Thursday, October 18, 2007

Where Are All the People? Why New Urbanism still succeeds

In my previous post, I discussed at length one of the numerous contradictions within New Urbanism and the contemporary economic and cultural context. Among the other unmentioned shortcomings of this influential urban movement is their frequent failure to facilitate enough street life as depicted in many of their glowing colored renderings. These new town centers would be immaculate, and the businesses would be there, but overall there are few people to be seen. Such was my experience when visiting this Duany-Plater-Zyberk designed development just outside Dallas on supposedly the busiest shopping day of Saturday. The massing of the buildings along the main shopping street was very similar to a European town, and the stores consisted of high-end boutiques, restaurants and even an art-house theatre. And yet there was almost no one on the street.

Ueber blogger James Lileks of the Star Tribune makes a similar observation on a video he made of a New Urbanist town center in Minneapolis (thanks, Ed Driscoll). His observations are spot on, and he makes cogent criticisms on major philosophical assumptions among architects. View the video here...

Apeman over at Etherealland has written a very insightful response to my essay that is well worth pondering over. He points out to other flawed assumptions fundamental to New Urbanism that are real, but I don't agree the writer's indictment of the movement as suggested in his headline: "Why New Urbanism is doomed to Failure".

Although I've expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism's resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

Just because a movement's ideas are popular does not mean that its theory is a success. I have pointed to a couple of defficiencies of New Urbanist principles that might be easy to refute, and I have observed discrepancies between what is promised and what actually happens, but rarely if ever does a sophisticated theory of any kind pan out predictably according to its dictates. What distinguishes New Urbanism from its more Modernist rivals is the degree to which its ideas result in opposite outcomes. Though the streets may seem empty and the architecture appear a bit too contrived and artificial, developers are not losing their shirts, yuppies are snapping up the units and voters gladly support private-public partnerships in building town-centers in the New Urbanist mold. In contrast, contemporary European-style urban design has resulted in often desolate overscaled public spaces, forced segregation or centrally planned integration of renters which stimulates crime, social alienation and a low level of public participation and governance. The buildings may be slick, the architectural and urban concepts forward-thinking but there is no love for such things from residents nor a demand to privately develop more of these kind of projects (which explains the high level of government involvement).

Certain aspects common in New Urbanist project do indeed make me cringe, but it would benefit those of us who would like to popularize a tasteful Modernist aesthetic to study its success and respect the strength of its doctrine.

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