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…On New Urbanism, Redux.

Posted by Steve on November 30, 2008

Previously, I’ve attacked New Urbanism as vacuous dogma pushed by a successful lobbying group, the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Of course, a more fundamental flaw with “New Urbanism” can be found right off the bat in its name: New Urbanism.

In New York City – which had over a million people living in it by the 1880 census – , there is a 106-year-old skyscraper, part of a series of similar buildings that includes a 111-year-old skyscraper in Atlanta and a 116-year-old skyscraper in Torotono, all still-standing and still in-use. This year, another skyscraper was topped out in New York City, and one in Toronto, and yet another in Atlanta. If you go to Richmond, Virginia, you can – if you’re obscenely rich and want to piss away money on a 5-star hotel – stay in a hotel built in 1895, which isn’t as old as the hotel you can stay at if you travel to the city of Luxor, Egypt – a truly ancient city.

There’s a point to this: cities grow over time. It takes decades, if not centuries, for the population in an area to reach the density to be called “urban”, for the architecture to have the age and vertical growth to be called “urban”, and for the place to undergo the cumulative divergence from elsewhere to be called “urban”. While planning for the future of chunks of a pre-existing urban area makes sense, the New Urbanist mindset is that of Planned Development – the idea that you can create a urban area ex nihilo through greenfield development, as in “Downtown” Virginia Beach.

That doesn’t work. There’s a myth that a great city can be built in a fell swoop through planning, and people talk about DC and L’Enfant as though that supports it. Thing is, L’Enfant planned DC back in 1791. And had you walked around DC in 1810 or 1820, you would not have seen the 1810 or 1820 equivalent of modern-day Washington, DC. You would have seen the 1810 or 1820 equivalent of Brasilia in the 60s or Abuja in the 90s: dreams of grandeur implemented as cutting-edge failure. It took a hundred years of growth, the McMillan plan around 1900, and another hundred years of growth to make DC into what it is today. L’Enfant’s grand plan is a legend and a lie.

As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor was it built in a generation. No city is, but New Urbanism flies in the face of that. Fact is, “new” is contradictory with “urban” except in the sense that the outermost piece of string in a twine ball is “new”.

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