Out With the New, In With the Old
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."
Indeed, Farmer, along with MCDA executive director Rebecca Yanisch, recently spoke at a luncheon seminar titled "From Planning to Implementation: The Coming Development Boom in Central Cities"; and the Star Tribune, as part of its "Downtown's Pulse" series last December, outlined numerous "moderate- to high-income" residential projects in the works. Yet the New Urbanism has become much more than a planning movement or an architectural style--and also much more than a new wave of gentrification. It's a system of long-range, large-scale plans to re-conceive the city.
The Twin Cities don't yet have any by-the-book New Urbanist projects, but as with cities all across the country, a number of developers and others are cashing in on the cachet of the New Urbanism and its aesthetic of picket fences, pitched roofs, and front porches. The trade magazine Builder recently placed on its "hot list" the strategy of "marketing a project as a 'traditional neighborhood development'--even if it's not," and even businesses like Lunds and SuperAmerica have renovated some of their stores along New Urbanist lines, using lots of brickwork, wrought-iron fencing, and awnings.
"If you break down the style games and a lot of the high-profile, Celebration-type stuff, the New Urbanism doesn't just mean a retro town," says William Morrish, a nationally prominent New Urbanist who co-directs the UM's Design Center for the American Urban Landscape. "There's a lot more to it, but unfortunately the way it's presented in the media is as a sort of retro thing." The Metropolitan Livable Communities Act, passed last year, has allocated grant money for several projects with the intention of encouraging cities and developers to proceed down the path of New Urbanism. West Ridge Market in Minnetonka, for instance, is in large part just another link in the chain of strip malls along Highway 394, but it also has trails connecting it to nearby parks and wetlands and housing--everything from luxury condominiums and family townhouses to rental apartments and senior housing. St. Louis Park also received a grant to help in creating a 25-year master plan for its "downtown," an area just east of Highways 7 and 100 that will eventually include about 1,000 additional residences, as well as more office and retail space--quite unorthodox for a site that's already considered "fully developed."
On a larger scale, the Design Center has developed ideas for transforming ailing first-ring suburbs into thriving "metropolitan towns," which were unveiled at a two-day conference last December. Part of the strategy involves holding on to the the middle-class population that's still left in these suburbs, while making them more attractive to newcomers. For instance, the cities of Richfield and Roseville have undertaken programs that reconstruct houses from the '50s and '60s with amenities that contemporary home buyers want: things like first-floor family rooms, bigger bathrooms and kitchens, double garages, and "couple suites."
Another New Urbanist-inspired plan is underway in the Sumner/Glenwood area just west of downtown Minneapolis. For decades this area has been an isolated neighborhood dominated by public housing for low-income and poor people, but plans for its redevelopment--a result of the Hollman housing discrimination lawsuit--are on the cutting edge of public housing policy. Newsweek calls it a "reverse-scattered-site" approach, the idea being that if suburbanites protest low-income housing sites in their communities, why not redevelop public housing sites and make them attractive enough, in a New Urbanist kind of way, to appeal to better-off people as well? Over the next few years Sumner/Glenwood is supposed to become a neighborhood with 50 percent of its housing in the public and low-income class, and 50 percent renting or selling at market rates. "The core of what people are talking about with livable communities is a mixed-income neighborhood," says Morrish, whose Design Center also played a key role in this project. "From a design standpoint, a range of options in housing can have all kinds of effects from a long-term, social and economic standpoint." The big challenge now, he says, is getting it built, "because this is a city that so far only knows how to deliver Target Center."
Indeed, there's the world of utopian, mixed-income villages, and there's the world of Target Centers--and garbage burners, and megamalls, and a propensity to tear down anything vaguely historic. As a set of beliefs and ideals that are inseparable from porches and picket fences, the New Urbanist ideology may seem old-fashioned and full of common sense; who could object to the kind of vibrant, people-friendly environs it promises? But like the sunlit lawns and cheerful mechanical robins in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the New Urbanism has subtler and perhaps more disturbing undertones.
"Like all the architects who come off as form-givers, [the New Urbanists] want us to live in certain ways," says Tom Martinson, a planner based in Minneapolis who hopes to contribute to the Sumner/Glenwood redevelopment. "And sometimes that ideology doesn't come off in practical or universal ways." Just as modernist, International Style skyscrapers were visual symbols of America's corporate power and efficiency in the 1950s and '60s, the New Urbanism, which is in large part a reaction to the ravages spawned by that era, embodies fairly specific beliefs and ideals. And while the forms may be familiar, that doesn't mean the social agenda is the same as in the good old days those forms want to conjure.
Take parks, for instance, an area in which Minneapolis has built a golden reputation. If the city is suddenly reviving its commitment to them, it's not necessarily for old-fashioned reasons, such as the restorative effects of fresh air and open space upon the citizenry. The Park Board, the MCDA, and the Historical Society have plans for a new riverfront green space, Mill Ruins Park, in an area where the Whitney Hotel and its accompanying offices have stood as a lone beacon of elegance since the late '80s. With its excavated remains of several old mills, the park will anchor a larger development in which mill buildings will be restored for housing and retail; the area to the west, now a moat of parking lots that stretches over to the Milwaukee Road Depot, is also targeted by the city as a prime area for development. The whole site is eventually to be known as the West Side Milling District.
No doubt Mill Ruins Park will be a nice addition to the city. A brochure about the West Side Milling District, however, makes no bones about one of its major attractions being the tony private development it's expected to attract. Looking at renderings of the project at a recent meeting about metro-area development on the riverfront, I asked a representative from the Historical Society (which is excavating the ruins) whether people like me would be able to live in this new district. "There will be a few affordable units, probably," he said--meaning condos in the $90,000-$120,000 range--"but with these kinds of places the city wants to go upscale, to get the tax base."
In fact, this is one of the chief missions of another urban development project known as Hennepin Community Works. In the words of John McLaughlin, a manager at Hennepin County's Department of Training and Employment Assistance, "The idea is to address three things: job creation, tax-base enhancement or stabilization, and natural systems enhancement or restoration. We want to combine as many uses for a public infrastructure as possible."
Combining uses means, for example, that tax-base enhancement and natural systems enhancement can go hand-in-hand. "There are lots of buried streams and wetlands that could be re-used to filter water and build housing around," he notes. Moreover, the first projects funded by HCW are aimed at what are called "distressed" neighborhoods with the purpose of raising property values and, theoretically anyway, bringing in jobs--first in the parks themselves, and then in the businesses and developments the parks are meant to attract.
An HCW report says plans for one of its projects, the transformation of Humboldt Avenue North into a parkway, "will require the acquisition and removal of some exising housing along Humboldt Avenue. Much of this housing is declining in value and represents a potential for urban blight if not restored." But is the "stabilization" and "enhancement" of these downwardly mobile neighborhoods simply a euphemism for the kind of gentrification that drives out the previous residents? "That's a huge concern that can't be ignored," acknowledges McLaughlin.
Unfortunately, affordable housing is not a hot political issue. It's not even lukewarm. "Most voters already have a decent place to live," points out George Latimer, the former St. Paul mayor who now teaches urban studies at Macalester College, "so it's not even among the top five or 10 things that concern them." So while cities and first-ring suburbs are putting out the welcome mat for those middle-income-to-affluent people tiring of the ex-urban lifestyle, the outlook for low-income people, no matter where they live, is decidedly less cheery.
The plan for the Sumner/Glenwood neighborhood sounds great, but the problem, as many have noted, is that it'll only be great for those lucky enough to live there: This kind of mixed-income, "urban village" public housing amounts to fewer units overall, and at a time when the demand for affordable housing has never been greater. "I'm not skeptical of the desire or the need to deconentrate poverty," says Latimer, regarding the redevelopment of that area. "The jobs weren't there, the housing and the environment were very poor, and the opportunities for kids were not there; it's a very isolated area." But when it comes to developing new, low-income and affordable housing, he says that "everyone who's examined it is very doubtful that the level of activity that is now occurring is anywhere near the level that is needed."
Rhetorically at least, the New Urbanism makes much of the mixed-income ideal, of providing "choice" in housing options, and making them "affordable." But in an age when incomes are polarizing at an unprecendented rate, what's affordable--and for whom? One of the missions of the state's Livable Communities Act is to increase the amount of affordable housing throughout the metro area; Latimer recently headed up a task force that examined whether it's living up to that promise. The task force noted in its report, "Promises Deferred," that the prevalent definition of "affordable" means $70,000-$100,000 homes--such as the modest but quite attractive townhouses in West Ridge Market--which remain prohibitively expensive to families making $15,000-$30,000 a year, who are most urgently in need of affordable housing. Worse still, the task force accused some cities of using the Livable Communities Act as a pretext for tearing down existing cheap housing.
"A generation ago," as Jason DeParle pointed out in The New York Times Magazine last October, "there were more cheap apartments than poor families." Now the opposite is true. The Alliance for the Streets has found that in downtown Minneapolis alone, some 2,400 units of low-income housing have been eliminated since 1979. The need for that housing is only growing, however, considering that nearly half the new jobs being created pay $22,000 a year or less. In other words, we're not talking about single mothers and public housing; we're talking working families who nonetheless have little chance of working their way up the ladder. And there are those who believe that New Urbanist rhetoric about mixed-income development--as well as the current wisdom about "deconcentrating" poverty throughout the metro area--are just a sleight-of-hand that serves to obscure the mounting problem.
While dispersing the poor into the suburbs may sound sensible in theory, it runs into enormous practical obstacles. When the Mahtomedi City Council was considering housing some of the low-income Minneapolis residents being "deconcentrated" into the suburbs, one resident summed up the local reaction in a phrase: "We don't need a Phillips neighborhood in Mahtomedi." Even more absurdly, owners of $200,000 executive homes in Chanhassen have attempted to block the construction of $100,000 townhomes anywhere near them. So it's probably for good reason that the brochure for the high-end Bay Hill condominiums at West Ridge Market makes no mention of the lower-income apartments that are supposed to be built a few blocks away--six units of which will house some of those 700-plus "deconcentrated" Minneapolitans.
In the city, there are lots of upscale developments that place the wealthy in close proximity to those with significantly less income--sort of a market version of "reverse scattered-site" public housing. But it doesn't mean they really have to fit in with the community. In northeast Minneapolis, for instance, the upscale Lourdes Square townhouses would seem a model of New Urbanist "infill" development, taking advantage of a long-vacant site and adding to the dense, small-scale, working-class character of the neighborhood. Yet it's set off from its surroundings by a moat of grass and trees, a tasteful wrought-iron fence, and a single entry for cars--a private drive, that is, not a through street: all fundamental taboos by the New Urbanist book. Lourdes Square promises its residents all the color and convenience of urban life, while effectively shielding them from their neighbors.
The complaint that New Urbanism is in the end about catering to the well-to-do "is accurate if not fair," concedes Michael Lander, a local architect and developer who, along with Morrish, is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "It's very difficult to do, but it is something we are committed to; our ideas will be diminished if they aren't delivered to a full range of people. Ten percent of any street, any building, or any project should be devoted to the lowest income people--but that's the hardest way to do it. We're a long way from that, and I'd blame the average resident on the cul-de-sac before I'd blame the developer." In any case, it seems unlikely that developers will do anything over the short run--that is, "the coming development boom in central cities"--except to give the market what it demands: chic urban villages.
It's worth pondering why "villages," as opposed to the more traditional "neighborhoods," is the preferred New Urbanist term. Villages are comfortable, small-scale, more or less self-sustaining places, but there is also an exclusionary connotation: a sense of cozy and peaceful insularity, of places where like dwells with like.
An old-style, organically grown urban neighborhood, on the other hand, might include, in some areas of Minneapolis, big-buck homes and high-rise condos just blocks away from $350 efficiency apartments and run-down mansions turned into multiple-unit dwellings. Liquor stores, groceries, and laundromats are a few doors from boutiques and bistros. These are, it's been pointed out, exactly the kinds of "villages" revered by New Urbanists--but today it is virtually impossible to create them. "As a planner, I can build up a completely mixed street--all ages, all incomes, all kinds of businesses--but I would never get it built," says Lander. "I'd be run out of Dodge. As a developer, I can tell you that there is a huge fear about how close somebody wants to be to someone who isn't just like them. It's a constant concern."
Another buzzword in New Urbanist circles is "defensible space." Ironically, planner Oscar Newman coined this term in his landmark 1973 study of why so many public housing projects are crime-ridden failures. For Newman--who is one of the more prominent critics of the New Urbanism--defensible space means providing public housing with simple design elements like kitchen windows, front stoops, and fenced yards, features that encourage residents to participate in their communities and gain a stake in them, thereby reducing crime. Now defensible space has been upgraded into a kind of environmental security system for the urban village.
The appeal of the village and the perceived need for defensible space--as if any and all neighborhoods are subject to the crime threats that exist in the nation's worst public housing projects--jibe nicely with the zeitgeist. New Urbanism is "the only organized nationwide movement of consequence initiated by baby-boom architects," points out New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, and as such it's built upon both the nostalgia and fears of that generation. What with growing poverty, new waves of immigrants, and the growth of minority populations, the temptation to embrace an older, simpler vision of city life, one in which safety reigns supreme, is not exactly surprising.
"It's a fantasy, based on an imagined past," says Martinson. "It does not deal with the typical concerns of urban people--I'm talking about the kinds of people who are not saying that they really want a front porch, or they want to talk with the neighbors more. They're saying, 'I can't find a decent job, I can't afford this place, and what if my kid gets sick?' Architecture can make a difference, but not in those areas." But it's a mark of architectural hubris for those in the profession to believe otherwise. As Muschamp observed, "Modern architects created machine-age images of 'rational' cities that, when actually built, often functioned miserably. The New Urbanists may be producing architecture for the Prozac age: Potemkin villages for dysfunctional families."
It seems weirdly appropriate that Seaside, Florida, often cited as the birthplace of the New Urbanism, was built during Reagan's Morning in America. It was intended to be a folksy village of beach cottages, the kind of place where families would gather for generations; it also happened that a lot of the "cottages" are more what most people would call mansions. And after 15 years, even the most modest of them fetch upwards of half a million dollars on the market. Part of that owes to the fact that Seaside is a resort town; the brand-new Celebration, on the other hand, is designed to be a workaday place, although that doesn't mean it's within the reach of most workaday Americans.
Celebration's "cottage" homes start at $200,000, and slightly larger "village" models at $275,000. On the outside, they're scrupulously designed in keeping with historical styles, but these houses show a quite different face on the inside, where they boast entertainment centers and cathedral ceilings, tucked-away master suites and oversized kitchens with islands. Needless to say, "Celebration isn't for everyone," as an attendant at one of the model homes noted. She was referring to the tiny (some might say cramped) lot sizes, but could just as easily have been talking about economic exclusivity.
Celebration is for those who can afford the finer things in life, which now include living in a community with a carefully created "sense of" place and "sense of" community. (Just add people, and presumably those qualifiers will go away.) It's reconstituted small-town style with a fresh-squeezed price. All this jus' folks modesty and determined middle-classness and neo-traditional normality seems downright false for a small town that has no "wrong side of the tracks," but does have a notable preponderance of late-model luxury cars on its streets.
Granted, New Urbanism does not begin and end with Seaside and Disney's live-in theme park, but they do make neat bookends for the history of the movement so far--and they do point to where it seems headed, despite the best intentions of its proponents.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.