It seems that while the idea has been successful with the media and in academia as an appealing design concept, it's been markedly less popular with most builders, home buyers and zoning authorities as a way to actually build suburban homes. An artistic success, the New Urbanist ideal has largely been a commercial failure.
So the question for New Urbanism has become: If you're so smart growth, why ain't you rich?
Why We Don't Build It
Perhaps there are two important reasons builders haven't warmed to the idea of putting up New Urbanist-style dwellings more than they have:
- Builders are afraid few home buyers will want them. Larger homes on larger lots have traditionally been seen as more desirable, while compact development has been unflatteringly associated in the public mind with neighborhoods in decaying central cities. Bigger is better has been the consumer response not only to homes but to a wide range of consumer products. But while house lots have been supersized, complaints are mounting that local farm land, open space and quality of life have as a consequence been downsized.
The “bigger Is better” paradigm is, however, beginning to crumble. Instead of working for giant corporations, many people have started small businesses. Stung by criticisms they are making America fat, restaurants and food processors are cutting portion sizes. And whereas a half-century ago luxury cars were always big and small cars always cheap, today buyers recognize that automotive quality and prestige can come in small packages. New Urbanism has similarly shown that small-lot development can have class and attract sophisticated upscale buyers — a significant accomplishment.
But while New Urbanist homes have sold well in some markets, they've languished in others. And New Urbanist architects haven't always enhanced their marketability even in places where small-lot homes are more acceptable.
Nostalgic purism — such as specifications for front porches, alleys and even particular roof pitches and overhangs — can boost costs without, for many buyers at least, adding commensurate value. In one Midwest market of moderate home prices, a builder estimated such dictates would have added $10,000 to the price of each home.
2. Zoning authorities won't let builders build them.
But even where people want to buy New Urban homes and builders want to build them, there is frequently a regulatory problem. Zoning codes and decisions of suburban zoning boards more often reflect the values of local home owners than either market demand or the latest concepts espoused by planners.
Pricier homes on larger lots are seen as pulling up the value of existing houses, while small lot development is viewed as a threat to property values. So few zoning regulations allow New Urbanism other than through the risky, costly and usually time-consuming course of planned unit development approval.
And, paradoxically, it's not always much better in places where New Urbanism is favored. Special regulations planners prepare to allow such communities are sometimes so laden with mandates and restrictions that they in effect discourage what they are ostensibly seeking to promote.
Builders bold enough to confront these twin obstacles have often found the need to modify architects' New Urbanist dicta to better deal with local market and political realities. So experience suggests that what has been needed in many markets is an alternative to both sprawl and New Urbanism. A development model that offers both the advantages of compact, walkable communities and a flexibility disallowed by New Urbanist designers might work where New Urbanism has not.
An option called Close-Knit Community Planning has been written up of late in publications read by planners and municipal officials and presented at conferences. Builders interested in New Urbanist design may wish to consider the advantages CKC offers.
Close-Knit Community Planning provides compact communities without either the designer label or the faux-historic ambiance. As the name implies, it's simply a tighter weave in the urban fabric.
CKC emulates the pattern of historic neighborhoods without any obligation to mimic their appearance. Rather than attempting to revive the past, CKC just shrinks the present. While New Urbanism tries to take people back, Close-Knit Community Planning aims simply to bring them together.
As in older neighborhoods, CKC Planning means smaller and narrower lots, shallower yards and setbacks, narrower streets, pedestrian-friendliness and less off-street parking. It's suburbia on a diet: “Small Is Beautiful, Less Is More.” The essence of Close-Knit Communities is simply closeness. Downsized metrics mean residents are desirably closer to stores, services, parks, schools and neighbors' homes.
But unlike New Urbanism, CKC does not insist on nostalgic architecture. It honors the spirit of traditional neighborhoods without seeking to replicate them literalistically in a sort of Disneyland fashion. So CKC tolerates both contemporary building facades and curvilinear streets, and not even porchless homes or blocks without alleys are verboten. Because CKC is not style, it's scale.
More than does New Urbanist design, CKC planning emulates the essence of what might be called the Old Urbanism, namely the 75-or-more-year-old compact neighborhoods in our older cities and towns. In contrast to New Urban communities, Old Urban neighborhoods were not either centrally designed or subjected to strict aesthetic control. This freedom produced a lively diversity that contrasts with the regimented look of today's New Urban places.
The flexibility and diversity-friendliness of Old Urbanism allowed it to be built en masse to serve all tastes and income levels, creating a success that has eluded designer-label New Urbanism. The latter too often mimics the form of older neighborhoods while missing the point as to what made them successful.
Advantages of CKCs
Close-Knit Community Planning can offer builders interested in combatting sprawl a number of advantages over New Urbanist design.
- A Broader Market
New Urbanism has to date largely been a niche product catering to sophisticates. Its pricey elitism was in fact the most significant defect found by Consumer Reports in an analysis of New Urbanism in May, 1996.
But because specs for CKCs are more flexible than New Urbanism and do not call for an elite design team, they can be built at a broader range of price points, serving middle class as well as upscale markets. CKC is more readily adaptable to less fashion-conscious Middle America as well as to smaller cities.
And unlike New Urbanism, CKC is not founded on a controversial philosophical disdain for contemporary suburbia that prominent New Urbanist architects articulate but most builders do not share. Builders recognize that, whatever its faults, suburbia has sold pretty well over the past half-century.
Sprawl can be tamed without the rigidities of New Urbanist design. CKC allows builders to gently transition buyers from what they are used to now to the environmental and other advantages of compact communities.
2. More Marketable Name
"New Urbanism" is unfortunately a terrible marketing identity for a subdivision in most markets.
Its defects go beyond a stuffy, clinical- and academic-sounding name. Eighty years ago, "urban" suggested style and sophistication. But today the name has negative associations to new home buyers who are wearing jeans, driving pickups or SUVs, listening to country music and rarely venturing downtown.
"Traditional neighborhood" is somewhat better, since "traditional" is a virtue with some, if not all, buyers. But a "traditional" identity and pseudo-historic architecture do tend to limit the market to buyers inclined toward the nostalgia that is New Urbanism's strong suit.
The name "Close-Knit Communities," on the other hand, avoids negative and market-limiting connotations while suggesting positive values most buyers can identify with. The name has warm associations that avoid making judgments about architecture or lifestyles that can turn off buyers.
3. Adaptability to Buyer Preferences
CKC also allows builders to offer features home buyers want and will pay for, as distinguished from features New Urbanist architects decide they should have.
New Urbanists insist, for example, that homes have front porches, ostensibly to stimulate neighborhood sociability. But the last time front porches were popular, no one had air conditioning, DVD players or the Internet. And attaching a front porch to a house hardly assures it will be used. Similarly, while alleys offer the aesthetic virtue of a front home facade not dominated by a garage door, they also have drawbacks. Some buyers see alleys as security problems. And paved alleys add both construction costs and runoff-generating impervious surface.
4. Approvability Under Modified Conventional Zoning
In many communities there will, of course, be political problems with any proposal involving smaller lots and higher densities. But in most communities there are code problems as well.
This has led some New Urbanist architects to advocate replacing zoning codes with what they call "form-based regulations." These are essentially drawings prepared by architects working for regulatory authorities that years in advance set detailed specs for private development.
Builders may find a bit over the top the notion of first substituting New Urbanism for conventional subdivisions and then replacing zoning with a completely new type of regulation. And their architects may not appreciate being constrained by another architect's vision for their property.
But because CKC simply shrinks the metrics of conventional development and does not mandate design details, it can be regulated by conventional zoning and subdivision ordinances with some modification of development standards.
New Urbanism for the Rest of Us
What has thus far been a limited market for New Urbanist subdivisions need not deter builders from exploring the advantages of sprawl-fighting compact communities.
That's because many of our contemporary mainstays — automobiles, air conditioning, television sets — started as premium-priced toys of the well-to-do. But when these luxuries were adapted and had their production costs reduced through mass production, they became available to a much broader market.
A half-century ago, Bill Levitt saw this potential in suburbia, which had historically been the exclusive preserve of the urban wealthy. Levittown was the right product at the right price at the right time for popular success.
Making it happen necessarily entailed some sacrifice in design values. While home owners later added their own distinguishing touches, the plain vanilla Levittown houses were initially much the same in appearance. But in democratizing suburban living, Levitt and those who followed him profoundly changed the national lifestyle and urban environment.
Although large-lot subdivisions remain popular, the unprecedented current movement and legislative action against "sprawl" may be early evidence of a 21st century paradigm shift. Legitimate public concerns about the consequences of low-density, automobile-oriented development could translate into regulations of unprecedented restrictiveness if New Urbanist design strictures are seen by regulators as the only remedy.
This kind of outcome might be avoided if builders take the initiative to offer other solutions that are more flexible and adaptable to what more home buyers will accept.
Historically, the industry has played defense with reactive responses to zoning controls, environmentalism, impact fees, and now Smart Growth and New Urbanism. But perhaps the best defense for builders is instead the proverbial good offense.
That could mean home builders proactively offering alternatives to both sprawl and New Urbanist design that address the concerns of communities while also meeting the test of the marketplace. In that kind of role, builders may be seen in a new light by regulators: less as part of the problem and more as part of the solution.
Free copies of a collection of articles on Close-Knit Community Planning are available by contacting Gann Associates at 800-762-GANN.
John L. Gann, Jr., president of Gann Associates, Development Consultants, works at achieving "win- win" solutions to public-private urban development problems.
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