New Urbanism Essay

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New urbanism , a movement in architecture and planning, grew out of a belief that postwar suburban sprawl in the United States would not be able to sustain growth without adversely affecting the environment. It was a response to urban development accompanied by environmental degradation, a declining public realm, and the rise of edge cities. The principles of new urbanism were delineated by a group of architects, planners, developers, scholars, and elected officials between 1993 and 1996 and defined by the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) Charter, which summarizes each of the 27 new urbanist design principles. These design principles are organized into three main categories that guide development at various scales: The region (metropolis, city, and town); neighborhood, district, and corridor; and block, street, and building.

The key idea behind new urbanist design principles is to promote organized development in the form of neighborhoods that are diverse, compact, mixed use, pedestrian-friendly, and transit-oriented. The neighborhood is a crucial building block within which there are different housing types, shops, services, and civic spaces and amenities. Buildings are lowto mid-rise and high densities create a compact urban form suited to pedestrians. This helps to reduce auto dependence and promote the use of alternative forms of transportation. Civic institutions and parks occupy prominent sites. In dense urban areas, the neighborhood center is usually the commercial corridor and residential areas are arranged in semicircular patterns radiating from the center. Such patterns are often modeled on traditional U.S. villages, towns, and cities, some of which were built before World War II, including historic sections of Annapolis, Maryland, and Savannah, Georgia. The principles also emphasize that it is essential for new developments to take into consideration the local history, culture, geography, and climate of a place so as to create a distinct architectural style that is unique to the place.

Many cities and counties in the United States are beginning to incorporate new urbanist design principles not only in new suburban developments but also in urban infill developments and urban transitoriented developments. New urbanist design principles also resonate with environmental protection, sustainable development, historic preservation, smart growth, and pedestrian and bicycle planning programs. In the field of housing, new urbanism got a major boost when Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), signed the CNU Charter in May 1996. Cisneros also initiated the Homeownership Zone program, which offered grants and loans to cities for redevelopment based on new urbanism. Principles of new urbanism have also been adopted in Hope VI, a HUD program that uses public and private development resources to replace distressed public housing with new mixed-income housing.

New urbanism may help minimize land consumption through increased density. Moreover, the emphasis on environmentally sensitive building techniques and on transit-oriented development may conserve energy. New urbanists point out that the combined effect of the two most important characteristics of new urbanist projects-pedestrian-oriented design and infill development-could have an ecological footprint that is almost 20-30 percent less than that of conventional suburban developments. Although such claims have yet to be proven by empirical research, studies have found new urbanist projects to protect and restore ecologically sensitive areas and reduce impervious surfaces, which have helped improve watershed protection.

Although the principles of new urbanism recognize that physical planning means going beyond just interesting architecture and good site planning, one of its major criticisms is that it tends to rely on the long-discredited concept of “physical determinism” and discounts the importance of developing social relationships for creating a sense of community. Other criticisms relate to social equity and gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods, which displaces low-income and minority households. For instance, critics note that celebrated new urbanist projects such as Seaside, Florida, have become gentrified, high-priced resorts for the rich. New urbanist projects also face opposition in the form of NIMBYism as high-density and mixed-use developments are contested by neighboring communities.


  1. Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream (Princeton Architectural Press, 1993);
  2. Congress for the New Urbanism, Charter of the New Urbanism (McGraw-Hill, 2000);
  3. Andres Duany, Elizabeth PlaterZyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, 2000);
  4. Ajay Garde, “New Urbanism as Sustainable Growth? A Supply Side Story and Its Implications for Public Policy,” Journal of Planning Education and Research (v.24, 2004);
  5. Peter Katz, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (McGrawHill, 1994).

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