- An attractive town square: New Urbanism & the Gilmore Girls
- Physical structures
- Social structures: where town plans meet TV shows
- My suburb almost had it
- Driving to the town square ruins the town square
- My suburb could never have it
- The problems with suburban sprawl
- So what is New Urbanism, and how does it work?
- 3 minute video summary
- The Australian Council for New Urbanism definition
- A few notes from Wikipedia
- How to make an attractive city video
- James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about
- The 1950’s super-highway scheme that went racist
- The war: the public space versus developers
New Urbanism and the Gilmore Girls
We can literally build ourselves a better future by rediscovering lessons in town planning from the past. This claim is not a nostalgic appeal to the designs of yesteryear, but based on the latest studies into the profound benefits of good town planning that improves our traffic, economy, psychology, health, society and culture. Most arenas of life can be improved when you demand to live in neighbourhoods that have everything you need within a 5 minute walk. Your street will be more attractive and functional, your neighbourhood will be safer and more prosperous, and your local town square will become your favourite place to visit, a home away from home. But before I get carried away describing the many benefits of New Urbanism, I should describe what New Urbanism is.
What does New Urbanism look like physically? The first concept to get our heads around would be the town square. Ideally it should be a roughly 30m by 30m public park surrounded by walking distance neighbourhoods. That’s the heart of New Urbanism, right there. I’m defining the New Urban town square as:-
“A culturally appropriate small park surrounded by walking distance shops and services and neighbourhoods.”
A central square (or even old main street) that meets most of the weekly needs of the local community. It could be a quaint cobblestone European town square with a fountain and cafe seating, through to a green English garden park. But whatever the unique, culturally appropriate flavour of the town square, it must be surrounded by local high-density, walking-distance neighbourhoods — and meet most of their needs. The butcher, baker, barber, greengrocer, doctor, general store, dry-cleaner, post office, primary school and high school all neatly frame this intimate park.
Social structures: where town plans meet TV shows
It’s no accident that many American shows focus on a small town with a traditional main street or town square. It’s so easy to write spontaneous interactions between characters bumping into each other running perfectly natural errands downtown. Everything is there, so even though you’re just dropping in to get the dry cleaning, you’re also more likely to bump into locals who are buying grocers or getting a haircut or collecting kids after school.
To visualise it a close comparison would be the fictional town of Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls. The show is about a mother and daughter who are best friends and contrasts their authentic, vital relationship with the inauthentic, pretentious grandmother. But in a similar way the show could be contrasting the difference between the vital social fabric of a well designed town square with the suburban isolation and blandness most of us in the west put up with. People grow to love Stars Hollow — Jimmy Fallon has said that if it existed, he would move there in an instant! If the Gilmore Girls is not your show, many other shows also use a small town setting, from Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Smallville. These are American examples, but if you prefer you can think about a historic town square in Europe. The key is the rich, dense social fabric that emerges from local businesses regularly serving the same local customers.
In Star’s Hollow you could go and sit in Luke’s diner and look out over the town square and just enjoy the vibe of the place. If you are feeling lonely or isolated, just go and hang out. You will meet someone you know. These shows appeal to us because the writers can inject all sorts of quirky characters into the scene naturally. The layout of the town forces local people to interact as they go about their daily business. The Gilmore Girls sit in the diner and are treated to Luke arguing with the town Mayor, or are amused by Kirk the local eccentric — or some other Stars Hollow action. It’s charming, and incredibly nostalgic because most of us simply don’t get to experience this kind of spontaneous, local fun. We just shop at the distant mega-mall, a place filled with strangers and devoid of soul. These mega-malls often have catchments of 300,000 people or more. New Urbanism serves the local 18,000, at the most! It’s intimate, personal, and walkable. The social and health benefits of this arrangement could not be more profound!
How did we lose the town square? What went wrong? The simple answer is we invented the car. After World War 2, we thought we would give every returning soldier a manor in the country. Our collective memories of big cities were dirty industrial towns, and the only escape was the country. We wanted to honour every serviceman and woman with a rural lifestyle after the war. The town planners had noble intentions, but it backfired. Rather than create a rural setting plugged into the local economics and rhythms of rural life, it paved over it. The result was neither rural nor urban, country or city. It became suburbia, a freakish system demanding the worship of the car and isolation. Public transport that builds local friendships and social fabric is replaced by the lonely isolation of individual cars driving through stressful traffic into into individual driveways. Our homes are no longer plugged into a vibrant local social life, but become isolated boxes we go home to sleep in. There are many problems with suburban sprawl. But for me the destruction of local community is by far the most offensive.
My suburb almost had a town square
I live in a peninsula suburb surrounded by bushland, with only the one road leading in and out. It is like an isolated country town in the heart of Sydney’s North West corridor. It has some sense of community. We have about 4300 people and manage to support a number of local shops clustered along a main street, like restaurants, hairdressers, a kindergarten, greengrocer, general store, stationery store, bakery, and even a local coffee shop a bit like Luke’s diner. But scattered elsewhere are 2 churches, a school, and 3 parks. The parks have their own doggy park communities and organise the occasional Friday night champagne picnics. The local shops sometimes have their own fairs.
But here’s the sad part. It could have been so much more if it was assembled together around a town square! The shops are strung along a suburban road, but all the parks are split up and out the way. The different functions of town life are all split up by car trips to each separate destination. Instead we should have put one of the parks in the middle and surrounded it with all the shops, churches, schools and other amenities of public life. Then we could sit at our own ‘Luke’s diner’, and watch our neighbours walk their dogs, collect their dry-cleaning or play with their kids in the park. Unlike the anonymous mega-mall serving 300,000 people, these shops serve the locals. It meets our psychological need for connection. Why can’t my suburb have been laid out something like this? Shops and services surrounding a town square. It’s not rocket science!
But New Urbanism is so much more than just a small town like Star’s Hollow. Instead it captures the local heart of the small town while plugging into the convenience of the big city. The local shops will meet 95% of your needs, but when you need to go to college or some super-medical specialist, the big city is just a short tram or train-ride away. The following video summarises the benefits.
Please watch the 3 minute video summary
Driving to the town square ruins the town square
The town square becomes impossible when building codes demand that every single building have a certain ratio of ‘free’ parking – which works out to be very expensive parking after all. Walkability is essential: having high density New Urban neighbourhoods ensures everyone can get most places they need, without a car.
My suburb could never have it
First, it would require a significant car-park tower on one side of the town square, ruining the aesthetics of the space. Alternatively, a flat car park ruins the dimensions and walkability of the town square. Second, the typical excessive car-dependency of my suburb would have robbed the square of some of the spontaneous friendships that come from public transport and walking. You can’t talk to people who drive through the town square. Suburbia also has many other traps to avoid. As I see it suburbia:-
Wastes time: Suburbia creates traffic jams and wastes time. One of the greatest myths ever fostered on us is the ‘convenience’ of a shopping mega-mall. First we must drive to the mall and get parking, call that 15 minutes on a good day. Then it’s another 5 to 10 minute walk through the oversized carpark and shopping mall to get to the shops we are actually after. That’s 20 to 30 minutes just to get there. New Urban neighbourhoods are a 5 to 7 minute walk to the shops. You could walk there, buy a few day’s groceries, have a 10 minute catch up with a local friend, and walk home again before the suburbanite has entered his first shop in the mega-mall.
Wastes money: suburbia wastes money in buying cars, lost productivity in traffic jams, negative mental health and even physical health impacts. Suburban driving replaces New Urban walking, and raises our blood pressure and cancer rates. But it also raises our municipal rates because less people are sprawled out over more area, requiring more roads, more gutters, more pavements, more plumbing, more street wiring, more lighting: in short, more of everything that makes this town plan expensive and wasteful!Creates social injustice: Suburban sprawl creates dependence on the car — the most expensive form of transport. This inconveniences the poor and infirm who cannot drive, or who must waste a disproportionate amount of money on taxis.
Destroys community: As I have already explained above, my pet hate is the effect on community. Shopping at a mega-mall that draws in 300,000 people is shopping with strangers. It’s a rare thing to meet someone you know. Suburbia isolates. There’s no ‘there’ there, no town centre, no soul. James M. McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute lists 10 problems with suburban sprawl. You can download his 12 page PDF here.
1. Sprawl development contributes to a loss of support for public facilities and public menities.
2. Sprawl undermines effective maintenance of existing infrastructure.
3. Sprawl increases societal costs for transportation.
4. Sprawl consumes more resources than other development patterns.
5. Sprawl separates urban poor people from jobs.
6. Sprawl imposes a tax on time.
7. Sprawl degrades water and air quality.
8. Sprawl results in the permanent alteration and destruction of habitats.
9. Sprawl creates difficulty in maintaining community.
10. Sprawl offers the promise of choice while only delivering more of the same.
Critics of sprawl maintain that sprawl erodes quality of life. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe that in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, they state that the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work or school and that without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28).
So what is New Urbanism, and how does it work?
The Australian Council for New Urbanism definition:-
- a built environment which is diverse in use and population, scaled for the pedestrian, and capable of accommodating the automobile and public transport;
- a structure based on walkable neighbourhoods (400m radius/five minute walk) focussed on fine-grained mixed-use town and neighbourhood centres with a variety of higher density housing in close proximity;
- a well-defined and high quality public realm which is responsive to site features and ecology, and supported by a distinctive architecture reflecting the climate and culture of the region;
- a highly-interconnected street network, with traffic management to support pedestrians, cyclists and transit-users.
- From the ACNU New Urbanist PDF
Their illustration below shows the New Urban town plan.
- Circles = neighbourhoods with dwellings for 2000 people, 800m across.
- Dot in the middle = a neighbourhood park and preschool with a corner store (milk bar / hamburger joint). It’s only 400m radius from the edge of the neighbourhood to the park, about a 5 minute walk.
- Main roads shown as line through the middle = main road with a bus or tram route. (Smaller neighbourhood side streets are not shown.)
- Main street is the thick line in the middle, which is 400m long. (I of course prefer the town square design). The main street serves 8 surrounding neighbourhoods + the neighbourhood that encompasses the main street, creating a final catchment of 18,000 people.
- That will support a wide range of businesses, creating many jobs at the local level. And it’s all walkable, only 1.5 km from the furthest neighbourhood dwelling to the centre of the main street.
The American sustainability site Worldchanging says:-
Urban density is major element in the picture of a bright green future. Compact homes, closely situated, make a drastic difference in the all-around efficiency of a city, from energy to transportation to shopping for basic necessities. They also make it easy to skip driving and take transit or walk, which decreases pollution and improves physical health. Finally, they foster the creation of supportive community networks in which resources can be better shared and everyone feels safer. See this list of Worldchanging’s many New Urbanist articles.
A few notes from wikipedia
The wiki emphasises that New Urbanism is not always about a town square but at least has…
“a discernible centre. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this centre…
…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… At the edge of the neighbourhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household… There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away… The neighbourhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change.”
How to make an Attractive City?
Excellent video: 14 minutes that describes the rules and principles that makes a city not only functional, but beautiful and attractive and a place of historical value.
James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about!
James Howard Kunstler presents the aesthetic and design catastrophe of suburbia, and the solutions in New Urbanism. He asks if we let suburbia steal the soul of the neighbourhood, is a nation even worth defending? He briefly mentions the link between soldiers dying in Iraq just to free up the supply of oil that maintains suburbia. What goes through their mind as they “spill their blood in the sand”? Is it the ugly billboards and Golden Arches on the side of the highway? Or worse, is it that they don’t even know what they’re really fighting for? Suburbia has robbed them of childhoods with multiple overlapping local relationships that lead to local mentors. The backward aesthetics and broken social fabric have interrupted the very process that builds a culture. We have not just lost our sense of place, but a sense of who we are. James is very caustic, very funny, and very clever. But he is also very angry — a strong language warning applies!
The 1950’s super-highway scheme that went racist
Indeed, it gets worse. There where some racist ‘Urban Renewal’ projects aimed at driving super-highways though communities of colour. When GM and other car companies formed the National Highway User’s Conference, they convinced the American President to sign in the highway bill which gave highways about 90% Federal funding. The highways cut cities in half, back when they were ignorant of the benefits of walkable communities. The ‘Urban Renewal’ scheme maliciously tore down vital densely populated urban centres simply because they were black neighbourhoods! Suburbia was born in ignorance, grew on car corporation pork-barrelling, and maliciously tore down the old urban competition to itself in large part due to prejudice and racism!
In case you’re thoroughly depressed after that, now it’s time to cover something positive.
The war: the public space versus developers
New York city designer Amanda Burden explains the war between our rights as citizens for public spaces of beauty and comfort, and the constant battle of developers to commercialise the space.