Half a Loaf. Are New Urban "Hybrids" a Marketable Option?

By Sands, Gary | Theoretical and Empirical Researches in Urban Management, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Half a Loaf. Are New Urban "Hybrids" a Marketable Option?


Sands, Gary, Theoretical and Empirical Researches in Urban Management


1. Introduction

Since the middle of the last century, the predominant form of urban development across North America has been suburban, characterized by low density, large-scale, automobile dependent, homogeneous developments. Despite criticisms from a range of perspectives, (Jacobs, 1961; Downs, 1994; Cervero, 1986; Ontario, 2006), this paradigm remains the preferred form of development, shaping suburban communities in both Canada and the United States. While alternative models, such as Master Planned Communities (Campbell, 1976) and Planned Unit Developments (Moore and Siskin, 1985), have been offered as alternatives, these have had limited application and the results are often little different than the prevailing suburban development model.

A more radical departure from the suburban standard has emerged in recent decades, one that combines high standards of urban design with a measure of social engineering. Led by architects Duany et al. (2000) and Peter Calthorpe (1993), and popularised by writers like Philip Langdon (1994) and James Howard Kunstler (1993), New Urbanism has been promoted as a model for development that not only looks better but one that also functions better than the typical post-War suburb (Steuteville and Langdon, 2003). Proponents of New Urbanism argue that the physical form of New Urban communities facilitates a higher level of social interaction. This, in turn, contributes to a sense of community that is missing from the suburbs where a majority of North Americans live (Katz, 1994). New Urbanism represents a template for building better suburbs, as well as for renewing central cities (Duany, 2000). Such developments are encouraged by senior levels of government in both Canada and the United States (Ontario, 2006; HUD, 2000).

The New Urban model draws on diverse themes. Its emphasis on the public realm and the creation of a sense of place (Talen, 2000) addresses the widespread alienation and anomie often seen as prevalent in suburbs (Putnam, 2000; Brindley, 2003). New Urbanism encourages preservation of important elements of the natural and built environment, heritage properties in particular (Congress for the New Urbanism, 2004). A fine-grained mixture of land uses that facilitates non-motorized transportation and public transit supports both health and environmental values (Calthorpe, 1993; Frumpkin et al., 2004).

Opinion surveys and market research suggest that a substantial proportion of the North American population would actually prefer to live in a community with the characteristics of a New Urban Development (Katz, 1994; Morrow-Jones et al., 2005). Despite the expressed preferences for (or at least interest in) many of the ideals of New Urbanism, the suburban model continues to dominate. In part, this is the result of municipal development regulations that make it difficult, if not impossible, to develop communities that follow the principles of New Urbanism. Few developers are willing to invest the time and money necessary to make changes in local development regulations necessary to accommodate New Urban developments.

Density and housing structure type are two characteristics frequently used to distinguish New Urbanist from conventional development (Gordon & Vipond, 2005). Most New Urban developments achieve higher densities by means of smaller lots and higher proportions of multifamily housing. These built forms, along with a mix of land uses, contribute to walkability and help to provide opportunities for social interaction. Implicitly, residents are asked to accept these higher densities in return for better access to amenities and enhanced levels of design quality.

This paper will examine how residents of two New Urban developments in Canada assess the reality of living in a community that incorporates New Urban ideals. Households residing in communities with New Urban characteristics have already accepted higher community density. …

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