Out With the New, In With the Old

In Minneapolis and elsewhere, proponents of the New Urbanist planning movement are promising a new tomorrow -- one that looks a lot like yesterday.

When it comes to deciding how our cities will look and work, everything old is suddenly new again--or more precisely, everything old is being re-fashioned into some variant on the "New Urbanism." In case you haven't heard, New Urbanism is the biggest architecture and planning movement to come along in decades. Unlike most movements in architecture, however, it strikes a popular chord--by appealing to a sense of place that most people have never known, but wish they had.

Most New Urbanist projects have so far been built in the suburbs, though they're nothing like the typical subdivision. They're largely inspired by the design of pre-World War II neighborhoods; as it turns out, my old Minneapolis neighborhood, not far from downtown, has quite a bit in common with the New Urbanism. First of all, you can walk places. There are plenty of cars, to be sure, but this place dates back to a time when pedestrians were just as common as drivers. And whether you're on foot or in a car, the plain-and-simple grid of streets is easy to navigate. One never has to follow an endlessly winding Elm Boulevard into its sudden dead-end at Elm Court, all in a vain effort to find Elm Place. The streets are narrow, and shaded by a green canopy of mature trees; garages and parking spaces are relegated to the back of the residences along alleys.

The New (or old) Urbanist neighborhood also has a range of housing types for its residents: big single-family homes, others remodeled into duplexes or apartments, condos, apartments. And these places don't have that cookie-cutter suburban homogeneity; styles range from Victorian on up to modern '60s-era buildings, though everything is built on the same modest scale, no more than three or four stories high. There are porches and front stoops, harking back to an age when they served as outdoor parlors for socializing, and the small yards also encourage regular encounters with neighbors. (If you want some green, open space, you go to the nearby park.) There are no malls, just stand-alone hardware stores, groceries, dry cleaners, all kinds of bars and restaurants, music and video shops--indeed, most anything you'd need on a day-to-day basis. If none of this seems remarkable, that's the point: The New Urbanism aims to make cities (or suburbs) more livable by bringing back the good parts of the good old days.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany of the planning firm DPZ first hit upon this idea when they created the resort town of Seaside, Florida in the early 1980s. And last November, The Walt Disney Companies officially "founded" the town of Celebration in the same state, which brought no small amount of attention to the New Urbanist movement. Now everyone wants to get in on the act. All manner of developers, city planners, and architects have eagerly taken up the New Urbanist label, if not its strict principles.

Those principles--among them a commitment to rebuilding in core cities--were laid out in a charter signed at last year's meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism, a group of like-minded architects, planners, developers, environmentalists, and city officials. The CNU charter gathering was less flashy than Celebration's opening, but in the broader scheme of city planning, far more significant: Just as the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago kicked off the nationwide City Beautiful movement, so with the New Urbanism at the end of this century, and its mission to pull cities back from a one-way journey into obsolescence.

The American city as we know it, from New York to Columbus to Omaha to Seattle, is by and large a creature of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. Today cities are no longer the centers of all things commercial; encircled by and in competition with suburbs that feature their own office towers and industrial parks, the core city increasingly finds itself less an employment center than a place that tries to cater to suburbanites' whims and desires. Minneapolis has followed a national trend in making itself over as an urban theme park, and the Mall of America's opening only intensified the push. Now downtown development efforts are shifting from business to sports, entertainment, shopping, and spectacle: Consider its assortment of special events (block parties, car races, the Mill City Music Festival); the so-called Hennepin Theater District; the bars and clubs clustered around Target Center; and the ongoing attempts to build an "entertainment center" for Block E and an open-air baseball stadium.

What's missing from Minneapolis's vision of a New Urbanism is a critical mass of residents--the right kind of residents, that is. It's all fine and good to bring people downtown for a brief bit of revelry, but that's not the ultimate object. The natural next step involves making the city safe and attractive enough to lure more affluent residents. The potentially huge housing market in aging baby boomers can only help matters. "In the next 20 years, this enormous bulge in the population will become 50- and 60-year-olds," observes Paul Farmer, the director of planning for Minneapolis. "A lot of households will be looking for options other than big suburban houses. Looking at those basic demographic factors, there's cause for a lot of excitement. We think we can be very aggressive in growing the city in the next 20 years here."

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