In my social science academic circles, whenever I start droning on about the benefits of streets and sidewalks and urban space, the topic of new urbanism comes up. And, invariably, I have to get defensive. For a lot of people, when they hear “new urbanism,” they think of Seaside, FL or one of those suburban lifestyle malls. Many of my colleagues become critical, and start connecting the New Urbanist movement to debates over gentrification, associating it with the kind of upscale gated communities where porches and porticoes serve mainly as tools for developers to polish their property values. New Urbanism, in many places in the US, is kind of a dirty word.
(Typically, at this point, I get a bit defensive and attempt to explain how New Urbanism is NOT simply a few high-profile greenfield examples, but is rather a whole philosophy of building urban space in lots of different environments, from rural townships all the way to the hearts of cities. I usually say something about transit oriented development, or about all the great new urbanist books critical of sprawl-style urban patterns. But rarely do I seem convince anyone with my patter…)
I ended up thinking more about these differing perceptions of New Urbanism after my visit to the CNU in West Palm Beach, FL earlier this month. I was struck, primarily, by the regional difference in how we understand New Urbanism in the North (rust-belt, North-East, Midwest) and the South (sunbelt, the desert West). New Urbanisn doesn’t’ mean the same thing in both places! Here in the North, it’s rather an odd concept. But nothing helps you understand the real meaning of New Urbanism better than taking a long walk through suburban Florida.
The basic difference is that, in the South, ‘old’ urbanism is a very scare resource! Just spend any length of time walking or driving around any of Sunbelt cities and you’ll immediately notice the difference. Most of these cities grew after World War II, and lack the pre-war, pre-automobile living pattern (grids, dense housing, sidewalks, mixed-use building stock). For example, anywhere outside of downtown West Palm Beach (and indeed most of Florida) is comprised of sprawling auto-dependent cul-de-sac laden unwalkable miasma. Down here, New Urbanism is kind of revolutionary! For most people in the South, it’s the only kind of urbanism there is. That’s one of the reasons why these areas so quickly become valuable, and why most people get quickly priced out of the market for walkable ‘urban’ spaces.
In the North, on the other hand, there is plenty of ‘old urban’ stock. In the North, entire cities are laying around being forgotten, slowly falling apart. Just this week, I read that half the streetlights in Detroit are being unplugged to save money. Up here, the problem isn’t figuring out a way to somehow build walkable urban places. Rather, the issue is to figure out how to “revitalize” and save the ones that already exist.
This difference may be why New Urbanism elicits such different reactions from different audiences. The difference has repercussions, particularly around issues of class and race that become very sensistive in their different contexts. Perhaps the better term, one that would hopefully work better along both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, would be something like “good urbanism.” No matter where you live, everyone deserves to be able to walk to the store or to ride a bicycle to school. No matter where the movement is headed in the broader culture, the conversation started by the new urbanists will surely help us get there faster.