JANE'S THEORY
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New Urbanism: Distinguishing Integration from Illusion

When determining the markers of a successful community, one must consider whether the ends justify the means, or rather whether or not the end result fulfills its promises. As neighborhoods across America jump on New Urbanism bandwagons, the rationale is clear, but are their efforts successful?

It would be unfair to label the New Urbanism movement a pipe dream– every neighborhood should strive towards a more connected, walkable, sustainable environment. But who are these cities truly for? Placemakers, a podcast by Slate Magazine, discusses the dream-like community of Kentlands, Maryland. Gaithersburg has an average housing cost of approximately $460k, but Kentlands specifically can climb into the million dollar range.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Kentlands, however. Smaller communities such as the Mosaic District in Merrifield, Virginia are abundant with pricey apartment complexes, yet they promise you your money’s worth. A healthy mixture of overpriced coffee shops, mega movie theaters, and high end boutiques, the Mosaic is the ideal community– for those who can afford it. These types of communities also pose an interesting threat to falsified neighborhoods. Due to the nature of their high end amenities, there is little room for true, Jacobs-esque city interaction.

So…where does New Urbanism thrive? The answer is not within the Mosaic or Kentlands boundaries, rather within existing communities all around us. Neighborhoods that are facing gentrification are often labeled as areas in need of renovation, and not without reason. However, the renovation is never for the existing residents, rather for future residents with higher annual incomes– similarly to what is seen with the development of New Urbanist communities. In the Charter of New Urbanism, the foundational statement reads as follows:

“We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”

This goal hits on every key element of a successful neighborhood, but in implementation, what are the structural elements that make these communities come to life? Many neighborhoods within the clutches of real estate developers contain these qualities– walkable, charming, older homes, tree lined streets. Though post-renovation one could argue that these neighborhoods are incredibly successful, armed with local coffee joints and curb appeal, they do not not fulfill the entirety of the foundation New Urbanism demands. These neighborhoods may be diverse in use, but fail to be diverse in population.

When envisioning the future of our cities, we must be cautious of the language we utilize and the connotations they imply. If “New” Urbanism is associated with gentrification, it doesn’t seem to be a “new” implementation at all, rather a repetition of the past. Housing affordability is no longer a term for those working minimum wage jobs; as cities become increasingly expensive to inhabit, more and more city dwellers find themselves seeking affordable housing options. If affordability is not incorporated into the New Urbanism equation, we neglect to acknowledge one of the most pressing issues of our time.                  

New Urbanism is not the neighborhood of tomorrow, it is the neighborhood of centuries past, the neighborhood that has been torn apart time and time again. If this approach truly demands diverse populations, it is crucial to kindle the desire for mixed income housing before it is extinguished by the tempting financial byproducts of a freshly renovated block. Affordability must not continue to be viewed as an afterthought or something to be added as a moral responsibility, it should be considered as commonplace as adding streetlights or sidewalks. Affordable housing is not merely shelter, it is a home in which its residents may reside in and participate within its overarching community, and that is what the working definition of New Urbanism should reflect.

Ellie Muraca