New Urbanist Neighborhoods: A Return to Tradition

These new communities offer small town atmosphere, walkability and a sense of community.
Blue House With Brick Walkway

Blue House With Cottage Garden

An exuberant front-yard cottage garden, complete with raised beds, roses, bougainvillea, various perennials and a white picket fence.

By: Rebecca Bond

Imagine a neighborhood where men and women can walk to their offices, where children can walk to school and where families can walk to stores, restaurants and entertainment. Imagine a neighborhood where residents stroll or bike along tree-lined sidewalks and neighbors get to know each other on their front porches or the nearby park. Imagine a neighborhood where vehicles are virtually unnecessary. Think it’s a thing of the past? Think again. Traditional neighborhoods are making a comeback in the form of a design movement called New Urbanism.

Communities established at the beginning of the 20th century centered largely around compact, mixed-use (residential and commercial) neighborhoods in which residents could walk to and from work, school, shopping, dining, civic activities and entertainment. But the subsequent rise of the automobile age following World War II gave rise to a new type of neighborhood away from the city center, the "suburbs," and many Americans moved away from the urban core.

A Neighborhood Revival

In the 1970s and '80s, many developers and architects advocated a return to traditional neighborhoods to curb urban sprawl, encourage sustainability and restore function and stability to communities. By 1993, leaders in what was coined the “New Urbanism” movement formed the Congress for the New Urbanism, which has grown to over 3,000 members worldwide, who work to promote the creation and restoration of new urbanist neighborhoods.

New urbanist neighborhoods are based upon the traditional town planning principles of the early 20th century:

  • Communities are pedestrian-friendly with a discernible city center such as a square or public green space as well as shops, schools, offices, restaurants, civic centers and entertainment within easy walking distance of homes.
  • A variety of housing is typically available, including apartments, lofts, condominiums, row houses and detached single-family homes.
  • Buildings and houses often draw their design influences from the late 19th and early 20th century with front porches, back garages and picket fences.

But the real trait of the new urbanist neighborhood is not its aesthetic but rather its purpose.

The Appeal of New Urbanism

Residents of new urbanist communities are drawn to the principles upon which the movement was originally founded:

  • Walkability -- the ability to satisfy daily needs of work or school, shopping, dining and recreation all within walking distance of their homes
  • Social interaction and sense of community -- fostered through shared neighborhood spaces such as parks and plazas, homes and businesses placed close to the streets and the use of civic buildings designed for meetings and events
  • Minimal congestion -- streets throughout the community are interconnected and typically narrow to slow traffic, encouraging walking and biking

Without the constant need for vehicles, residents are helping to reduce the impact on the environment, which, with rising fuel prices, also reduces the impact on their pocketbooks.

Priced Out?

Despite the benefits, New Urbanism has its critics. Opponents of the new urbanist movement claim that new urbanist communities are simply another form of urban sprawl as towns and neighborhoods are often developed on otherwise empty land. Also, those who want to live in a new urbanist neighborhood may be precluded from doing so due to inflated home prices in many of these areas, which critics argue defeats one of the purposes of New Urbanism: to maintain a diverse community of residents.

A Growing Trend

No matter the criticism, New Urbanism movement is gaining in popularity. Seaside, Fla., became the first new urbanist town in the United States when it began development on an 80-acre parcel of land in northwest Florida in 1981. New urbanist towns and communities quickly followed Seaside’s lead, sprouting up throughout the United States in places like Kentlands, Md. and Celebration, Fla. Stapleton, Colo., located outside of Denver, is one of the largest new urbanist towns with 4,700 acres, 7,000 current residents and full build-out not expected until 2020.

With more than 600 new urbanist towns, villages and neighborhoods planned or under construction in the United States, New Urbanism is poised to become one of the dominant design and planning methods of the 21st century.

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