Old urbanism, New Urbanism?

The walkable mixed-use and transit-oriented suburban community of Orenco Station, on the Portland light rail line, where the author served as project manager.

The global destruction of cities and countryside, of human cultures and of nature itself, can only be reversed by a global philosophical, technical, cultural, moral and economic project: by an ecological project. The city is not the unavoidable result of a society's activities. It can only be built and maintained when it represents the goal of individuals, of a society and its institutions. A city is not an economic accident but a moral project. Forms of production ought no longer to dictate the form of the city; but the form of the city, its organic nature and moral order, must qualify and shape the forms of production and exchange.
— Léon Krier

Of all the urban movements of the early 21st Century, New Urbanism may be the most explicit in acknowledging a foundational influence from Alexander and, especially, Jacobs. New Urbanism is certainly one of the most prominent movements within the urban planning and design professions, and a force that must be reckoned with. It may also be one of the most controversial, for a mix of reasons that are worth examining carefully.

Perhaps the simplest and most accurate way of describing New Urbanism, and its nominal membership body, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), is that both are modeled after the enormously influential CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), the early 20th Century movement that set the blueprint for modernist city design. Like the founders of the CIAM, CNU founders believed that conscious design by professionals must play a role in the establishment of humane and enduring (or as we would term it today, “sustainable”) cities.

However, the CNU was not conceived as an extension of the CIAM, but as the agent of its overthrow. The founders of the CNU placed much of the blame for the unsustainability of modern cities — their profligate resource use, fragmented social relationships, declining inner neighborhoods, and sprawling suburbs — at the feet of the CIAM leadership, and what are now characterized as their catastrophic mistakes. At the same time, the CNU was only too eager to exploit the successful strategies of the CIAM to create a new reformation.

As part of its strategy, the CIAM created a “charter” that embodied its core concepts of city-making. The Athens Charter was formally published in 1943 by Le Corbusier. In an exhaustive series of 95 points (echoing Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that launched the Protestant Reformation), the book documented the key concepts that had already emerged from a series of CIAM conferences, culminating in a plenary meeting in 1933. The meeting had taken place aboard a cruise ship, the SS Patris, traveling from Marseilles to Athens — the latter city giving the document its name.

Key elements of the Athens Charter can be summarized as follows:

In all these respects, architecture (through urban design) would provide the guiding expertise for city-making. The new model — rational, mechanical, industrial, with the car at its center — would be a powerful new force for economic development. This development would not oppress human beings, but on the contrary, liberate them, by providing a new kind of mobility within a productive, rationally ordered world.

We can note two facts about the car-based CIAM vision. One is that it was extraordinarily successful: what was built was remarkably faithful to the CIAM outlines, and it did indeed fuel stupendous economic growth, notably in the United States. Indeed, much of the sprawling suburbia of the United States, though often stylistically different from Le Corbusier’s pristine modernism, closely followed the blueprint of the Radiant City: wide streets, spread across a functionally classified hierarchy, segregated land uses, and large districts of monocultural building types (tract houses, strip centers, industrial superblocks, and corporate office towers in green park-like settings).

The other fact is that the success of the CIAM vision has left us with an enormous challenge for the Twenty-First Century: how to manage rapid depletion of resources, destruction of ecosystems, toxic pollution, and, more recently, the ominous threat of climate change. To this unsustainability of natural resource impacts, we can add the apparent unsustainability of social and economic systems.

During the 1960s and 1970s, growing numbers of citizens began to decry the perceived failures of CIAM-inspired post-war projects, and a number of articulate critics also rose up to rally the opposition. They included Paul Goodman, whose 1971 book After the Planners galvanized many local citizen groups; Oscar Newman, whose 1973 book Defensible Space critiqued the amorphous pedestrian realms of CIAM plans; Léon Krier, whose writings and drawings were highly influential (and whose quote begins this chapter); and Peter Blake, whose 1977 book Form Follows Fiasco savaged the very notion of functionalism at the heart of the CIAM.

But the most influential critics of all were, of course, Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander, whose ideas we have already examined as powerful critiques of the elements of the CIAM model.

Jacobs, Alexander and the others inspired a generation of architects and urban designers to embrace a new approach to urbanism: more diverse, more contextual, and more respectful of the existing patterns of nature, history and human activity. Along with “Postmodernist” critics in architecture, who argued for a revival of pre-Modernist building types, they argued for the return of traditional street and neighborhood types.

Flash forward to 1975, when California Governor Jerry Brown appointed the Berkeley architect Sim Van der Ryn as State Architect, responsible for planning the government’s facilities in Sacramento. Van der Ryn, a friend and colleague of Christopher Alexander, enlisted his fellow Berkeley architect Peter Calthorpe to help in completing a series of innovate “green building” projects for the State. But the two quickly realized that buildings alone were not enough, and it was important to deal with urban form — and especially, alternatives to CIAM-style automobile-based planning. For Calthorpe, the concept of “transit-oriented development” came to be at the heart of his thinking: we need development patterns that allow people to get out of their cars, and walk, bike or ride transit to close-by destinations. This can only be done if we integrate public transit with all the other modes of travel.

Around the same time, ecologists Mike and Judy Corbett decided to build a prototype community to serve as a demonstration alternative to the auto-dominated sprawl they saw all around them. In addition to his training in ecology, Mike Corbett was also an architect. Like Calthorpe, he too became persuaded that green buildings in isolation were not enough” and that the unecological, land-consuming patterns of American sprawl had to be changed. Their project, Village Homes, featured skinny pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly streets, diverse home types, ecological water runoff facilities, and “green” homes, in a compact street-fronting layout.

On the other side of the continent, architecture students Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk were studying at Yale University, and living in an old Victorian neighborhood near campus. After studying Jacobs, Alexander and other reformers, they went home to observe the marvelous successes of their own neighborhood first-hand. Thanks in part to encouragement from their professor, Vincent Scully, and influence from the Luxembourg architect Léon Krier, they came to believe that they too could build a new town that was a radical departure from the sprawling, homogenized model of CIAM-inspired development. In 1981 their clients, Robert and Daryl Davis, commissioned the planning of Seaside, Florida, which also featured a dense network of skinny, pedestrian-friendly streets, mixed uses, native vegetation and other features. The buildings were also more ecologically designed, with smaller footprints, natural ventilation, and climate-appropriate regional and vernacular construction.

Calthorpe, Duany and the Corbetts were certainly not the only ones experimenting with a “new urbanism.” Calthorpe’s Berkeley colleague Dan Solomon worked with Alexander and others on innovative new urban design projects based on “pattern languages” of traditional urban form. In the suburban towns of Los Angeles, Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule were also developing new projects that built on historical urban patterns.

The USA was also not the only place that was experiencing a new generation of so-called “neo-traditional” urban developments. In France, François Spoerry, impressed with the power of traditional urban cores, developed new urban settlements such as Port Grimaud, near Marseilles, as early as the 1960s. Spoerry overtly rejected the principles of CIAM, including its prohibition of traditional and vernacular forms. Léon Krier, whose effect on Duany and Plater-Zyberk was, by their own description, profound, was also involved in a series of European projects, as was his brother Rob. Other architects had been defying the CIAM urban agenda for many years, including Maurice Culot (Belgium) and Quinlan Terry (UK).

In 1979, Judy Corbett was hired by California Governor Jerry Brown to direct the Local Government Commission, an agency created to facilitate “innovation in local environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social equity.” After Brown’s term ended, the LGC was re-formed as a private non-profit, remaining under Corbett’s leadership. In 1991, the LGC organized a conference on sustainable urban development, inviting Calthorpe, Duany, Moule, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides and Solomon. At Yosemite National Park’s splendid Ahwahnee Hotel, the group (which also included Corbett’s husband Mike) presented a list of principles to about one hundred government officials. The Ahwahnee Principles upended many of the principles of the Athens Charter, and prefigured the later Charter of the New Urbanism.

Buoyed by the reception, in 1992, Calthorpe, Duany, Moule, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, and Solomon had a series of discussions about founding a more permanent organization. Duany, relating the advice of Léon Krier, recommended a structure that very closely paralleled the CIAM’s structure. After all, Duany said, “CIAM was the last organization that effectively and comprehensively changed the way we design the world.” Now, nothing less would be required to meet the challenges of modern development.

The next year the group founded the “Congress for the New Urbanism,” along with their new director, Peter Katz. The first Congress was in Alexandria, Virginia, and featured relatively intimate discussions of organizational issues. By 1996 the organization had a fully articulated Charter, similar to the Ahwahnee Principles but with more comprehensive detail. It was ratified at a much larger Congress that year in Charleston, South Carolina, and signed by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, along with several hundred other attendees. The CNU was already showing its deep influence at the highest levels of US government.

The CNU’s Charter is grouped into three sections, following the scale of urbanism: the region, the neighborhood and the building. Each section includes nine points, for a total of twenty-seven. In addition, a preamble sets out the broad goals of the movement, which are then articulated in each section.

The Charter of the New Urbanism’s key points almost exactly oppose the key points of the CIAM’s Athens Charter:

As a movement, New Urbanism suffers from an interesting kind of schizophrenia. As my colleague Emily Talen has written, there are at least four subcultures within the movement, with varied and often conflicting agendas. Criticism between practitioners can at times be fierce, and debates rage over architectural languages, ecological practices, measures to safeguard affordability and equity, and other controversies.

Even more vociferous is some of the criticism from outside of the New Urbanism community. Some of the best-placed criticism points to the uneven, sometimes unacceptable quality of projects, the flaws in the development process, and the failure to provide for the natural and contextual dynamics of place. (Indeed, this has been a criticism of Christopher Alexander himself.) Other criticisms have pointed to the failure to respond to human movement patterns and the “movement economy” — a point that Jacobs herself made.

A broader category of criticism focuses on the role that New Urbanism has played in providing upper middle class development, which critics claim has fueled gentrification. To be fair, New Urbanists have been involved in many affordable and low-cost housing projects as well. However, the point that housing affordability is a challenge not yet met, by New Urbanists or by many others, is a fair one.

Another category of critique is, for me, particularly important in the context of the New Urban Agenda. New Urbanism as a movement has remained too bounded by its particular set of problem-solving issues — too USA-specific, too specific to wealthy democracies and upwardly mobile, well-educated communities — and has not yet taken up the broader challenges of human settlement in our age, including the daunting challenges of poverty, unemployment, exclusion, informal settlements, the dynamics of global capital and real estate investment, and the influence of the USA as a model, for better or worse. Indeed, it is precisely because the USA is a model for much of the rest of the world — often a regrettable one — that the New Urbanists’ failure to embrace a more thoroughgoing global urban agenda represents a lost opportunity to be more effective in the trans-national reforms that are needed.

Put differently, one could say that the New Urbanism as a movement has not yet sufficiently implemented the mantra, “think globally, act locally.” For these issues are indeed globally interconnected, just as markets and communications and design movements are increasingly globally interconnected — again, for better or worse.

This is an orthodox opinion that has wide currency within the culture today. We mustn’t be “old-fashioned” because “that was then and this is now” — the “modern” age where we expect everything to have a certain different look, and to express a certain modern artistic sensibility.

This is also an opinion that has received scant critical review in the light of the new revelations of the sciences, and the evidence of what works best for people and for cities. It is also an opinion that, as the next chapter discusses, poses a significant barrier to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, and the quality and success of cities in the future.