The concept of new urbanism was developed in the USA in the 1980s by a group of planners, developers and architects with an aim of addressing the issue of urban sprawl and related problems. This concept was an attempt to transform the suburbs in major cities and create communities in which walking would get easy even with soaring population growth. It is a concept that has had growing influence on the planning and creation of new urban centers in the USA and in many major cities of the developed world (Steuteville, R. 2004).
The history of urban development in the United States has been characterized by the growth of several urban and suburban cities that have reflected greatly on the economic and historical developments of this nation. During colonial times, planning of cities in the US took place along race and class divisions. The most common type of housing then was the row house that had a series of buildings attached to it. In the city center lived the elite of the society while the working class and the slaves lived in the surrounding areas and the suburbs. But during the 19th century, the suburbs were slowly transformed into living space for the elite too. This is because pollution from industries made the city centers unattractive dwellings to the elite and the introduction of cars and railroads made it easy to commute from the suburbs to the city centers. New immigrants coming into the cities in search of better employment and better living conditions also moved into the suburbs resulting in massive urban sprawl (Steuteville, R. 2004).
By the first quarter of the 20th century, development of urban centers in the US had taken the form of closely-knit neighborhoods with mixed use. But the invention of modern architecture, zoning and increased use of the automobile slowly began to influence this pattern. The period after the Second World War was characterized by nationwide implementation of new developments based on separation of uses. These were referred to as Sprawl or Conventional Suburban Development (CDS) (Steuteville, R. 2004). This system of development however reflected disadvantages in that it lacked pedestrian scale and as a result has led to widespread consumption of large areas of countryside, an aspect that is mismatched with pedestrian growth. Improvements in the transportation brought about a situation whereby people could now easily move from the suburbs into the city centers to work using the readily available transport facilities at the time that included trains and commuter buses.
Automobiles were also produced in high numbers and were quite affordable, a factor that resulted in easy mobility leading to urbanization, sub-urbanization and re-urbanization. This meant that settlements that were predominantly rural gradually started growing into urban centers a process referred to as urbanization. As population continued to increase in urban centers, need arose for the expansion of urban centers to accommodate the growing population and the spreading out of these urban centers into surrounding areas is what is referred to sub-urbanization. In the urban areas, industrialization caused an increase in the urban population as people flocked the cities in search of employment and better life to the extent of causing congestion . Congestion in the cities brought about a need for more urban space to accommodate the growing populations and this triggered a need to review urban planning to cope up with increased demand of housing and employment. As a result vacant areas in towns were put under new developments that included more housing facilities and the change of user from commercial to residential, a process referred to as re-urbanization. The increase in urban areas led to the environmental deterioration with time as factories led to pollution from disposal of waste materials produced from the manufacturing sector. Sub-urbanization helped ease the congestion in the city centers but demanded for a new need to have environmental sustainability in the urban areas , an action that gave rise to improved social amenities such as health facilities. Efforts to address the public health issues made the towns a much better place to live in , and this consequently triggered more movement into the urban .The soaring use of automobiles has worsened the situation, subjecting the pedestrians to restricted mobility as they go to their places of work or attend to other functions (Peter, C. 1993).
The picturesque was a bit different in Canada. In the early 19th century, the rural and urban concepts in this nation were closely knit together into one major system in which the rate of agricultural expansion determined the rate of urban expansion or growth. A city hoping to expand into a large commercial center had to be surrounded by an agricultural population that was both dense and prosperous. Cities with the greatest agricultural potential therefore became the most dominant cities in Canada. But this trend changed by late 19th century and industrialization took the place of agriculture in determining urban growth. Irrespective of this, Canadian cities are similar to other cities in almost any other part of the world. But unlike cities in the US and other parts of the world, Canadian cities have had a history of cleanliness and orderliness that has stood dominant even during the period when most urban centers in the world have been threatened by decay. Planning and running of town centers in Canada in relation to provision of amenities and other services has been far much better than in many other towns of the industrialized world. But Canadian cities differ from European cities in that most of the space in Canadian cities is privatized and there are no communal places for holding public events
(Morris, W. 2006).
Like in most North America cities, planning in Canadian cities has been designed to favor easy flow of traffic to various destinations and also tends to reflect on isolation of foot traffic. Private residence is preferred to communal residence and much of the urban centers are dominated by apartment buildings, while expansion has favored constructions of private single-family residences. In Canada the official architecture has historically been neoclassical though not at the same scale as that of the USA. In the early 20th century large classical buildings housed official buildings, a trend that changed in the later part of the century and these official building began to take the shape of other commercial buildings (Fainstein, Susan S. 1997).
Urbanization in both the US and Canada resulted from massive migration of rural people into urban centers in search of better employment, better facilities and establishment of business enterprises. In order to accommodate the growing population the towns have grown into very large towns, a factor that has led to several problems related with soaring population and urban growth. The expansion of these small towns into large cities has resulted in environmental degradation, environmental pollution and too much pressure on available resources and facilities such as the road networks. It is a as a result of too much pressure put on the environment by urban sprawl that new urbanism has tried to come up with a concept that would address and probably minimize or eliminate these problems. The main aim of new urbanism is to bring reform to all aspects related to real estate development and change urban planning from urban retrofits to suburban infill (Fainstein, Susan S. 1997).
The concept of new urbanism is based on a few core principles. New urbanism aims at setting up of communities in which human interaction is encouraged by building houses in close proximity to one another and close to the streets. Streets should be set up in such a way that the whole community is easily accessible to both pedestrians and motorists. Trees should also be planted alongside these streets for beautification (Canter, S. & David, T. 1977).
Housing should be built in such a way that different options are available to different classes of people and pricing of these houses should be variable. New urbanism also emphasizes the setting up of buildings that can handle mixed activities such as single and multi-family dwellings, having office and residential use in the same building as well as commercial buildings that can provide essential services to the neighborhood. In such a way people can be able to line close to their work places. According to new urbanism, buildings should be located close to the street and services immediately outside the community so that residents don’t have to travel very far for their daily needs (Xavier de Souza1997).
New urbanism is non-automobile oriented and a community designed upon this concept puts into consideration those moving on foot or riding bicycles and everyday services are placed within walking distances. Cars are physically unhealthy as they cause accidents and make people lazy in walking. Walking is good exercise for the body (Lloyd, B. 1992).
Another aspect of new urbanism is the green space concept that encourages the construction of commercial and residential buildings that are sustainable and friendly to the environment. In order to come up with attractive developments, designers using this concept have been able to import traditional building designs to fit with modern designs. Under this concept parking lots should be replaced by parallel street parking and garages should be hidden in alleys at the back of the houses (Arendt & Randall 1999).
The concept of new urbanism has been applied in the development and expansion of cities through out the world including the USA, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia. Good examples of cities developed through this concept are Copenhagen in Denmark, Florida in USA Park Duvalle in Louisville, Summerset in Pittsburgh, She ford in South Devon and Beacon Cove in Port Melbourne, Australia (Steuteville 2003).
The concept of new urbanism attempts to address multiple environmental problems with the aim of coming up with possible and practical solutions. The soaring use of automobiles has contributed to air pollution through fumes emitted from gasoline-powered automobiles. These fumes have very strong smells that pollute the air and green house gases such as carbon dioxide and others released together with these fumes have contributed to global warming. Gasoline is produced from natural fossil products and in the process we have a lot of waste oil deposits that lead to pollution of the environment. New urbanism promotes the use of public transport vehicles such as buses and commuter trains and lesser automobiles on our roads means lesser air pollution. These public vehicles are also able to handle more passengers than personal cars and these factors put together help to ease congestion on the roads and highways. Less congestion means that lesser fumes are released into the air because vehicles do not spend so much time held up in traffic (Morris, W. 2006).
The urbanization concept of environmental sustainability encourages the involvement of the local communities in environmental conservation and maintaining order in their surroundings. This encourages teamwork and in so doing helps to curb irresponsible environmental behavior. Through this concept, the power to plan is redistributed in such a way that citizen participation takes top place in the ladder and in this way the community gets the full awareness of the need to conserve the environment. This is a deviation from the traditional way of doing things where the city fathers and politician decide on both policy and implementation. (Dennis R. J. and Todd S. 1994).
Because new urbanism applies the aspect of proper location in its development plans through the concept of compact and dense development, environmental assets such as wetlands, woodlands and animal habitats can easily be preserved. This can be through opposing and restricting urban growth into such areas by developing strong master plans and design codes that exhibit sensitivity to the community and its surrounding environment (Arendt, C. & Randall, G. 1999).
Major urban centers are characterized by rapid population growth that has resulted in increased demand of facilities such as housing, schools and water and sewerage facilities. The concept of new urbanism aims at addressing and solving problems arising from pressure exerted on such facilities. This can be done through the application of sustainable urban designs and developments such as the consolidated residential areas and mixed-use buildings and walkways. Proper utilization of available space means that there is less destruction of the environment in clearing new land for construction purposes (Alexander, C. et al 1987).
The aspect of integrating cultural designs in construction of modern buildings helps to conserve the environment in that traditional designs enhance proper use of building materials at a level that does not cause so much destruction to the environment. A good example is in the town of Bahcesehir in Turkey where a variety of houses (villas and mid-rise flats) have been constructed using the traditional Turkish and Ottoman designs (Burnham, D. (1994).
Whenever new urban centers start coming up, environmental conservationists are often caught up in a state of panic. This is because of the type of environmental pollution that often results from the expansion of urban centers such as the clearing of vast sections of the natural environment to create room for construction of buildings and recreational facilities. As a result, there is a tendency to set up environmental restrictions and laws with the aim of preventing the expansion of an urban area. The concept of new urbanism overcomes such restrictions through the implementation of strong master plans and codes that exhibit sensitivity to the environment. As a result of the process of urbanization can be carried out through minimizing of any environmental impacts that may lead to pollution or destruction of the environment surrounding a prospective urban area (Alexander, C. et al 1987).
The concept of new urbanism and pedestrian cities promotes the establishment of scenic neighborhoods as a result of residents’ proximity to shopping malls, the open green spaces as construction of beautifully designed apartments. The green spaces offer recreational facilities, help in preserving greenery in the environment as well as offering a natural habitat to the local Flora and Fauna. Recreational facilities provide the local people with the necessary facilities to enhance interaction and also give them the opportunity to appreciate the natural environment. In such way a positive attitude towards environmental sustainability builds up in them. Where urban centers are set up near natural attractions such as beaches, forests and lakes, a lot of tourism activity has been exhibited. According to David Smith, the new urbanism concept combines environmental concerns with improved public realm that adds value to the lives of the inhabitants (David, S. 1995).
The concept of new urbanism also promotes the development of public transport systems within the community, which makes commuting from one place to another easier and faster. The creation of pedestrian walkways and cycling paths gives citizens within an urban center easy access to essential facilities such as shopping malls, schools, hospitals ad other social amenities. It reduces the inconveniences of having to be held up in traffic when going for very short distances. Public transport also helps to reduce traffic congestion because it can handle more people. There is also less pollution (Lloyd, B. 1992).
New urbanism also addresses the issue of improving existing sewage systems and creating new ones to cope with demand from the fast growing urban populations. This helps in reducing pollution to the environment by controlling careless disposal of wastewater and matter (Cathorpe, F. et al 2001).
The practicability of new urbanism and pedestrian cities however faces several setbacks in its implementation. New urbanism fails to give a uniform definition of an urban center or community and whatever developmental plans may be applicable to one urban center may not apply to another for example planning of a seaside town cannot follow the same concepts as planning of an inland town. The concept is only applicable to upcoming urban centers because its comprehensive and large developments are only practical in suburbs and rural areas. This is because existing cities are already densely built-up and most of them do not have underdeveloped land that could be used for new developments. The aspect of condensed space used in the construction of buildings is not applicable in cities that are already built-up and have existing policies for development and administration of services (Fainstein, Susan S. 1997).
It has also proved difficult to disconnect people from their love affair with the car and the suburb. In America for example, the suburb has been related to success providing the necessary safety from the chaos and dangers posed by city life as well as providing the proper environment for family life. It is still the belief of most Americans that one should be able to own a home. Even though cars are expensive in terms of fuel, repair and maintenance most of people still think it is very necessary to own a car. This is despite the fact that other disadvantages such as rush-hour traffic and looking for parking space make walking an attractive option especially if it is to short distances for short errands (Lloyd, B. 1992).
New urbanism may also include the planning and implementation of high cost housing schemes that may fail to serve the needs of the majority of the population in an urban area. This is because housing may not be affordable for the average family and such unsatisfied needs mean that residents are unable to enjoy the merits of a new urbanized town. The concept also fails to address the issue of unemployment that affects many urban centers and this could mean that many people may not afford the type of housing offered (Fainstein, Susan S. 1997).
The type of urban planning proposed through new urbanism is long term and any mistakes either in planning or implementation could lead to long-term problems. Transport and sewage systems for example are very sensitive to plan and implement and caution should be exercised in planning such systems that are difficult to correct. It calls for foresight and attention to details at the planning stage if costly miscalculations are to be avoided (Cathorpe, F. et al 2001).
In its condensed development plan, new urbanism has given rise to several disadvantages such as short driveways, narrow streets and small slot sizes. The idea that people should live close to one another is a concept forced upon people that may not be openly embraced by many. The designs proposed are normally very static and they give no room for change from the original plan. In most instances, the structure proposed in the planned development is more restricted in application than in traditional methods of planning (Harvey, D. 1997).
New urbanism is a concept that has been widely embraced by architects, planners and developers and has become the basis upon which they address the physical and social well being of the population in relation to smarter and sustainable urban growth. Reducing the use of automobiles and encouraging increased pedestrian activity, is a good method of encouraging casual meetings between people something that could help in bonding of communities. Reduced automobile use also helps to save precious time and money when people don’t have to drive for long distances to work as well as reducing atmospheric pollution and public-borne expenses such as road construction. Having extra time creates opportunity for social relations either within the family or with friends. The concept offers a good alternative for the future building and re-building of urban areas and its concept of mixed-use, pedestrian friendly and beautiful and functional corridors helps in integration of sustainable man-made communities (Katz 1994).
Although the creation of environmentally sustainable cities is a dream that is yet to be realized because planners have failed to realize the complexity of current urban challenges, many European cities are already an indication that the concept of green, ecological and highly desirable working and living places is practical. Cities like Dratchen in Netherlands, Stockholm and Copenhagen have succeeded in developing very successful satellite communities based on the high density concept that have been modeled around suburban and metro rail lines (Beatley 2000). Urban developments that are currently being put in place have a shortcoming in that they tend to bend very much towards environmental sustainability and ignore the fact that cities need also be socially and economically sustainable.
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