophets—which is a distinct possibility—green architecture could well lose its cool status.

Fortunately, a shift in the public mood on global warming need not have much impact on the New Urbanism. A number of recent surveys indicate increasing public demand for New Urbanist communities. As Christopher B. Leinberger of the University of Michigan notes in the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic, household demographics and lifestyle preferences are both shifting in the New Urbanism’s favor. In all likelihood, the New Urbanists will have their hands full in the decades ahead just keeping pace with market demand without dumbing their product down. Again, this doesn’t mean that the end of sprawl is in sight. It does mean that we’ll have a better, more variegated urban menu as the nation’s building stock increases to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population.

To make the most of these changing public preferences, the New Urbanists need to focus on a vision that supports the resurgence of an architectural culture—which is precisely what we haven’t got now. Sprawl, generally speaking, is a utilitarian phenomenon with minimal artistic value. It does not involve vision. Its practical advantages, as embraced by millions of Americans, are real, but from a design standpoint it represents unculture. Modernist architecture—which offers no persistent default settings that can be generalized to create an acceptable, sustainable urban environment—is likewise unculture. It’s not really helpful to talk about banning modernist design, which enjoys the support of powerful constituencies and even spawns an engaging structure once in a blue moon. But the fact remains that a true culture of building requires traditional artistic norms that can be adapted to changing social needs.

Until the 1930s, we had a classically oriented culture perfectly adaptable to the demands of modern society and technology. But it was swept away. Those midcentury glass boxes really did signal a new epoch. They were bona fide culture killers. They played a cardinal role in transforming buildings from artifacts into commodities. As for sprawl, you don’t have to be losing sleep over rising sea levels to regard it as a deeply problematic habitat, or even an ecologically wasteful and objectionable one.

It’s understandable, then, that New Urbanists like Polyzoides should despair over the way our economic system gauges the creation of value in the public realm. Our system, they worry, takes no account of the developer of vision who looks beyond the investment cycle to build on the best of our civic-art heritage—whether he erects a downtown bank, a neighborhood, or a town. It seemingly discourages the larger up-front investment that such a developer’s venture will often require, along with the longer-term social benefit that it will yield to the public by enlarging its cultural heritage. Maybe we need some economic policy changes, Polyzoides told me at the New Urbanist powwow, like “capitalizing money properly or changing the tax code.”

I’m not so sure. First of all, an architectural culture can be reestablished—such a trend is in fact in its infancy—but it’s inevitably going to be a gradual process. From site planning to determining street geometries to manipulating sightlines to designing individual buildings, good urbanism is hard to do nowadays because few people know how to do it. For this reason, New Urbanism should not operate as a top-down phenomenon, but as a locally oriented movement that builds from the bottom up. Even if it became politically feasible, attempts to mainstream New Urbanism by bureaucratic diktat—say, through the sort of regulatory regime that made Federal mortgage guarantees contingent on sprawl-style development after World War II—would simply turn New Urbanism into mass-market kitsch. We’re going to get enough New Urbanist kitsch as it is. Indeed, we’re already getting it—at any number of “lifestyle centers,” for example.

Second, real estate is not an entirely rational business. Vision is a hugely powerful motivating force, as shown by private New Urbanist developers like Joe Alfandre, Nate Bowman, Robert Davis, and Vince Graham, who have built outstanding traditional communities over the last quarter-century. But the political class, with a few honorable exceptions, is not catching on; and this is a problem, since building a community cannot be a libertarian exercise. Planning regulations will always be with us, just like death and taxes. As planner-architect Angelo Alberto observes, to transform fast-growing Washington Township in New Jersey’s Gloucester County from a metastasizing urban blob into a city, you would need a founder—a leader who recognized that traditional urban blueprints were more conducive than sprawl to an enhanced quality of life as well as to the embodiment of a community’s civic ideals. Such a leader would have the guts to scorn the bureaucratic minutiae of “process” politics and stake his authority and prestige on a principled judgment: “This is how we should build here.” Grounded in vision and culture, such leadership could build a community for future generations informed by the noble achievements of the past. Its wellsprings would run deeper than “cool,” deeper than “green.”

The New Urbanists, though, worry about inanities: whether the phrase “gizmo-green” is pejorative, for example. They need to get beyond marketing strategy, eco-hype, and trendy buzzwords, and focus on the formidable task of cultivating political leaders across the ideological spectrum who have the gumption to redeem the nation’s urban landscape—one community at a time.

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