|Older commercial street of Syracuse, New York|
|Northeastern American streetcar suburb, detached houses built deep, grass and trees between sidewalk and the street...|
|New Urbanist development in Markham, Ontario: detached houses built deep, grass and trees between sidewalks and the street|
|Dorchester, a traditional area in the UK|
|Poundbury, Prince Charles' designed neo-traditional city|
A system analysis: input, process, outputIn the end, city-building is not magic, it is a certain system, and all systems have inputs, a process and outputs that depend on the previous two.
|Basic system schematic of how a city comes to be (according to me, if you disagree, throw tomatoes)|
|How traditional cities came to be|
Now, what about the process? Well, wide-scaled planning was extremely rare, and even when there was regulation, it wasn't always implemented as civil authorities were often weak. As a result, prices and economics decided how cities would grow and incremental development was the rule, with individual actors doing largely what they wanted with their property, trying to achieve the most benefits from the smallest cost. As the modes of transport were walking and horses, streets and transport infrastructure were designed for these.
|Evidence of incremental city-building process: stone walls of older houses incorporated in brick wall of more recent building, Montréal|
All of these factors combined to result in the traditional city, which largely grew organically, through piecemeal development, following price signals and economic needs of the residents.
Sprawl was a result of inputs and process changing radically...
|System resulting in sprawl|
The process was completely up-ended. No more incremental development, now planning was the rule, entire neighborhoods and subdivisions would be planned from the ground up so that empty fields would become a neighborhood in its final form without going through any intermediate form. Regulations aimed at preserving neighborhoods' current looks were adopted to prevent any incremental change. Governments started subsidizing certain lifestyles over others (tax rebates for mortgages to encourage home ownership, allowing free parking on the streets, etc...) which changed price signals and encouraged people to these lifestyles over other ones. New areas were designed foremost with cars in mind, using highways to allow cities to spread further.
All of these changes resulted in sprawl, in towers in park(ing lots), etc...
Sprawl has become highly criticized nowadays, with good reasons, so neo-traditionalists want to change the current equation that leads to sprawl. But I think one can separate neo-traditionalists in two groups: those focused on outcome, and those focused on process. You can't focus on changing inputs because these are largely out of our grasp, things we have to deal with, not things we can change.
Neo-traditionalism focused on outcome
OK, so as I said in the beginning of the post, many New Urbanists are really focused on the outcome, in some extreme cases, they have been accused of "cargo cult urbanism", of wanting certain buildings or streets regardless if that's what was actually suited or not. What they want to do is build the traditional city again, neighborhoods that look like older neighborhoods, that copy their form. However, most New Urbanists are not questioning too much the modern process of city-building. They don't seem to care that much about HOW the traditional city came to be, they just want to have that particular outcome. So what they want to do is fine tune the process, with the hope of attaining their objective:
|Summary of the approach of New Urbanists focused on the outcome|
The big problem with that approach is that the traditional city made economic sense and responded well to people's aspirations and means back in the day, but these have changed. Much has been said about the decline of population of North American cities in the post-war era, but the reality that is not spoken as much is WHY the decline occurred. Yes, some neighborhoods were "urban renewed" into oblivion, but the loss of housing wasn't the primary culprit, it was the reduction of household sizes that caused most of the population reduction.
In the US, the average household size in the 1950s was 3,6 people, now, it's 2,6. Worse still, housing in the 50s was smaller than more recent housing, so if you looked at urban housing, the decline would probably be even worse. When you had 20 units per hectare (8 per acre) in 1950, that gave you a density of 7 200 people per square kilometer, or about 18 000 per square mile. But the same neighborhood today would maybe have only 4 000 people per square kilometer (around 10 000 per square mile), because the average unit would house less people.
If you try to build a new area like a streetcar suburb of the 19th century today, you would not achieve anywhere near the same level of walking mode share or vibrancy because the population density would be much lower today than it was in the 19th century. So if you want to have the same population density, you need to build much more units in the same area... and that often means taller, which many New Urbanists do not want as it is not a copy of past cities. But the inputs have changed, and it must be accounted for.
Same thing for retail, back in the day of traditional cities, all the stores were small residential stores, but nowadays, people are used to bigger stores with more choices and better prices. Stores that do not fit in traditional city form, full of small buildings that are too small to fit the big stores. If you stubbornly refuse to provide the place for these stores to exist, you may convince people to take cars to big box stores in car-oriented developments instead. Which exemplifies one of the biggest pitfalls of this approach: older areas were optimized to satisfy people of an earlier era, modern tastes may well differ, so why expect people today to be just as satisfied with 19th-century housing as 19th-century people were with it?
Neo-traditionalism focused on processSo the first group was focused on building new areas that copy older areas, hoping to achieve the same positive results. The second group, much less influential and organized, is interested not necessarily in the FORM of traditional cities, but on the processes that led to their creation. I would say that Strongtowns is the biggest organization I can think of that seems to take this approach.
The idea is the following: the traditional city was built under a certain set of rules of incremental development based on maximizing returns and optimizing the use of space and resources to obtain the most benefits at the smallest cost, and indeed, as long as the process stayed the same, traditional cities adapted well to new technologies and changing wealth levels. Streetcar suburbs were different from traditional cities of earlier eras, but they are still highly effective and economically efficient. Though the inputs changed, the process of their creation was similar.
So, instead of trying to merely copy traditional forms that were well-suited for earlier times, maybe we should instead try to return to the process that led to traditional cities.
Will returning to the traditional process (or approaching it) result in areas that look exactly like traditional cities? No, it won't. As I said above, the inputs have changed, technology has changed, the economy has changed. In the traditional city, all buildings looked similar even without regulation because the material used to build the house was sourced locally due to the economic realities of transport and there were few people who were able to build houses adequately. These people knew how to build houses that would stand largely by rote, not by scientific knowledge of load-bearing properties of different structures, so they built the same model of house with the same materials over and over.
Nowadays, we can import building materials from the other side of the world without major costs or issues. Engineers and architects can design buildings in whatever form they want, we have the knowledge to evaluate designs that can stand and those that can't, we don't need to proceed by trial and error. People also demand better made housing and bigger living quarters, which may well result in mid-rises and high-rises being the best, logical answer to these needs in given areas rather than traditional low-rise walk-ups. Chain stores demand bigger floor areas than previous neighborhood stores did, so we may need malls or huge multi-story department stores, etc...
All of these mean that since the needs and desires of society has changed, this traditional process will also have a different output than it did in the past. However, it is the belief of these neo-traditionalists (and I qualify myself as one) that if we get the incentives right, the process right, then we should not fear change. It may not look like the old traditional city, but it will WORK like it, because the same logic will shape it.
ConclusionSo that's my take on the two different approaches of neo-traditionalism in urbanism: one, which tends to attract architects, is more focused on using modern planning systems tweaked to obtain cities that look like old traditional cities, and the other, which tends to attract economists more, which cares most about using a traditional process of incremental city-building.
In the real-world, we can see the first approach in "eco-neighborhoods" like Jakriborg in Sweden, a high-density area built to look like an old Swedish city with traditional architecture... which was also built from scratch in the middle of a field, next to a train station.
|Jakriborg, meant to look like a traditional city, but built in the middle of nowhere next to transit, using a modern approach of planning developments to their smallest detail before beginning construction on anything|