Design: New Urbanism

free essayAs a response to urban sprawl, the New Urbanism has been around for five decades. The problem of low-density suburban areas includes many ecological issues, the problem of obesity, a lack of physical activity, and dependence on auto vehicles. New Urbanism promises to provide compact residential areas with many opportunities for walking and communicating, as well as public transport and surveillance. However, the new design movement is criticized for its break with reality and ineffectiveness.

One of the critics of New Urbanism is journalist Alex Marshall, who wrote How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken, where he argues that there is very little difference between New Urbanism and typical urban sprawl. He explains that sprawl occurred from the development of transportation. People always depend on amenities and shops. They used to walk to the nearby shop and a large number of walking clients sustained businesses. New means of transportation allowed businesses to stay on distance and still have high traffic. Marshall explained, “Cars and highways were antimagnets, spreading things out as much as possible” (11). Large supermarket pushed out retail shops, having emerged because people have cars to get to them.

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Therefore, it is New Urbanism’s error to try to return everything to the nineteenth century mode and demand people to only walk within walking distance and go shopping only to retail shops. Marshall says, they do not attempt to “resurrect the old transportation systems that made the old business districts possible and necessary” (12). It shows that architects do not understand how many customers a retail business needs to survive and do not really want to know.

A critique connected with Marshall’s is about the New Urbanism ignoring the modern world. Namely, Cliff Ellis, in his article “The New Urbanism: Criticues and Rebuttals,” explains that a penchant of New Urbanists to make compact, community-related areas is old-fashioned and away from reality of life (268). Ellis reminds that society has become increasingly individualistic and people value their independence and are not eager to participate in communal life (fig. 1). It means that people do not mind their auto-dependency and welcome “dispersed social networks over traditional neighborhoods” (Ellis 268).

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Another critique of the New Urbanism is a lack of imagination and new aesthetic solutions. Ellis says, “New Urbanism is not itself an architecture style, and can make use of virtually all extant architectural styles, depending on the context” (274). Indeed, new Urbanists largely drew on the existing styles of the past without introducing new directions and innovations. Apparently, New Urbanists prefer to be on the safe side and shy away from experiments and bold transgressions of convenience. Therefore, New Urbanist buildings are mostly reiterations of modern and postmodern architecture styles (Ellis 274).

One of the New Urbanism claims is crime prevention. Location is one of constituents of crime. Therefore, layout of an area is important from the viewpoint of crime prevention. There must be much less crimes on brightly-lit crowded squares than on dark secluded parking lots. However, in order to reduce crime rates, streets should be not only lit but also have a restricted access.

The theory of routine activities argues that criminals look out for potential target, while doing their daily activities and accessibility of target is a crucial factor (fig. 2). It means that if a target has an easy access, it has a potential for being attacked. A lack of access will not attract offenders. Therefore, it is safer to make cul-de-sac layouts because it has a restricted access, which means fewer criminals can get there. This requirement is in contrast with New Urbanists’ ideas of well-established areas. New Urbanists favor grid layouts, believing that open spaces welcome communication and walks (Cozens 430).

Although New Urbanists are preoccupied with worry about safety, they do not have a clear understanding how this can be done. They proclaim the correct things, but, at the same time, they have no idea how to achieve them. The New Urbanism Charter says, “Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian” (qtd in Cozens 432). Their advice, however, contradicts the existing data on safety. For example, New Urbanists put social interaction above all else and promote “interconnected networks of streets” and “permeability” (Cozens 432).

A quote from Charter reveals that New Urbanists do not even want to hear about contradictions in their ideas: “the design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness” (qtd in Cozens 433). However, for the police, permeability is a low point. Thus, New Urbanists rank aesthetics higher than safety, not trying to strike a balance.

In his article “New Urbanism, Crime and the Suburbs: A Review of the Evidence,” Michael Paul Cozens provides an ample evidence in favor of cul-de-sac layouts, as most are crime resistant. Cul-de-sac layouts reduce fear of burglary in residents. Additionally, Cozens reports that New Urbanist areas have crime rates 5 times as much as old style cul-de-sac layouts (434). However, grid layouts can be modified into blind ends with road closures and it reduces the crime levels. In contrast, if cul-de-sac layouts are compromised by pedestrian pathways, the level of safety drops (Cozens 435).

Another weak point in New Urbanism designs is rear laneways. New Urbanists like rear laneways because a car can be hidden. However, burglars actually prefer to break into a house from the back door or rear of the building. According to statistics, 50% of burglaries are done from the rear end of the building (Cozens 435). From the viewpoint of safety, the rear end of the building or rear laneway is the worse way to park a car. It is better to keep a vehicle in the yard, so it is not removed from the view. However, the best way is to keep a car in a garage. Only surveillance can improve the situation and reduce a risk of car theft.

Additionally, New Urbanists promote mixed uses in residential area, in order to reduce criminal activity. However, data reveal that mixed uses, in fact, increase crime in the area, saying “crime was more frequent in accessible areaswith commercial land use” (Cozens 436). Shops, schools, services, and caf?s attract not only customers and ordinary people, but also criminal offenders. It is easier for them to blend in and estimate how protected a target is and when they can strike. Therefore, New Urbanists’ favorite mixed uses in residential areas should not be encouraged because it is not safe.

Thus, New Urbanism is criticized for not being innovative and fresh enough, as well as not being able to solve the problem of sprawls and highways. Elements of new urban design, promoted by New Urbanists, such as permeatable grid layouts, rear laneways, and mixed use areas result in an increasing level of crime and should be avoided. Meanwhile, elements are not favorable by New Urbanists, such as cul-de-sac layouts, front yard parking, and homogeneous areas are advised from the viewpoint of safety.