New Urbanism – Freedom of Choice
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” — Newton’s Third Law of Motion. In our sound-bite society, this often becomes translated like this: “For every problem there is a hyped over-reaction.” Personally I think there is a major problem with zoning laws in this country that have had the unintended consequence of leading us to suburban sprawl, a dependence on automobiles, and a loss of opportunities to interact with neighbors in our communities.
The hyped over-reaction to sprawl is this video, but I know why the maker’s of the video used this method…to get our attention on a subject that really needs to be addressed.
If you hadn’t heard the term “New Urbanism” before this video you probably knew what it was, you just might not have known that this is what it was called. New Urbanism is really a return to Traditional Neighborhood Design with walkable, pedestrian friendly, mixed use developments that also emphasize sustainable design and public transportation. On a basic level there is an almost intrinsic human desire to connect with others and return to “Main Street” communities. Over the last two decades this has been most evident in the success of outdoor “Lifestyle” retail centers that have all but replaced indoor malls as the retail development of choice. While some of these create the “look” of Main Street they remain primarily just a retail center accessed by cars. The most successful New Urbanist examples of these lifestyle centers are true multi-use developments with retail on the street level, and office and residential development above, or in some cases down the street from, the retail.
One of the worst and unfortunately longest-lasting contributions of the Modernist movement in the first half of the twentieth century was single use zoning that became adopted almost universally across the United States by planning and zoning departments, making traditional mixed-use neighborhoods illegal. At its core the idea behind single-use zoning was to separate the “evil and dirty” commercial and industrial spaces from the “pristine” residential spaces that make up the American Dream.
While this makes some sense when you are talking about trying to keep a heavy industrial use out of a residential neighborhood, it really makes no sense when applied to everyday retail and commercial office space. Almost overnight these zoning standards forced America to be dependent on the car to get anywhere. No longer could you walk out your front door and walk down the sidewalk to the neighborhood grocery store or your office. Instead you were forced to get in your car and drive. The result of this is suburban sprawl, and one of the worst examples of suburban sprawl happens to be where I currently call home…Atlanta.
The same producers of the video above, American Makeover, also produced the video below called “Sprawlanta.”
This video does a great job of outlining the problems of sprawl and some suggested solutions, and I think in general most people can easily see the advantages of New Urbanism, and a return to traditional neighborhood design paradigms. Unfortunately due to current zoning regulations these types of developments are simply illegal throughout most of the country. Slowly planners are starting to see the benefits of mixed use zoning and beginning to allow exceptions to current codes, or in some cases actually writing new codes around New Urbanist principles.
So with all these positives, where is the controversy? Why isn’t everyone jumping on the New Urbanist bandwagon? Why are some communities in political turmoil over whether to enact New Urbanist policies? Many of the proponents of New Urbanism rightly claim that many Americans want New Urbanist-style developments, and should have the freedom of choice to live in these type of environments that are currently not allowed thanks to current zoning laws. I agree with this and don’t think there is any controversy with this position. I believe the controversy comes from some of the biggest proponents of New Urbanism taking it a step further. While claiming a desire for freedom of choice some are proposing limited choice in the other direction. Many of the vocal proponents are academics that come across as elitist, condescending, or even “preachy” (see this example). Activism and a belief that there is only one “right” way to do New Urbanism is short sighted and rubs the typical American the wrong way.
Many of the most vocal proponents of New Urbanism are urbanites who love living in a dense city high rise and riding public transportation, and who look down their nose at suburbanites, or worse they privately (and sometimes publicly) hope and advocate for what is in effect the demise and abandonment of the suburbs. A large portion of the population of this country does not fit that description. Millions of Americans live in rural or suburban areas because they like the privacy of having a space of their own and enjoy living closer to nature or away from the crowds and bustle of the city. With the development of the internet there are also millions of people who telecommute to work and don’t need to live in an urban environment to be close to a job. A fear, whether it is completely grounded in reality or not, is that the New Urbanists want to use the force of law to exchange one extreme (suburban sprawl caused by single use zoning) for the other (development restricted only within urban boundaries created through revised zoning regulations).
Thus the controversy, and why I would advocate for Freedom of Choice…not “either/or,” but “both/and.” Change the regulations to allow mixed use zoning that people obviously want (just look at the success of New Urbanist neighborhoods), but don’t restrict it narrowly to only specific urban growth/redevelopment districts. Abandoning the suburbs is not the answer. I believe the answer will be found by transforming the suburbs through the strategic infill of urban mixed-use nodes, and fundamentally transforming the master planning of new suburban developments. There are some great examples of what are essentially suburban developments using New Urbanist design principles. Probably the most famous, and one of the earliest, is Seaside, FL, the idyllic town used as the setting for the movie “The Truman Show.”
Another great example that I personally really love is found in the far flung suburbs of metro Atlanta in Cumming, GA. I have visited and photographed Vickery several times. In many ways this development is not unlike your typical suburban single family neighborhood, but with some key New Urbanist differences. The retail and commercial office areas that make up the “main street downtown” called “Vickery Village” are within a short walk or bike ride and include residential lofts above the main street level making this a true mixed-use development, but in addition to single family houses there are also live-work flats, and multi-story, high density apartment/condos and attached townhouses.
If you take a look at the master plan for Vickery you’ll see that there are no cul-de-sacs, there are numerous neighborhood parks all within walking distance, and there is a network of “alleys” where the cars are parked behind the homes. This allows the houses to utilize a traditional front porch that addresses the street and helps build community as neighbors walk down the sidewalks from their homes to the parks or the neighborhood shopping, offices, and restaurants.
I believe that developments like Vickery should be a model for future suburban infill, and commercial developments like those found at Vickery Village could even be “grafted” onto existing suburban neighborhoods to fill the mixed use void, by providing shopping and office options that are within walking distance instead of requiring suburbanites to jump in the car for every need. Let the market decide. Give Americans the Freedom of Choice and watch New Urbanism “redeem” both the suburbs and the inner city for the next generation.
How do you feel about New Urbanism? What do you think can be done to reverse the problems caused by suburban sprawl?