Numerous criticisms of New Urbanism accuse the movement of shunning progress and romanticizing a bygone era that was never as good as it’s imagined now. I think that is a misunderstanding of what’s going on.

Grand Way in St. Louis Park, MN
Grand Way in St. Louis Park, MN

New Urbanism can be summed up very simply:

  • Observe what people like. Where do they go for vacation? Where do they choose to hang out? Which places sell for the most money per square foot?
  • Figure out what elements make those places attractive.
  • Build more places like those.

The New Urbanists are trying to decipher the hidden code underlying our preferences for one environment over another. The building blocks of that code are the geometries, textures, colors, and sounds – all the sensory inputs experienced by the user. In 1977, Christopher Alexander made a tremendous leap forward when he published A Pattern Language.

Poundbury, Dorchester, England
Cafe at Poundbury, Dorchester, England

Alexander’s team documented 253 elements that are present in places people like. Some of the patterns are observations about entire regions, some deal with individual buildings, and some are about small details. They called the collection of patterns a language because we can group them like words of a sentence to express the hidden code. The New Urbanist movement is a continuation of that work.

A lot of those patterns are present in traditional architecture, but that doesn’t mean we have to go backwards to use them. In fact, there’s no real need to look to history to find examples for New Urbanism to draw on. There are plenty of contemporary examples: San Fransisco, many European cities, the New Orleans French Quarter, and San Antonio’s Riverwalk.

Delancy Street in Philadelphia
Delancy Street in Philadelphia, PA

I think some people see New Urbanism as wanting to recreate a simpler time only because the last 50 years of architecture has been an anomaly. In the last post I wrote about five trends that have caused us to ignore common sense design tenants. If we hadn’t experienced the last 50 years of experimentation, the New Urbanist movement wouldn’t have a particular name. It would simply be called good architecture.