Does New Urbanism only make sense in the Sunbelt?

The plaza in the CityPlace development in West Palm Beach, FL

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.

A office park cul-de-sac: a typical landscape in South 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.


9 thoughts on “Does New Urbanism only make sense in the Sunbelt?

  1. Faith

    In the Twin Cities, everyone points to Excelsior and Grand as the best example of local New Urbanism, since there are few. If you had gone to CNU 17 in Denver, you probably would have come away with a different impression. The tours that year included Highland Garden Village, Stapleton, Belmar, Prospect, several TOD sites, plus a bunch of urban infill locations. Denver has a lot of old urban stock but it also has new urban stock too.

    I won't argue that old urbanism is a limited resource in the south, and that we can best utilize our limited resources in the north by focusing on existing urban places.

      1. Faith

        Urbanism in general is a limited resource in the south since most places experienced their greatest periods of growth after WWII (especially after air conditioning was invented). For cities where there was a lot of growth before WWII or shortly thereafter, it makes more sense to focus on older places that already have good street networks with a lot of connectivity. There are many infill opportunities in these places that are more cost effective for redevelopment than places further out in 2nd or 3rd ring suburbs.

        Although Excelsior and Grand has limited transit acess, it has good connectivity (which is rare for new projects locally), decent design, and is walkable and bikeable from adjacent neighborhoods. I have seen parents with strollers going across Excelsior on multiple occasions.

    1. David Greene

      Excelsior and Grand was a nice effort, but hardly revolutionary or even all that good, really. It's surrounded by freeway and a STROAD. We don't need revolutionary. We simply need to go back to what we did in the early 20th century.

      The new developments in Uptown are a good example of TOD and are much more efficient and useful than Excelsior and Grand because they build upon what's already there. For the most part, one still needs a car to get to Excelsior and Grand. But not to Uptown. There are hundreds of thousands of people who can get to and from there without touching an automobile. TOD doesn't work without T.

      Now maybe New Urbanism is something else. If so, I think we're better off without it. The Old Urbanists did it right the first time.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        David, while I agree that most people do indeed arrive at Excelsior and Grand by car, what is important to remember is the connectivity through the project. While Excelsior Boulevard remains a busy street, it looks better than it did, and critically, a traffic signal was added at the main entrance at Grand Way. This did not occur without a fight (it always does), and it is much easier to walk to Excelsior and Grand from the neighborhood to the south.

        Furthermore, one can also walk through the site to Wolfe Park to the north, something that was not possible before. Wolfe Park has also been recently improved. So if you ask me, Excelsior and Grand itself is very successful save for some retail turnover, but its design that greatly improves pedestrian connectivity for the area is perhaps its biggest contribution.

        1. David Greene

          You make a good point about better connectivity but the image of a parent pushing a stroller across Excelsior Blvd. frightens me! While Excelsior Blvd. is better there than it used to be I think it could still use some calming measures.

          I do like the fact that SLP tried something new with Excelsior and Grand. It's generally the right idea marginally executed. The West End, arguably more successful from a retail/restaurant perspective, is overall a step backward. So why did the latter work better than the former? I don't know enough details to make an informed judgment but I think it's an important question to ask.

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

            As to your first point, I think people with strollers, and those on bikes and on foot in general need to be assertive (and defensive) but just get out there and make a presence in crosswalks and bike lanes. The more drivers see other modes of transportation the more they get used to it. Streets aren't just for cars, and while our street designs rarely convey that idea in built form, it is true.

            As to your second point, I credit a thoughtful and well-funded planning and charrette process for the primary reason Excelsior and Grand is better planned and executed (there was more robust public funding to support actual bricks and mortar as well) than the West End. We seem to use the word "charrette" a bit loosely in the Twin Cities – E&G is one of the times I'm aware of where the term is accurate.

  2. Mike Hicks

    Good old urbanism is lacking quite a bit up here too. Minneapolis and Saint Paul both still had significant amounts of empty space at the end of World War II, and big chunks of the cities got demolished in slum clearance and removal of other blighted properties.

    I suppose there might be a greater perceived need for New Urbanist designs in Florida simply because they've largely run out of space — Even with our auto-dependence, there are places that have a combination of land-use constraints and nearby amenities attracting new residents which have required building up rather than out. I wouldn't say that good urbanism makes any more sense in the South than in does anywhere else, but it just made sense sooner because of the massive growth the region has seen.

    Also, don't forget that some of the leading lights of the New Urbanism movement started their work down in Florida — Andres Duany lives in Coral Gables, if I remember right…

    But, the few examples of good old urbanism in the South can be very enlightening. Savannah, GA often gets brought up because of its very tight street grid, and there are some former Spanish settlements in Florida which have managed to retain some of their old character.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Sure there are tiny bits of great cities in the Sunbelt. But for the most part, its an urbanism wasteland. (Subject of a future post, actually.)

Comments are closed.