Sometime late in the summer of 1981 or so, I found myself driving alone down a two lane beach road bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I was vacationing by myself that week, taking a break from what was a stressful time in my first job as an intern architect. On that road, which was sparingly lined with private beach cottages and a few old beach towns, I came across a sign for newly proposed development. The developer planned to build a new town which they said would be modeled after old Florida beach communities of times past. The property had been subdivided in accordance with a nicely rendered master plan and you could buy a lot for $15,000, a princely sum at that time for someone who only made about $14K a year. The proposed town could be crossed in a ten minute walk. and the town center would be no more than a five minute walk from any part of town. I had never seen anything like it and wanted very much to be a part of it.
When I got back to Birmingham, being very excited about the project, I wanted to invest in it, but did not have any money. So I described the project to my Dad, asking him to invest in the development. I offered to design the house for free if he would buy the lot. (I also saw this as an opportunity to make a name for myself, something all young architects dream of). All we had to do was build a house that we could rent and it would pay for itself. The design of the houses was strictly controlled by a new kind of zoning regulation, insuring high quality construction and unique design, using common elements to create different districts and varying densities in the town. All houses were to have access to the beach, but only a few would be directly on the beach side of the road.
My Dad thought I was naive and said it would never work. People were putting up high rise condos on the beach those days. He thought that people would only buy or rent a house that had a beach view, and refused to lend me the money.
I don’t blame my Dad for this missed opportunity. I could not get anyone else to join me in this either. Few people could see or understand the vision that project represented. Now it is a model that has been copied so many times it is almost cliche. Thus I missed out on a chance to be one of the first to build a house in the new town they called “Seaside.”
This project was not the first time I had ever heard of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the architects responsible for the town plan and zoning regulations. But it would not be the last. The success of Seaside laid the foundation for a new (or maybe old) approach to urban design, an approach that is now know as New Urbanism. This movement is not just about the physical design of a town. It is also about diversity, a vital factor once common is our cities, but mostly missing in the economic ghettos we call suburbia.
Today, New Urbanism is a dominant design trend in city planning circles. According to Wikipedia, the organizing body for New Urbanism is the Congress for the New Urbanism, founded in 1993. Its foundational text is the Charter of the New Urbanism, which says:
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
This is just a fancy way of saying that cities should be open to and designed for everyone, (car or no car), be sustainable, not be segregated by income or land use and reflect local culture and history. Your prototypical McDonalds with its standardized design (and food) intended to be built anywhere does not fit this model.
Those of us who grew up in traditional towns know the basics of the model can work. Most cities have several examples of traditional town planning locally, new and old. Both the new and old local examples typically fail to live up to the economic diversity ideal of New Urbanism and the diversity goal is perhaps the hardest to obtain. Mount Laurel in Shelby County, Alabama is a local example that is doing quite well, without a beach as a draw, but it still depends on the automobile to tie it to the community at large, and the price of entry is high, disallowing any real diversity, (although rumor has it that not everyone who lives there is Episcopalian).
The automobile freed us from having to live with people we have less in common with, and that mindset is hard to overcome. Combined with single use zoning ordinances and you have the suburban sprawl that dominates our current built environment. While New Urbanism proposes an attractive alternative to this, one thing that it does not accommodate well is big box retail. Big box retail, with its low costs and high efficiencies is not going away. Also, people are not going to easily give up the freedom to drive wherever and whenever they want. Any vision for urban planning needs to recognize and allow for this. I am not sure New Urbanism is there yet. Until they figure out how to work with these realities, the movement may turn out, in the long run to be another missed opportunity.