Different styles of New Urbanism

What are the different ‘flavours’ of Dense and Diverse city design?

  1. New Urbanism
  2. The Eco-city
  3. Opposites: the Village-Town
  4. The Eco-village: Rural Outpost
  5. Which style for Sydney?

1. New Urbanism

Generally speaking there is a fuzzy boundary between what I would call New Urbanism and Ecocities. New Urbanism tends to favour traditional neighbourhood designs at around 4 story limit. However, I must  qualify this statement by sharing that when I called Chip Kaufman of the ACNU, he quickly explained that he followed no such limits. If the surrounding infrastructure can support the population, he sees no reason to stick to an arbitrary 4 story limit. For him, it seems the concern is more about the viability of the surrounding commercial and transport hubs than any special limit on the height of buildings.

As I started to explain on my REZONE page, New Urbanists are concerned about Dense and Diverse city zoning that allows a large population to live closer to everything we need. But now I need to quickly unpack that New Urbanism is not just about some huge shopping complex with a layer of residential skyscrapers flying over the top! New Urbanism is more subtle, and involves Main Streets and Neighbourhoods. It’s still mixed, and walkable, but not so mixed that it is a homogeneous blend of everything, like actually living in a shopping mall. There can be defined areas. For example, the ANCU PDF I keep referring to includes this rough plan of a town’s main street and surrounding neighbourhoods.

ANCU neighbourhood plan

As they say:-
Diagram 2A shows a town centre that is its own walkable catchment with a 400m-long main street, which has eight neighbourhoods clustering around it to form a town. At 15 dwellings per gross hectare, this catchment can support about 18,000 people, which is generally enough population to support two competing supermarkets and a wide range of businesses and community facilities at its town centre. Of course, when applied to real sites, such a diagram needs to adjust to fit its context”.

The paragraph above is mainly about how neighbourhoods must cluster together and work around the transport hubs. But it also says that there are neighbourhood streets of mainly town-houses and eco-apartments, full of home-owners. These could be families and couples and a few retirees all living on the same street, walking past each other on the way to the local Main Street shops.

Both the Main Street shops and the Neighbourhoods can be protected from the sun by deciduous trees. These provide shade in summer and let in the light and warmth in winter.

Wikipedia defines New Urbanism as:-

  1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 0.25 miles (1,300 ft; 0.40 km).
  3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  4. At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
  7. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
  9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

More on New Urbanism
The Australian Council on New Urbanism at ACNU.org
The Urban Design forum provides a quarterly newsletter.
The Kunstlercast (podcast)

2. The Eco-city

EcoCity Builders is advocating transformation of cities for radically lower energy use. We plan energy demand so low that transition strategies to environmentally benign renewable sources like solar and wind become not just practical but ample.”
Richard Register for GPM

How does he do it? By going up — way up! Like New Urbanism, Ecocities are also about dense and diverse neighbourhoods that are walk-able.  But where (some) New Urbanism tends to limit itself to traditional 4 story buildings, Ecocities house people in eco-skyscrapers with incredible land savings.

Richard Register illustrates how Denver’s sprawl could be converted into clusters of ecocities. The grey of sprawl and concrete becomes the green of parks and pastures! Rivers are unearthed and pulled out of the ugly concrete drains they were trapped in, soils are restored, and local agriculture and forestry begins again.

Richard even explains some of the economic trends as this transformation takes place.

“An ecocity downtown with waterways restored, bridges between buildings, pedestrian streets, solar active and passive energy technology and design, rooftop access to elevated “streets” and bridges between buildings. Slowly, people are moving in from the suburbs toward city and town centers using development profits to help pay for buying and removing buildings in automobile dependent areas. Now the city center runs on a fraction of the energy as before, has streets filled with fruit trees, is extremely friendly to the pedestrian and the whole city takes up much less room, making room for more agriculture and natural land”.

Click here for more interviews about Ecocities with Richard Register.

Now it’s time for an Australian definition.

Paul Downton designed the Christie Walk project in Adelaide, Australia. He summarises Ecocities in the following way.

Ecological cities enable their residents to live a good quality of life while using minimal natural resources. They do so by:

  • using local materials, and local energy, air and water flows (sunlight, wind and rain) to best advantage.
  • incorporating natural ecosystems into urban areas, to host local wildlife, and to enhance the experience of urban public spaces.
  • using vegetation to control urban microclimates – to stabilise temperature and humidity.
  • enhancing the life of the community and relationships between people, by creating convivial social environments.
  • supporting an innovative culture which enables people to flourish and develop their creative potential, and use new technologies to improve liveability.


In Richard Register’s vision of ecological cities, sprawling, low density cities are transformed into networks of high and medium density urban settlements of limited size separated by greenspace, with most people living within walking or cycling distance of their workplace.


Ecocities are threaded with natural habitat corridors, to foster biodiversity and to give residents access to nature for recreation.


An ecocity’s food and other goods are mostly sourced from within its borders or from nearby areas, in order to cut down on transport costs.

The majority of its residents live within walking or cycling distance of their workplace, to minimise the need for motorised transport.

Frequent public transport connects local centres for people who need to travel further.

Local car sharing allows people to use a car only when needed.


The goods an ecocity produces are designed for reuse, remanufacture, and recycling.

The industrial processes its uses involve reuse of by-products, and minimise the movement of goods.


An ecological city has a labour-intensive rather than a material, energy and water intensive economy, to maintain full employment and minimise material throughput.

Click here for Paul Downton’s full 10 point philosophy of Australian Ecocity design

Eclipse’s Comment on Ecocities:

Ecocities appear very similar to New Urbanism at first glance, but the differences that may exist are:-

  • Sheer height in exceeding (some) New Urbanist’s 4 story traditional limit
  • Ignoring the New Urbanist mantra of the city becoming more like a city, and blending super-high density city living with more green roofs and fruit trees and garden beds and ecological supports to encourage a ‘wilder’ ecosystem that supports birds and bees (at a minimum).
  • While I’m all for beautiful tree-lined streets and gardens and green roofs, I’m not sure how practical it is for either nature or us to try and grow most of our food within the city boundaries.
  • I have no problem with trains and trams and trolley buses, and even some cars (EV’s, emergency service vehicles, service vans, construction and maintenance vehicles, etc).


3. Now the Opposite: the Village-Town

When I first saw this talk live, at TEDx Sydney 2009, I was blown away. Claude Lewenz presents a new town plan with fusions of the elements above, but more private and even more local. The local in this plan is extreme localism. Most of the food is produced locally, in contracts with the surrounding farmers. Also in stark contrast to New Urbanism and Eco-cities, the smaller buildings are not tall. Instead of vast New Urban areas or huge, sky-scraping eco-cities, this approach brings people together into little walled villages of about 500 people or so. Add 20 villages, and you have 10,000 people who can contribute to the local ‘Town’. Then surround the town with enough farmland (1o miles square) and farmers contracted to bring food directly into that town, and you have a Village-Town.

This 18 minutes is well worth your time, and may just change the way you think about your lifestyle and values! He starts with a quote from ancient Greek writers on the benefits of city life. The modern world desperately needs to slow down and contemplate his message!

Click on the image below to enlarge, and check out the plan. Like most New Urban and Ecocity designs, it is fractal in nature. That means it is important to get the local village of 500 people right, and that this basic unit replicated then adds strength to the greater whole of the Village Town that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

From this page
The elements are listed below. To learn more, click its link

On the next page, let’s explore how a VillageTown is created.

4. The Eco-Village (or rural outpost)

The Eco-village or Rural Outpost is the Re-Ruralisation meme that’s also filtering through post-oil literature. It’s a local living meme shaped around the top priority of recycling sewerage nutrients straight back into the local agricultural ecology. Just as New Urbanism is a step ‘down’ the technological ladder from Eco-cities, Eco-Villages seem to be a step ‘down’ (in technology requirements) from New Urbanism. The rural outpost seems to be New Urbanism — without the rail. It is also, like the Village Town, disperses the population amongst their own farmlands and food sources. Everything is grown locally for that village.

Rural outposts are not as isolated as one might think.

“Another criticism is that people say they do not want to live in such a lonely area. It is not. You can put four eco-units together, which means you have 800 close neighbors around you. You have 5,000 in walking distance. In cycling distance of 3km you have 17,000 people. There are enough people around you to support a football team or a choir in walking distance.”

If you are interested in setting up a Rural Outpost / Eco-village, check out the internationally eco-village campaign at Relocalize.net.

Folke Günther talks further about re-ruralization with Stephen Hinton on GPM — a great introduction to Rural outposts, soil cycles, and saving phosphorus.

Ted Trainer’s The Simpler Way (TSW) expands on all sorts of interactions between local food, trade, commerce and culture in a post-oil world.

David Holmgren invented the term Permaculture.

Another name for the Rural Outpost is the Eco-village.
Worldwatch Institute
reports on some below, but mixes it up with New Urbanism now and then (when talking about ‘mainstream developers’):

“Planned communities tend to evoke over-developed suburban neighborhoods and mini-malls,” says Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Research Associate and author of the Update. “But increasingly, planned communities will come to mean neighbors living with a purpose beyond consumerism, embracing a sustainable lifestyle and forging meaningful connections with their neighbors.”

“Europe leads the world in the number of registered ecovillages, with 138, followed by North America (110), Latin America (58), Asia/Oceania (52), and Africa/Middle East (21).”

Many ecovillages are reducing energy use, localizing farming, and creating more sustainable local businesses. Other environmentally minded communities, including the more than 450 “co-housing” projects found in North America and Europe, focus primarily on improving the quality of life of residents. Co-housing typically includes clusters of smaller houses with shared dining halls and other spaces, facilitating stronger social ties while reducing the material and energy needs of the community.”

Even mainstream developers are pioneering green principals in their ventures. The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED), an 82-unit housing complex in London, aims to produce as much energy as it uses through a combination of passive solar design, energy efficiency, and greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. A resident living at BedZED—or at the Findhorn ecovillage to the north in Scotland—has just 60 percent of the ecological footprint of an average individual in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in Germany’s Sieben Linden ecovillage, per capita carbon dioxide emissions are just 28 percent the national average.”

Eclipse’s Comment on Rural Outposts:

How do we create a sustainable human ecology that allows nutrients from our food to pass back into our agriculture? Large New Urbanist and Ecocity areas have advantages of scale, in that more people can live together and do more at scale, like support a University or Silicon Valley industrial park and computer chip manufacturers and hospitals. It is simply easier to do this without cars when more people live closer together. How does a remote, private Eco-village get a nurse to her hospital shift in time without a car? Will they have the densities of population to support a railway? I don’t think so, if a railway requires at least 3km of solid housing either side of it to be financially viable! Even Rural Outposts, with their population of 17,000 within a bicycle walk, have certain population limits. However, New Urbanism has the population density to support trains and trams. A vigorous enough Ecocity might have 17,000 people living in the one building! (Sky City, above, proposes 10 times that!)

New Urbanism does not answer the food question, other than being 10 times more efficient with land than suburbia, and potentially uncovering the local farmlands again.  New Urbanism is a building and city code, it just assumes food. It does not propose to grow all that food within city limits, nor does it assume or dictate to the market how or where the food should be grown. Considering peak phosphorus, this demands a comment. Future departments of waste and sewerage will have to discuss getting the nutrients from our sewerage back out to the farms. How will this work? Will it be dried and condensed for training back to the farms?

5. Which style for Sydney?

I can imagine any capital city gradually being transformed into a mix of Eco-city in the CBD and New Urbanism gradually replacing our suburbs. We make use of what is already there, and the single-purpose zoning of light commercial in our CBD’s is gradually giving way to more mixed use residential, commercial, entertainment, and other facilities.

Food would be grown across New South Wales and freighted into Sydney by an upgraded rail system, and then maybe a few trucks and EV’s would disperse the rest of the goods.

More pages on New Urbanism:-

1. What are the different styles of New Urbanism?

2. What are the common objections to New Urbanism?

  1. That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!
  2. It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way
  3. Cities are ugly!
  4. What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?
  5. How do we pay for all this?

3. Where are these Eco-cities popping up?

4. Design priorities: what priorities shape our buildings in the first place?

5. Tall Timbers: the new state-of-the-art material for constructing skyscrapers at a rate of one floor per day is… wood!?

6. Earth works: shorter rural homes are built out of mud bricks, adobe,  rammed earth, cob, straw bales, and… car tyres!?


3 Responses to Different styles of New Urbanism

  1. I think concepts like sky city look attractive on paper but almost always turn out to be horrible dystopic slums once built. I much prefer the human-scaled concepts of the new urbanists. I think the ideal would be a city divided into neighborhoods no larger than one mile in diameter. At the center of each neighborhood would be services like shopping, schools, a hospital, offices/workplaces, and a public transit station. Streets would be built in a grid pattern and sidewalks would be wide, with trees planted in regular intervals along the street for shade. The front of buildings would be directly adjacent to the sidewalk. This way the sidewalk and street function as “outdoor living space,” something that is completely lost in both suburbia and hyper-dense tower projects. Transportation would be accomplished by walking, cycling, and electric trams.

    Housing should be in townhouses or rowhouses 2-3 stories tall, with no building anywhere more than 5 stories tall. Honestly, I think capping all buildings at 2 stories would be ideal. I think rowhouses are the ideal form of housing because everyone gets their own house with a ground level entrance and a backyard, but the houses also share walls with each other and are built in an orderly row. This evokes a balance between the ideals of community and individualism. Townhouses retain the advantages of suburban living (a backyard and a ground level entrance), while being capable of achieving a high enough population density to support walkable neighborhoods and efficient public transit.

    In addition, townhouses are cheaper to build per square foot than either taller buildings or detached housing, and are more energy efficient than both. Taller buildings need materials like steel and concrete, while 2-4 story buildings can be built out of wood. Taller buildings also need elevators which increases their energy use. On the other hand, detached housing uses more materials per unit than townhouses and has more exposed surface area per unit, making it less efficient to heat and cool.

    There’s no need to build any denser than townhouses, and good reason not to. We can build liveable and sustainable cities quickly, cheaply, and efficiently with a 2-3 story height limit. We could probably make use of 3d printers to make entire neighborhoods in a matter of a few weeks or months. We will need a way to quickly build new human habitats as millions (if not billions) of people are displaced due to climate change.

  2. Also, peak phosphorus is not really a concern and is not expected to be a problem for hundreds of years:

  3. Eclipse Now says:

    Sky City has structural issues. I’m thinking of removing it from this page.

    “While most engineers do not particularly contest the possibility of constructing a supertall tower in such a short time frame and with such costs; doubts have been cast by critics over the ability of the Broad Group to achieve such a grand scale project, especially since they have constructed only two[38] buildings as of date, neither of which are over 30 floors. A tower of such height requires stiffness, which in turn would require enormous amounts of concrete and steel, and a huge amount of time for it to settle. The ability of the engineers to understand the complexity involved with a project this size has also come under question.[35]”

    My sister-in-law has a Phd in ecocity design and assures me that once a building is over 8 floors high, the extra steel and concrete required to build it basically invalidate any further carbon savings in the floors above it! So even if we get the *best* of ecocity design installed, with great designs to increase psychological and sociological and cultural functioning of such places (avoiding the slum issues you correctly asked about), 8 floors seems to be the limit from a carbon point of view. However, timber is now making inroads to skyscrapers, yes, skyscrapers, and could make buildings that are net carbon sinks. But maybe there’s wisdom in just designing 4 story buildings we can walk up and down without too much bother.
    See Landline on ‘Tall Timber’.

    This may even create an economic backbone for a favourite geo-engineering solution I like that is currently *way* to expensive to be practical, and that is greening deserts. Even if it provides *some* carbon sequestration and *some* desert reclamation (mainly those deserts us humans created in the first place!) then it’s win win again.

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