Little Boxes on a Hillside: A Review of New Urbanism

As a design and development practice, New Urbanism (NU) emerged in response to widespread suburban sprawl across the United States. The movement seeks to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable communities through human-scale urban design. NU’s fundamental tenants include walkability, connectivity, mixed uses, architectural diversity, green infrastructure, and increased density. But it’s rise in popularity since the 1980’s has not been without controversy. Critics of NU have argued that the approach does little to alleviate our pervasive reliance on cars, and that the faux architectural diversity feels contrived, even creepy.

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Land Use map of Southern Village, a New Urban neighborhood in Chapel Hill, NC. Credit: Chapel Hill Planning, 2005.

I spend a good deal of time debating the merits of NU, but have never really considered it as an option for myself. I don’t own a car, and despite their best efforts, New Urbanists have yet to convince me that these developments are sufficiently walkable, bikeable, and accessible via transit. But life is strange, and two months ago I found myself moving into a New Urbanist apartment, on a New Urbanist street, in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Because I am a plannerd, I decided to use this as a research opportunity. I have spent the last couple of months conducting a series of (qualitative) (spontaneous) tests in order to evaluate my assumptions about NU, and to get a feel for the lived experience of the thing.

Test # 1: Get Milk (Amenities)

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Weaver Street Co-Op Market located at the village center. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

My litmus test for the convenience of a place is how easily I can purchase milk at moment’s notice. A local grocery or convenience store is an indicator more generally of the level of commercial activity in a neighborhood. NU communities are designed with mixed use as a core principal, and my neighborhood boasts a grocery store that sells milk until 10pm every day. The grocery store is an expensive, organic co-op. It is walkable from my apartment complex, but not for the larger houses on the periphery of the neighborhood. Overall, the retail and restaurants in this development are not particularly affordable or accessible by foot. I give it a milk score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 2: Get Around (Transit and Access)

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Driveway. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

I don’t own a car. I am reliant on public transit, my semi-trustworthy 1970’s Panasonic road bike, and really generous friends/chauffeurs. I was curious to establish whether owning a car is a prerequisite for living in this particular NU community. The short answer is, unfortunately, yes. There are two regular and reliable (free!) bus lines that access downtown, and for the serious enthusiast, it is possible to commute by bike. Within the neighborhood, connectivity is generally good, with minimal suburban dead-ends, and a network of lovely bike/ped trails. But the bicycle, pedestrian and transit networks ultimately fall short. Buses don’t run on evenings and weekends. Bike lanes traverse large highways and gnarly intersections, and end abruptly. There are no sidewalks outside my apartment, just an expanse of parking lot. I give this NU development a getting around score of 2 out of 5.   

Test # 3: Get Lost (Connectivity and Orientation)

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Walking trail. Photo Create: Mia Candy.

A key signifier of a good place is that it allows you to get lost, without ever truly being lost. Wandering aimlessly through a neighborhood is one of the small pleasures in life, and a great way to get to know a new environment. But to wander aimlessly requires streets, sidewalks, and trails that are interconnected. The endless cul de sacs1 that characterize traditional suburban subdivisions do not make for pleasant wandering. It is well known that good urban form, whether planned or organic, requires a system of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. Or, in non-planner jargon, things in the physical environment that help us navigate the world and develop a strong memory of a place in our minds. It is these mental mapping tools that allow us to wander, and orient ourselves, in equal measure.

So I set out to get lost in my new neighborhood. I found myself able to wander for an hour through the streets, discovering convenient shortcuts and trails, all the while, aware of my general position in relation to the town square. The chapel at the center of the development serves as a convenient landmark–situated on a hill, its spire is always peeking through the trees. Despite one or two frustrating dead ends, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of connectivity. Until I emerged onto a highway and had to turn back. I give this development a wanderers score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 4: Get Locked Out (Community)

This is not a test I recommend trying on purpose. But when I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, it turned out be a useful exercise on the importance of community. Standing on a balcony, barefoot, and in my pajamas at 7:00am on a Wednesday morning, it occurred to me that I needed to be rescued. Luckily, my balcony faces the bike/ped trail that is densely populated by runners, dog walkers, and parents with strollers, pretty much throughout the day. What I needed in that moment was not only someone I could call out to for help, but a group of strangers willing to arrange a ladder, lend me their cell phones, and offer me something to drink while I waited for a locksmith. I needed community, and New Urbanism provided. I give this neighborhood a helpful neighbor score of 5 out of 5.

Final Thoughts

What has surprised me most while living here is the level of diversity I have found in streets, and parks, and houses. I am certain that when the community was built 20 years ago, the faux architecture appeared creepy and contrived. But two decades of real, lived experience in the place has given it an almost natural feel. I discovered homes, weathered over time, paint chipping, and gardens overgrown with wildflowers. It felt – and I have no doubt that the homeowners associated would disagree with me on this – real, and lived in, and only a little bit like pleasantville.

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Mailbox outside one of the homes in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

Footnotes

1The actual plural for ‘cul de sac’ is ‘culs de sac.’

Featured Image: Row houses in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

About the Author: Mia Candy is a recent graduate of UNC’s planning program, and an editor emeritus here at Angles. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where she first developed an interest in urbanism and the complexities of urban development in emerging cities. Mia is a placemaking consultant, and a planner at Renaissance Planning Group. Her lifelong dream is to write a children’s book.