Charter Book at 13: What has changed
Note: The Charter of the New Urbanism, the book, was published in 1999 — inspired by the influential 1996 statement of principles of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Although much has changed, the book’s essays seem nearly as fresh as they did 13 years ago. Professor Emily Talen of Arizona State University is currently editing a new edition.
This strikes me about the Charter of the New Urbanism book and all of its distinguished authors: If the editors had switched the authors around and asked them each to write a different chapter, the book would likely have been just as good.
That's because the New Urbanism came together as a multidisciplinary group immersed in every aspect of placemaking. Architects learned street design, transportation engineers became connoisseurs of architecture, developers taught themselves the physical dimensions of appealing civic spaces, and all believed that this knowledge would create a better world in the immediate future.
Thirteen years later, is it a better world? New urbanists may have underestimated the intractable nature of the systems that make placemaking difficult and sometimes impossible.
Although the elements of complete streets are becoming well understood (“complete streets” is a term coined and popularized after the original Charter Book was written), it is still enormously challenging to get narrow streets and travel lanes built. Narrower streets, with on-street parking to further slow travel speeds, are essential for urban street life and compact neighborhoods.
“Form-based code” is another term introduced since the Charter Book. New urbanists in the 1990s knew how codes needed to be reformed, but substantial work has since been done on the concept, including coming up with the term that has taken hold among planners. Despite such progress, it is still illegal to build walkable urbanism in most communities throughout the US.
One area where new urbanists have achieved substantial success is in popularizing the concept of the walkable neighborhood. The mixed-use neighborhood, with a network of streets and diverse building types, and with public spaces, shops, and civic buildings to anchor the center, was a radical concept in the 1990s.
As Jonathan Barnett pointed out, these kinds of neighborhoods had entirely disappeared from new development planned after World War II. While many of them had continued to thrive in cities and towns, others had been abandoned or had struggled with disinvestment. These kinds of neighborhoods were under siege as the original Charter Book went to press.
Due to the efforts and diagrams of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Douglas Kelbaugh, Peter Calthorpe and others, planners were just beginning to grasp how much had been lost when the components of the walkable neighborhood were built separately and scattered along the commercial strips of conventional suburban development.
Now the mixed-use neighborhood scaled to the 5- or 10-minute walk has become conventional wisdom. Many places of this kind have been built in traditional neighborhood or transit-oriented developments. This piece of the new urbanist philosophy has penetrated the public consciousness — especially among planners, public officials, developers, and even at the highest levels of the US Department of Transportation.
Nearly everybody agrees that the walkable neighborhood is both more sustainable and better for quality of life. The most encouraging trend, however, is that market is clamoring for it.
The worst housing recession since the Great Depression—a homebuilding collapse that started in 2007 and persists in 2012—has revealed the fragility of sprawl and the relative strengths of urban neighborhoods. More importantly, the youngest generation of adults strongly prefers a walkable neighborhood as a place to live.
Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, drive much less than previous generations. Motorists aged 21 to 30 accounted for 14 percent of miles driven in 2010, down from 21 percent in 1995. They want to live where they can get around on foot and by bicycle or transit. That the walkable neighborhood has become part of the culture just as the most urban generation in 60 or 70 years has come of age is a momentous concurrence.
The difficult task of fulfilling this market demand and building more walkable neighborhoods is ahead of us. For that, we need to go back to the multidisciplinary culture of placemaking that new urbanists cultivated in the 1990s. This culture must filter out into the popular mindset — just as the idea of the walkable neighborhood has done. Only then will our transportation and finance systems, codes, and the construction and design industries align to make these places as easy to build as sprawl.
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