I wasn't quite sure what to make of this piece that Alissa Walker wrote in Gizmodo. The headline of course is meant to get attention, but the actual writing is more balanced. She'll write something like this:
Maybe it was because the late-summer thunderheads were building on the horizon as I rolled into town, but to me, South Main had a freakish air to it. The homes—many of them for sale—gleamed in their primary colors as contemporary, almost urban takes on the Victorian architecture that dotted Colorado's former mining towns. There were a few people at the local cafe and a large outdoor recreation store playing one of those jam band songs that lasts 23 minutes. It was so perfectly staged, I felt as if I had walked onto a set: Sesame Street meetsLittle House on the Prairie.
But then follow up with something like this:
It's better than strip malls, of course. It's better than sprawl. It's better than parking lots. I believe in everything New Urbanism stands for. But for some reason I get hung up on its over-produced looks. I prefer my little L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake with its random, cacophonous growth: nail salons and auto repair shops and Sears catalog shacks and Spanish courtyard apartments and yes, even some New Urbanism developments. I think it's a pretty great neighborhood. It's walkable and livable and green, but it doesn't feel manufactured. It feels organic.
As a longtime CNU member and New Urbanism advocate, I'm compelled to say that this is a classic misunderstanding of New Urbanism. It's a set of principles, and some of those are used in greenfield sites and some are redevelopment. Some use traditional architecture and some use contemporary. Some are in big cities and some in resort areas. It's a big tent.
But I also understand the reality that in the popular press and general public New Urbanism is associated with greenfield projects. Basically, it begins and ends with Seaside, Celebration, New Town St. Charles, South Main, Kentlands, etc. etc. As a practitioner over the years, that framing has been frustrating, but it's what has stuck.
And, like any set of ideas that has success, it has a lot of professional enemies. Many architects, for example, loathe New Urbanism because it violates architecture-school brainwashing. In school, we're trained on the notion that we are all individual creative geniuses, and the only acceptable design approach is one that defines our era, while ignoring historic or traditional designs. The fact that a bunch of architects and planners designed some places that go against that notion AND were loved by the public - well, that just means it's fake, it's Disney, people are stupid, the designers are sell-outs, you name it. You pretty much have to have a design education background of some kind to use words like "creepy" to describe these places. Laypeople almost never use those words.
Look - I get the preference for some age & grittiness as opposed to perfection. [Side note: I was in Seaside last week, and as with any 30+ year old place it has plenty of imperfection.] I personally prefer to live in an older city with all of its beauty and warts. I'm not totally against living in a brand new place, but it's just not my personal style. However, an awful lot of people want new construction. What should they live in? Should builders purposefully design an occasional concrete or metal bunker to give it grit? Drop in a few ugly snout houses? Allow ugly chain link fences?
All of our older communities that we love now, like for example Silver Lake, were new once, too. The trees weren't planted yet, the houses were probably all painted bright colors and some might even say they felt a little creepy or surreal at the time. Were all those spanish colonial houses in southern California from the early 20th century built by Spaniards? My gosh - I feel so dirty and fooled by their charm!
Instead of comparing how a relatively new place feels today against places that have been around for far longer, compare places of the same relative age. How does Seaside hold up against early 1980's strip malls and subdivisions? How does South Main hold up against the nearby power center or apartment complex?
I'm guessing most New Urbanist towns will age gracefully, much like our most beloved older neighborhoods. These places have elements people love and care for, which will be reinforced over many years. I live in Savannah, GA, and I can guarantee to you that it's much more interesting and charming now than it was in 1753, 20 years after its founding.
I'm all for intelligent, thoughtful critique of new urbanist projects. In fact, if you feel strongly that it's awful, I encourage you to get in the game. Work with home builders and developers. Work through all of the legal, process and lending constraints. Then, let's talk about lessons learned and how to actually design great places for real human beings.
I'm guessing most people reading Walker's piece would say - wow, those are really nice-looking buildings and streets. What exactly is the problem again?