Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

I remember looking toward the edge of town and thinking that something seemed off. We had stopped here before crossing the Continental Divide, in one of those typically charming Colorado mountain communities. Yet a few blocks away from its railroad-era Main Street lined with historic 1890s structures, there were almost cartoonish versions of those same buildings, arranged in an unnaturally tight grid.

South Main is a planned community on the outskirts of Buena Vista, Colorado, a town I often drive through with my parents when we go to the mountains from their house in Denver. Buena Vista is tiny, with only about 2000 residents, but it sees a decent amount of visitors due to the many 14ers fringing the horizon—the 14,000-foot snow-capped peaks tackled by hikers—and its proximity to the Arkansas River, which is popular for rafting and fishing.

A few years ago, a professional kayaker named Jed Selby decided he would build South Main right on the river. Acquiring a 41-acre parcel of land, he worked with his sister to envision a kind of outdoor-focused community on the town's edge, with coffee shops and microbreweries, as well as a bouldering wall and a whitewater park. As they were coming up with the concept, they discovered a theory called New Urbanism that would guide their development. According to South Main's site, they "quickly realized that its architecture and design aspects would be efficient and effective at creating the walkable, pedestrian-friendly community they envisioned."

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

The South Main community in Buena Vista

Maybe it was because the late-summer thunderheads were building on the horizon as I rolled into town, but to me, South Main had a freakish air to it. The homes—many of them for sale—gleamed in their primary colors as contemporary, almost urban takes on the Victorian architecture that dotted Colorado's former mining towns. There were a few people at the local cafe and a large outdoor recreation store playing one of those jam band songs that lasts 23 minutes. It was so perfectly staged, I felt as if I had walked onto a set: Sesame Street meets Little House on the Prairie.

They had indeed built a lovely place that seemed to be the walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood they intentioned. But it all seemed so contrived. What bothered me the most was that instead of improving and integrating with the pretty, if well-worn, historic Main Street a few blocks away, they essentially created this faux Wild West-by-way-of-Pottery Barn kayaker's ghetto.

I remember in particular one place where the freshly poured sidewalk ended abruptly at the edge of South Main's territory, crumbling into a dirt path in a vacant lot. It was as symbolic of a demarcation as you could get: That is old and this is New; that is real and this is fake.

A New Way

New Urbanism started as a movement in the 1980s to combat the growth patterns of suburbia and sprawl which had begun to consume the U.S. The idea was a return to what originally made neighborhoods and cities great before the car took over—good pedestrian connections, a mix of independent businesses, access to lots of greenspace. It included not only architecture but planning as well, which encouraged density and walkability in a time when most cities were busy building box stores and parking lots.

At the heart of New Urbanism was also this idea of reimagining the traditional architecture of that bygone era—almost revamping our nostalgic connections to those Colonial-esque Main Street storefronts or cozy Craftsman-looking cottages. The architecture was meant to be culturally and regionally appropriate, but many of the basic elements are the same: bright paint colors, large shady porches, white picket fences. In many ways, it looked a lot like that vision of American suburbia, without the sprawl.

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Photos via Congress for New Urbanism

The idea was radical but refreshing, and quickly became embraced by cities that wanted to reinvent themselves, especially downtown areas that were bleeding residents. In 1993 a group of architects and planners created the Congress for New Urbanism, formalizing the concept as a true urban design movement. It has a membership of thousands of people across the country. In June, the Congress will convene in Buffalo, New York.

There are New Urbanism towns all over the world, some built from the ground up, some part of revitalized "town centers." Some are a few blocks, some are entire cities. There is a particularly famous one called Celebration, Florida—designed by the Walt Disney Company to house its employees. There is probably some kind of New Urbanism neighborhood or building near you. But you'll recognize the concept best from the movie The Truman Show.

By the Seaside

Growing up in St. Louis, my family would drive the nine hours or so to Destin, Florida, for spring break. With its sugar white beaches and fluorescent pink fishbowls of grain alcohol, it was typical of the party towns that dotted the state's panhandle. But on every trip, we'd spend at least one day escaping all that in Seaside, a town nestled among the bungee jumping platforms and wet swimsuit competitions, but a world away.

Seaside was one of the first cities designed from scratch by New Urbanism principles. The creator, Robert S. Davis, inherited land from his grandfather, and tapped architects Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of New Urbanism, to create the master plan. Dozens of notable architects were recruited to design buildings, which are inspired by the traditional beach cottages of the South.

I didn't know it when I was 12, of course, but Seaside was one of the first truly postmodern design experiences I had. Its staggering range of architectural styles played upon all the familiar buildings I knew, but twisted them into fantasy versions of vacation shacks. I didn't understand any of that, of course, but I know why I loved it. The appreciation for urbanism and architecture was already well-established in my preteen head. I loved Seaside because it was like going to a theme park, even though there wasn't anything to do in particular, except gawk at this drop-dead adorable town. There was a pristine post office where we'd mail our postcards, a little strip of stores where we'd get ice cream. It was my chance to "play" city for the day. This was my kind of Six Flags.

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?

Photos of Seaside by Steven Brooks

When The Truman Show came out in 1998, I might have been one of a handful of people who went to see it just because it was shot in Seaside. By then, I had moved from my suburban neighborhood in St. Louis (which looked a little like Seaside!) to Boulder, and then to Atlanta, bigger cities that I came to love for their weirdness and messiness. Seeing Seaside on the screen didn't fill me with pride. How could I have loved this town that was so icky gooey perfect that it's portrayed as an artificial film set? "The world that he inhabits is counterfeit," says a beret-wearing Ed Harris, playing the director. (The script actually has many parallels to the 1516 book Utopia, featuring an island with one way in and one way out—which also has been said to inspire Lost.)

It's better than strip malls, of course. It's better than sprawl. It's better than parking lots. I believe in everything New Urbanism stands for. But for some reason I get hung up on its over-produced looks. I prefer my little L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake with its random, cacophonous growth: nail salons and auto repair shops and Sears catalog shacks and Spanish courtyard apartments and yes, even some New Urbanism developments. I think it's a pretty great neighborhood. It's walkable and livable and green, but it doesn't feel manufactured. It feels organic.

Not every new community has a century of good planning history, decent building stock, and empowered citizens—some really do have to start with a blank slate. But if only there was some way to design a community with all the good parts of New Urbanism without feeling like you're a character being played by Jim Carrey.

Now there is. Andrés Duany, who you'll remember as one of the founders of New Urbanism and the creator of Seaside, has started something new. It's called Lean Urbanism.

Getting Leaner

After six months discussion and collaboration with over 100 planners, architects and developers, Duany announced Lean Urbanism earlier this year. "It's not a reform movement, it's a series of tools," Duany said in an interview last month with Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiative for the Knight Foundation, which is funding the initiative. "This is smaller, this is when you want to get something done before the reform takes place. Locally, such as start a business or renovate a building."

Managed by the Center for Applied Transect Studies, Lean Urbanism touts itself somewhere between the policy-focused agenda of New Urbanism and the urban-scale pilot projects of Tactical Urbanism (things like temporary parklets and guerrilla bike lanes):

Lean urbanism will devise tools so that community building takes less time, reduces the resources required for compliance, and frustrates fewer well-intentioned entrepreneurs by finding common-sense ways to work around onerous financial, bureaucratic and regularity processes.

Essentially, according to Duany, the idea is to share best practices gained from years of city planning experience, "collecting clever workarounds and daylighting them." In the same way that New Urbanism is inspired by a better time in America, urban design-wise, Lean Urbanism looks back to a few decades ago when architects and planners weren't strangled by ridiculous legal barriers and our over-regulated society. The idea is to make planning quicker, easier, and cheaper—"lean."

But what it won't be is prescriptive in a way that New Urbanism is. Instead of a process that first dictates a town will be neo-Georgian townhomes or neo-Victorian cottages, it will actually subvert the process so people can build their own community, using the assets they have, instead of having a pastel pink postmodern square master-planned by some higher power. There isn't much up on the site yet, but Lean Urbanism also claims that it will be open-source, and its findings will be made widely available and accessible due to technology, posting successful case studies, publishing tools, and providing a community for fellow Lean Urbanists.

In way that New Urbanism might have been right for the U.S. and our sagging downtowns back in the 1980s, this feels right for the way that we've not only changed as a county, urbanism-wise, but also for the way we share ideas and work together. It's more about the process than the aesthetics. I hope Lean Urbanism results in some authentic, empowering, and beautifully messy communities.