Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Urbanism vs. New Urbanism

Writing this blog has been a voyage of discovery for me.  Seeing the world through eyes of a blog-writer has sharpened my perceptions of the places I visit and the materials I read.

It has also forced me to think harder about how to organize the new information and insights in my head.

This last was highlighted when an acquaintance recently asked me to define urbanism.

When I began this blog, I described the subject as “new urbanism”.  Indeed, I still tag every post with that phrase.  But over time, I began using the simpler “urbanism” on the grounds that all urbanism is the same.  Plus I was saving the occasional word in a vain effort to staunch my prolixity.

Despite the move to “urbanism” in my blog posts, I wasn’t quite comfortable about “new urbanism” versus “urbanism”.   As a result, I was unprepared when asked the question.  I bumbled through a response and gratefully allowed the conversation to swirl onwards.

But a poorly answered question is like a rash.  One remains aware of it and struggles not scratch at it.  So, after long cogitation, I’ve reached a temporary conclusion.  It’s a conclusion because I feel settled about the concepts.  But it’s temporary because I remain open to new insights, either from others or from my own thinking.

I’ve decided that “urbanism” and “new urbanisms” are slightly different beasts.  These are my definitions:

Urbanism – The planning theories and practices to prepare existing metropolitan areas for the 21st century.  The changes to be sought in cities are accommodation to changing business, cultural, and demographic conditions and remediation of wounds inflicted on cities in the 20th century, such as suburban flight, ineffective accommodation of the automobile, and poorly conceived urban policies.

New Urbanism – The planning theories and practices to translate the best aspects of urban life, such as walkability, access to transit, and use of public places, to towns that are increasing in need of those features in the 21st century.

Although I’ll likely continue using “urbanism” as shorthand in this blog, most of the North Bay issues which I’ll address will be “new urbanism”.  Perhaps only Santa Rosa can be considered an existing metropolis and that’s a close call.

Luckily, the tool sets for urbanism and new urbanism are largely the same.  From a design perspective, they’re nearly identical, with the issues around a transit-oriented development, for example, being much the same in Oakland or in Sonoma County.  It’s the public policy side on which the tool sets are different.  Most residents of Oakland would already understand the need for transit-oriented development whereas a discussion would need to be held with many Sonoma County residents.  Of course, this blog is intended to help that discussion along.

So there it is, urbanism and new urbanism are close, but not quite the same thing.  If anyone wants to challenge or to quibble with my definitions, please do so.  I’m much better prepared for the discussion than I was a couple of weeks ago.

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


  1. There's one other type: old urbanism, which centers on the policies and practices surrounding organic, ancient urban centers. Old Urbanist is someone that writes about this a fair amount. You may find his blog of interest.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I often come across The Old Urbanist in my internet wanderings and enjoy his thoughts.

      I don't immediately agree that Old Urbanism is distinct from Urbanism and New Urbanism. Instead, I see the "organic, ancient urban centers" as a source of ideas that apply to both Urbanism and New Urbanism. But I'm willing to keep an open mind on the distinctions.

      Thanks again for writing.