New Urbanism isn’t dead – but thanks to climate change, it is evolving

Houston under water following Hurricane Harvey in August. Image: Getty.

New Urbanism is dead, writes Bill Fulton on the October issue of Governing. Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, says New Urbanist thinking has so thoroughly permeated the mainstream that it no longer needs a movement to champion it.

Not so fast.

Today, the folks who brought us walkable downtowns and transit-oriented development have a new challenge to tackle: climate change. There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions while fortifying cities against the supercharged storms, rising seas and blistering heat waves of a warming world. And, in this era of staggering inequality, climate solutions must narrow – rather than widen – the gap between haves and have-nots.

New Urbanists are stepping up to the challenge. Last month, movement pioneers Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Peter Calthorpe joined with dozens of others at a Climate Summit hosted by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). The challenges outlined there – and the envisioned solutions – could signal the movement’s rebirth.

The challenges are stark. According to Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030, carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and cease altogether by midcentury if we hope to preserve a livable planet. And cities, which currently produce 70 per cent of carbon emissions, are expected to absorb more than one billion new residents in the next 15 years. “It’s like building a city of one and a half million people every week,” said Mazria, “So we need to get it right.”

New Urbanists have much to contribute to “getting it right.” Some New Urbanists – including Calthorpe – have long urged attention to climate issues. And the solutions New Urbanists have promoted for decades (compact, walkable downtowns served by low-carbon transit systems) are among the best means to reduce carbon emissions. Many American cities have used that formula to revitalise their urban cores, bringing a surge of new residents and dynamism.

But it would be premature to declare “mission accomplished”. As editor Robert Steuteville explains in The Death of New Urbanism is Greatly Exaggerated, on CNU’s Public Square, that urban revival has been paralleled – and even dwarfed – by turbocharged suburban sprawl. Today, about 82m households (out of some 117m) in the US live in low-density areas of about three households per acre, according to Jen McGraw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “We have to move that needle to make a difference,” she said.

While the original goals of the New Urbanist movement are not fully realised, climate change poses fresh and daunting challenges. Weather-related disasters are proliferating, and the built environment must be retooled for a wetter, wilder future.

Epic disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria (like Katrina and Sandy before them) illuminate the extraordinary vulnerability of our cities and towns. Yet those named storms represent just a fraction of the problem. The US now averages 129 disasters each year, up from 51 per year before the turn of the 21st century.


In the wake of disasters, there are opportunities to rebuild in ways that both mitigate and adapt to climate change. But those opportunities are typically squandered, said disaster recovery expert Laura Clemons, especially in smaller towns and cities that lack capacity to envision and implement change. Timely intervention by New Urbanists could help.

The New Urbanist response to climate change should not focus solely on technofixes, said Carla Mays of Mays Civic Innovation; it must also embrace social equity. Low-income people and people of color have been devastated by gentrification in “revitalised” cities; now they are impacted first and worst by climate change impacts.

Yet those groups are underrepresented in the New Urbanist ranks, said Mays. “This room does not reflect the diversity of the US,” she said. “We are coming to the dance, but we are not dancing yet.” New Urbanists must also confront the racially tinged policies that shape land use and infrastructure. “If we don’t acknowledge these disparities, we will proliferate them,” said Shelley Poticha, director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Given the urgency and complexity of today’s urban challenges, there is a pressing need for integrated, multi-tasking solutions. “We don’t have time to solve these problems – racism, climate change – separately,” said Douglas Kelbaugh, professor and former dean at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And, for urbanists to have an impact, they must collaborate with others who are dealing with similar (and different) aspects of this problem. “New Urbanists need a lot more friends,” said Poticha.

New Urbanism is certainly not dead, but it is evolving. From the CNU Climate Summit, we can see the broad outlines of what it might become: a movement that marries a vision of livable communities to the necessities of a changing climate. The goal: resilient, equitable, carbon-neutral cities that people want to live in. That’s the new New Urbanism.

Laurie Mazur is editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

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With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

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Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).