In this essay, George Washington University urban and regional planning Professor Dorn C. McGrath argues that New Urbanists fail to recognize the current realities of suburban life.
It is fashionable today to tout something called the new urbanism. Its promoters
would have us believe that it offers solutions to all of the problems that
plague our urbanizing society today - traffic congestion, urban crime, environmental
pollution, etc. A gullible public is led to believe that the nostalgic architectural
forms of the tiny New Urbanist model communities will transform the way
the builders of the American Dream approach their markets, and the suburbs
that comprise most of built America today will somehow fade away. Buoyed
by their passion, the New Urbanists have declared their resurrection of
some old, well-tested principles of town planning and architectural design
to be a "New Movement," but the emperor may want to look into
the mirror of reality.
The new town of Reston, Virginia, begun in 1964, is probably the most successful example of New Urbanist design principles applied on a grand scale in the United States.
Ten times the size of its well-promoted New Urbanism imitator, Kentlands, in nearby Gaithersburg, Maryland, Reston provided a discriminating and pioneering public the same amenities that the Colonial Williamsburg wannabe packages offer today under the rubric of the New Urbanism. Reston provided also for an on-site nature preserve, an entire system of transportation internal to the community, on-site jobs in great variety, and a genuine diversity of housing types for its intentionally diverse population. It also acknowledged from the outset that the great American love affair with the automobile would have to be accommodated in the design process, and therefore Reston dwellers today have plenty of room to park at home and at work. The vast majority of its 60,000 residents actually like their cul-de-sacs, where a generation of children managed to grow up quite happily. The terrain on the 7,800-acre Reston site was completely inappropriate for the commercial grid of streets that fascinates the flat-earthers of the New Urbanism Movement. The rectilinear street grid, mindlessly applied in the Los Angeles Basin, has given us much of what the New Urbanists deplore
Despite its charming neo-colonial appearance, the New Urban model community of Kentlands has an uneasy relationship with the traditional American car, or cars. Kentlands is a relatively elite enclave located fairly far out in the Maryland farmland. Living there demands that residents have at least one car to get to and from work, the shopping center, the pediatrician, the dentist, the soccer games, the tee-ball games, the movies, and any of the many attractions of the metropolitan area. Moreover, while the project's narrow streets may discourage a few speeding hooligans, they also frustrate guests who need to park at a party and they slow down fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. These are aspects of suburban life that illustrate the awkward intrusions of contemporary reality into the saccharine imagery of the New Urbanism.
A hard lesson learned in the development of Reston was that modern families want modern, car-accessible shopping and entertainment facilities to go along with their charming urban nooks and crannies, and that modern merchandising requires far more space than Mom and Pop in the convenient corner store. Thus the rather quaint clusters of small, uneconomical food and hardware stores in Reston's original plan have given way to the new wave of "big-box" outlets and watering-holes, without violating the integrity of the pedestrian-scale neighborhoods. As a comprehensively planned new town, with several initial flaws, Reston has evolved, rather than faded. It has been a complex, but successful, undertaking for three decades, representing the application of planning and design principles far beyond the stylistic fixations and cliches of the New Urbanism.
In a media-driven society, the New Urbanism has served the useful purpose of stimulating discussion of community design principles among disenchanted suburbanites and older, mostly affluent, elements of the American population. They need to read beyond the high-powered hype that has characterized the New Urbanism "Movement" and find its origins in the thoughtful theories of Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, J.C. Nichols, the Greenbelt Town planners, the British New Towns of the 1950s, the transit-oriented Swedish New Towns of the 1960s, and Tapiola, Finland, the widely acknowledged prototype for Reston. There are indeed values to be preserved and emulated in many of these and our own our older urban neighborhoods, and a better- educated public will recognize the need to blend the realities of the present and the onrushing future with the rosy charm of the past. Re-visiting historic and well-tested design schemes is almost always healthy, but pretentious packaging of traditional forms as the ground swell of a "movement" is not.