New Urbanism

New Urbanism

New Urbanism is an American urban design movement that arose in the early 1980s. Its goal is to reform many aspects of real estate development and urban planning, from urban retrofits to suburban infill. New urbanist neighborhoods are designed to contain a diverse range of housing and jobs, and to be walkable.

New Urbanism can include (neo)traditional neighborhood design and transit-oriented development.

In 1991, the Local Government Commission, a private nonprofit group in Sacramento, California, invited architects Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Daniel Solomon to develop a set of community principles for land use planning. Named the Ahwahnee Principles (after Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee Hotel), the commission presented the principles to about one hundred government officials in the fall of 1991, at its first Yosemite Conference for Local Elected Officials.

Calthorpe, Duany, Moule, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, and Solomon founded the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993. The CNU has grown to more than 3,000 members, and is the leading international organization promoting new urbanist design principles. It holds annual Congresses in various U.S. cities.

The CNU's Charter of the New Urbanism says:

We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

New urbanists support regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe their strategies can reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in urban sprawl. The Charter of the New Urbanism also covers issues such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and the redevelopment of brownfield land.


Through the first quarter of the 20th century, cities in the United States were developed in the form of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. That pattern began to change when cheap rapid transit enabled the emergence of streetcar suburbs, modern architecture, zoning codes, and the ascension of the automobile.

A new system of development with a rigorous separation of uses, known as suburban development, or pejoratively as urban sprawl, arose after World War II. The majority of U.S. citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last fifty years. Suburban development consumes large areas of countryside, and automobile use per capita has soared.

New urbanism is a reaction to sprawl, based on planning and architectural principles working together to create human-scale, walkable communities. It is rooted in the work of architects, planners, and theorists who believed that conventional planning thought was failing.

Social philosopher and historian Lewis Mumford criticized the "anti-urban" development of post-war America. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s, called for planners to reconsider the single-use housing projects, large car-dependent thoroughfares, and segregated commercial centers that had become the "norm."

In the 1970s and 1980s, New Urbanism emerged with the urban visions and theoretical models for the reconstruction of the "European" city proposed by architect Leon Krier, and the "pattern language" theories of Christopher Alexander. These eventually coalesced into a unified group in the 1990s.

The New Urbanism includes traditional architects and those with modernist sensibilities. Some work exclusively on infill projects, others focus on transit-oriented development, some attempt to transform the suburbs, and many work in all these categories. All believe in the power and ability of traditional neighborhoods to restore functional, sustainable communities.

New Urbanist developments are purchased quickly by interested home buyers, but have captured only a small share of the residential market. Developers continue to build conventional suburban projects, because they are more familiar with the conventional suburban development retail model, particularly the strip mall format.

Defining elements

The husband-wife team of town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, met at Princeton University. Their beliefs coalesced while at the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven. While living in one of New Haven's Victorian neighborhoods, they observed mixed-use streetscapes with corner shops, front porches, and a diversity of well-crafted housing. According to Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the heart of New Urbanism is in the design of neighborhoods, which can be defined by thirteen elements:

  1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 1/4 mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
  3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles, and families, the poor, and the wealthy may find places to live.
  4. At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
  7. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
  9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.



New urbanism is having a growing influence on how and where metropolitan regions choose to grow. At least fourteen large-scale planning initiatives are based on the principles of linking transportation and land-use policies, and using the neighborhood as the fundamental building block of a region.

More than six hundred new towns, villages, and neighborhoods in the U.S. following new urbanism principles, are planned or under construction. Hundreds of new, small-scale, urban and suburban infill projects are restoring the urban fabric of cities and towns, by re-establishing walkable streets and blocks. In Maryland and several other states, new urbanist principles are an integral part of smart growth legislation.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted the principles of the new urbanism in its multi-billion dollar program to rebuild public housing projects nationwide. New urbanists have planned and developed hundreds of projects in infill locations. Most were driven by the private sector, but many, including HUD projects, used public money.


Seaside, Florida, the first fully new urbanist town, began development in 1981 on eighty acres (324,000 m²) of Florida Panhandle coastline. It was featured on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in 1988, when only a few streets were completed, and has become internationally famous for its architecture, and the quality of its streets and public spaces.

Seaside is now a tourist destination and appeared in the movie The Truman Show. Lots sold for $15,000 in the early 1980s, and slightly over a decade later, the price had escalated to about $200,000. Today, most lots sell for more than a million dollars, and some houses top $5 million.


The site of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colorado, closed in 1995, is now being redeveloped by Forest City Enterprises as the largest new urbanist project in the United States. Construction began in 2001. The new community is zoned for residential and commercial development, including office parks and "big box" shopping centers. Stapleton is by far the largest neighborhood in the city of Denver and an eastern portion of the redevelopment site lies in the neighboring city of Aurora.

The design emphasizes a pedestrian orientation rather than the automobile-oriented designs found in many other planned developments. Nearly a third of the airport site was set aside for public parks and open space.

Stapleton is the site of the Denver School for Science and Technology, a 451-student public high school (grades 9-12) that is a charter school.

By the end of 2006, about 2,500 houses and more than 300 apartments had been built on the Stapleton site. When complete in about 15 years, it is expected to provide 8,000 houses, 4,000 apartments, 4 schools and 2 million square feet (180,000 m²) of retail space. Up to 30,000 people could live there. Northfield Stapleton, one of the development's major retail centers, recently opened.

All of Stapleton's airport infrastructure has been removed except for the control tower and a parking structure which remain standing as a reminder of the site's former days.

Haile Plantation

Haile Plantation, Florida, is a 2,600 household (1,700 acre) development of regional impact southwest of the City of Gainesville, within Alachua County. Haile Village Center is a traditional neighborhood center within the development. It was originally started in 1978 and completed in 2007. In addition to the 2,600 homes the neighborhood consists of two merchant centers (one a New England narrow street village and the other a chain grocery strip mall). There are also two public elementary schools and an 18-hole golf course.

Disney's Celebration, Florida

In June 1996, the Walt Disney Company unveiled its 5,000 acre (20 km²) town of Celebration, near Orlando, Florida. Celebration opened its downtown in October, 1996, while Seaside's downtown was still mostly unbuilt. It has since eclipsed Seaside as the best-known new urbanist community, but Disney shuns the label, calling Celebration simply a "town." Disney has been criticized for insipid nostalgia, and heavy-handed rules and management.

Other countries

Europeans may consider a "New Urbanism" project in the USA as simply traditional city planning. In Europe many brown-field sites have been redeveloped since the 1980s following the models of the traditional city neighbourhoods rather than Modernist models. One well-publicized example is Poundbury in England, a suburban extension to the town of Dorchester, which was built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall under the overview of Prince Charles. The original masterplan was designed by Leon Krier. A report carried out after the first phase of construction found a high degree of satisfaction by residents, although the aspirations to reduce car dependency had not been successful. Rising house prices and a perceived premium have made the open market housing unaffordable for many local people.

The Council for European Urbanism (C.E.U.), formed in 2003, shares many of the same aims as the US New Urbanists. C.E.U.'s Charter is a development of the Congress for the New Urbanism Charter revised and reorganised to relate better to European conditions. An Australian organisation, Australian Council for New Urbanism has since 2001 run conferences and events to promote new urbanism in that country. A New Zealand Urban Design Protocol was created by the Ministry for the Environment in 2005.

In the United Kingdom New Urbanist and European urbanism principles are practiced and taught by the The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment. Other organisations promote New Urbanism as part of their remit, such as INTBAU, A Vision of Europe, and others.

There are many developments around the world that follow New Urbanist principles to a greater or lesser extent:

There are several such developments in South Africa. The most notable is Melrose Arch in Johannesburg. The first development in the Eastern Cape, one of the lesser known provinces in the country, is located in East London. The development, announced in 2007, comprises 30 hectares. It is made up of three apartment complexes together with over 30 residential site as well as 20,000 sqm of residential and office space. The development is valued at over R2-billion ($250 million).

New Urbanism in Film

The 1998 fantasy comedy-drama film The Truman Show uses the real life New Urbanist town of Seaside, Florida as the setting for a perfect, fictional town constructed as a set for a television show. The 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream argues that the depletion of oil will result in the demise of the sprawl-type development. New Urban Cowboy: Toward a New Pedestrianism, a feature length 2008 documentary about urban designer Michael E. Arth, explains the principles of New Urbanism, gives a brief history of the movement, and chronicles the rebuilding of an inner city slum into a model of New Urbanism. The film promotes a more ecology- and pedestrian-oriented branch of New Urbanism called New Pedestrianism that Arth founded in 1999.


Perhaps the most frequent criticism of the movement is that the most famous and highest-profile projects most associated with the movement (primarily Celebration, Kentlands, and Seaside) are all greenfield projects built on what was previously open space and therefore are just another form of sprawl. In actual fact the majority of NU projects are infill. Critics react to this as a controlled sprawl that assumes that social situations can and should also be controlled, such that preconceived rules of what a town need be are first worked out on paper and then acted out in real space. Often the results are elitist and exclusionary, and are almost always conservative in nature.

Critics accuse the new urbanism movement of elevating aesthetics over practicality, subordinating good urban planning principles to dogma. Some charge the movement is grounded in nostalgia for a period in American (and to a certain extent, European) history that may never have existed. A related charge is that the movement represents nothing truly new, as towns and neighborhoods were built on similar principles in the U.S. until the 1920s. These are designs that work as opposed to the modernist town planning movement that produced ugly car-dominated towns.

The New Urbanist principle of mixed-income developments as a means of ameliorating poverty lacks evidence which supports that this is achieved. The theoretical basis for addressing poverty through mixed-income development posits that planned mixed-income developments facilitate the bridging of social capital, and thus a higher shared quality of life across socioeconomic cleavages. The opposite non-mixed gethoed social housing projects have been a dismal failure.

Academics have criticized New Urbanism as retrograde, bordering on fascist. Some uninformed environmentalists decry new urbanism as nothing more than conventional sprawl dressed up with superficial stylistic cues. Some activists argue that the New Urbanism is too dense, with too much mixed use and around-the-clock activity.

A stream of thought in sustainable development maintains that sustainability is based primarily on the combination of high density and transit service. Critics claim many new urbanist developments fall short of being truly sustainable, to the extent that they rely on automobile transport, and serve the detached single family housing market. Many new urbanists claim that this is an incentive that prepares people in transition from conventional suburban living to going back to downtown living.

The New Urbanist preference for 'permeable' street grids has been criticised on the grounds that it gives private motor vehicles an advantage over walking, cycling and public transport. The transport performance of some New Urbanist developments, such as Poundbury has been disappointing, with surveys revealing high levels of car use The alternative view, termed 'filtered permeability' (see Permeability (spatial and transport planning)) is that to give pedestrians and cyclists a time and convenience advantage, they need to be separated from motor vehicles in places.

A forthcoming rating and certification scheme for neighborhood environmental design, LEED-ND, being developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Congress for the New Urbanism , should help to quantify the sustainability of New Urbanist neighborhood design. New Urbanist and board member of CNU, Doug Farr has taken a step further and coined Sustainable Urbanism, which combines New Urbanism and LEED-ND to create walkable, transit-served urbanism with high performance buildings and infrastructure. While New Urbanism seeks to create walkable communities, its lacks an emphasis on requiring these communities to participate int the green building movement.

New urbanism has drawn both praise and criticism from all quarters of the political spectrum. Some members of the right wing view new urbanism as a collectivist plot designed to rob Americans of their civil freedoms, property rights, and free-flowing traffic. Some members of the left wing view new urbanism as an example of capitalistic excess, aligned with forces of greed and racism that would intentionally or unintentionally purge residents of color and the underclass from their historical neighborhoods by raising property values far beyond their pre-urban renewal rates.

See also

Architects and urbanists





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  • Brooke, Steven (1995). Seaside. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Company. ISBN 0-88289-997-X
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  • Duany, Andres; Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth; & Speck, Jeff (2000). Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-557-1.
  • Dutton, John A. (2001). New American Urbanism: Re-forming the Suburban Metropolis. Milano: Skira editore. ISBN 88-8118-741-8
  • El Nasser, Haya "Miss. Wal-Marts may apply 'new urbanism' in rebuilding". USA Today, .
  • Jacobs, Jane (1992). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-74195-X. Originally published: New York: Random House, (1961).
  • Katz, Peter (1994). The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-033889-2
  • Kunstler, James Howard (1994). Geography Of Nowhere: The Rise And Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-88825-0
  • Talen, Emily (2005). New Urbanism & American Planning: The Conflict of Cultures. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-70133-3.
  • Tagliaventi, Gabriele (2002). New Urbanism. Florence: Alinea. ISBN 88-8125-602-9.

Waugh, David. 2004 Buying New Urbanism: A Study of New Urban Characteristics that Residents Value. Applied Research Project. Texas State University.

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