The Case for Paleo-Urbanism
The Case for Paleo-Urbanism

The Case for Paleo-Urbanism

Is New Urbanism a pale facsimile of North America's paleo-urban communities in Toronto, New York City, Montreal, or elsewhere? Is New Urbanism merely "gentrification" by another name? Or, are New Urbanists recovering something lost when high-density, urban communities built on the grid with a tuck and milk stop on the corner were abandoned for gently curving crescents, sweeping lawns, and concrete pads leading to double garages of suburbia?

March 1 st 2006
Appears in Spring 2006

About twenty-five years ago, a developer and a couple of architects decided to get together and build a community that would radically challenge the conventional wisdom of contemporary developers as well as violate the standard zoning codes of most municipalities across North America. Unlike developers of every other new subdivision that year, they planned the public realm of this community first—placing a green in the center from which streets would radiate outwards and terminate with architecturally interesting focal points. These streets were narrow and flanked by ample sidewalks demonstrating that the pedestrian had just as much right to be there as the car. The houses were built closely together, and were sited closely enough to the sidewalks that one could have a conversation from their front porch with passerby without raising a voice. Instead of the usual sea of garage doors, houses were fronted by low fences and welcoming human doors. Cars were not forbidden access to the houses but were required to use the alleys in back in order to access the garages. Although the development was only eighty acres it included a mix of uses (retail, public buildings, and housing) as well as a mix of housing types (detached homes, apartment buildings, and above-store flats).

Other than the radial network of streets, this 'revolutionary' new town was not a lot different from the kinds of small towns and neighborhoods built all across North America for many decades prior to WWII. Nevertheless, most people in the industry thought that Seaside, Florida, would fail. It didn't. In fact, it became so successful that real estate values in it outpaced other developments in the area by a factor of ten to one. In the years following, a number of such 'neo-traditional' developments were begun. Eleven years later, the architects and developers of these projects collaborated and birthed the movement that became known as New Urbanism. There are currently about 650 New Urbanist communities in various states of development across North America. Most are doing very well on the open market. Within government circles, many planners who ten years ago who would only have seen the zoning violations in narrow streets and mixed-use neighborhoods are among the strongest advocates for New Urbanism or its parallel movement, Smart Growth.

Not everyone is convinced by New Urbanists' economic success and their acceptance within the planning guild. Geographer David Harvey foresees the danger of New Urbanists' making some of the same mistakes of the modernists they criticize. One concern Harvey raises in "The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap," (Harvard Design Magazine, 1997: 1), is the problem inherent to all forms of utopianism. Namely, Harvey cautions that the assumption that by changing environment you easily and predictably change behaviors: "[t]he movement does not recognize that the fundamental difficulty with modernism was its persistent habit of privileging spatial forms over social process." While this is a legitimate warning for any movement that focuses on the built environment, this need not be the fate of New Urbanism. Outsiders see the master plans of these new communities, but what they don't see is the multilayered process behind the plans. New Urbanists have refined a charrette process in which stakeholders, technical experts, and the community at large come together to establish priorities and to draw up plans. Unlike the typical 'public hearing' which is usually designed to dissipate critique and resistance to an existing plan, in a charrette, participants create the plan from the ground up, and they see their ideas implemented.

Another critique of New Urbanism is its thin historicism and pervasive nostalgic quality. In response to the Governor of Mississippi's invitation calling 100 prominent New Urbanists to consult on the rebuilding of the coastal towns which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Eric Owen Moss, Director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, replied that New Urbanists would deliver a "'canned response" to rebuilding the Mississippi coastline. That their traditional designs would appeal "to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role" (Blair Kamin, "Mississippi Rocks the Boat with Bold Coastal Designs," The Chicago Tribune, October 18, 2005). While some New Urbanist developers have fallen into the habit of providing buyers with a somewhat narrow range of historical typologies to choose from, this is often a straightforward response to market demand and not foundational to the movement. Architectural critics routinely fail to comprehend the important distinction between architecture and urbanism when firing such volleys at New Urbanist efforts. New Urbanists are much more concerned with good urbanism—how buildings relate to the street and to one another and how well the public realm functions—than they are committed to any particular style of architecture. Even the paradigmatic Seaside development incorporates everything from colonial to avant garde in its house designs.

Finally, New Urbanism is accused of catering to a specific and exclusive demographic category: "'New Urbanism is essentially a white, elitist movement', claims theologian Glenn Smith, professor of urban theology at McGill University in Montreal" (K. Connie Kang, "New Urban Model Becomes Article of Faith," Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2005). Never mind that this same charge could be made—and rarely is—against the environmental movement. Such a critique represents a significant challenge to the long term significance of New Urbanism. I don't think that elitism and exclusivity are the intentions of the advocates of New Urbanism, but New Urbanists have become victims of their own success. There are so many bad, conventional, suburban subdivisions being built and, in comparison, so few developments that are built with a view to good urbanism, that demand for good urban planning tends to run away with New Urbanist developments as they come to the market.

However, even if the market begins to correct itself and a house in a New Urban development becomes competitive with one in a suburban subdivision, the exclusivity problem will not have been adequately addressed. Only a small percentage of the North American populace falls in the category of new home buyer. Furthermore, many North Americans are living in apartments or homes in older established parts of town. For most of these people whether the percentage of new home starts shifts towards New Urbanism and away from suburban will have very little impact on the quality of their lives. Fortunately, a number of older neighborhoods and urban centers in which many North Americans find themselves happen to be more traditionally urban than suburban.

These 'under the radar' neighborhoods in cities and towns constitute the paleo-urbanist stock of North America. I was introduced to the term "paleo-urbanist" in a casual conversation with Howard Ahmanson at a conference at Seaside, Florida, in 2002. Many of these neighborhoods are in need of private capital investment, improved infrastructure, and better schools. But they have 'good bones' from an urbanist perspective. The success of New Urbanism will be measured not by how many new developments they can start in any particular year, but by how the momentum generated in these developments spills over into the existing urban fabric of North America. Conversely, the collective urban experience of those who live in and shape such historic settings lends legitimacy to the New Urban projects that are vulnerable to the charge of utopianism and nostalgia. As paleo-urbanism begins to look a little newer and New Urbanism begins to look a little older, I think that we'll regain our sense of the positive life-giving force of good urbanism.

As a pastor, I liken this process to the role of reform movements within the church. I'll be the first to admit that the local church firmly rooted in a historic tradition is far from perfect. What's more, such churches are often deaf to criticism and are slow to change. Rarely does effective change come from within the church. However, throughout the history of the church, reform movements have emerged to address shortcomings. Many within the church saw these movements as a threat and would sharply criticize their efforts for enticing people away from the church. But I mostly view these movements as prophetic—helping the church to recognize its shortcomings and to make needed changes. Despite this generally positive assessment, I also recognize that such movements help to reform, but do not replace the ministry of the local church.

I feel the same way about New Urbanism with respect to paleo-urbanist communities. Historically rooted cities, towns, and neighborhoods constitute the specific shape and urban environments in which our communal lives are to be lived. Fifty years from now, some New Urbanist developments will become historically rooted communities. For now, they are best understood as reform movements. Their success should be evaluated not on market value or housing starts, but rather on how their existence improves the quality of our older urban environments. Already, we can say that their effect has been good. In many older cities, towns and neighborhoods zoning codes, street widths, and parking requirements are being re-thought along New Urbanist lines. And we see a return of the public realm to many urban communities. Insofar as these changes can be credited to the pioneers of the New Urbanism I applaud New Urbanists. Without the vital connection to the broader public welfare, the movement could truly be in danger of utopianism, nostalgia, and elitism. If New Urbanism is to avoid this fate, it must take seriously the perspectives and experience of those living in paleo-urban environments.

Topics: Cities
Eric O. Jacobsen
Eric O. Jacobsen

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.


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