New Urbanism: The (Almost) Perfect Solution
Jane Jacobs, 1961
Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, 51 years ago. At that time, it was the only book of its kind and modern sociology attributes her with laying down the foundation for their theories and attitudes toward urban planning. Principles of diversity, conditions that make community, and the primary and secondary uses of sidewalks, parks, and neighborhoods are all first discussed in Jacobs’ book. Back then, urban planners did not pay much attention to it because it was just one book in a sea of texts written about city designing and architecture. Today, however, Jacobs’s followers have grown into an entire section of sociology dealing with the planning and construction of towns and cities with the purpose of fostering community. With the increase in the number of books being written and the number of scholars dedicated to this sociological research, it is harder today than at any time in the past for urban planners to ignore the writing on the wall. What started out with Jacobs is now a vast force leading the planning mentality and attempting to correct the wrongs of the past. Although much work still needs to be done, and cities and suburbs need to change how they fundamentally look at community, for the first time since 1961, urban planning is headed in the right direction.
The most important new aspect of sociological urban planning is that sociologists have stopped talking about it, and instead are making it a reality. They are now designing and building planned communities. The three towns discussed in Michelle Slatalla’s article “The Maturing of 3 Model Towns” were all planned communities designed with Jacobs’ teachings in mind—“the communities began with a well-laid out blueprint that created comfortable neighborhoods by calling for a balance among residential, commercial and open space, an infrastructure of roads and utilities that would support continued growth, and strict zoning that would preserve the original intent” (Slatalla 2). The writers of Suburban Nation have also received fame for the building of Seaside, Florida, a planned community that became “an icon of the [New Urbanism] movement in planning and architecture” (Frantz 43). New Urbanism, which will be discussed later, is the movement responsible for the resurgence of Jacobs’ teachings and the application of them to actual places. The best and most famous example of architects and sociologists placing Jacobs’ ideas on a map is definitely Celebration, Florida. Although inherent with a lot of problems, Disney’s town of Celebration is by far the biggest experiment in planned community yet. Three different firms well versed and specialized in New Urbanism vied for the chance to build Disney’s Celebration; Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the masterminds of Seaside, Florida, Robert A.M. Stern, and Charles Gwathmey (Collins 48). Stern eventually won the contract, but the mere fact that it attracted such attention from the planning community meant it was going to be big.
Source: Peter Barr, Wikimedia
Before the problems with Disney’s Celebration, New Urbanism, and present day urban planning are tackled, it is important to explain what New Urbanism is finally getting right. A good explanation of the problems contemporary society faces can be seen in Duany, Speck, and Plater-Zyberk’s Suburban Nation. The writers identify sprawl as the leading killer of community in the suburbs. Sprawl is “cookie-cutter houses, wide, treeless, sidewalk-free roadways, mindlessly curving cul-de-sacs, a streetscape of garage doors—a beige vinyl parody of Leave it to Beaver” (Duany X). These problems were just compounded as planners built suburb after suburb congesting and clogging up America’s countryside. New Urbanism is the realization that this was the wrong way and it attempts to reverse the damage done. It “reduces traffic congestion” by providing “safe, pleasant communities to walk in with conveniences and entertainment nearby, there is no need to drive anywhere” (Haugen 1). New Urbanism also advocates “high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods, but they are designed to make walking enjoyable and create a positive sense of community” and “uses land more efficiently, reduces overall traffic, and provides a high quality of life” (Haugen 2). The automobile is no longer king in these new communities, instead power is given back to the pedestrian. With necessities and amenities all within walking distance, people do not have to leave the neighborhood but instead stay and cultivate relationships with neighbors and passersby creating the long sought after community.
Seaside, FL architecture
New Urbanism is the return to the Old Town method and mentality before the creation of the suburbs after World War II. Its tenants and principles will solve the major problems prevalent in the suburbs today. However, obstacles and challenges are still ahead on the road back to community. A major problem is simply the ideology of the people today. Many of the Baby Boomers and the generations that followed grew up in the suburbs and with every successive generation, the growing trend is more and more isolation from community rather than participation in community. The American populace has been socialized to put priority on the individual not community and although this ideology seems to be giving way to a healthy balance of the two, it still slopes to the individual. With the increases in technology, whatever advances New Urbanism has made could be steadily disappearing. As Suburban Nation points out, children “believe that Internet web sites and chat rooms are effective substitutes” for streets, squares, parks and the public realm (Duany 60). If this trend continues, “the distinction between a computer monitor and the human body” may continue to be blurred (Duany 60). New Urbanism can continue to combat the ideology that private is better than public by not only creating new communities (where the only people moving in want to be a part of a community) but also revitalizing already existing communities bringing the new ideas right to the door steps of those who might otherwise be missing it.
The overwhelming problem with the new communities being built is their believability. A huge problem in Celebration and elsewhere is that these towns seem almost unreal to the general populace and therefore no one is going to take them seriously as legitimate alternate routes away from suburbia. Seaside, Florida despite its symbol as a pioneer of New Urbanism struggles to fight its image of either a fake town or a vacation town—a battle it often loses. A major boost in its popularity, but a major blow to its reputation as a New Urbanism symbol was the 1998 movie The Truman Show. The movie is about a fake town built around one man who is constantly on television but does not know it, and set “against the backdrop of Seaside, many people thought the town was a movie set, not real” (Frantz 45). Equally hard to resist is its attractiveness to the upper class who use its home like hotel rooms, only coming for one week every year (Frantz 45).
It would have been safe to predict that Celebration, being constructed by the famous Walt Disney Company down the road from Walt Disney World, would deal with the same kind of questions to its legitimacy. This is exactly what happened. On numerous occasions the writers of Celebration, U.S.A. had people walk up to them and ask about the new town. One humorous question came from a tourist who, like many tourists, drove her car through Celebration thinking it was part of the amusement park she had come to see. She approached one of the writers, Cathy, when she was out for a bike ride and asked “Can you tell me where Truman lives?” (Frantz 307) obviously referring to the fictional character that questioned the legitimacy of Seaside, Florida. On another occasion, Cathy was stopped by a stranger during the middle of the day and blatantly asked “are those real houses?” after she replied yes, the tourist questioned her again asking “well then, where are the real people?” to which she replied “they’re at their real jobs, paying for their real mortgages, for their real houses” (Frantz 22).
The problem with believability for these new communities like Celebration and Seaside goes beyond tourists and outsiders questioning them. The people who move to these towns might also be in need of a reality check. In Celebration, the writers found that the first wave of people to move to Celebration were Disney fanatics who had always dreamed about living inside Walt Disney World and believed this to be their chance. They packed up their belongings and moved not realizing that the magic of Walt Disney World, the magic manufactured by Walt Disney, was not to be found in Celebration despite its connection to the company. It was a real town, with real problems, and in need of real effort to make it right. The physical environment built by Disney was not going to ensure community—they would still have to work to make it. Some people came believing that the town would fix their marriage, or that they would be given special access to Disney World, and as the authors explained only on a trip to Toronto did they go “five days without seeing anyone in a Mickey Mouse shirt” (Frantz 270). This may seem like a problem only for Celebration because of Disney’s backing. But this problem with believability and realism will plague any town promoting itself as the perfect little town to attract buyers. If billed as the new perfect town, the people who pick up and move to go there will expect to arrive at the perfect town without having to do any work.
New Urbanism has taken urban planning in the direction that Jane Jacobs wanted to go in 51 years ago. Finally her ideas and beliefs are getting attention from a wide following and are being implemented by that following in numerous planned communities around America. New Urbanism, ironically, advocates a return to the old way of doing things, before the sprawl of suburbia dominated. It calls for sidewalks, mixed use buildings, parks, walking trails, short blocks, the intermingling of residential buildings with stores, a return to the public life and most importantly a break from the reliance on the automobile. However, the theory still has many obstacles to overcome. It must battle against an ideology that has been growing since the 1950s that the private life is more important than the public life and it must adapt to increases in technology. Finally, it must overcome its lack of believability and legitimacy both from tourists and outsiders who visit these new communities and from those who move there.
Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point, 2001.
Frantz, Douglas, and Catherine Collins. Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
Haugen, Mary T. “New Urbanism.” The Erickson Tribune Nov. 2004.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Slatalla, Michelle. “The Maturing of 3 Model Towns.” Planned Communities 16 Mar. 1985.