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TinotopiaLog → “New” Urbanism (29 Mar 2001)
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Thursday 29 March 2001

“New” Urbanism

I quote here from an article on cnn.com recently:

For decades, suburban lifestyle was synonymous with the American Dream. Ward and June Cleaver and Ozzy and Harriet Nelson were TV icons for the millions of families who moved to the suburbs to own their own houses, with lawns and driveways and supermarkets, but precious few sidewalks.

The point being that they are equating our suburban lifestyle of today with that or Ward, June & Co. — which is total and utter crap.

(For those of you not familiar with 1950s U.S. television, Leave it to Beaver was a terrible TV show about an perfect family living in the suburbs. June, the lady of the house, always wore pearls while doing the dishes. Ward worked hard, you knew, but he always make sure that Family and God came first. And Wally and The Beav (né Theodore, the youngest child) were always getting into minor pickles but quickly getting out of them, and learning Valuable Lessons in the process. The show has come to symbolize the idyll that supposedly was the U.S. at the height of the Cold War. It has also been pointed out that the show set an impossible standard for people to live up to; ultimately it was this that led directly to The Simpsons.)

But anyway, we were examining the Cleavers’ environment. Force yourself to actually watch Leave it to Beaver sometime. There are shops, playgrounds, and schools within The Beav’s walking or bike-riding range. Ward works at his mysterious profession (international spy? insurance salesman?) nearby, on Mayfield’s — their little suburb town’s — Main Street. He can go to any number of different places for lunch, or he can go home.

And there were sidewalks a-plenty in Mayfield.

I, on the other hand, live in Reston, one of America’s most celebrated New Towns, a town that was New Urbanism before New Urbanism was New. I live in one of the original houses in Reston, in close proximity — a five-minute walk — to Washington Plaza, a square inspired by Venice’s Piazza San Marco and surrounded by shops with apartments above.

The problem is, I can’t buy groceries there, or screws, or a lamp, or any of the other million things required to get through life. I can get my nails done (at two places), or my hair cut at one of three places, or my clothes dry-cleaned, or get something to eat. In this, it’s better than most suburban places in the U.S.

However, the space that was originally a small grocery store is now a community art center. The library is now a Reston museum. The new library is a mile or so away, smack in the middle of a "pod" of commercial space that puts it at nearly 1/2 mile from the nearest large residential area (1/2 mile from any residential space, if you don’t count a single apartment building and an old folks’ home).

I reject the term "new urbanism", because it implies that the goal is some Aldous Huxley Brave New World kind of communal life. The reality is that "new urbanism" is an attempt to move backward, to create something that’s not new at all, but old and functional. And that’s a shame, because when you’ve got the word "new" in the name of something and something goes wrong, people tend to assume that it’s because of your "new", untested ideas.

It’s important to think of cities — and by "city" here I mean any human habitation of more than about 5,000 or 10,000 people — as systems, rather than just plots of land. These systems have evolved over thousands of years, until the design has resulted in something that works well for its purpose.

Look at any city in the world, and you’ll see much the same thing. Across all cultures, architectures, and climates, cities are much the same. In all cities, people work, live, shop, and have recreation in much the same space. In all cities, be they cold like Stockholm or warm like Rome, people walk around in relatively chaotic surroundings, sometimes getting rained on, sometimes sweating when it gets hot. The fact that all cities have evolved this way shows that there must be a particularly elegant and functional system; otherwise every city in a place with inclement weather would have long ago developed into a place with nothing but indoor arcades. Instead, they haven’t. Cities everywhere in the world follow the same basic pattern.

Or, I should say, cities almost everywhere in the world. In the United States, our cities (including small towns, suburbs, etc., remember) have, for the past fifty years or so, followed a divergent path. Consider this map of part of Reston, Virginia, a town in the United States that has generated much controversy over the past thirty years because it’s such a radical place. It was one of the first places in the USA where a lot of the tenets of what’s now called new urbanism were applied:

The red area (some looks orange because of underlying color on the map) is commercial space: shops, offices, hotels, etc. The blue area is government space: police station, library, hospital. It is impossible to live in the red area; there are no houses or apartments there. Outside the red area, there is not a single commercial establishment of any kind. No offices, no shops. The two large roads that intersect on this map are each four lanes wide (at least; they get wider at points, up to eight lanes), with median strips. It is very difficult to cross these roads on foot. (In fairness, I should point out that not far off the right edge of this map, there’s another small commercial area: the one where you can get your hair done at three different places.)

It is actually possible to live in the red zone — if you’re elderly and want to live in a nursing home, located near the library. The old folks’ home, recently built, was put smack in the middle of the commercial area expressly so the residents could do things without driving.

It apparently does not cross anyone’s mind, even for a moment, that anyone other than the very old might want to be able to do things without driving. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to do anything between 5 and 6 pm in Reston, and attempting to find a parking space at lunchtime or in the evening is almost a lost cause.

And Reston is one of the better places.

Posted by tino at 14:00 29.03.01
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