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

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.