New urbanism has brought reconsideration to the role of built environments found in large suburban development patterns. Its ideals often have feasibility through various forms, but doing so often means implementation dependent on new town developments. Its reliance on new town developments reveals an inherent limit on the practicality of new urbanism’s vision for 21st century built environments. By understanding these constraints and recognizing its values, we can apply new urbanism’s ideals to existing built environments to make the concept more viable.
Using the town of Seaside, Florida (shown) as a model, we can extract a set of strategies employed in recovering the public realm. In the Seaside spatial structure is a central axis that organizes the pedestrian stream, restricting the boundlessness of the metropolis. Coupled with a universal use of architectural style, this runs the risk of creating an artificial aesthetic—a superficial image of community that we see in Seaside (i.e. The Truman Show). But applying this spatial structure to the existing suburban structure forces us to make modifications that may let us avoid this criticism altogether. When compared to the densities of coastal outposts or European shires, those of suburban cities are so low by comparison it renders this model ineffective. Only within highly dense environments is this model able to fully realize its intention of by creating continuous connections of private spaces and open streets.
From this, however, we can make use of this fundamental impulse to reshape a continuous pedestrian stream that counters the dependency on private automobiles. But as Tschumi seems to suggest, this movement notation “did not necessarily refer to these movements but rather to the idea of movement—a form notation that was there to recall that architecture was also about the movement of bodies in space.” Recognizing this value, modifications should be sought to accommodate the conditions of built environments and we can begin to reason about alternatives methods of appropriating continuous pedestrian streams. Distribution of public functions and the connections between them can implicitly enforce a wider walkable boundary and provide a more expansive sense of communal living. Activities and pedestrian connections are complementary and formalize the intention of creating an intimate network of casual public use. This relationship can be triggered by modification of existing structures to create a sense of compactness that engages the social sphere (defining tree lines, pushing the sidewalk through storefronts to reengage pedestrians with the activities of the commercial center).
New Urbanism’s idealism should be modified by existing spaces to become a viable paradigm that recognizes that our built environments are not the result of instantaneously deployed ideas but rather the cumulative results of small and gradual changes over time. Therefore, a return to this notion cannot disregard the processes that have led to this juncture. Though its vision may feel distant and remote, the impulse to remind us of the “lessons of human settlement” should be acknowledged.