Capitalizing on the American Dream: An Introduction to New Urbanism

Katie Sauvain

“Suburban sprawl.” No one likes the sound of it, although most of us are part of it. Since World War II, with new zoning laws and the proliferation of the automobile, the trend in growth has been to spread rapidly outward from a city instead of increasing density within it. Cities are dirty. They have bad schools. They’re dens of vice and crime. Poor people live there because they can’t afford anything else. But is this the cause of suburban flight, or its result? Think of the cities and towns you see in movies set in the 20s or 30s: all the life and diversity is in the middle of the city. The rich make their homes there, as well as the poor. Pedestrians walk unworried through the streets, and everyone knows their neighbors.

Perhaps this is too idyllic a picture, but there are problems with the current sprawl paradigm, and many Americans long for an old-fashioned sense of community. As James Calthorpe puts it, “Development patterns and local zoning laws segregate age groups, income groups, ethnic groups and family types” (Katz xiii). This segregation extends to use: homes are separate from workplaces and businesses. Cities and their surroundings are adapted to cars, so stores and workplaces need not be closer than a 10-minute drive. Dependence on the automobile also creates pollution. From what we observe, we must conclude that when people don’t live in cities, they don’t invest in their upkeep, aesthetics, or safety. Across the country, once-booming city centers are burning out, experiencing poverty that leads to suffering businesses, abandoned malls, higher crime rates, and poor schools. Meanwhile, low-density suburban areas lack the vitality and community people crave: businesses and entertainment are available, but they are concentrated in strip malls or shopping plazas too far away to walk to. You can’t get to know the people who live in your neighborhood if you spend all your time in your car.

The design movement known as New Urbanism seeks to alleviate these issues through planning urban areas based on the traditional neighborhood. Among its principles is that daycares, grocery stores, retail, restaurants, and public buildings should be within a five-minute walk of peoples’ homes (about a quarter of a mile). This increases the freedom of those who cannot drive, including the elderly, the young, and those who can’t afford a car. Also, presenting viable alternatives to driving reduces pollution, traffic congestion, and money spent on infrastructure. Proponents of New Urbanism further believe it is important to offer a variety of types of housing, from apartments to houses to rowhouses, in order to provide living space for people of a range of income levels and family sizes. In order to prevent sprawl and protect the environment, the city or town should have a finite edge, sometimes known as an urban growth boundary. And while the city should be mainly designed to be pedestrian-friendly, new urbanists also promote the installation of light rail systems to connect cities as well as to connect urban centers to their edges.

In order to build this way, architects and designers favor the implementation of an entirely new building code rather than deal with the hassle of changing various small parts of the existing zoning code. To this end, they have written a “SmartCode” centered around the idea of the transect. The transect concept is drawn from the way nature organizes: a beach might lead to dunes, then a grove, then a forest. Applied to human geography, the transect is as follows: a natural zone, where the environment is left largely untouched; a rural zone, where some agriculture is practiced; a sub-urban zone, similarly low-density but better connected than our current suburbs; a general urban zone, largely residential but with mixed-use areas on corner locations; an urban center zone, entirely mixed-use but pedestrian-friendly, with buildings set close to streets; and an urban core zone, the equivalent of “downtown.” Andrés Duany, one of the most well-known new urbanist designers, says, “The transect does not eliminate the standards embodied in present zoning codes. It merely assigns them to the sections of the transect where they belong” (“A New Theory of Urbanism,” n.pag.). The transect presents a smooth transition from rural to urban, without the separation of use and of income normally found between city and suburb. It seeks specifically to prevent what Duany calls “a collection of monocultures: a disaggregation of the elements of community into specialized areas” (“A New Theory of Urbanism,” n.pag.).

Seaside, Florida is considered the first town built on new urbanist principles. It was designed by Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and built in 1981 on 80 acres with a capacity of 2000 residents. The designers “pursued one overriding goal in the conception of the town – that of fostering a strong sense of community” (Katz 3). The result? A variety of living spaces closely line roads that lead to the beach or the city center. Garages are set back behind houses and speed limits are low, increasing pedestrian safety and downplaying the role of the automobile. The town follows the five-minute principle. With its pastel houses and salmon-colored streets, sandy pathways leading to the beach, bustling market and miniature post office, it looks almost like a doll’s town: indeed, The Truman Show, a movie about a fake, manmade town, was filmed in Seaside. But the new urbanists seem to be correct in thinking that this is what many people long for, perhaps to the extent that it erodes their principles: meant to be inexpensive and support diversity, Seaside has become a largely homogeneous resort town because of its popularity.

With all this in mind, is New Urbanism a viable model with which to tailor urban growth? Some argue that it sacrifices practicality for aesthetics, and its founders would agree that it restricts the free reign of automobile traffic. They would argue, however, that their interconnected grid of streets provides multiple routes to any given location, reducing congestion, and that installing rail systems and making walking an option eclipse reliance on cars. Another criticism is that New Urbanism has not fully addressed ecological issues. Indeed, evidence on the sustainability of new urbanist developments has yet to be studied. But proponents of the design movement believe that suburban sprawl is definitely unsustainable, and that reducing automobile traffic and creating urban growth boundaries will lessen the impact of cities on the environment. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that designers usually can’t start from scratch, as they were able to do in Seaside because there were no zoning laws in place. The cities that need help already have established patterns and segregation, and changing peoples’ mindsets about cities is more difficult than starting fresh.

Still, New Urbanism takes necessary steps toward sustainability, community, and desegregation. It tries to bring cities and towns to a human level instead of serving the needs of machines. The fact that its principles aren’t extremist ecologically will help many people accept it more easily. The movement is growing, and the success of experiments over the US and Canada, from a “new village” in the suburbs of Dade County, Florida to reconstructing downtown Los Angeles, speaks to its appeal and practicality. New Urbanism draws on our psychology – the pictures in our heads of the friendly downtowns of the American Dream – and whether those downtowns ever really existed, new urbanists are trying to make them a reality today.


Seaside, Florida

The Transect

Works Cited

Calthorpe, James. “The Region.” The New Urbanism. Ed. James Katz. Hong Kong: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994. xi-xvi.

Duany, Andrés. “A New Theory of Urbanism.” <>. 8 May 2006.

Katz, Peter. The New Urbanism. Hong Kong: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.

Works Consulted

“New Urbanism.” <>. 8 May 2006.

“New Urbanism: Creating Livable Sustainable Communities. <>. 5 May 2006.

“SmartCode.” <>. 6 May 2006.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 1/25/06