New Urbanism, simply put, is the creation of simplistic space that provides a compact, green friendly area that serves to bring people closer together rather than dividing us in several ways. The overall goal is to make living space usable by the populace without the need for mass transit or long distance car rides.
The major focus here is community. No black, white, or Latino communities but realistic integrated communities that tie people together through usable space. What New Urbanists seek is the end of division and suburban sprawl that creates division and cessation amongst the population and unites people by offering housing, shops, and activities without the feeling anomie that comes about from enlarged spaces. Parks, schools, and shops would be within walking distance instead of belabored amongst big-box stores, industrial campuses, and hidden in small slices. Benefits of this structure include the ability to build communal relationships with those in the general area, close proximity to schools, easy to walk to shops and grocers, and the thoughtful use of space in a given area without non-concentric zoning.
Author James Kunstler offers this ideal of what he sees in the New Urbanist movement:
The New Urbanists are also disdained for their modesty of ambition. They are not interested in the biggest this or that. Their plans are typically scaled to the quarter-mile walk and rarely include super-sized buildings. The cutting edge holds no attractions for them in and of itself. They want to create neighborhoods and quarters, not intergalactic space ports. They want the streets, squares, and building facades to provide decorum, legibility, and even beauty, while the latest crop of Modernists seek to confound our expectations about the urban environment as much as possible, in the service of generating anxiety rather than pleasure.
Essentially, Kunstler is diagramming a neighborhood structure that remains true to the past ideal of what makes a city. Something we’ve lost over time is the sense of “community” that, in the past, was the mainstay of any environ. New Urbanism seeks to bring back that sense, or feeling, of community by structuring usable space so that neighborhoods grow by offering proximity to schools and affordable housing.
Another viewpoint of New Urbanism stems from Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Duany and Plater-Zyberk highlight 13 points they feel create an authetic neighborhood. These points being:
- The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
- Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 2,000 feet.
- There are a variety of dwelling types—usually houses, rowhouses and apartments—so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
- At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
- A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, office or craft workshop).
- An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
- There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling—not more than a tenth of a mile away.
- Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
- The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
- Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
- Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
- Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
- The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.
These 13 points highlight a liberal doctrine of modesty while stressing the need for a reasonable use of space. Points 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8 are of high importance as they emphasize community structure and closeness of all socio-ethnic groups in one space.
This is one area in which Alexandria should take a lesson from Europe. The one thing that is missing and has always been missing in all of our downtown redevelopment plans has been people. Just ask the business owners who operate in the area — their biggest problem is the supply of customers.
Most plans have focussed on getting people to go downtown. Why not take a more logical approach and get them to actually live downtown. Most city centres in Europe or even Latin America are great examples of working, proven, multi-use development. Look at any square and you will see rows of buildings with ecclectic uses.
The standard model is to have a Restaurant or Retail business on the first floor of a building, then office space above, and finally a few apartments above that. People can shop, eat, work, and live in the area, and they do because it becomes their neighborhood and home. Go to New York, Boston, Philly, or even our own great French Quarter and you’ll find this same proven, working example of what we should be doing in downtown Alexandria.
Andy, this has been one of my suggestions for awhile and i’ve talked about living space with Lamar over and over. Having living space above department stores, small shops is a very safe, alternative way to put people in the position to live amongst the downtown. Condos, like they have in Natchitoches, are a good idea but too wasteful and project a higher standard of living without accomidating for us poor folk.
Even though it was a abnormal Mexican town, Poza Rica had a nice cityscape that offered easy transit to Centro if you walked (like me) or rode your bike (like yourself). The same thing was true with Veracruz as it had the old style feel of a Spanish settlement with the urban environment of New Orleans. These are models in my mind of how urban projection in Alexandria should be undertaken. Instead of building in the far off stretches, we should cast our eye towards town and redevelopment the forgotten spaces we have and offer affordable housing for the citizens. Not just Section 8 but the whole scope of economic housing.
Thanks for your comment, Drew. As Geoff said, this is definitely something we can all agree on.
Kunstler talks about Parisian boulevards in his book, “The Geography of Nowhere,” and I think it’s one of the best examples of how American planning, particularly the planning and construction of roads, highways, and interstates, actually undermine a sense of community. He says that American cities plan their roads around bad drivers.
This means inordinately wide lines, no trees, minimal sidewalk or pedestrian access, and the avoidance of T-intersections when possible.
The notion is that such planning encourages “safer” driving conditions; however, it also has one significant and unintended consequence: It practically eliminates the possibilities of pedestrian or bicycle traffic; children cannot ride their bikes to school anymore, because roads are planned around the driver– lack of sidewalks, the ability for a driver to reach speeds well in excess of 60mph (in a residential neighborhood) and lack of trees (acting as a buffer) make it nearly impossible for children to safely ride their bikes. But, as Kunstler points out, this doesn’t just affect children: It affects anyone who seeks to explore their community by foot or bicycle. If you do not own a car in America, you’re reliant on public transportation– and of course, there are significant quality of life problems associated with an ineffective public transportation system.
Anyway, back to the Parisian boulevards comparison: In Paris, streets may still be six, seven, or even eight lanes wide, but at least two of those lanes are reserved for parking, which creates a much-needed buffer between traffic flow and the sidewalks. (This, he argues, is what allows Parisians to enjoy brasseries and cafes). It also creates a subculture of people who can use scooters — and not cars– to move around. In addition to those wide boulevards with parking as buffer zones, Paris also took steps to ensure that streets were lined with trees; again, for them, the issue was the safety of those who walk and ride their bicycles.
America in general, and Cenla specifically are not the most cyclist friendly places. I’ve always been proud of being one of those nutjobs who rebels aginst the norm by trying to bike as many places as I can. One summer I took classes at Northwestern and commuted everyday. I’ll never forget how many people would stop and ask what was wrong with me when I’d be commuting via bicycle from Alexandria. That’s maybe a little farther than most people are normally willing to ride, but the sad fact is that it was easier and safer to ride from Alex to Natchitoches than to ride in town.
I currently live in Germany and one thing you notice right away is that EVERY street, road, highway, etc has a separate bike and pedestrian trail. In town this is a separate part of the (nice and wide) sidewalk. But in the suburbs and rural areas it’s an actual trail in a mini park (maybe a strip of land only 10 yards wide) with a paved or pea-gravel trail, trees, and the occasional bench.
It’s so nice to see people out just enjoying a walk between their homes and the nearsest supermarket or whatever destination they may have.
We should be looking at ways of implementing a similar system in Cenla. There are plenty of cyclists in Cenla, several cyclig clubs, and even a few great bike stores. When I was living in New Orleans, I would meet people all the time on the bike trails there who would talk about how much they loved riding in the country near Alexandria. But, the one thing we don’t have is predestrican/cyclist friendly travel in Alexandria.
There was a funding aproval decades ago to redevelop Bayou Rapides into a Cane River type setting. That money vaporized like so much funding in our city’s past. A few years ago there was another atempt at developing a nature park in the area, but the city didn’t want to pay for the upkeep.
The fact is, we need not only neighborhood biketrails, but greenspace-thruways plowing right through the city connecting the various areas with safe, clean, cyclist and pedestrian friendly routes.