Monday, April 23, 2007

New Urbanist Sprawl

"New urbanism" conjures up many images in my mind: dense streetscapes with row houses, ancient shade trees hovering over the streets, neighborhood corner stores dotting the residential grid, and sprawling open fields for as far as the eye can see...

See a problem with this new urbanist vision? So do I. Unfortunately, leading new urbanist planning firm Duany Plater-Zybek & Co. (DPZ) doesn't. They are responsible for creating The New Town at St. Charles, one of the first new urbanist developments in the St. Louis metro area, located approximately 25 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis in St. Charles County, the metro area's fastest growing county. A new urbanist development so far away from the core city, you say? Well, at least it's close to something... right?

'Fraid not. Take a look at this September '06 aerial photo from New Town's website:

When complete, the New Town at St. Charles will have sprouted 4,900 residential units and six town and neighborhood centers on 740 acres of land, according to an article from New Urban News. To give credit to DPZ, they've thought of just about everything for this start-from-scratch new suburbanist development: dense layout, commercial/residential mix, open space lining a series of man-made lakes doubling as retention ponds for stormwater runoff.

Standing in the heart of New Town, you'll quickly absorb the neighborhood's man-made, inorganic charm. But step to the edge of the neighborhood and you'll stare out over huge agricultural fields that separate this development from the rest of civilization. Of course, in the next fifteen to twenty years, expect to see New Town surrounded by more sprawling residential development.

There are two main flaws that The New Town at St. Charles embodies: sterilization and isolation. The first flaw is a complaint that could be directed at New Urbanism in general. In attempting to reconstruct the perfect traditional neighborhood, the product is created, packaged and sold to buyers for them to accept as it is. Every detail has already been considered, and there is no room for organic growth by residents of the community. Growth is planned for, never spontaneous.

The second flaw is the location of the development. Located 25 miles from downtown St. Louis, in a greenfield on the northern edge of the suburban City of St. Charles, in a county of 330,000 that doesn't even have a public transportation system, New Town is hardly connected to the metro region. Sure, you may be able to walk just five minutes to get to one of the neighborhood's shops, restaurants or other businesses; but New Town is not a self-sustaining community. To get anywhere outside the development, you'll need a car.

The Congress for New Urbanism, one of the leading promoters of the new urbanist movement, is self-described as "the leading organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl". Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck of DPZ happen to be on the board emeritus for the Congress for New Urbanism. With that being said, we should expect that their work as new urbanists would embody the principles of the the new urbanist movement, including promoting alternatives to sprawl. Has the community they've created in The New Town at St. Charles really offered an alternative to sprawl? Or is it simply repackaged sprawl, designed with enough traditional character and substantial density overshadow its sprawling greenfield location? I would suggest the latter.

New urbanists should concentrate on the implied location of their moniker - the city. Reutilization of existing infrastructure, buildings, and transportation networks can help control the region's footprint and increase the efficiency of existing public services. When new urbanists develop greenfield sites on the suburban fringe, as DPZ have done with New Town, they are simply contributing to sprawl just like so many other developers, only they have a catchy name like "new urbanist" to help sell their product.


Economics of Cities said...

I share some of your feelings about developments that call them selves “new urbanist.” When they’re located so far from any employment center with no access to transit, they’re not much more than suburban developments with urban facades. The “new urbanist” label becomes little more than a marketing ploy.

AC said...

I agree with your comment that new urbanist designers overspecify the details.

But I think your criticism of location is unfair in some instances. Where else are they going to build them? Assembling the land necessary for a project like this is hard. And, then, even if they can assemble the land, they usually have to overcome statist zoning. Neighborhood groups often fight dense developments like these tooth and nail, whether greenfield or brownfield. (A rare exception is the redevelopment of Austin's Mueller airport).

The combination of the need for space and freedom from zoning regulations pushes these developments out to the suburban fringes.