Drawbacks of New Urbanism

prospect town

Prospect New Town, Colorado, accessed 10/15/2013 wikipedia.org

New Urbanism is a popular idea in planning communities. Most anyone involved in planning has heard of New Urbanism and has an idea what that means, but for those that are unfamiliar with the idea New Urbanism can be generally thought of as a design approach that promotes walkability, traffic elimination, “green “ building, and fosters community. It is most certainly a novel idea. What could be bad about the root ideals of New Urbanism?

New Urbanism has done well in a few key ways. First it has been an effective critique of some failings of city planning, such as automobile centered design. New Urbanists promote community design that reduces wide roads, and expansive parking lots, with the intention of advocating human powered transportation. It is a brick and mortar, tangible community that people can see and feel. New Urbanism has also provided an example of what to do and not to do for planners and communities that want to promote change in their area; but the effects of those changes are generally limited to specific neighborhoods and communities.

Some major critiques of New Urbanism are that its effective area is confined to the neighborhood boundaries, it may be used as a marketing scheme by developers, and it is hard to implement in existing neighborhoods. In a New Urbanism neighborhood, the residents can utilize the pedestrian friendly streets and close amenities; but the benefits of the neighborhood are limited to the residents.  The appeal of New Urbanist communities is also one of its failings. With people becoming more interested in sustainability, and green living, the ideas of New Urbanism have been used by developers to promote their planned communities. The problem with the marketing of New Urbanist ideas without the proper implementation is best explained by Peter Katz “The commercial success of projects designed according to these principles has resulted in superficial emulations for marketing purposes… As a result, the public can now buy conventional suburbia styled as “villages” or “neighborhoods” which the press proclaims are representative of the new movement. This inability to discriminate between the New Urbanism and its hollow imitations will, over time, result in the conclusion that its promised social, economic, and environmental benefits have been false. The movement may then be seen as just another fad. Also It is intrinsically difficult to implement new Urbanism ideas in pre-existing neighborhoods because it requires extensive infrastructure change. A perfect example of the successes and failures of New Urbanism is the Civano neighborhood on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona.


Civano to the U of A, accessed 10/21/2013, maps.google.com

The planners at Civano made a concentrated effort to use sustainable building materials such as straw bails, and RASTRA blocks. The planners at Civano also incorporated solar power, and a community nursery. They designed the neighborhood with a community center where the residents have open space to interact and hold events. The narrow, walkable street design in Civano is also in line with New Urbanist planning. The main issue with Civano, is its location. The neighborhood is approximately 17 miles from the University of Arizona, which represents the beginning of Tucson’s urban core. For the residents of Civano to interact with anyone that isn’t a member of the community , they have to drive further than most other sprawl communities. The distance from large retailers and grocers also presents a problem. The shear distance Civano residents must travel to do the majority of their shopping undermines the ideals of the community.


Tucson sunset, accessed 10/21/2013, wikipedia.org

Civano is a successful microcosm, but it exemplifies the deficiencies of New Urbanism in that Civano hasn’t improved the Tucson Community as a whole. New Urbanism will continue to have a limited large scale effect, unless communities as a whole embrace the pillars of New Urbanist thinking, and work on implementing the ideas on a regional basis.

If New Urbanism becomes a marketing scheme, that ultimately promotes sprawl , it will be a huge detriment to the  progress of environmentally conscious living. New Urbanist communities will always be built by developers whose goal is to make a profit. Usually the cheapest, and easiest land to develop is on the outskirts of town, so even with the best environmental design, the negative effects of a remote location counteract the benefits.

New Urbanism is effective on a small scale, but to really be able to effect change planners and citizens alike must promote the ideals of New Urbanism on a regional scale. If walkability, “green” building, and community involvement are limited to exclusive outskirt communities, the residents of the region as a whole will be harmed more than helped.


2 thoughts on “Drawbacks of New Urbanism

  1. Cody, I’m glad you wrote this.

    As someone who has spent, maybe, too much time drinking the NU Koolaid — it can be easy to overlooks how much the term “New Urbanism” has devolved into a mere marketing scheme. But the term and the work of its practitioners are two separate things. It’s important to note that the initial core group of NUer’s (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Katz, Calthorpe, et al) are still hard at their practices — and in no way content to let New Urbanism be co-opted into some type of marketing green-wash.

    Last week, many of these folks met in Detroit at a conference to discuss the newest version the NU — something they’re calling Lean Urbanism (what Duany has also called the New, New Urbanism). Even lighter on codes constraints, and more heavily invested in retrofitting existing communities — I’m not even sure there are any of these core founders even designing greenfield developments anymore. Here’s an article on Planetizen on the concept: http://www.planetizen.com/node/60460

    In Salt Lake City at the end of May, Andres Duany talked about the old New Urbanism as the equivalent of the Heavy Brigade (mentioned in the Planetizen article) — but he was already talking about the need for a Light Infantry version of New Urbanism (quick, fast striking, tactical). I believe it was at that conference, where many were advocating for a more full embrasure of Tactical Urbanism, that Duany and others finally convinced themselves to see the value of changing tactics.

    Right now, there’s now stronger voice out there speaking for the need to retrofit our existing urban and suburban patterns of development than New Urbanists. With books like the “Sprawl Repair Manual” and “Retrofitting Suburbia” I think there’s a sea change occurring.

    Now that there’s been two Censuses (and a number of American Community Surveys) since Civano’s first neighborhood opened up in 1999, it would be interesting to see what the household travel characteristics are for the development. And when, or if, there will be a greater investment in building an employment and retail/service sector in the development — allowing it to capture more of its outbound trips.

  2. Thanks again Dean, good feedback. I think the idea of New Urbanism is actually in a good place right now. New Urbanist practitioners have the opportunity to look at the failings of New Urbanist communities and really learn from them. Civano really is an interesting community. It has been a success in many ways, and now with the “city” of Vail growing, Civano, isn’t really an island anymore. Vail’s growth has very much been sprawl, but it has brought large amenities to the Civano area cutting down on Civano residents need for long commutes for groceries etc. I think in regards to the Civano area the question is whether the Vail sprawl incorporated in the Civano community is a healthy relationship, or is Civano a closed district in a sea of traditional auto oriented outward development, thoughts?

Comments are closed.