New Urbanism

Taking City Planning to a New Level

A street in Amsterdam


Laszlo Szirtesi / Getty Images

New Urbanism is an urban planning and design movement that began in the United States in the early 1980s. Its goals are to reduce dependence on the car, and to create livable and walkable, neighborhoods with a densely packed array of housing, jobs, and commercial sites.

New Urbanism also promotes a return to the traditional town planning seen in places such as downtown Charleston, South Carolina and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. These locations are ideal for New Urbanists because in each one there is an easily walkable "Main Street," a downtown park, shopping districts and a gridded street system.

History of New Urbanism

In the beginning of the 19th century, development of American cities often took a compact, mixed-use form, reminiscent of that found in places like old town Alexandria, Virginia. With the development of the streetcar and affordable rapid transit, however, cities began to spread out and create streetcar suburbs. The later invention of the automobile further increased this decentralization from the central city which later led to separated land uses and urban sprawl.

New Urbanism is a reaction to the spreading out of cities. The ideas then began to spread in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as urban planners and architects started to come up with plans to model cities in the U.S. after those in Europe.

In 1991, New Urbanism developed more strongly when the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit group in Sacramento, California, invited several architects, including Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk among others, to Yosemite National Park to develop a set of principles for land use planning that focused on the community and its livability.

The principles, named after Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel where the conference was held, are called the Ahwahnee Principles. Within these, there are 15 community principles, four regional principles and four principles of implementation. Each one, however, deals with both past and present ideas to make cities as clean, walkable and livable as possible. These principles were then presented to government officials in late 1991 at the Yosemite Conference for Local Elected Officials.

Shortly thereafter, some of the architects involved in creating the Ahwahnee Principles formed the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in 1993. Today, CNU is the leading promoter of New Urbanist ideas and has grown to over 3,000 members. It also holds conferences yearly in cities across the U.S. to further promote New Urbanism design principles.

Core New Urbanist Ideas

Within the concept of New Urbanism today, there are four key ideas. The first of these is to ensure that a city is walkable. This means that no resident should need a car to get anywhere in the community and they should be no more than a five-minute walk from any basic good or service. To achieve this, communities should invest in sidewalks and narrow streets.

In addition to actively promoting walking, cities should also de-emphasize the car by placing garages behind homes or in alleys. There should also only be on-street parking, instead of large parking lots.

Another core idea of New Urbanism is that buildings should be mixed both in their style, size, price, and function. For example, a small townhouse can be placed next to a larger, single family home. Mixed-use buildings such as those containing commercial spaces with apartments over them are also ideal in this setting.

Finally, a New Urbanist city should have a strong emphasis on the community. This means maintaining connections between people with high density, parks, open spaces and community gathering centers like a plaza or neighborhood square.

Examples of New Urbanist Cities

Although New Urbanist design strategies have been tried in various places across the U.S., the first fully developed New Urbanist town was Seaside, Florida, designed by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Construction began there in 1981 and almost immediately, it became famous for its architecture, public spaces, and quality of streets.

The Stapleton neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, is another example of New Urbanism in the U.S. It is on the site of the former Stapleton International Airport and construction began in 2001. The neighborhood is zoned as residential, commercial and office and will be one of the largest in Denver. Like Seaside, it too will de-emphasize the car but it will also have parks and open space.

Criticisms of New Urbanism

Despite the popularity of New Urbanism in the recent decades, there have been some criticisms of its design practices and principles. The first of these is that the density of its cities leads to a lack of privacy for residents. Some critics claim that people want detached homes with yards so they are further away from their neighbors. By having mixed density neighborhoods and possibly sharing driveways and garages, this privacy is lost.

Critics also say that New Urbanist towns feel inauthentic and isolated because they do not represent the "norm" of settlement patterns in the U.S. Many of these critics often point to Seaside as it was used to film portions of the film The Truman Show and as a model of Disney's community, Celebration, Florida.

Finally, critics of New Urbanism argue that instead of promoting diversity and community, New Urbanist neighborhoods only attract affluent white residents as they often become very expensive places to live.

Regardless of these criticisms though, New Urbanist ideas are becoming a popular form of planning communities and with a growing emphasis on mixed-use buildings, high density settlements, and walkable cities, its principles will continue into the future.

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Briney, Amanda. "New Urbanism." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, December 6). New Urbanism. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "New Urbanism." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).