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Peter Katz: The New Urbanism - Towards an Architecture of Community

Friday, March 18, 2011




A review of the 1994 book by Angela Heaney.

The author, Peter Katz, is a design and marketing consultant based in California, San Francisco and Seattle, Washington.
He studied architecture and graphic design at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and now lectures frequently on urban issues to universities and citizen’s groups.

The aim of the book, and the New Urbanism movement, is to address many of the critical issues of our time: the decline of America’s cities, the rebuilding of its disintegrated infrastructure, housing affordability, and crime and traffic congestion, while trying to return to a “cherished American icon: that of a compact, close-knit community.”

For the majority of human history, people have gathered together for mutual security and to be close to critical resources, however, Katz believes that with the introduction of the automobile and a host of other factors, it provided an opportunity for people to disperse and in the post war era, suburbia became the lifestyle choice for most Americans.

He believes this new way of living fragmented America’s society – separating friends and relatives and “breaking down the bonds of community,” of which the devastating consequences were disregarded for some time.

This book is structured by essays and 24 case- study projects, put forward by the leading figures of the New Urbanism movement that emerged in the United States in the late 1970’s. The intention of the New Urbanism is to suggest alternatives to the present sprawl and isolation that they view as a consequence of decades of poorly planned suburban growth.

The designs of the New Urbanism integrate workplaces, shops, housing, parks and civic facilities into close-knit communities that are both “charming and functional.” The ability to walk is most important, however, cars aren’t excluded. Public places are the central core for these designs which can be made up of sites for parks, schools, churches, meeting halls and other civic uses. Affordability is a significant consideration in the design process-a wide range of housing types are intended to meet the needs of all levels of society. Most of these neighbourhood communities are planned to comprise an efficient connection with the larger metropolitan region, through the use of transit, both bus and rail.

The New Urbanism is concerned with both the pieces and the whole, and according to Peter Calthorpe, one of the founding members of this movement, there are two principles of urban design to the region. Firstly, urbanism should be applied regardless of location- in suburbs, new growth areas and the city. The second principle acknowledges that the entire region should be treated as a whole- socially, economically and ecologically.
With regards to a growing region, Calthorpe rejects any attempt to limit overall growth or allow it to expand uncontrollably, maintaining that both actions would result in either further sprawl or disagreeable traffic, congestion and a loss of identity. As an alternative, he suggests that growth at the region should be accommodated first in infill and redevelopment, to utilize existing infrastructure and preserve open space, and then in new growth areas and satellite towns that are within transit proximity to the city centre.
Peter Calthorpe’s work is centred on TOD- Transit Oriented Development, “an attempt to regroup the suburb into a density which makes public transit feasible.”

Each of these strategies is central to the thesis of a New Urbanism:



“…that a regional system of open space and transit complemented with pedestrian friendly development patterns can help revitalise an urban centre at the same time it helps to order suburban growth.”


An additional focus of the New Urbanism movement is TND – Traditional Neighbourhood Development; proposing a model of urbanism that is limited in area and structured around a defined centre. This composition was first implemented by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, directors of the architecture and town planning practice DPZ, in Miami, Florida.
They state that the fundamental organizing elements of the New Urbanism are the neighbourhood, the district and the corridor. Neighbourhoods are urbanized areas with a balanced mix of human activity- such as dwelling, shopping, working, schooling, worshipping and recreating, structured on a fine network of interconnecting streets that give priority to public space. Districts are similar to neighbourhoods, however are dominated by a single activity. Districts rely on a connection to transit and interconnected circulation that supports the pedestrian and creates a ‘sense of place.’ The corridor is the connector and separator of neighbourhoods and districts and it is characterized by its visual continuity. Its location and type are determined by its technological intensity and nearby densities.



“The New Urbanism offers an alternative future for the building and re-building of regions. Neighbourhoods that are compact, mixed-use and pedestrian friendly; districts of appropriate location and character; and corridors that are functional and beautiful can integrate natural environments and man-made communities into a sustainable whole.”


The form of the New Urbanism is realized by the deliberate assembly of streets, blocks and buildings. “Buildings, blocks and streets are interdependent. Each one contains to some degree the ingredients of all the others.” Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides apply this strategy to the New Urbanism; they believe the building of the public realm has been handled with little regard for those it actually serves and the quality of life it generates and so, they aim to focus on, “a shared space in society which brings people together, to relate to one another and/or to be separate.”
Streets are not to be the dividing lines within the city; they are to be the communal rooms and passages within a network of connectedness and continuity to encourage a mix of uses. A variety of streets will exist on a hierarchy based on their vehicular and pedestrian loads and their architectural character will be based on their arrangement on plan and section.
The block unfolds both the building fabric and the public realm of the city and allows a mutually beneficial relationship between people and vehicles. Ultimately, they should be designed and configured to prioritise the pedestrian.
The building follows three key principles; use, density and form. They are to be designed by reference to their type, not solely their function, to allow for multiple adaptations over time. Buildings should form the public realm, express the importance of public shared institutions and improve the daily working and home life of the citizenry.
Furthermore, each street, block and building shall be typically designed and presented in the form of a code to follow the “American tradition of safeguarding the public realm.”



“The judicious application of codes is to result in a diverse, beautiful and predictable fabric of buildings, open space and landscape that can structure villages, towns, cities and the metropolitan region.”

The New Urbanism advocates an ambitious agenda for the building and rebuilding of our neighbourhoods, towns and cities and it is a clear step in diminishing the present sprawl and isolation in many poorly planned suburban growth areas throughout America, yet, how influential will the New Urbanists be? It is evident that public sentiment is gathering behind them; local government and planning institutes are following New Urbanists ideas to reconsider land use patterns that generate excessive automobile use and countless firms and planning agencies are embracing the New Urbanist strategies in redevelopment plans, design review guidelines and zoning laws. However, many new developments are adopting these ideas only superficially, as motifs to enhance their marketing strategies and a number of critics argue that the New Urbanist projects emphasize visual style over planning substance.
The concept of the New Urbanism seeks to revive the public realm, which is being increasingly privatised, and revitalise cities and communities that have deteriorated over time, mainly due to the excessive use of the automobile and the consequences that it left. Nevertheless, the types of communities the New Urbanists envision are unlikely to emerge from design initiatives alone. Once a project is completed, layers of community organisation will develop.
Toward an Architecture of Community, the book’s subtitle, is what this book is primarily about. Yet, there are questions to consider; will the beautifully drawn neighbourhood open space truly be public or will it be controlled by a private home owner’s association? And will community facilities such as day care centres, churches and meeting rooms be available to all?
The New Urbanism is a noteworthy step forward; however it is only a step. At best, it has significantly refocused the public’s attention more strongly on how the design of our communities has a very real impact on our lives.

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