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October 20, 2005

Inside New Urbanism

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

DesignObserver's Michael Bierut was on the team that created the Disney-sponsored New Urbanist town of Celebration, Florida. (A decent page of photos is here.) He writes a fascinating posting about the experience -- and about his reactions to Celebration -- here.

Good passage:

Authenticity is a slippery thing. I live in a 1909 house that the realtor said was Victorian but I'd more accurately call Craftsman Style. Far from "authentic," to me it looks like it was built by someone who had seen some pictures of Greene and Greene houses and thought one might look good in Westchester County. It's surrounded by equally inauthentic hundred-year-old houses, all of which look swell today because they're so old.

Interesting how many of the commenters on Bierut's posting find Celebration creepy. Some of them murmur ominously about Big Brother; a few even tiptoe up close to the "r" (ie., racism) word, as though the act of paying attention to sidewalks and porches will inevitably hurtle us all back to Selma circa 1950.

Sigh: designers can be such hysterics and sillies. It never seems to have occurred to many of them that no one is forcing anyone to live in Celebration.



UPDATE: Fred Himebaugh writes -- from onscene, first-hand knowledge! -- about Celebration here.

posted by Michael at October 20, 2005


Having spent all of 20 minutes in Celebration, I am an expert on the place. The town is exasperating because of the haste and shoddiness of the original construction, and a couple of incongruous public buildings, and especially because of the way Disney initiated the project, then gutlessly shielded itself from any responsibility. Plus, yes, the place is still too new to have acquired patina. I would have liked to see more stylistic diversity in the homes; it was Queen Anne everywhere. But the low-level design decisions -- setbacks, alleys, hidden parking lots -- are mostly excellent. Plus, the place has a really groovy moderne cinema. (I've got a write-up of my visit here.

Posted by: Fred on October 20, 2005 5:12 PM

Those so-called "low level" design decisions are in fact the most enduring aspects of all towns and neighborhoods. Over the decades, structures get new cladding, styles and appearances change, businesses come and go, buildings are torn down and replaced. Lot boundaries last longer, but even those are consolidated and subdivided. What remains over the long term -- over centuries -- is the pattern of streets and blocks.

Maybe when you say "low level" you mean the foundation upon which all else is built.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 20, 2005 7:15 PM

I believe I will open a paint store there. Bound to do a land office business in a couple of years.

The whole place reminds me of something Rod Serling would dream up...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 20, 2005 8:22 PM

Yes, Laurence, I intended low = fundamental. "Basic" may have been a better choice of words. Didn't someone link to something lately along the lines of what you're talking about? I recall seeing a website with an arial photo of a town center in Europe, somewhere. You could see an oval shape in some of the streets that outlined the location of some kind of arena that existed back in medieval (or maybe even Roman) times.

By the way, thanks Michael for moving my link up where everyone can see it.

And the following parenthesis is intended to stand in for the missing one at the end of my previous comment: ) There, now don't we all feel better?

Posted by: Fred on October 20, 2005 9:52 PM

I'm glancingly familiar with the new Urbanism (which is not so new after all: Radburn, NJ was designed along similar lines in 1929), but I think what people find creepy (aside from the name) is what led to the suburbs getting such a bad rap umpteen years ago: Conformity. I covered an uproar in Radburn in the 1980s--it made it to 60 Minutes as a story--when some poor sap built a shed in his backyard that went against the town's architectural restrictions. Similarly, the post you cited by Beirut talks about designing around the non-U waterslide. Real life is messy--like sprawl.

Posted by: Rachel on October 21, 2005 11:36 AM

Celebration is indeed creepy. One imagines its residents speaking in a monotone while a mirthless smile clings to their lips.

One of the commenters suggests it's because we sense the looting of Third World resources that went into the suburban dream. Uh, no. What's creepy is the Truman Show vibe.

And it seems to me that the proximity of the houses - designed to encourage mingling with one's neighbors - would drive one to hate them instead. Go away and give me some privacy, you grinning ghouls!

Houses that provide privacy, combined with a city center of abundant "third places" such as cafes, taverns, barber shops, etc. seems to be the best way to forge a community.

Posted by: Brian on October 21, 2005 4:29 PM

Has anyone ever tried to come up with a quantifiable definition of what is meant by 'community', exactly? And having developed such a definition, has anyone ever actually measured how similar or different such communities are to other living environments, urban, suburban or rural?

I'm just wondering if the claims made for such communities, as well as the criticisms laid against them, are based on anything more than guesses or strongly held opinions. And if they are opinions, are they informed opinions? I'd like to hear from someone that has actually lived in such a community for a length of time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 21, 2005 6:15 PM

Studies have been done of what makes neighborhoods cohere and work. Very rough, necessarily so, given the nature of the material. But they make for really interesting reading, at least the bit that I've done.

Actually, you'd think that doing such studies -- why and when do people use backyards, porches, and sidewalks? For what reasons do people love their town? -- would be a standard thing in the architecture and urbanism worlds, wouldn't you? What else is the field about? Yet very little's done about it. The studies that *are* done are seldom concenred with anything other than what's sellable at the moment.

Anyway, Christopher Alexander ("Pattern Language"), William Whyte ("City"), and Plater-Zyberk and Duany ("Suburban Nation") have all looked at these questions. What makes a town behave like a town? Which parks get used, and which don't, and why? In what kinds of neighborhoods do people get out and socialize, and in what kinds don't they? What's "walkable"? What's the effect of traffic of a certain speed and quantity on neighborliness? It's out of stuff like this that the development codes being used by NewUrbanists have evolved. A work in progress, of course. But it's kind of a shock to discover that -- until people like Whyte, Alexander, and Plater-Zyberk and Duany -- architecture and urbanism hadn't even been thinking about questions like these for decades. The whole habit of thinking in terms of creating living towns had been lost.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2005 7:09 PM

I thought I set you up pretty well with that one.

However, I have one question: when did architecture and urban planning (a relatively young discipline)ever focus on how to create livable neighborhoods? At least, in any quantifiable sense, as opposed to the godlike diktats of Le Courbousier.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 22, 2005 7:16 PM

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