Having to face the outfall of Modernist utopian dreams that ended up as bland, dystopian housing estates as well as Postmodernist celebration of eclectic individualism, New Urbanists are struggling to find a way to realise the social aspirations of Modernist town planners in the context of a capitalist society. With particular reference to the American organisation Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) this thesis analyses whether it is possible for an architectural movement to change urban neighbourhoods for the better in a market-driven economy.
In the twentieth century not one but two movements with town planning at their heart came to prominence in the architectural communities of the Western World. At the beginning of the century the Modern Urbanists, organised as the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne developed out of the Modern Movement, while towards the turn of the millennium the New Urbanists formed.
This latter movement could be seen as a Postmodernist reaction to what their predecessors set out to do: New Urbanism is very much connected to what came before it, to the Modernist Urbanism, even if it attempts to do something almost contrary. However, although the New Urbanism has tried to learn from the faults and achievements of earlier developments of urban planning, especially its American faction, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which is probably the most publicised New Urbanist organisation, has come under a lot of fire from critics regarding its methods. This thesis explores the question whether there is substance behind New Urbanism that has the potential to change lives through newly conceiving the built environment, or whether it amounts to no more than an architectural style promoted with a lot of hype.
In order to discuss New Urbanism and to answer the question whether it has substance or is a mere image, friend or foe, the context of its development needs to be established. Chapter One – The Roots of Urbanism gives a brief overview of the Modernist Urban movement, as well as a summary of the points that were criticised in it and the architectural movement that immediately answered it, Postmodernism. Chapter Two – The Rise of a New Urbanism contains a short explanation of the directions in town planning before it goes on to discuss the CNU and its aesthetic dimension. Chapter Three – The CNU: Realising the Concept of New Urbanism analyses the CNU’s strategies of putting the concept of New Urbanism into practice in the context of a capitalist society. The Conclusion argues that although the development of New Urbanism so far is promising, the image of small-town nostalgia may be overshadowing the substance this concept of urban development has to offer.
The Roots of Urbanism
Modernism, or the Modern Movement, was very much a child of the Machine Age. Its architectural style was sleek and without ornamentation, almost a reflection of the machines that had made progress and industrialisation possible (Ghirardo 1996). Rather than building on history and tradition, modernist architects moved away from the “pompous architectural displays” (Pyatok 2000: 804) of the wealthy classes, away from buildings that needed highly skilled craftsmen to be completed and towards an embrace of mass production, based on new technologies and new materials. Steel frames and glass curtain walls were put together, which reduced costs as well as allowing faster construction of skyscrapers, shopping malls and office parks. No wonder this Modern Movement appealed to city administrators as well as developers, especially in the United States (Ghirardo 1996).
Although these developments reinforced wealth and class differences to a certain extent, by making industrialists rich and allowing the exploitation of factory workers and the creation of factory-based cities (Pyatok 2000), it also awakened a new attitude towards society in other quarters. This new ideology encompassed both technological determinism and the idea of aesthetic self-expression in the belief that form could be employed by social reform and could have the power to solve social problems, particularly housing, with the potential to transform the world (Ghirardo 1996).
Partly inspired by admirable, socially motivated tendencies, many wanted to spread the cultural wealth that industrialization promised. Mass production held the promise of expanding the demographic base of consumption, leading to physical comfort and convenience for everyone, while modern design, with its more “rational” basis for mass production, held the promise of better meeting human biological and even spiritual needs. (Pyatok 2000: 804)
Against the backdrop of the Modern Movement in Europe, and a not insignificant part of it, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), or CIAM, was founded. In existence from 1928 to 1960 and taking its name from the series of congresses at which the participating architects met to discuss their practice in a new age, “CIAM was deliberately intended to create an avant-garde within the new, anti-traditionalist architecture that began to develop in the early twentieth century” (Mumford 2000: 2).
CIAM was a strange creature as it seemed to be a sort of club that “deliberately encouraged the idea that it was a symbol of modern architecture and urbanism” (Mumford 2000 267). However, it “had neither a relatively stable membership nor explicit, well-documented standards for admission of members” (Mumford 2000: 4). According to Eric Mumford’s detailed narrative of CIAM it was very dominated by its founder members, Le Corbusier in particular, and by the mid-1930s they tried to make it “into a kind of syndicalist political party of architects, devoted to the goal of furthering modern architecture and oriented toward winning over any suitable modernizing ‘Authority’ to the cause, regardless of political orientation” (Mumford 2000: 6).
Urban planning was a key concern for CIAM, especially as economic conditions in the Western World worsened in the years following the stock market crash in 1929.
CIAM began to promote an approach to the design of the built environment meant to bring into being more equitable urban patterns […]. Instead of continuing previous methods of city building, CIAM appropriated aspects of new urban patterns already well advanced in the United States. Joining these to a quasi-scientific comparative analysis of existing cities, CIAM concluded that new urban development should be guided by the CIAM four functional categories of “dwelling, work, transportation, and recreation,” the basic components of the CIAM “Functional City.” (Mumford 2000: 5)
CIAM can probably best be described as an organisation collecting and promoting strategies of urban planning in the context of the Modern Age. As Mumford explains, themes such as the minimum housing unit, the rationally planned housing settlement and the Functional City did exist before this organisation came into being (Mumford 2000). “Because of this, approaches to urban design with many similarities to ‘CIAM urbanism’ can be found both before CIAM and in situations where CIAM influence is unlikely or clearly not present” (Mumford 2000: 268). However, CIAM did succeed in employing “formal strategies of urban recognition” in the Functional City concept in order to deliberately “break with all previous patterns of urban development to bring into being a more rational and collectivist society” (Mumford 2000: 273). Unfortunately as the concepts were turned into actual built environments the results were often dystopian rather than the utopia envisaged (Mumford 2000) and in 1960 CIAM disbanded.
Whether architects were swept away by the formalised CIAM principles or working independently, the new technological methods and opportunities of the Modern Age reduced costs not only of the materials but also saved on labour time as construction was significantly faster, which had a momentous impact on Modernist buildings. As Diane Ghirardo argues, this was welcomed by
developers and city administrators, who seized the opportunity to revamp town centres in the 1950s and 1960s as the middle class took flight to the suburbs. As part of major campaigns to “revitalize” urban areas that were being depopulated, cities undertook sweeping urban renewal programs, with affordable rental housing and lower income groups (especially racial and ethnic minorities) shunted aside on behalf of the gleaming boxes that Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe had first envisioned more than a quarter of a century earlier. Governments, banks, corporations and cultural institutions such as museums adopted modern architecture as their signatures in generally well-constructed buildings. But architects gained increasing prestige for producing buildings for developers concerned chiefly with rapidity, cheapness and spectacular effect. (Ghirardo 1996: 10)
It seems no wonder that rationalist Modernism drifted away from hopes of a social utopia created through a built environment and was firmly taken over by capitalism, especially in the United States (Ghirardo 1996: 11).
The dream of standardization that had animated some segments of the Modern Movement was realized with a vengeance in commercial building, and by the mid-1960s a backlash began to form. The task of repeating steel frames and curtain walls turned out to be not terribly taxing, and even less demanding of creativity. (Ghirardo 1996: 12)
The ideas that had been popularised by the urbanists, and the members of CIAM in particular, were challenged through Jane Jacobs’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Using her own neighbourhood in New York City as a comparison, Jacobs argued that the urbanist developments (and re-developments) of neighbourhoods killed the streets as they showed nothing of the heterogeneity and diversity that is apparent on city streets that have grown over time. Ghirardo states that some of Jacobs’s
most telling arguments demonstrated how designers followed the ideology of Modern Movement planning rather than their own instincts about urban neighborhoods. The hidden order of the underdeveloped streets, Jacobs argued, sustained a rich and varied urban life and improved security to boot. Some of her emphases – on the lived experience of architecture, the rituals and patterns of daily life, the network of human relationships that constitute our experiences of cities and which modern architecture and planning ignored – only slowly began to bear fruit. Contemporary cities should not undergo further devastating urban renewal according to the misguided principles of the Modern Movement, she concluded, but rather should be nourished as the vital and engaging places they were in reality. (Ghirardo 1996: 13f)
Jacobs’s passionate reasoning against urban planning that was done solely on the drawing board and for the appreciation of diversity, heterogeneity and visual variety that can be found in the neighbourhood showed results when “urban designers began to juxtapose different elements rather than seek a continuous uniform screen, and to accept the value of the existing and varied elements in cities” (Ghirardo 1996: 14).
Five years later, in 1966, Robert Venturi took a similar stance in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In his book he stated that contemporary life was so complex that simplified architectural programmes, such as the zoning CIAM recommended, were not suitable. Specifically identifying missing historical studies in the architectural curriculum of the day (which had been dropped from most schools of architecture in the United States following a development at the Bauhaus), Venturi argued that diversity was something to cherish and preserve. In the probably most famous section of the book he writes:
I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or,’ black and white, and sometimes grey, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus; its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once. (Venturi 1966: 23)
Venturi “urged architects to take into consideration and even to celebrate what already existed rather than attempt to impose a visionary utopia out of their own fantasy” (Ghirardo 1996: 17). He was against the “ahistorical clarity and certainty of the Modern Movement” and instead promoted “an architecture that was complex, contradictory, and full of ironic references to historical precedents” (Mumford 2000: 269).
Similar criticism came from Europe. The Italian architect Aldo Rossi used his 1966 book Architecture of the City to discuss the post-war development of European cities. He, too, argued against the Modernist doctrine that ‘form follows function’ – what he called ‘naive functionalism’ – because it ignored the histories, urban forms, street networks and personal stories that cities consisted of (Ghirardo 1996).
Studying the structural elements of the city, Rossi proposed not a style but a mode of analysis and an approach to urban housing, design and change that took into account particular histories, patterns of change and traditions. Building types formed one of the solid bases for his approach to design, but for Rossi building types were understood as rooted in the specific customs and habits of particular cities or parts of cities rather than abstract constructs independent of historical conditions. He called not for repetitions but for creative adaptations based upon considered analyses of individual cities. (Ghirardo 1996: 19)
Both Venturi and Rossi criticised the urban architecture after World War II, “a building style that came to be seen as boring, indifferent to the surroundings and to the discipline’s own historical traditions to boot” (Ghirardo 1996: 13), and saw (and promoted) architectural history as the opportunity to return “architecture to its historic public responsibilities” (Ghirardo 1996: 20).
The style that followed the Modern Movement (around the early 1970s), however, was not immediately concerned with any kind of responsibilities. Postmodernism in architecture encompassed a rejection of pretty much everything, especially “of a unitary world view as embodied in what are called master narratives, meaning grand explanatory systems” (Ghirardo 1996: 7). The utopian aspirations of CIAM thus completely discarded, Post-modern architecture can be seen as a stylistic phenomenon rather than a unified style, and it certainly does not subscribe to any one ideology (Ghirardo 1996).
To a significant extent, as both [Kenneth] Frampton and [Mary] McLeod note, the early polemicists on behalf of Postmodernism and against the Modern Movement offered a caricature of what they opposed, both Modernism’s formal elaboration and its underlying social and political premises. (Ghirardo 1996: 8)
In a post-modern context the conviction that social change could be brought about by new and innovative architectural forms was seen as naive and utopian and was if not laughed at than at least abandoned. As Ghirardo puts it, “Throughout Europe and the United States, too many brash Postmodernist designs of the 1980s seemed to embody no dreams beyond wealth and power” (Ghirardo 1996: 27).
The architecture that took shape under the banner of Postmodernism went back to celebrating historical styles, but was not based on any theory, apart from maybe the “explicit rejection of any social concerns” (Ghirardo 1996: 28). Indeed, it can be seen as a movement that was based exclusively on image. However, just as there is no master narrative in Postmodernism, but a multitude of alternative narratives, it was not one coherent style, but a multitude of them.
From the vantage of the mid-1990s, the indifference displayed in these debates to much beyond aesthetic issues is striking. With some notable exceptions, architects and most of their publications ignored the consequences of downtown skyscraper development, suburban growth, shanty constructions on the peripheries of major international cities, office park construction and matters such as ecology, toxic materials and environmental degradation that conditioned the transformation of the landscape throughout the world. (Ghirardo 1996: 30)
After three quarters of the twentieth century were through, architecture in the Western World had experienced two very different reactions to the Machine Age: the utopian concept of urbanism as promoted by CIAM, full of high ideals, but unfortunately not able to deliver much beyond dystopian housing estates on the one hand and on the other Postmodernism, which was solely about appearances and fuelled to a large degree by the capital of the free market. After the immediate reaction to the failure of the high aspirations of the urbanists of the Modern Movement was to forego all ideals and concentrate on style – and style alone – now the time was ripe for a re-think of urbanist ideals.
The Rise of a New Urbanism
Urbanism was to come back with a vengeance, utilising not only traditional urban patterns, but also elements of historical styles. Contrary to the urban movement of Modernism, this new development is particularly popular in the United States. Although it is based on concepts of urban planning it also has developed a strong aesthetic dimension – Neotraditionalism – as will be discussed in this chapter.
The first project of the new urbanism is largely seen as the maritime resort of Seaside in Florida, USA, which was developed by Robert Davis in 1981. The work of architects Andrès Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk led “to a fundamental rethinking of issues such as mobility, liveability, and even design” (Cantoni 2006: 1). (Seaside, Florida would later feature in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, standing in for a massive created film-set.)
Using the modern movement as well as postmodernism as a starting point, the ‘new urban’ architect Michael Pyatok describes that his “generation’s sense of mission sprang from both the benefits and mistakes of the previous generation of architects” (Pyatok 2000: 804). Leon Krier, amongst others, “argued for a return not only to classical architecture but to pre-20th-century principles of town planning” (Ghirardo 1996: 24). In true postmodern style this new group of people focusing in on town planning chose to ignore everything that happened as part of the Modern Movement, apart from using it as a bad example or antithesis that is (compare Ghirardo 1996 as well as Mumford 2000).
Just like it had been the case with CIAM, the focus remained on dwelling, work, transportation and recreation, but the approach had reversed – from separating these areas of life into different zones to mixing them. It became all about diverse neighbourhoods in use as well as population, with public spaces accessible by everybody and designed for pedestrian traffic. But it was not only going back to urban patterns developed over time rather than on a drawing board of modernist academia, but also an aesthetic shift. In a re-orientation towards architecture before Modernism, references to historical styles are included in New Urbanist planning to restore, conserve and celebrate local visual identities of the built environment.
In 1993 enough architects and academics had begun working on the principles of urban planning again to merit a new association and consequently the “Congress for the New Urbanism”, or CNU, was founded “to advocate urban and suburban design on a far more modest scale with greater visual variety and greater tolerance for diverse styles than was found in Modernist planning” (Ghirardo 1996: 24). This American organisation “rapidly gained recognition, sparking the debate about urban planning both among practitioners such as architects and developers, and among the broader public” (Cantoni 2006: 1).
Although the concept of New Urbanism is in favour of stylistic diversity, the aesthetic movement most closely linked to it is Neotraditionalism. While this type of architecture is in no way prescribed by the Charter of the New Urbanism, which just states that “architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings” (CNU 2001: unpaged), it is this style that is most closely associated with the work of the CNU. The reason for this is probably its promotion and use by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, who still take a dominant position within the movement (Cantoni 2006 and Pyatok 2000). And since it is a very visible outcome of New Urbanism it is easy to associate this physical manifestation with the, albeit much more complex, concept behind it. That is not to say that Neotraditionalism is a resounding success at all levels. Indeed, many architects view it “as cheaply evocative, excessively prone to the homeowner’s bad taste, or outright kitsch” (Cantoni 2006: 13). Cantoni states that it is the neotraditionalist design, which is also often described as nostalgic and even conservative, that has hindered the acceptance and appreciation of the urban planning aspects of New Urbanism in academic circles (Cantoni 2006). Ghirardo argues something similar when she states that Neotraditionalism consists of “a set of nostalgic, separatist social images that were met with contempt by many critics and architects – and by enthusiasm among middle-class clients” (Ghirardo 1996: 26). New Urbanism, especially in the way it is promoted by the CNU, evokes the utopian dream of a small-town neighbourhood, which targets a “traditionally minded, well-off public” (Cantoni 2006: 16). Although Krier has argued that “A town design code could easily limit itself to Le Corbusier’s 1920s or 1950s grammar and produce a meaningful townscape; the same could be done with Frank Lloyd Wright — or even Zaha Hahid or Oscar Niemeyer idioms.” (as quoted in Salingaros 2001: unpaged) this challenge has not been taken up yet. Consequently the face of New Urbanism remains neotraditionalist.
The rise of New Urbanism and in particular its aesthetic aspect – which while irritating academia encounters the homeowners’ favour – are also relevant for the political economy aspect. New Urbanism can be seen not just as a movement to spread superior planning practices, but also as an aesthetic movement characterized by a collective reaction to “modernism” – or whatever could be subsumed under that term: absence of a human scale, anonymity, the perceived predominance of big corporations etc. […] the collective action framework is still relevant here. The ugliness or simply blandness of suburbs is a negative externality imposed on those who care about their living environment; gathering forces and organize to overcome the absence of market dynamics is a natural reaction. (Cantoni 2006: 15)
Cantoni argues that one of the moving powers of New Urbanism is a reaction against modernism as a movement that was very much of an intellectual nature. The architects who have written the principles of New Urbanism onto their flags are to a certain degree attempting to let the people living in the neighbourhoods and houses have more input into decisions that are being made. This means that the physical appearance of the houses becomes important, as it introduces clients that are individuals rather than institutions to the equation. They are attempting to create an architecture that people also like to live in, after Adolf Loos who argued that a house was not a work of art and had to be created in a way that was appealing to everybody because buildings were public opposed to works of art, that are private (Cantoni 2006).
But New Urbanist neighbourhoods potentially go one step further, because New Urbanism is a movement reliant on co-operation. As Cantoni argues, New Urbanism does not work if it is only one homebuilder selecting a style, as it is a movement incorporating a neighbourhood – “it’s a planning concept as well as an architectural design problem” (Cantoni 2006: 3). This is in stark contrast to the architecture of Postmodernism, where each building is deliberately designed to be a statement of uniqueness. Architects subscribing to Postmodernism might factor in how buildings around the site they are working on will correspond to their own designs, but mostly in a matter of contrast. Only seldom do they desire a ‘blending in’, Postmodernism is about standing out (compare Cantoni 2006).
In other words, as long as it is not concerned with huge developments from scratch, as Seaside, Florida was, the principles of New Urbanism count on the neighbourhood to be on board – which means either the city planners or the individual house owners. New Urbanism is collective by nature.
A traditional neighbourhood project is destined to failure if it is not able to gather enough interested buyers. Building an isolated neo-traditional house is pointless if the house owner derives pleasure also from other similarly built houses in the same neighbourhood. Equivalently, building an isolated house cannot give rise to a new urbanist neighbourhood, since New Urbanism is also characterized as a method of comprehensive urban planning, encompassing buildings as well as the surrounding infrastructure of streets, transportation and commerce facilities etc. A house built on a small lot close to the street, or a mixed-use building encompassing both residential and commercial functions does not make sense but within the whole framework of a certain form of urban development. (Cantoni 2006: 11f)
As has been seen in this chapter, to the broad public New Urbanism has become very much identified with a certain image – that of nostalgic, small-town American neighbourhood. This has been largely due to the work (and promotion) done by an American organisation of New Urbanists, the CNU. The next chapter will explore whether the CNU goes beyond the image to realise the substance of the New Urbanist concept, and how it attempts to achieve that in a capitalist world.
The CNU: Realising the Concept of New Urbanism
New Urbanism is not about style, as has been explained in the previous chapter. It is an attempt to organise town planning ideas into a concept that is possible to implement. The CNU in particular specifically work on putting this concept into practice. With that aspiration, however, comes the necessity to work in a capitalist society. This chapter analyses some of the strategies employed by the CNU to elevate New Urbanist ideas from the academic planning stages and realise inhabitable neighbourhoods.
Care needs to be taken when discussing the CNU and New Urbanism, as they are not necessarily the same thing. (This mirrors the early twentieth century concept of urbanism and the CIAM.) When discussing the CNU’s characteristics in terms of scale, Pyatok points out that the CNU gravitates towards “larger projects to achieve real impact and to provide demonstrations it thinks are worth emulating” (Pyatok 2000: 806), which bring with them large-scale sponsors. This practice is closely linked to representing significant interests that might not completely be the same as the principles of New Urbanism (compare Pyatok 2000). It also means appealing “to the moderate middle of the body politic and avoid deeper structural criticisms. Injustices in the system must be noticed, but solutions must first pass the test of the centralized sponsoring agencies” (Pyatok 2000: 807). Pyatok explains that since the CNU makes it a priority to deliver an applied, used concept, rather than an academic manifesto, this is how it needs to be. However, in practice that means that the CNU adopts the ideology of the decision makers, such as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), local governments or developers. So if, for example, homeownership is considered the way to revitalise neighbourhoods, then the CNU plans will include a displacement of people who rent their homes rather than own them (Pyatok 2000) without questioning that premise. This practice brings its own problems to the table as it potentially discriminates against low-income tenants.
Does anyone ever seek to displace large concentrations of wealthy people to create a healthy mix of incomes? Of course not. Only those without property stand in the way of progress and since they are much cheaper to move, and since it is believed that they have serious social pathologies anyway (which is why they have gotten themselves poor in the first place), some must always be displaced to create healthier communities. (Pyatok 2000: 807, his emphasis)
This, of course, is an important issue. But Pyatok gets even more drastic when he states that:
We as a nation no longer have slavery, but tenants, whether rural or urban, are truly second-class citizens and are treated as less than equal by our property laws, tax codes, and development policies. The CNU, fixated on applying physical design formulas, skirts these issues as the purview of others. (Pyatok 2000: 807)
This fixation, however, is another vital point of the CNU approach, though to a certain degree understandable as they are an association of architects. The CNU way is based “on a collection of physical design formulas” rather than on “intensive tutorials, serious job training, educational trust funds for residents, microloans for small businesses, and perhaps spending less on physical improvements with only enough to meet code and repairs” (Pyatok 2000: 808). This is another sign that the CNU is backed by a certain type of sponsor: “Both public and private developers, viewing the world from the middle of the class structure, see a well-designed environment as a higher priority than intensive people-oriented solutions” (Pyatok 2000: 808).
This is not to downplay the importance of well-designed and comfortable environs for everyone […]. But there are too many beautiful places in the world populated by perfectly miserable people and too many miserable places populated with perfectly wonderful people still living with high hopes because certain social, cultural, and educational opportunities are perceived to be, or are in fact, in place for their offspring. Such observations from traveling in the First and Third Worlds cannot help but give pause to messianic assertions about the important role of good physical design in making a good society. (Pyatok 2000: 810)
Pyatok identifies as the main flaw of the CNU as an organisation its acceptance of the “dominance of the ‘material’ in our society” that “may be just perpetuating the deep causes of our maladies, correcting them only enough to redress its recent destructive social and physical consequences, to allow us all to continue to make acquisition and appearances the centers of our being.” (Pyatok 2000: 813f)
Ghirardo makes a similar point regarding the concepts of Urbanism (in Modernist as well as Postmodernist context): that they both are convinced “of the power of form, and hence the primacy of design” (Ghirardo 1996: 27). This is a very exclusive strategy ignoring other ways of improving cities and living conditions. “Design certainly ought to be a component of any urban program, but not one that can be fruitfully isolated” (Ghirardo 1996: 27).
Pyatok argues that there are other organisations in America, the Planner’s Network (PN) and the Association of Community Design Centers (ACD) for example, that take an approach to the principles of New Urbanism that are not quite that architecture-centred but rather have a ‘bottom-up methodology’. They are focused less on local real estate prices and more on empowerment of the local communities.
Good design and sensible spatial combinations of land uses are important goals, but both are always in the service of building the economic and political capacity of disenfranchised members of a community, not merely improving local property values. In fact, in a market-driven economy, these goals can often be in direct conflict. (Pyatok 2000: 809)
To bow to a market-driven economy, as the CNU does to a certain extent, is certainly a far cry from the social ideals of the Modernist Urbanists. The CNU, as Pyatok goes on to argue, by allying itself with large-scale sponsors rather than local participation of the community and actual tenants, becomes part of a dynamic that is capitalist and based on the free market, rather than being an advocate of people with lesser power, such as tenants (Pyatok 2000).
Although rooted in the principles of New Urbanism that it promotes in its charter, the CNU is also rooted in the capitalist society it sprang from.
It came on the scene to serve the suburbs, which finally grew to being the nation’s centers of political and economic power, maturing to intolerable physical conditions while at the same time their offspring were rediscovering the cities. Even when the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is attempting to serve the underclasses, its entrée into these efforts is through agencies whose style and interests are often distrusted by those being served, and for good reasons learned from experience. (Pyatok 2000: 806)
Local communities often resist a change that is instigated solely by outside capital, Pyatok argues that “any effort to seek local involvement in someone else’s plans will always meet resistance, no matter what good intentions the design team may have of soliciting local input” (Pyatok 2000: 809). This, however, is directly linked to an important goal of New Urbanism: the creation of ‘community spirit’.
Smit (2006), in particular, discusses the extent to which the CNU is following through on its promise to build a sense of community through the re-design of neighbourhoods. The CNU charter sets out the ambition to make neighbourhoods “compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use” (CNU 2001: unpaged) in order to increase resident interaction by having more walking traffic, which, as Smit puts it, the CNU claims “should lead to social ties and a deep sense of community” (Smit 2006: 1).
However, as Smit continues to set out, the term of ‘community’ is hard to define and pin down and the popular interpretation of the concept is “generally utopian and unrealistic” (Smit 2006: 1). Referring to Clarke (2005) as well as Shibley (1998) and Talen (1999), Smit sets out the fears that this “wrongly foster[s] a monolithic view of community based on misguided nostalgia of small-town America” (Smit 2006: 1). Especially since she cites research that “has found that, rather than fostering diversity, many neighbourhoods contain predominantly white, middle-class, affluent or intellectual (‘yuppie’) inhabitants” (Smit 2006: 2). However, although a ‘sense of community’ might be too ambitious (or just too ambiguous) to claim as a result of New Urbanist design, Smit states that the design does enable neighbourly behaviour (Smit 2006: 4). “Neighbourly interactions are not exclusive to race, class or gender, but are chance interactions that are increased by proximity (which is convincingly enhanced by New Urbanist public spaces, amenities, etc.)” (Smit 2006: 4).
One of the problems of the New Urbanism concept is certainly the way it gets promoted and implemented. The CNU, arguably the most popular organisation of the New Urbanists, is, according to Pyatok, still dominated by “the same handful of founders” (Pyatok 2000: 811). While it proclaims and markets itself as an inclusive organisation, in real terms that does not seem to be the case as the CNU has followed-up on this by setting the prices to its conferences in a way that makes them “affordable primarily to well-paid professionals” (Pyatok 2000: 811) showing no attempt to expand access to non-professionals of modest means (Pyatok 2000; seven years on the prices seem to have gone down from what Pyatok reported, though the conferences are probably still not affordable by people who are just interested parties in urban development). Pyatok describes a situation where a CNU and an ACD conference were held in the same city at the same time and how the CNU not only turned down the proposal of a joint panel discussion, but also did not bother to make any reference to the ‘rival’ conference in their literature, although it might have been complementing the issues they were discussing (Pyatok 2000). In the same vein, the CNU website seems to make no reference to similar organisations around the world, while the internet presence of the Council for European Urbanism displays a link to the CNU on its own homepage, as well as links to INTBAU (the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism), Urban City Research, Stiftelsen Byens Fornyelse in Norway and Canadian Urbanism.
The CNU is certainly concerned with more than image and style, but, as has been seen in the discussion in this chapter, it has made significant concessions to the capitalist society in which it exists.
Conclusion – Substance or Image?
The question whether New Urbanism is more image than substance is not easily answerable. It becomes even more complex through the need to distinguish between the concept of New Urbanism itself and the organisations that promote it. The CNU in particular has become closely linked with the new urbanist concept and that has opened up possibilities, but it also brings disadvantages.
Having organisations taking up the concept of town planning as their battle cry generates exposure and interest. It allows for discussion and therefore develops the ideas further. However, any organisation coming towards the problem from a purely architectural perspective is in danger of excluding solutions – or parts of solutions – that do not rely on the built environment.
New Urbanism certainly tries to be more hands-on than CIAM was. Rather than an academic concept, New Urbanism is meant to be put into practice and for that organisations like the CNU are vital. At the same time, if the organisations are, as is the case with CNU, part of a market-driven economy and capitalist society, this also has effects on the policies promoted and followed, as has been discussed above (also compare Pyatok 2000).
Ellis argues that “Perhaps New Urbanists have found a reasonable and principled middle ground […], one that makes actual building possible” (Ellis 2002: 283). Maybe this is another outlet of Venturi’s ‘both-and’ philosophy, that in this case allows New Urbanists to tread a line between capitalist and social ideals.
What feeds into this issue is the fact that New Urbanism is a type of master-planning, as was the Urbanism practised during the Modern Movement. Mumford states that “there has been no widespread return to classical or other premodern design methods” (Mumford 2000: 274). As Cantoni points out that in some respects “New Urbanism does not differ from other forms of suburban development that have taken foot in the last decades, such as master planned and gated communities, or the rise of homeowners’ associations” (Cantoni 2006: 12). However, whether that is an indication that master-planning is indeed a realistic and workable concept in contemporary Western society or not remains questionable.
While the modernist manifesto of urbanism responded to the social needs of the time, its vision did not succeed. This failure was not due to the aesthetic rendered by the removal of traditional ornamentation, the efficient use of new materials or the industrial standardisation, but the zoned sprawl, which might have worked on the drawing board but in reality created anti-humanistic environments. The New Urbanists have returned to the belief that the built environment is part of the solution of contemporary social problems. They are, in principle, quite aware that this is not necessarily a matter of aesthetics, though. Unfortunately it often gets identified as of a particular style, as people not familiar with New Urbanist principles mix it up with Neotraditionlism, complete with its nostalgia which appeals to a lot of homebuyers, as it markets itself as the dream of life in small-town America. However, New Urbanism is not a matter of image, of aesthetics or style. It is more than that. The concept is based on substance, on principles formulated out of urban patterns developed over centuries.
At the end of the day, however, it will be time that will determine whether new urbanist townscapes were successful in providing a social, environmental and culturally sustainable framework that made urban design relevant again.