The Social, Economic, and Ecological Balance of Community

 This series of essays explores the design and planning of American communities through the lens of the New Urbanism, a planning methodology developed in the late 1980s and formally proposed in 1993 with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the adoption of its Charter.  Presented as a planning solution for the sprawling social, economic, and ecological failures of the Euclidian zoning of American suburbs, the New Urbanism reintroduces the tenets of traditional city planning such as diversity of uses, public space, and walkability while addressing modern-day realities such as the automobile and “big box” retailers.


Successful urban design achieves a triple bottom line–a balance between social, economic, and ecological forces¹.  Should the value of any one factor outweigh the others, humanity and the earth suffers the consequences.  Today, the swaths of isolated, poorly-constructed buildings in mono-functional zoning districts have created a sickly dependency on the automobile and have made us parasitical in our waste of resources.  These place-less cities stand as glaring evidence of not only our poor planning choices, but also of the social, economic, and ecological imbalance of our cities.

1
A place-less intersection that prioritizes the automobile by segregating commercial uses from residential.  Copyright, unknown.

Cities haven’t always been designed this way.  Before mono-functional zoning became entrenched in our planning policies, cities were walkable, were mixed-use, were sustainable.  These seemingly new buzz-words actually signal a revival of traditional city planning.  This movement, now formalized and known as the New Urbanism–including its subsets of Smart Growth, TOD, and TND–offers planning solutions that seek to rebalance our cities so that we may, once again, build community.  But what exactly is this New Urbanism?

Its principles are as follows²:

Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population.

One New Urbanist trademark method of achieving diversity reintroduces one of history’s strongest solutions: a diversity of housing types.  Single-family residences are straight-forward enough; however, we have in our historic portfolio many types of multi-family residences.  Today, we think of multi-family residences typically as apartment houses of four to five stories, each with hundreds of units and maximized with every possible density and height bonus.  The New Urbanism reaches into our architectural repertoire to reintroduce the live/work spaces, duplexes, quadruplexes, townhouses, granny flats, and carriage houses to the housing stock–all of which bring a diversity of income-levels and age groups into the neighborhood.

Backyard guesthouses, sometimes called "granny flats," allow relatives to live closeby or can be sources of additional income for home owners while diversifying the neighborhood demographic.
Backyard guesthouses, sometimes called “granny flats,” allow relatives to live close by or can be sources of additional income for home owners while diversifying the neighborhood demographic. Copyright, LA Times.

Communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car.

Before the advent of the personal vehicle, we relied on the robust networks of transit systems to take us farther than our feet could.  When the automobile became ever-prevalent, we sacrificed our original forms of transportation, eradicating our transit lines to make more room for roads and highways.  It is time to reclaim our feet and our communal transportation.  The earth cannot keep sustaining our waste, and we cannot keep sacrificing our physical and mental health sitting alone in our cars.  The New Urbanism advocates not for the eradication of cars, but rather, for keeping the automobile in perspective.  Thus, multi-modal design, particularly walkability, is yet another signature feature of New Urbanist developments.

In 1945, Los Angeles's Pacific Electric Red Car public transit system had about 25 percent more track mileage than did New York City's subway system.  By 1961, the last Red Car made its final trip.
In 1945, Los Angeles’s Pacific Electric Red Car public transit system had about 25 percent more track mileage than did New York City’s subway system. By 1961, the last Red Car would make its final trip. Copyright, unknown.

Cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions.

Today, new development typically prioritizes private uses over public uses.  Although our planning policies often require that developers provide for open space, these spaces are still private property and cannot be substitutes for civic, communal spaces that can be used and enjoyed by all.  In order to create a true sense of community, municipalities must take the lead in planning and shaping public, civic spaces where all can truly commune.  Recognizing that shaping policy will shape design, the New Urbanism goes beyond simply preaching about design to actually writing zoning policies that can legally enact its tenets.  Miami 21, Miami’s new form-based zoning code, is a premier example of such policy application.

Expansive, private green space that does not foster neighborly encounters but rather, only wastes money and natural resources.
Isolated from any civic or public uses, the green does not foster neighborly encounters but rather wastes money and natural resources.  LPA, Inc.  Copyright, unknown.

Urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrates local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

The unique history of every city should be reflected in its ultimate manifestation–that is, its architecture and landscape.  By celebrating the stories and regional differences that make each place special, the built environment can instill local pride in its residents.  Local materials, local building techniques, and local ecology should be emphasized in design practices in order to truly reflect the spirit of each community.  This often means, however, that truly traditional buildings, i.e., those of traditional design and construction, more honestly reflect the architectural language and heritage of a community than do experimental modernist creations.  That said, however, the New Urbanism is partial to neither traditional nor modernist architecture, and this is unfortunately a common misconception.

Aqua, Miami Beach, FL. View from the canal looking east.  DPZ & Co.  Copyright, Steven Brooke.
Aqua, a New Urbanist community in Miami Beach, Florida that celebrates modernist lines and forms.  DPZ & Co.  Copyright, Steven Brooke.

The New Urbanism, then, at least in principle, seems to be a triple-bottom line answer to restoring our cities.  Socially, it provides for public spaces anchored by civic uses along with walkable and connected street networks to allow for neighborly encounters.  Economically, it provides for a mix of uses and users along with convenient access to daily necessities and businesses in order to lessen personal financial burdens and support local commerce.  And ecologically, it seeks harmony and balance with our natural surroundings in order to celebrate local history and materials and to stay sustainable.

Now, to see how these principles have actually played out in practice!  First stop: Playa Vista, a neighborhood between Marina del Rey and Westchester in the ever-so-vast car mecca of Los Angeles, California.


¹An idea influenced by Peter Calthorpe’s essay, “The Region,” found in The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community by Peter Katz.

²From the preamble of the Charter of the New Urbanism, pages v – vi.

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The Social, Economic, and Ecological Balance of Community

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