The New Urban and Quality of Life

In the middle of the 20th century, Americans began leaving the city and moving to the suburbs to improve quality of life for their families.  Studies from all over the world have now acknowledged that this urban sprawl and greater dependence on the auto have largely contributed to the world-wide obesity epidemic.  Spreading out from city centers to the suburbs led to a boom in indoor shopping malls, tract development and suburban office parks.  This trend continued for decades and once vibrant city centers turned into derelict run down crime-laden areas. 

However, the face of cities and towns throughout the US has been steadily undergoing a transformation.  Suburban corporate campuses have been giving way to vibrant mixed-use developments.  Big box retail and shopping malls are turning inside out as walkable “town center” concepts continue to grow and thrive.  Commuting by rail, bus, bicycle and other non-vehicle forms is increasing.   City centers which were predominantly occupied from 9-5 with businesses, but dark at night are now becoming work/live/play ecosystems.

The New Urban is replacing sprawl with smart growth.  The New Urban is creating walkable, compact, vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods where residents and visitors have access to housing, shopping and entertainment. 

As cities and towns evaluate growth, there are several key factors that determine the success of creating a New Urban community.  According to  the key principles of new urbanism include:

Walkability – is created by providing a pedestrian-friendly plan with 10-minute walk zones.  This is typically done using small blocks and setbacks that are close to the street.  Creating some pedestrian only streets, mixed with on-street parking enhances the viability of the commercial space.

Connectivity – look to vibrant urban spaces throughout the world and you will see that they are places that have a hierarch of narrow streets, boulevards and alleys.  This hierarchy contributes to a high quality pedestrian network and public realm.  Ensuring that the street grid and network allows traffic to disperse easily and increases the desire to walk rather than drive.

Mixed-Use – when planning a mix of uses, look to authentic examples of urbanity. We have come to understand that those places which offer a mix of shops, offices and apartments are more successful.  Mixed-use developments which create an attractive setting for a diverse population in terms of age, culture and income lend to the genuineness of the surroundings.

Mixed Housing – planning for a range of types, sizes and prices for housing is important to produce a diverse population of residents who will eat, shop, and work in the neighborhood. 

Quality Architecture and Urban Design – Creating a sense of place relies heavily on the built environment and how it interacts within the community.  Aesthetics, human-scale, and placement of civic uses determine how a space is perceived and used.  Understanding how the spaces will interact and perform will be reflected in each building’s height, footprint, and mix of uses.

Neighborhood Structure – In New England, many cities and towns have a discernable center.  The New Urban looks to the successes of these small towns and works to recreate an organic growth model.  Public gathering spaces, edges and character zones that encourage movement within the development without the use of a car will succeed over large tract developments.

Density – Density is often misunderstood when looking at a new development.  Often people perceive increased density with a lower quality environment.  However, when planned correctly, height, placement and location of buildings in close proximity improve the quality of place by bringing people together as a community and providing amenities and services all within walking distance.

Transportation – Understanding and planning the role of transportation in the mixed-use environment is critical to success.  Those neighborhoods with access to public transportation, car-share or bike-share programs are attracting greater demand than those that are accessible only by car.

Sustainability – Developing communities that minimally impact the environment is inherent in urban projects, however designs should include energy-efficient materials, systems that operate efficiently and promote walking over driving.

Quality of Life – Ultimately, these principles when brought together,  will ensure that the community will be authentic, sustainable, and vibrant with the promise of providing a high quality of life for its dwellers, workers, and visitors.