The Delicious Omelette of Urbanism: Incisive Post at Planetizen

Planetizen managing editor Tim Halbur posted some words of wisdom at that site last week in response to a Kunstlercast in which Jim Kunstler's co-host expressed doubts about New Urbanism after being underwhelmed by a purported new urbanist project near his house. Halbur explains that it's not uncommon to see someone react to New Urbanism after seeing an example or two. "The problem with this argument is that New Urbanism isn't the physical development in Duncan's neighborhood, or Seaside for that matter- it's a concept, a set of principles and guidelines, laid out very carefully in the Charter of the New Urbanism by a group of very smart architects and urbanists. The Charter is a manifesto, a call to arms."

Halbur borrows an analogy from Kunstler — urbanism as an omelette — as he explores this point in more depth:

[Kunstler's] point was that newer built environments need time to 'cook' before they become accepted into their surroundings. But to extend the analogy, New Urbanism is like a fine recipe. Developed by the top chefs, the recipe is written to produce the most delicious omelette you've ever tasted. Cities, developers, and well-minded folks take the recipe and substitute ingredients, replacing the organic filet mignon the recipe calls for with ground round. Then they start changing the recipe to conform more to previous recipes that they cooked before and worked for them in the past. Then a bunch of other people come into the kitchen and start throwing in their own ingredients and partial recipes. Is it any surprise you end up with a crappy omelette?

I posted an appreciative comment (apparently in the moderation queue, at the moment) that expands on Tim's point and responds to points raised by a still skeptical Planetizen reader. Here it is:

Perhaps it's natural for people to risk misjudging a big trend trend by reading too much into the first examples of it they happen to see. How many major dead-tree journalists took an early look at a blog or two and wrote off the whole enterprise as the shallow prattle of narcissistic amateurs? At some point — when the seventh Nobel-prize-winning economist started a blog? — they realized there was a lot more to the trend than they originally thought. Then many started blogs themselves to reach a larger audience.

When it comes to the built environment, people who know better than to judge modernism based on how it's executed in dumb, glassy office-park buildings or strip-mall carpet stores then see a new town or a mall-turned-mixed-use town center and assume these examples tell them everything there is to know about New Urbanism. What they often don't realize is that the place they're viewing is the end result of a difficult struggle against well-established forces that work to replicate sprawl — single-use zoning codes, anti-pedestrian street design standards, a building community with expertise in sprawl projects, bankers who avoid loans for mixed-use development because they can't be sold and plugged into leveraged (and now toxic) securities like conventional house mortgages. Even established cities have things like suburban-style minimum parking requirements on their books that make good urbanism difficult to do well.

And how really can one or two projects to speak for a movement as complex as New Urbanism? Even under the best circumstances, each represents a model for creating urbanism in that particular context. The many examples of new ubanist infill development in big cities (here's a snapshot of that work from 2007) offer limited lessons for retrofitting sprawling places, revitalizing small towns, or creating new towns, for instance.

As Tim Halbur writes so perceptively, it's tremendously useful to turn to the Charter of the New Urbanism and to use its vision and comprehensive principles as a guide for urbanizing and reurbanizing places at scales ranging from the region to the city block. It's also good to recognize Tim's caveat: "the point is to get good things built." CNU's Charter Awards program works to find and recognize the work that best realizes the principles of the Charter. It's impressive stuff, based on engagement with local conditions, traditions, and communities. The descriptions of some recent winners may surprise one of the commenters who has come to expect cut-and-paste urbanism. Here are a few:

• A novel project in Crystal City (Arlington), VA that brings life to an arterial street – and new residents close to a Metro rail connection - by wrapping townhouses along the edge of a superblock interspersed with 1960s-era residential towers.
• A master plan to coordinate needed redevelopment of the waterfront of Camden, NJ, one of the United States' poorest cities, employing a detailed pattern book to rebuild Camden’s unique but severely eroded mixed-use character.
• Two projects that use new strategies to renew deteriorated public housing and damaged natural environments: one replaces low-density barracks public housing in Alexandria, VA with carefully interlocking mixed-income buildings that build density while providing public spaces and emulating nearby historic urban fabric; another transforms deteriorating Tacoma, WA public housing into a desirable mixed-income community that uses bioswales and other water features to slow runoff and remediate a polluted trout stream.
• A grouping of Habitat homes built at $55 per square foot in a contemporary version of Arkansas farmhouse vernacular and grouped in a low-impact development incorporating a public square and many smart infrastructure features.
• A comprehensive plan that makes walkable urban neighborhoods the preferred development pattern for Fayetteville, AR, now one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. thanks to headquarters activity of Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and other major firms.
• A cutting-edge regional plan for an area of the country where planning has become a matter of regional survival -- Southern Louisiana. The Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan by Calthorpe Associates integrates wetland restoration and persuasive plans to steer the growth and sprawl that threaten wetlands into livable cities and towns.
• An artful, environmentally minded 44-acre infill addition to a historic North Charleston neighborhood recovering from a military base pullout; it features an intricate, almost European street network, a carefully woven mix of uses and a range of housing, including affordable units as small as 600 square feet.
• A high-density, mixed-use town center near a Metro rail station in Rockville, Maryland -- a project that creates a satisfying square and other public spaces and sets a new standard for an increasingly common new development type, say jurors.
• A much-needed plan for seven miles of Philadelphia riverfront -- an area threatened by plans for gated or suburban-style development and now a prime opportunity to reverse the trend of regional greenfield expansion and encourage the reclamation of undervalued land along the shores.
• A project that significantly steps up density on both sides of Main Street in Woodstock, Georgia's historic central business district and creates a natural extension of the city's urban fabric in an area of intense urban sprawl.
• The redevelopment of public housing in Chicago to create a thriving renewed neighborhood of rental and for-sale units housed in a variety of venerable Chicago housing types such as 6-flat buildings, townhouses, and rowhouses.
• The thoughtful extension of a neighborhood main street in a historic section of Montgomery, Alabama, bringing new life and residents to underused surface lots.
• Two projects that advance the promise of modest, quickly built Katrina Cottages in hurricane-damaged cities and beyond – one an innovative prototype for carefully detailed manufactured cottages, the other a model “Cottage Square” in Ocean Springs, MS that shows how cottages can enhance compact, walkable neighborhoods.
• A pattern book showing the re-emerging housing industry in southern Louisiana how to honor traditions in building design and neighborhood form that are deeply ingrained in the Louisiana way of life but are in danger of being lost in the wake of 2005’s major hurricanes.
• A master plan for Long Beach, MS that responds nimbly to the community’s rebuilding needs – including new storm surge protections -- while reflecting an involved citizenry’s desire to maintain the city’s character and appeal.

Start exploring the winners for yourself and look for the announcement of 2009's winners, as innovative as ever, in the coming days.

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