Introduction to New Urbanism: What is it and why is it important?

As our cities and suburbs continue to sprawl outward, a movement called New Urbanism is aiming to reverse decades of car-dependent suburban development and revitalize our urban cores. In this article, we’ll explore what New Urbanism is, its key principles, and why this movement is so critical for creating vibrant, sustainable communities.

What is New Urbanism?

New Urbanism is an urban design movement that began in the 1980s promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods built with transit-oriented development. The goal is to reduce sprawl and dependence on cars by building compact, pedestrian-friendly communities centered around public spaces like parks, plazas, and squares.

Some key principles of New Urbanism include:

  • Walkability – Neighborhoods are designed for walking over driving, with short blocks, wide sidewalks, and amenities within a 10-minute walk.
  • Connectivity – Streets form an interconnected network, dispersing traffic and making destinations easily accessible.
  • Mixed-Use – Blending residential, commercial, and recreational uses together to create vibrant 24-hour neighborhoods.
  • Diversity – People of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds can afford to live in the same community.
  • Quality Architecture – Human-scale buildings with engaging architecture foster community identity.
  • Traditional Neighborhood Structure – Neighborhoods have discernible centers and edges with higher densities in the center tapering toward the edge.
  • Increased Density – More compact development preserves open space and reduces sprawl.
  • Green Transportation – Biking, walking, and public transit are encouraged over driving.
  • Sustainability – Environmental responsibility is incorporated throughout the planning and development process.

Brief History of the New Urbanism Movement

New Urbanism emerged in the 1980s as a response to suburban sprawl and declining urban centers. Early New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida brought back elements of traditional neighborhood design.

In 1993, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) formed to promote walkable urban development. Over the decades, New Urbanism has had a major influence on cities like Portland, Oregon that have used its principles to guide urban revitalization.

Federal policies have also embraced New Urbanism. In 2009, the Obama administration established the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to support transit-oriented development. More recently, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocates billions to projects aligned with New Urbanism principles.

Real-World Examples of New Urbanism

New Urbanist principles have been applied to projects across North America:

The Pearl District – This formerly industrial area in downtown Portland, Oregon has transformed into a thriving high-density, mixed-use neighborhood. With excellent walkability, green spaces, and transit access, the Pearl District exemplifies smart growth.

Cornell Tech Campus – Opened on New York’s Roosevelt Island in 2017, the new Cornell Tech graduate school campus was designed as a model of environmental sustainability and walkability.

Downtown Denver – Once declining, downtown Denver has made an impressive comeback by investing in pedestrian infrastructure and public spaces, like the 16th Street Mall.

False Creek North, Vancouver – Built on former industrial land in Vancouver, False Creek North is a model sustainable community with green buildings, walkable streets, and easy access to transit and amenities.

New Town, St. Charles -St. Charles, Missouri is home to one of the first major New Urbanist developments, New Town at St. Charles. Built starting in the late 1990s, New Town covers 500 acres and consists of a dense, walkable neighborhood center surrounded by traditional neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with porches and alley-loaded garages.

The neighborhood center contains a mixed-use main street lined with restaurants, shops, offices, and apartments. Public spaces like parks, plazas, and a lakefront promenade give New Town a strong sense of community. The streets form an interconnected grid with wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and rear parking to encourage walking.

With its pedestrian friendly streetscapes, human-scale architecture, mixed uses, and density, New Town demonstrates the key principles of New Urbanism. It serves as an influential example of the New Urbanist approach to designing communities.

The Benefits of New Urbanism

So why does New Urbanism matter? What are the benefits of embracing these principles?

  • Increased walkability and physical activity – New Urbanist neighborhoods encourage more walking, biking, and taking public transit, reducing rates of chronic illnesses linked to inactivity.
  • Reduced traffic congestion and emissions – Dense mixed-use development located near transit reduces reliance on cars. This saves commuting time, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and improves air quality.
  • Preserved natural areas – By promoting higher-density development, New Urbanism helps preserve farmland and wildlife habitat from sprawling suburban growth.
  • Stronger local economies – Walkable urban places create vibrant retail and entertainment districts that keep money circulating locally. Clustering offices, housing, and amenities together also reduces commuting time.
  • Increased affordability – Compact neighborhoods allow lower-income families to live closer to jobs and amenities. Transportation costs are reduced by having to drive less.
  • Greater sense of community – New Urbanist design promotes social interaction and fosters a sense of community identity. Public spaces become venues for events and gatherings.

As we look to make our towns and cities more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and vibrant, New Urbanism offers an effective model for how to design and revitalize urban areas. What began as a fringe movement in the 1980s has now become a powerful force shaping the future of cities.