What Is New Urbanism?

The rural-to-urban Transect is based on the idea that there is a place for everything in the human habitat. Where elements of the built environment are in their proper place, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Through the first quarter of the 20th century, the United States developed mainly in the form of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. The pattern began to change with the emergence of modern architecture and zoning and the ascent of the automobile. After World War II, a new system of development was implemented nationwide — one that, instead of being based on neighborhoods, was based on a rigorous separation of uses.
If the New Urbanism can be boiled down to a single idea, perhaps it would be making places walkable. But what makes pedestrians feel attracted to one place and want to avoid another?
Without a doubt, cars are excellent machines. They have greatly increased our freedom of movement in the last century. Yet these machines have become our masters.

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Better! Cities & Towns

This is my last post for Better Cities & Towns. Never fear—I am the editor at CNU’s new online journal, Public Square: A CNU Journal.

I will be writing and editing about the same topics that we have been covering in Better Cities, and before that, New Urban News.

The first issue of New Urban News, the print periodical, came out in May of 1996. The website launched in 1999. The last print issue was February of 2015. Now the website comes to an end, and the end is a new beginning.

I have always reported on placemaking—planning and development that creates places that are more than the sum of their parts. To placemakers, houses are more than residential units and retail is more than square footage. Streets are not just conduits for vehicle miles traveled. Houses, stores, and streets are parts of communities, which are about people and making them happy and healthy.

Technical concepts like vehicle miles traveled, energy use, green space, water runoff, transportation modal split may be important, but less so to me than quality of life, love, pleasure, personal satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Placemaking is a great work of humanity, in every culture, generation upon generation. Where would we be without towns and cities? Even hunters and gatherers created campsites and temporary villages. Without settlement, we would probably have little or no art, music, religion, stories, technology, culture, laws, and wealth. Even Adam and Eve had the Garden of Eden.

When I started New Urban News, development and building had been severed from placemaking for a half century. Housing units, square footage, and vehicular capacity were commoditized. Many people found this unsatisfying. A group of more than 200 of them, myself included, signed the Charter of the New Urbanism in May of 1996—the same month that I published the first issue.

Many people thought the New Urbanism folly. Were we trying to turn back the clock by building “grandmother’s house” where people can walk to the store and meet at the village square? How dare we criticize traffic engineers, builders, developers, planners, architects, financiers, and all of the other cogs in the suburban machine?

N ow here I am, twenty years later, helping to launch a new publication on the same topic. The New Urbanism has persisted and triumphed in many ways. All of the professional groups that I mentioned have been changing their practices. Meanwhile, market trends are moving toward walkable urban places. Communities that seek to attract talented young workers and businesses need New Urbanism.

Thank you for reading Better Cities & Towns. I hope that that your read and enjoy Public Square: A CNU Journal. Please come to the new website and sign up for the email newsletter. Be part of the conversation on the building of community.

Robert Steuteville is editor of Public Square: A CNU Journal and senior communications adviser of the Congress for the New Urbanism

Wed, Feb 3rd 2016 11:09am
  • Addison Circle street

    Addison Circle street

    A woman walks along a street with storefronts, residential units, landscaping, wide sidewalks, and parked cars. This street has enclosure, variety, and the kind of interesting building interface that makes for a walkable environment. Photo courtesy of RTKL