The idea of a harmonious community that is fully planned down to the ideal distance between a white picket fence and the pedestrian-friendly sidewalk might seem like the imaginings of a sci-fi utopia. But such intricately designed towns exist in the present, and they’re actually drawing a lot of their ideals from our past.
This movement, dubbed “New Urbanism,” understands that “the design of spaces matters to the vibrancy and livability of a community,” explains the Sustainable Cities Institute of the National League of Cities. This design philosophy embraces a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle and central public spaces as “bedrock principles for creating healthy communities.”
In short, New Urbanism is bringing back the quintessential American small-town life to battle the ever-growing suburban sprawl. In the foreword to the “Charter of the New Urbanism,” the authoritative document for the movement compiled by the Congress for the New Urbanism, Shelley Poticha proclaims that the movement “began as a remarkable set of conversations aimed at systematically changing the ground rules for development in North America.”
The prototype for American New Urbanism can be found in the resort town of Seaside, a northwestern Florida community nestled against the Gulf Coast designed by husband-and-wife architectural team Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two names that receive a lot of adoration among New Urbanism devotees. With its traditional pastel clapboard cottages and mandatory front porches, Seaside has the visual effect of whisking one away to Savannah, Ga., or some other Southern coastal town in its antebellum years. This is more than just an aesthetically pleasing effect, however — those wraparound patios encourage good ol’-fashioned porch-sittin’ that “[promotes] interaction among the community’s residents.”
As the nonprofit resource Smart Communities Network further details, the porches are set a required distance from walkways specifically to “enable porch sitters and passersby to communicate without raising their voices.” The social benefits of a pedestrian-centric community freed from the isolation of individual vehicles — if you’ve ever been caught in rush-hour traffic alone, you know the soul-crushing feeling — are not to be overlooked.
In 2009, sociologist Bruce Podobnik presented a case study based on a survey of residents in Oregon’s Orenco Station. Located in the Portland-Hillsboro corridor, Orenco Station was heralded by the New York Times as “perhaps the most interesting experiment in new urbanist planning anywhere in the country right now,” a town that sprung up along the recently extended MAX light rail line.
Orenco’s master plan is centered around a pedestrian “spine” that stretches from the light rail through row homes to the town center and then onward, to a formal central park surrounded by a grid of pedestrian-friendly streets. Commuting residents are obliged to pass by their neighbors on their way here or there. In Podobnik’s study, Orenco Station residents reported more so than residents of other Portland neighborhoods that their fellow residents were friendly and that there was a stronger sense of community in the area.
Aside from the obvious benefits of less air pollution and fuel usage due to less traffic, pedestrianism was embraced by New Urbanism theorists from the beginning because they felt that walking was a great equalizer. As the Seaside Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the tenets of New Urbanism, explains, “everyone budgets a lot of money for transportation. … Those who can’t drive — the poor, the elderly and the children — are more restricted and dependent than everyone else.”
Instead of separating residential and commercial districts by distances that demand access to a vehicle, New Urbanism communities are planned and built to “the human scale.” In Seaside, the community includes stores, restaurants, schools, a post office and a chapel, all within of a five-minute walk — the time it takes the average person to walk a quarter-mile — of each dwelling.
The idea of having a central public space in New Urban communities isn’t just so residents can easily walk to the store to grab a gallon of milk; it all goes back to the idea of greater social interaction — and hopefully, a more harmonious existence. Integrated-use planners look to European planning traditions in their use of civic and public spaces, but “very few … will have employed the principles of neo-traditional design as anything more than a façade,” laments the Sustainable Community Research Group at Canada’s McMaster University.
In Celebration, Fla., the Disney-backed New Urbanism experiment near Orlando, a clearly definable public space is created by “orderly ranks of trees [that] present a unifying street wall, the dead faces of garages have been banish to backyards … and the house fronts are carefully scaled so as not to overwhelm the space,” wrote Michael Pollen in the New York Times. In Rosemary Beach, Fla., Seaside’s Caribbean-inspired neighboring town, a cobblestone-paved main street provides easy access to restaurants, shops, a fitness center and a food market.
Critics of New Urbanism complain that such an idealistic lifestyle isn’t remotely realistic; “housing is expensive and the shops even more so. The people who live there don’t work there, and the people who work there can’t afford to live there,” says the Inclusive City, an advocacy group that strives to go “beyond” New Urbanism. Most of Florida’s popular New Urbanism communities are nothing more than vacation destinations. A cozy beachside bungalow in Seaside will set you back at least a lofty $1 million. So New Urbanism living might remain but a dream for most.
But when walking past the quaint colonial-style cottages of Rosemary Beach or the whitewashed stucco creations of Alys Beach, Fla., one can’t help but feel engulfed in a fantasy of another time — perhaps a time of better centuries past or perhaps one of a brighter future.