“New Urbanism”: What Does it Mean to City Leaders?

June 13, 2011 - (4 min read)

The term new urbanism brings about visions of the constructed reality of Truman Burbank—played by actor Jim Carey in the 1998 Hollywood movie, The Truman Show.  The movie depicts Burbank’s fabricated made-for-TV life in his made-for-TV small town and was filmed on location in Seaside, Florida.

Seaside was master planned in the early ‘90s, and its design upholds the tenets of new urbanism; however, its traditional quality of life is reserved mainly for wealthy residents and vacationers.  But Seaside designer and architect Andrés Duany and his disciples have since been working to promote development that responds to increasingly harmful urban and suburban sprawl with walkability, connectivity, diversity and density.  This is done under the term new urbanism and with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an annual conference of scholars and students of architecture and planning in support of these efforts.

The 19th annual Congress (CNU-19) also highlighted the important place for city leaders in the new urbanism conversation.  CNU president and CEO John Norquist served as mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004 as a “fiscally conservative socialist.”  During his tenure as mayor, he supported light rail and other transit projects to ease the economic and environmental costs of congestion, but he asserted that the federal role in local urban policy was at best misguided.  At CNU-19, Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, discussed improving the quality of life for aging residents with good community design and social services in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he also served as mayor from 1981-1989.

NLC too acknowledged the importance of local government in enabling and funding new urbanism projects, though the term itself is seldom part of NLC’s or many city leaders’ vocabulary.  The 2011 summer meeting of NLC’s First Tier Suburbs Council was held in conjunction with CNU-19.  City leaders in attendance were on board with concepts they already see as good planning.  They enthusiastically embraced discussions of form-based code zoning, context-sensitive street improvements, and shopping mall retrofits.  But what can these city leaders bring back to their colleagues to show that new urbanism is not just another fad in an economic climate where it’s increasingly difficult to make a case for new development?

New urbanism—along with other nebulous concepts like sustainability, smart growth and livability—must be sufficiently defined in order to be effectively used.  And it must be defined in a way that resonates with city leaders, whose buy-in is crucial for such development projects.  Despite the name, the concepts that make up new urbanism are not new.  Nor are they strictly urban.  In fact, more recently, new urbanism is in the business of taking traditional urban design and super-imposing it on areas that are struggling to maintain environmental and economic value in the age of sprawl—most appropriately in the suburbs.  Therein lies the opportunity to translate the jargon of new urbanism into the language of the city leader.

New urbanism and other concepts that encourage traditional community design contribute to a strong economy and a prosperous future.  Good planning helps solve problems such as congestion, pollution and inefficient use of resources, which ultimately saves money.  In addition, it supports a built environment that encourages the public to invest and engage in its community.  While new urbanism may be about adopting a form-based code or a designing a walkable street, when translated into the language of the city leader, it’s about creating and capturing the value of a community.  When presented in this way, it’s difficult for any city leader to deny a trend that improves the economic, environmental and social value of the community.