Urban Debates


We are all urbanists.  In an age of industrial, post-industrial and global economies, the urban condition is everywhere; even the extreme hinterlands are not immune from the physical and cultural influences of the city.  Yet this ubiquitous and universal urbanism has not produced multiple understandings of the city’s design.  Representing this pervasive and silent urbanity, and collecting many of the prominent names in American city-making, the recent “Exploring (New) Urbanism” conference held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design will perhaps be remembered as the defining moment in late 20th century urbanism. (1)

Urban exploration was the focus of the conference and, as implied by its title, specifically that strange form of it known as New.  That a major conference on the urban environment should focus on New Urbanism represents the movement’s most brilliant and disturbing success.  In attempting to achieve its evangelical mission of reforming the American City, the movement has not only created an urban agenda of singular clarity, but one that is also necessarily limited and directive.  Without an alternative, the singular and limited agenda of The New Urbanism, as it is known by its practitioners, is quickly redefining the possibilities and language of urbanism everywhere by co-opting the very terminology of urbanity.

Originally known as “Traditional Neighborhood Development,” New Urbanism articulated its resistance to suburban sprawl and introduced itself to the larger architecture community throughout the 80’s and early 90’s with a series of pamphlets, monographs, and treatises, including in the “Ahwanee Principles.” (2) However, it was the first Congress for the New Urbanism, convened in 1993 at Alexandria, Virginia, that established New Urbanism as a cohesive and collective national movement.  Ultimately, this collective belief was manifested with the “Charter for the New Urbanism,” which was signed in 1996 at the fourth Congress, held in Charleston, South Carolina.  Throughout the 90’s a variety of other conferences and debates have focused upon and critiqued the movement, including the recent September 1998 invitation-only conference hosted by the Seaside Institute, an event that foreshadowed the public debate at Harvard. (3)

New Urbanism is, of course, best known for Seaside, a small Florida resort town that its greatest success and its most damning stereotype, a situation exacerbated by The Truman Show. (4)  However, New Urbanism is more than Seaside.  As introduced by New Urbanists Peter Calthorpe and Ray Gindroz Thursday evening, the movement represents a broad range of city building and re-building.  It is a collection of shared urban design principles, operative at various scales, with Calthorpe’s plans for Salt Lake City, Portland, and various California cities showing the region and town; and Gindroz’s reconstructed housing projects representing neighborhoods and streets.  The principles guiding this work are outlined in both the New Urbanist charter, the forthcoming Charter Book, and various urban design manuals, which will soon be available on the organization’s web site. (5) Illustrated ‘one principle to one page’ in the manuals, these principles are simple, elegant, but not particularly new.  To claim that “the primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use” (6) is to restate an ancient urban tradition.  Likewise, it is hardly radical to argue that “appropriate building densities and land uses should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.” (7) Enacted in concert, these twenty-seven principles produce a metropolis of multiple, yet dense walkable neighborhood centers, connected via transit and bounded by regional and local park systems.  Boston itself might be the ideal New Urbanist city;  or at least as I experienced it along the subway line that delivered me from the airport to a Back Bay bar where I met a friend and host for the weekend, and later as I went bookstore hopping from the Commons (the head of Olmsted’s metropolitan park system) to MIT, finally arriving at Harvard Square.  Although old, the common currency of these ideas should not offer anyone a reason for excusing the Charter of the New Urbanism, a document written in such clear and simple language it is understood even by the government.  Among the Charter’s 350 co-signers is Henry Cisneros, former secretary of US Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose organization has subsequently adopted New Urbanist principles as its project guidelines. Moreover, with Al Gore promoting “smart-growth,” livable cities, and otherwise making New Urbanist noises as a keystone to his 2000 presidential bid, New Urbanism might very well become not just federal policy, but also the national agenda.  Certainly there is something new in creating this kind of momentum around a design movement, even if it is nothing more than skillful political maneuvering.


New Urbanism is “a brilliant but ambiguous movement,” as described by conference moderator Alex Krieger.  Its clarity and simplicity are deceiving: New Urbanism is not as easily characterized as either its proponents or detractors might like.  The remaining day and a half of the conference charted New Urbanism’s ambivalent political, social, architectural and educational agendas, territories, and pronouncements.  But if the intent of the conference was to explore urbanism, new or otherwise, alternative urban visions proved even more evasive and uncertain.  This is an irony of some proportion, since what may ultimately be new about New Urbanism is its revived enthusiasm for the city’s potential and possibilities.

As indicated, this enthusiasm is manifested politically, but not in the partisan manner first apparent.  This urbanism is new in its transgression of traditional political boundaries between right and left, conservative and liberal.  With the interstate freeway system complete, New Urbanism’s promotion of fixed transit is popular with the conservative construction industry, whereas the HUD guidelines for Gindroz’s projects reveal a continuation of the liberal social welfare state.  But in addition to courting HUD, New Urbanism has been joined by the free market Urban Land Institute. (8)  As a money making venture, New Urbanism is wildly successful with land developers, a group particularly averse to risk and radicalism.  Its supposedly draconian land-use regulations, emphasizing public open space, represent a leftist environmentalism, although the imagery these controls produce in New Urbanist towns and architecture appeals to the political and social right.  The controversial architectural codes of New Urbanism are likewise ambiguous, inhibiting individual creativity and promoting homogeneity for some at the conference and for others  counteracting the placeless effects of modern land development by legislating ‘architectural accidents.’  To the undifferentiated sameness of contemporary urban architecture, New Urbanism advocates the legible city, representing civic society with both public foreground and private background buildings. (9) Michael Hays found this reassertion of the traditional city a last gasp in the death of civil society, with New Urbanism and the movie Forrest Gump different forms of the same nostalgia.  Similarly, Margaret Crawford placed New Urbanism in the tradition of middle class gentility; George Baird, however, located the movement within the same discourse as the hallucinogenic Blue Velvet.   In this cinematic context, The Truman Show would seem to represent the multivalent political position of the movement, although New Urbanists did not author the screenplay and filming the archetypal American town portrayed by the movie required considerable violence to the much grittier and eclectic Seaside. (10) When asked why he thought the producers chose Seaside as a set for the movie, Andres Duany acidly retorted, “Do you think Seaside is like The Truman Show, and do you realize that the movie was about suckers who believe in the media?”  But this is precisely how The Truman Show represents Seaside: Truman Burbank did live in a New Urbanist town, his perception of civic democracy supported by a private, wealthy corporation.

Despite this facile manipulation of the political spectrum, “Politics,” Margaret Crawford charged, “is a dirty word in the New Urbanist lexicon.”  Politics, however, is inevitable in any community.  The Charter for the New Urbanism is laden with community-building language such as “we are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen based participatory planning and design,” (11) and streets and squares “encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.” (12)  Of course, this apparent clarity of intent expresses an optimistic sociological naiveté.  Although Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk claimed that New Urbanism acknowledges multiple scales of community, starting with the family and progressing through the neighborhood to the city, the movement does not seem to recognize multiple kinds of community, a word with different meanings for mayors, parents, sociologists, architecture critics, and minorities.  Thus it was around the topic of community that the issue of race emerged, to be swiftly and unsatisfactorily avoided. (13)  Claiming that the whitewash picket fence imagery of New Urbanism domesticity excluded lower-class home-based economics, Michael Pyatok pleaded, “let there be grunge.”  If New Urbanism promotes community, then it does so by reinforcing a middle class identity, the critics contended, replacing democracy and citizenship with property-owners organizations.  Although the New Urbanists retreated from the Charter’s claims of ‘community-building,’ when accused of amplifying the negative sociology of contemporary urban development, they still promoted their urban form as a necessary component in the positive reconstruction of society.

This social ambition indicates New Urbanists optimistically believe in the power of design as a socio-political act, a belief towards which most traditional avant-garde architects are either agnostic (at best) or avowed atheists.  Although dressed in historical architectural and urban styles, New Urbanism is engaged in the modernist project of reform.  Tracing a lineage through Team 10, the yearly Congress for the New Urbanism is directly modeled after CIAM, the New Urbanist Charter after the Athens Charter and the Doorn Manifesto.  As a continuation of the radical agenda of modernism, the New Urbanist movement is new, but old-fashioned if modernism is dead.  Mixing modernism and progressivism with historicism and nostalgia, New Urbanism cannot be understood through superficial impressions.  Even if seen as nothing more than historical revisionism, New Urbanism remains radically astonishing.  Drawing analogies to Borges’ story ‘‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” (14) historian Robert Fishman identified New Urbanism as a precise re-authoring of the Streetcar Suburb, the Law of the Indies, and the walkable city, normative 19th century urban forms. (15)  Just as Borges’ protagonist is radical for rewriting Cervantes in the 20th century, the redesign of the 19th century city today is equally provocative.  Even if, Fishman said, “it looks exactly the same.”   Like a Shakespearean comedy, the traditional avant-garde academic architects and the avant-garde traditional New Urbanists continue to change masks.  No stranger himself to kaleidoscopic swirls of logic and design, Michael Sorkin appropriately asked, “Who’s the modernist here?”

If New Urbanism is America’s home-tended modernism, then the Harvard GSD was an incongruously apt location to host the conference.  Through Gropius, Sert, Moneo, and now Koolhaas, the GSD is the primary entrépot and promoter of European Modernism in the United States, but not traditionally the academic home of American architects.  Consequently the school represents, for the New Urbanists, the architectural culture’s resistance to the movement. (16)  Nonetheless, the founders of New Urbanism are affiliated with major academic institutions, including the Suburb and Town Design program at the University of Miami, chaired by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.  So the New Urbanists’ self-stylized alienation from the architecture academy and the GSD’s interest in the movement are both equally strange.

If New Urbanism seemed vaguely positioned, other nascent urbanisms were no less murky.  Emerging occasionally during the conference, they would quickly disappear.  As the day progressed, Michael Pyatok’s plea for grunge mutated into a “grungy urbanism.”  John Kaliski asked, “if New Urbanism is an easy-listening urbanism, what would a hip-hop urbanism look like?”  But he would find no answer or provide one himself.  In response to Ellen Dunham-Jones’ question, “Has the landscape been successfully exploited to create place by New Urbanism?” landscape architects effectively said no, more generic green is not necessarily better green.  Charging that the exclusion of landscape architects to a single discussion panel within the conference was indicative of their exclusion from the consciousness of most urban architects, Ann Whiston-Sprin critiqued the New Urbanist Charter’s use of nouns rather than with verbs as an objectification of nature.  Her promotion of natural processes to open new urban design possibilities implicated an “ecological urbanism.”  This unspoken urbanism appeared to imagine multiple nuances and shades of green – conserved, restored, reclaimed – rather than the homogenous green rendered by architects, be they New Urbanists or their Dutch cousins. (17) Additionally, absent was the likes of Jon Jerde, who might have presented an urbanism composed of the hybrid public-private spaces anathema to New Urbanism.  But these and other urbanisms would remain only tantalizing possibilities, more ambiguous than New Urbanism.

Rather than the bloody duel between two competing and mutually exclusive urban visions as expected, Friday evening’s non-debate between Andres Duany and Rem Koolhaas instead clearly represented the severe lack of any alternative to New Urbanism.  It was as if, Robert Campbell would say the following day, “Rem, like Muhammed Ali, hung limply on the ropes in hope that Andres, like Joe Fraser, would wear himself out throwing punches.”  But of course, the relationship between the two most influential urban architects practicing today is more ambiguous and less oppositional than first apparent, beginning with a mutual experience at the Miami firm Arquitectonica. (18)  “Can-do” American Duany is also intellectually indebted to European theorist Leon Krier, an architectural partnership similar to the Corbusier-Harrison, Gropius-Roth and Mies-Johnson relationships which hold Koolhaas’ fascination. (19)  With mutual admiration, both Duany and Koolhaas comfortably characterized their respective relationship to the city as one of proactive reform versus critical observation and elucidation.  So despite the immensity of his urban plans, Koolhaas surprisingly retracted from any productive engagement with the city, professing only his critical interest in the current evolution of urban form.  Thrilled by the “amazing and unprecedented combinations” emerging in urban China, Koolhaas asked Duany why he was not interested in this newness, and likened New Urbanism’s application of old urban models to the current Volkswagen Bug, a cutesy consumer product translated from a vehicle intended for the mass introduction of automobility.  Although frightened by the homogenization of urban experience and nostalgic for the loss of danger and pornography – an opinion of some amusement to the various mayors in attendance – Koolhaas did not offer a program of urban change or even resistance.  True to his well known position that architecture cannot change the direction of the urban wave, but only surf it with skill, he expressed a profound skepticism in the ability of New Urbanism to effect substantial change.  Citing the bleak history of manifestos in the 20th century, Koolhaas was horrified by Duany’s arrogant signature on the New Urbanist charter.   Having surrendered his 60’s Situationist tactics to the forces of capitalism they were intended to destabilize, (20) apparently for Koolhaas any attempts to redirect the development of the city are futile and thus paralyzing to the creation of urban agendas.  Duany found in this critical non-action an unacceptable lack of conviction and belief, and said “we are engaged in work we believe in; imagine believing in something.”  If “the city is all we have,” (21) as Koolhaas has written, then the city demands our engagement, not our passive observation.

In the end, the debate between Andres and Rem, and also amoung the New Urbanists and their critics, was nonexistent, and, therefore, inconclusive.  New Urbanism won the day, not on the strength of its arguments, but because alternative urbanisms failed to engage the debate.  The political, social and economic popularity of New Urbanism may be linked to this very fact, that it is the “only game in town.”  Consequently, the movement is spreading across wider territories, establishing itself by default and design as the only solution to all urban problems.  Perhaps this dispersion will cause New Urbanism to dissolve into its ambiguities, a process that seemed to be starting at Harvard.  But in attempting to accelerate this dissolution, without proposing an alternative to New Urbanism, it is the critics of the movement who have failed.  They are obligated to advance their own urban position, for without formulating an alternative, there can be no real debate.  But the either/or dialectic of New Urbanism/critic, inner city/suburb, transit/car is equally insufficient.  It is not enough to have New Urbanism and The Other Urbanism, for without multiple alternatives there can be no conversations, no conferences.  To initiate this conversation, perhaps we can learn from New Urbanism’s flexibility and ambivalence, adopting urban strategies that move beyond the polarized win/lose positions of debate.  The city has already expanded and exploded past these tired oppositions.  New Urbanism has its place, but it should be just one option among many.  The realties and possibilities of urbanism are infinite and capable of sustaining a cacophony of dialogues and dialects.  The task of our time is to pursue and develop new urbanisms, lower cased and plural.

My thanks to John Dutton and Howard Smith for their editorial assistance in preparing this article.

1 The conference began Thursday evening, March 4 and concluded Saturday morning, March 6, 1999.  Amoung the participants were the six New Urbanist founders (Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Dan Solomon), a number of their supporters (Robert Davis, Ray Gindroz, Doug Kelbaugh, Harrison Fraker Jr) and long standing critics (Alex Krieger, Margaret Crawford, John Kaliski), other American urbanists, architects and landscape architects (Michael Sorkin, Michael Pyatok, Rudolfo Machado, George Hargreaves), architectural historians (Robert Fishman, Robert Campbell, K. Michael Hays, George Baird), and a small collection of politicans (New Urbanist Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, Las Vegas mayor Jan Laverty Jones, Tulsa mayor Susan Savage, Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer).

2 Doug Kelbaugh, The Pedestrian Pocket Book: A New Suburban Design Strategy (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989); Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Stefanos Polyzoides, The Ahwanee Principles (Sacramento: The Center for Livable Communities, 1991); Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Towns and Town-Making Principles (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991); Dan Solomon, Re-Building (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992);  Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993); and Peter Katz, The New Urbanism: Towards an Architecture of Community (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).  See John Kaliski, “Reading New Urbanism,” Design Book Review, 1996-1997, no 37-38, pp. 69-80 for a reveiw of the Calthorpe, Katz, and Solomon books.

3 The proceedings from the 1998 Seaside Conference will be published by Rizzoli International; in the meantime, Architecture magazine has printed the critique delivered at Seaside by Alex Kreiger and Andres Duany’s rebuttal.  See Architecture, November 1998, vol 87, no 11, pp. 73-77 and Architecture, December 1998, vol 87, no 12, pp.37-40 or http://www.architecturemag.com.

4 The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, 1998.  Seaside was the set of Truman Burbank’s village of Seahaven.  Seaside was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) between 1979 and 1982.  Now largely complete, it is receiving an addition designed by conference participant Warren Byrd.  To the best of my knowledge, only recently has DPZ adopted this acronym as its primary nomenclature, perhaps in response to the growing influence of Koolhaas’ OMA and the proliferation of its similarly named offspring MVRDV, NL, FOA and others.

5 The Charter Book, a collection of essays on each of the twenty-seven principles authored by various New Urbanists, will be released at the 7th Congress in Milwaukee.  http://www.cnu.org.

6 The Charter for the New Urbanism, The block, the street, and the building, principle 1

7 The Charter for the New Urbanism, The neighborhood, the District, and the Corridor, principle 6

8  Annoucements for the  joint CNU/ULI conference “Developing New Urbanist Communities: The Nuts and Bolts of Town Building” to be held in Chicago between April 7-9, 1999 were floating about Harvard during the “Exploring (New) Urbanism” event.

9 “Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy,” The Charter for the New Urbanism, The block, the street, and the building, principle 7.  See also Duany’s reflection on principle 7, at DPZ’s web site (www.dpz.com)

10 Truman Burbank’s front lawn, for example, does not exist in Seaside, where indigenous xeriscaping is required by code.  In addition the modernist buildings at Seaside were edited out of the movie.  Duany also informed the audience that the production fees paid by the movie’s producers financed the construction of the Seaside school. Kreiger, who, unlike Duany does not have a vested interest in Seaside, attested to these facts.

11 The Charter of the New Urbanism, Preamble

12 The Charter of the New Urbanism, The block, the street, the building, principle 5

13 Michele Pride-Wells and David Lee consistently raised this issue.  Although serious in his other comments, Lee at one point said his fear was “that white people would move back into the city, forcing minorities into the suburbs with gas at 100 dollars a gallon.”

14 in Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (New York: New Directions Paperbacks, 1964)

15 Fishman identified Calthorpe as the author of the Streetcar Suburb, Moule & Polyzoides as authors of the Law of the Indies, and DPZ as authors of the walkable city

16 Duany in particular has a contentious relationship with Harvard.  GSD urban design chair Krieger was a one-time employee at DPZ and Duany was a one-time guest faculty member for Krieger.  Claiming that the GSD was using his name to recruit continuing education students whilst remaining hostile to New Urbanism, Duany quit his position at Harvard. This all-or-nothing attitude represents both the New Urbanists’ messianic verve, but also one of the major problems in the current polarized urban discussion.

17 see MVRDV “Greyness on the Dutch Mesa,” “Permanence” and other essays in FARMAX: Excursions on Density (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998)

18 Koolhaas and Arquitectonica partner Laurinda Spear won a Progressive Architecture award in 1975 for the design of Spear’s parents’ house.  Formerly partners at Arquitectonica, Duany and Plater-Zyberk left the firm in 1979 to design Seaside, which in 1984 also won a PA award.

19 These partnerships are respectively manifested architecturally by the UN building, the Pan-Am building and the Seagram building.  Koolhaas, of course, tries to occupy both the European and American positions of this equation.  See Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994) pp. 271-88 and Rem Koolhaas, “Eno/abling Architecture,” in Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America, edited by R.E. Somol (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997).

20 See Ellen Dunham-Jones, “The Generation of ‘68 Today: Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, and the Institutionalization of Critique” in Constructing Identity, Journal of the 86th ACSA Annual Meeting and Technology Conference, 1998, pp. 527-533.

21 Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996), p. 971, concluding the essay “What Ever Happened to Urbanism?”  Although done obliquely, this essay is one of the few places in Koolhaas’ writing where he addresses New Urbanism, but one wonders if Koolhaas has ever read the Charter for the New Urbanism.

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