The New Urbanist movement aims to recapture the best of historic urban design, and it’s done much to help extricate our cities from the hyperorganized zoning and crushing scale of postwar planning.

New Urbanism can be considered revolutionary only in its return to common-sense principles: It acknowledges the idea — so abhorrent to modernists — that messy complexity is often preferable to the sort of desiccated order that’s characterized most planning since World War II. It holds that neighborhoods should be diverse, both in planning usage and demographics, and that human beings rather than motor vehicles should form the basic metric of urban design.

For all the good that’s come from this ongoing retooling of our cities, however, some nominally New Urbanist projects are showing troubling tendencies. One of these is an increasingly cloying reliance on feeble and often irrelevant historical detailing. Fiberglass columns, foamed plastic cornices and PVC windows with false muntins are now the default standard for too many New Urbanist projects. It’s a hammy architectural grammar that piles cliché upon cliché, while often neglecting the movement’s most important principles.

One new mixed-use development near my office, for example, pointedly borrows a Craftsman-era design feature beloved by New Urbanists — the familiar bungalow porch roof carried on a pair of tapered columns — and preposterously grafts it onto the sheer face of a four-story building. This kind of empty gesture, which does nothing to improve the environs of an already mundane design, exists solely to provide the faintest whiff of New Urbanist innovation.

While New Urbanism unabashedly mines the past for planning successes, none of its tenets oblige architects, planners or developers to look backward for aesthetic inspiration. Despite this, more and more projects seem content to invoke a saccharin American past that, perhaps mercifully, has never really existed beyond a movie studio backlot.

Alas, municipal governments are as culpable as architects and developers for the spread of this kind of appliqué architecture. City planners and design-review officials are too easily placated by the superficial New Urbanist baubles developers offer them — fountains, trellises, fancy paving — at the expense of the basic New Urbanist principles that really matter. Too often, the result is just the same old autocentric design tricked out in fancier dress.

The real measure of a New Urbanist project is not how it looks, but how it works. Is the density high enough and the usage varied enough to support lively activity throughout the day? Is it easily accessible by means other than cars? Does it welcome pedestrians, or are they once again a grudging afterthought? Are the building materials environmentally friendly, and will they age with grace?

Today’s design problems — sprawl, inhuman scale, autocentric planning, environmental degradation, and the alienation these engender — are unique to our own time. They won’t be resolved merely by dressing up the same tired planning paradigms in a wistful, old-timey aesthetic. New Urbanism’s real potential for change will be realized, not through its quotations of the past, but rather through its faith in the future.


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