Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

More evidence that New Urbanism is really dense sprawl

From The New Geography magazine.

In Celebration, many of the early residents were Disney executives; only 4 or 5 years after opening did Disney develop office space in Celebration for some of their offices. Baldwin Park, approximately 2 miles from Downtown Orlando, never pretended to capture the employment aspect, instead selling itself (to many Celebration residents who rushed to this newer, hipper version of their town) as a downtown commute. And neither Avalon Park nor Horizon West have employment opportunities within their town centers. What they do have is easy access to the area’s ring road – ensuring vehicular congestion outside of their New Urbanist communities.

What is in their Town Centers? Ironically, you find only a small shopping district and the ubiquitous Publix, Florida’s home-grown grocery store chain. The formula of “live-work-play” must stick in the craw of those who are employed in these stores, because the Publix employees, Starbucks baristas, dry cleaner cashiers, and others who do work in these Town Centers can not possibly afford the New Urbanist real estate. Rather than a social continuum (as was more common in the idealized version of America), there is a new social schism, with the New Urbanist underclass forced to commute to the New Urbanist communities from more affordable but less trendy housing nearby.

In contrast, the region’s native communities have been thriving throughout the same growth period. Communities like College Park, adjacent to Orlando’s downtown, offer something that New Urbanist communities do not: diverse housing, from garage apartments and rental communities up to stately mansions, all within walking distance of each other. They offer an idiosyncratic mix of sacred places, playgrounds, schools, and shops in what the Philadelphia architect and theorist Robert Venturi calls “messy vitality.” No overarching body dictated the form, developed transects, or rigidly controlled the distance between the front porch to the street to achieve these vibrant, socially cohesive, and proud neighborhoods.

New Urbanists claim to reduce the need for cars, but Orlando’s New Urbanist communities make the car more necessary than ever. Built on the periphery of the metropolitan area, they require a vehicle to complete the circle of functions necessary for a healthy society. Orange County planners have been submissive to the New Urbanists – especially after Celebration – but increasingly recognize that they do not solve the problems they claim to solve and instead invent more: higher traffic, less affordable housing near city centers, and lumpy development sprawl.

If you are building in a city at the metropolitan scale, you have to expect your potential residents to live metropolitan lifestyles. A single TND is nothing more than a prettier subdivision, and brings along all the economic risk and maladaptations that other subdivisions do, with none of the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of regular cities. But the blame here doesn't fall on the developers of New Urbanism, it falls on the county planners who are supposed to enable the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of their metropolis, and who instead create the ideal conditions for unsustainability and subdivision development. There wouldn't be these TNDS without the ring roads, which immediately become unplanned urbanism. That's the only reason this kind of development is profitable in the first place.


And what's your point? That if you live in Avalon Park you still need a car? Yeah, sure.

But if your theory was true, that employment opportunities can't exist within the town center, the developer wouldn't be actively building more office space AND giving away money to people who want to invet in businesses there:



My point is that the New Urbanist development model is not the natural and economic way for urbanization to happen, which is why the developer needs to subsidize business in his development just to stand up to the mixed use standards of urbanism. These jobs will be even more car dependent because the real urbanism of the area is happening at a much bigger scale.

Since my words were flatteringly lifted from the New Geography website, allow me to perhaps extend the discussion a little further. The point is not to condemn these developments, but to try to keep the conversation a little more honest.

New Urbanists hark back to pre-car America, and design their cities to reduce its influence, but come on: the car is not going away. Let's accept the reality of the car and deal with it properly instead of hiding it.

The other reality is simply that New Urbanist developments end up competing with old urbanist developments for business. They have taken the easy way out by going for the revenue, rather than developing true communities that are available to all economic levels.

I am far from condemning New Urbanism either. It's obviously a good product that people seem to prefer to regular subdivisions. What I'm warning against is that the development system itself is what's wrong, and New Urbanists have not really produced any position on the matter.

Superficially and stylistically we can say that a TND harks back to pre-car America. It at least tries to imitate it. But there was no development at that scale in pre-car America. If we take for example the grid system of the 1811 New York Plan, you could not build a TND in that - the blocks would limit the size of your development to one block. Today the superblocks limit the size of development, but they also constrain the size of economic links between developments, creating unaffordability and lack of jobs.

The value of a true urban system is that it allows multiple people to build a city together in parallel. I can build my house to fit me while a company builds their office to fit them, and we don't need to know anything about each other for it to add up to a complex city. But a New Urbanist developer has to know how to make everything, and this adds an enormous economic strain that regular subdivision developers do not suffer. I'm afraid we're seeing a drift towards more and more housing in TNDs that is going to erase the pretense that those developments are not sprawl.

There is a place for big development in a big city, and in fact one of the major benefits of a big city is supporting large-scale events. But we can't build a city out of only big development, it has to be inserted between medium and small developments.

The obvious (short-term) solution is to reduce the size of the supergrid to manageable, blocklike levels. In most rapidly-growing "sunbelt" cities the planning power is already in place, only the maps need to be changed.

Long-term, allowing for the existence of a "pastoral" grid requires that we dissociate the act of land *subdivision* from the act of land *improvement*. In all the examples you cite, "streets" were simply rights-of-way - water, sewerage, and street improvements came later in the form of LIDs (Local Improvement Districts).

Switching from our current model of integrated subdivision-improvement back to an older system of unimproved subdivision followed by LIDs would allow for more organic growth, at the cost of some efficiency. Tying the two together was one of the great triumphs of early- to mid-century urban planning (which praised efficiency above nearly all else), and untangling them will be difficult.

Can you comment on form-based code and whether or not this is a step towards emergent urbanism?

Strictly speaking, emergent urbanism is a development process that maximally empowers individuals to generate the growth of a town. Form-based codes can be a part of such a process, but they can also be part of sprawl.

If we take a look at the Smart Code, it consists of a definition in the smallest details of what kind of development can or cannot be made. In this manner it takes the modern planning system as given. That's not going to be an answer to sprawl. In fact it doesn't even begin to ask the right question.

When I started out on this topic, what I found was that a neighborhood I was studying, La Défense in Paris, had a completely ridiculous form, but despite that was one of the most dynamic in the country. At the same time other neighborhoods with this form were being demolished because no one thought they could be salvaged. It turned out that the process made the difference, and allowed La Défense to gradually overcome its ridiculous form and become fractally complex, yet this process was only possible because the neighborhood was exceptionally outside the normal legal system. This exception was imposed in the early development, when its rigid form-based master plan failed.

My conclusion is that there isn't anything a priori right or wrong about form based codes, but I don't think they provide a benefit that justifies the trouble we go through about them.

Further comment

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