New Urbanism and the other half of the city?

Citizens of the Rundberg Area of Austin Rising Up Against Crime

I have been reading literature on New Urbanism for nearly four years now and I am also a student of Sociology which has set me on a collision course to combine the two subjects into one question, how can New Urbanism solve some of the universal problems that come with large groups of people in one area? While I enjoy seeing the benefits N.U. has in contrast to suburban development, I believe it can do so much more, to fix the problems that the typical suburbs do not always face, the problems of crime, drugs, and fear.
A few weeks ago, I attended a community planning meeting in the Rundberg area of Austin, Texas. While Austin is a relatively peaceful city, Rundberg is arguably the most dangerous section of the city. It is a suburbanized area with a large proportion of apartment renters and is cut in half by the I-35 Interstate. To get a sense of the scope of the problems in the neighborhood, a survey of those participating in the planning of the community reported that 97.1% of those surveyed believed that criminal activity is a problem with the area. The types of crime cited were prostitution, drug dealing, robbery, auto theft, etc, problems one does not typically think of with American suburbs in mind.
While it is easy to look at an affluent gated community and criticize them for their separatist nature caused from walling themselves off, but how does one argue to a neighborhood of fenced apartments in a sea of fear and crime to become more community oriented? In one interview I had with at the community meeting, I asked a woman if she walked to any places in the neighborhood. She pointed to me on the map handouts where she lived, and the park she wished she could walk to with her children. Between her house and the park was one main street marked in red, for being a high area of drug dealing and crime. After I told her I was a proponent of New Urbanism and that we value communities that are walkable, and interconnected, she asked me how one is supposed to walk a gauntlet of drugs and crime just to get to the park, I didn't really have an answer for her.
So there is my question that I would like to discuss. I believe it IS possible that New Urbanism can solve a major problem like crime and an overwhelming distrust and fear of one's neighbors, but how? I think it is a question that should be perhaps addressed at CNU XV, the booming metropolis is not always affluence and glamor, there is another half to the city, a half that we sometimes forget, or believe its problems are too difficult to tackle.


Rebuilding crime-plagued neighborhoods through urbanism

Yes, it's natural for people to turn inward when crime rears up in a neighborhood -- to fortify their own properties with fences and window bars and the like, even if they don't go all the way and choose a gated community. But that reaction in the end only turns the space of the street over to the criminals, helping crime settle in deeper.

Individual residents can't be blamed for a response that's logical, especially when considering what one person or one family can do on their own. But with the right combination of strong neighborhood leadership and good police support, people can see that New Urbanism -- which involves turning towards the street and collectively taking ownership of it -- is the path to long-term success. With this support structure in place, good neighborhood planning can show ways to replace physical gaps that detract from safety -- windswept parking lots, abandoned properties -- with new mixed-use development that puts eyes and people on the streets and sidewalks.

It sounds like the neighborhood in Austin is getting organized, but if you don't have the political pieces in place yet, take heart from the example of Michael E. Arth and watch his riveting movie, New Urban Cowboy. It shows how he uses his hammer, nail gun and a home-grown form of New Urbanism to bring back almost singlehandedly a devastated Florida neighborhood known as crack town.

And by the way, you're not the first to combine sociology and New Urbanism. Professors Emily Talen and David Brain are active in CNU. Look for them at the Austin Congress.

New Urban Cowboy, New Urbanism, and New Pedestrianism

Stephen Filmanowitz, thanks for letting me know about this posting. Jim Drew, I can relate to your problems very well. For one thing, I'm an old Austinite myself, having lived in Hyde Park where I rebuilt an old house from 1974-1978. I go back to Austin every year and stay with my sister who still lives there. I have directly observed the changes in Austin over the years, and know what you're writing about.

My feature length documentary "New Urban Cowboy: Toward a New Pedestrianism" has been re-edited, after a round on the film festival circuit, and will be released in about a month in DVD. It tells the story of how my neighbors and I rebuilt "Cracktown," the worst neighborhood in DeLand, FL and turned it into what is now called The Garden District. In the film we also visit Austin, and look at Hyde Park as an example of a viable, traditional neighborhood. We dealt with all of your problems and more--rebuilding, cleaning up, eliminating most of the crime, financing, building the community, attracting infill development, and so on.

For more on New Pedestrianism and the Garden District, visit For the movie go to

I'll be at Austin CNU Congress and will present a paper at 9:45 AM on April 5th, "New Urbanism and New Pedestrianism in the 21st Century." I hope to see you there. I'm also open to having a screening of "New Urban Cowboy" in Austin during the CNU event, if it can be arranged.


Michael E. Arth

More resources on New Urbanism and Safety

Great to see Michael's posting.

For an extended discussion on New Urbanism and neighborhood safety, including responses to critiques/red herrings raised by certain Libertarian pundits, follow this link.

While New Urbanism can help

While New Urbanism can help to create a physical space that informally helps to deter crime -- and, more importantly, allows people to live at moderate to high densities peacefully -- I don't think that even the best design could possibly hope to "solve" social problems like crime. Such strong faith in the power of the environment to determine human fates is pretty dangerous -- and besides, so much else goes into human environments. In Rundberg's case, better policing is undoubtedly necessary, and no architect can design that. Indeed, the success of a place has more to do with programming than with initial design.

In at least one case, New Urbanist designers have forgone alleys in an inner-city context, at the request of residents who thought the alleys would be too hard to police. One of the great advantages of New Urbanism is that it is flexible and responsive to individual communities' needs.


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