Friday, March 9, 2012

New Urbanism versus Old Urbanism

For those who have worked with me, it may seem odd that I’m writing a blog on new urbanism. Not so much the land-use philosophy, although some may also be surprised by that, but the advocacy of a concept that includes the word “new”.

I’ve often railed against the word “new” in describing alternative solutions or configurations. Perhaps it makes sense on Friday to designate a revised site plan as “new” to distinguish it from the site plan that was issued on Tuesday. But after the project has goes on hiatus for a couple of years, having “old” and “new” distinguish alternatives that were prepared three days apart seems rather silly.

My favorite example is the New Forest of England, south of Salisbury. It was created by William the Conqueror in 1079. It’ll reach its millennial year later this century, but it still known as “New”. The word has lost all descriptive value.

Nonetheless, “new urbanism” is the name by which we know the contemporary planning philosophy of creating new and improved opportunities for urban life. I may find it silly, but I wouldn’t presume to change the term.

But the term “new urbanism” poses two questions. What was “old urbanism”? And is “new urbanism” really better than “old urbanism”?

To me, it’s all “urbanism”. Since the founding of the first city, we’ve has been looking for better ways to organize cities. Sometimes cities were based on religious precepts. Other times, kings would set down the rules for city planning. Or merchants would create the districts they needed to thrive financially. But later generations would learn lessons from the successes and failures of preceding generations and try to do better.

Some visionaries, such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Jane Jacobs saw clearly and with long-term foresight. Others, such as Robert Moses, looked through lenses that were distorted by the love of power. But slowly, we learned more about how to make better cities.

Over those 6,000 years, there have been significant technological innovations that have changed the faces of cities. Two of those have occurred in relatively recent history, the invention of the automobile for personal transportation that brings more people and more metal into downtown and the invention of the personal computer that allows more dispersed workplaces. If “new urbanism” can be distinguished from “old urbanism”, it is that new urbanism is an attempt to accommodate those changes while trying to preserve and enhance livable cities. But urbanism has always been trying to accommodate new technologies, from the camel to the railroad.

“New urbanism” is probably better than “old urbanism”, but only because each generation builds on the knowledge of its predecessors and adds its own insights. As Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We needn’t reinvent cities, but new urbanism can try to make them better.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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