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Monday, July 14, 2008

Book Review: New Urbanism and Beyond

New Urbanism and Beyond: Designing Cities for the Future edited by Tigran Haas
Rizzoli, 2008

If there's one thing that architects and New Urbanists should focus on, it is remedying the rift between architects and New Urbanists. Of course, many architects are New Urbanists, and even many that aren't card-carrying members agree with the tenets of the Congress for New Urbanism, but the two tend to criticize each other, all-too-many times strongly and non-constructively. Granted that disagreements are inevitable in individuals and groups, the fact that New Urbanism is the only design movement making substantial progress on tackling sprawl and other urban issues today, attempts at working together towards what appears to be common goals -- namely reducing sprawl, renewing community, and sustainability -- would seem to be warranted. This is reinforced by the crisis situation that the world faces, with a growing urban population that will someday exceed the carrying capacity of our planet, and the fact that the main point of contention is aesthetics, hardly the best reason for architects to abandon the best opportunity at making positive change via urban design.
Now I should probably come clean, that I fall on the side of the fence with other architects critical of New Urbanist ideas and practice. But my take is not primarily directed at the reactionary aesthetics of places like Celebration, Florida, but that the town plans, as executed, don't really alleviate the problems they address, namely car use. As well, the middle- to upper-class exclusivity of New Urbanist towns illustrates that concerns of sustainability don't extend to the social and economic.
Regardless of my stance towards what I've seen of CNU developments and writings, when I opened this collection of writings on New Urbanism "and beyond" I was optimistic that perhaps an attempt was being made to close the aforementioned rift. Unfortunately editor Tigran Haas's introduction adopts a strongly defensive tone regarding criticisms of New Urbanism, a problem made worse by the fact that the criticisms he addresses are not quoted, cited, or even mentioned by name, so he is in essence responding to generalized critiques of the movement. One wonders if the following essays are as one-sided as this introduction. While what is clearly missing from the collection are the actual critiques of New Urbanism by the likes of Michael Sorkin or Dean MacCannell, the 60-odd essays and their respective authors convey the depth and variety of the issues surrounding New Urbanism.
Broken into eleven themed sections (theories, sprawl, sustainability, digital spaces, social capital, etc.), it's more accurate to call the collection a "primer on urban design" -- as the book does call itself -- and not let the title pepper one's thoughts with a biased attitude, as Haas's introduction does. Many of the essays could only be described as fitting marginally into New Urbanist ideology, regardless of the author's views on the movement, be they said or not. Ultimately the book is as valuable a collection of voices on urbanism as the recent Endless City. While each has different intentions, the results -- and parties involved -- have substantial overlap, something indicative of the trend towards thinking on the urban and regional scale. What both books show is that practice is as important as theory, and now is the time for action...and reconciliation.

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