Similarities and Differences

Both New Urbanism and Urban Husbandry take their inspiration from what they see as the failed experiment of automobile-based development. Both schools of thought give primary importance to the pedestrian's use of the street. Vitality of neighborhoods is linked to pedestrian use of those neighborhoods and the use of streets as public spaces. To some extent, they share a belief that that providing other forms of transport than the private automobile are also important. However, there are important differences between the two that belie Calthorpe's statement that the one is simply an application of the other.

Ultimately, Urban Husbandry springs from the work of historical preservationists and neighborhood activists, while New Urbanism is an intellectual movement of architects and planners. In practice, Urban Husbanders have primarily been concerned with saving and nurturing neighborhoods in existing cities. In practice, despite a few urban projects and suburban refurbishment projects, New Urbanists have primarily been concerned with the design and building of new suburban developments. (Indeed, Yale professor Vincent Scully, a teacher of several important New Urbanists, writes that it might be better named the New Suburbanism. Scully, p. 221) I believe it is these differing origins that give rise to the major differences between the two.

Perhaps the most notable difference between the two schools is their different perspectives towards projects (that is, large-scale developments constructed as a unit) and project planning. For Roberta Brandes Gratz, it is "Project Planning or Urban Husbandry: The Choice." (Gratz 1998, p. 59) Project planning, for Gratz, implies an attempt to reduce the complex nature of cities to a simple set of variables. Project planning cannot achieve at a stroke what can be achieved incrementally through refurbishment of individual buildings and places. "When city problems are approached mechanistically, the complexity that is the essence of urbanism is misunderstood, ignored, or lost." ( Gratz 1998, p. 66) A significant concern is that project plans tend to displace existing, successful businesses and residents.

"Urban Husbanders view any place, a downtown or a neighborhood, as a garden. Something exists with which to work, something fundamentally of value by virtue of its history of organic growth over time. Maybe the garden contains dead plants to weed out. Undoubtedly, other plants need attention, need to be nurtured, cut back, fertilized. Introducing a new and alien plant, and plowing under the remaining garden in the process, is not considered." (Gratz 1998, p. 62)

New Urbanists, however, have generally been unconcerned with these issues. As they generally construct new suburban tracts, without previously existing businesses or residents, there is little upon which they could focus that concern. The intricate web of relationships between residents, retail establishments, offices, and other institutions that Urban Husbanders seek to preserve is not present in an empty field.

However, the other reasons that Urban Husbandry supports small projects over large are still valid in new developments. The economic variety enabled by buildings of mixed age is not possible in a project. Even the Saint Lawrence neighborhood in Toronto, an otherwise exemplary project for Urban Husbanders (its buildings can be used for multiple purposes, it preserved older buildings in its project area, it is archtecturally consistent with the surrounding neighborhoods) has been criticized for its size: "It is too much new building of one period in one place," says Jane Jacobs (quoted in Gratz 1994, p. 166).

The New Urbanists' tendency to build new developments in open fields is itself questionable. From the perspective of Urban Husbandry, it is nearly as bad to develop large projects on the fringe of existing communities as it is to build the projects in the city. Although a few New Urbanist projects have been built around transit lines, and transit access is part of what New Urbanism promotes, many New Urbanist projects are beyond the limit of frequent transit access. (Some New Urbanist projects, such as Laguna West in Elk Grove, near Sacramento, California, are built hoping that transit will one day arrive. (Katz, p. 19) One notable transit-oriented development actually near transit is Calthorpe's The Crossings, in Mountain View, California. A new commuter rail station is being built in part as a response to the development. [Urban Ecology, p. 66]) Very few large tracts of empty, developable land exist near frequent, convenient transit service, as that service is rarely established without previously existing development to support it.

In New Urbanist neighborhoods, unlike in typical suburbs, the architectural details of the buildings do not give the car the place of honor, and it is possible to do some errands on foot. However, without adequate public transportation there is no practical way to travel outside the neighborhood except in the private automobile. If residents are to shop in or commute to the central city, they will place demands upon it for parking and other automobile infrastructure. In addition, building new developments at the fringe of the city means that the resources used for that development will not be used in areas within the city that are physically deteriorating or suffer from a lack of vitality. If the developments attract residents or enterprises from the central city, the central city will be weaker by their absence.

It could be pointed out, however, that many automobile-centered suburbs are still being constructed. It may be preferable to provide a pedestrian, New Urbanist suburb than a typical automobile-centered suburb. At some point in the future, transit may be extended to these suburbs, and a suburb with connected streets may reduce traffic. (Urban Ecology, p. 60) Individualized buildings are more expensive to build than the standardized model homes found in suburbs (and even in many New Urbanist projects). Building on sites hemmed in by other buildings requires special care and doesn't afford the generous staging site that a suburban street does.

None of these extra costs (most can be passed on to the consumer with little trouble) are as important as the difficulty of achieving financing. As discussed earlier, many banks "redline" city neighborhoods, and tend to lend only for larger, more lucrative projects. In general they are loath to depart from the familiar, and they are more comfortable with typical suburban development. (Kunstler 1996, pp. 192-193)

By building a suburb in the same way albeit in different forms, New Urbanism implicitly accepts the financing limitations of commercial banks. Urban Husbandry tries to go around them. One can surmise that the architects and planners who work with conventional financing and land developers have adopted their assumptions, while activists and preservationists have not -- thus forming the two schools of thought.

Yet commercial development has not been the success for New Urbanism that one might have hoped. Widely-known New Urbanist communities such as Duany and Plater-Zyberk's Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Calthorpe's Laguna West have had serious problems with commercial financing. Both projects lost their original developers. Laguna West was compromised to the extent that it has turned out little different from other suburban development. Kentlands, except for its commercial district which is a typical suburban shopping center, was built largely as planned only because the New Urbanist plan was adopted as municipal law, and the neighborhood association had legal standing to ensure that the law was followed. (Kunstler 1996, pp. 189-193) While these events coincided with general downturns in the real estate market, they would indicate that using traditional financing does not imply that projects will be completed. Instead, it's likely that the principles of urbanism will be watered down to appease conservative bankers and developers.

Aside from the basic issue of financing, there are other important differences that should be addressed. One is the nature of the community as seen by the two schools. Urban Husbandry focuses on empowering the community, whereas New Urbanism focuses on creating community.

Urban Husbanders see the community as existing through time, extending backwards as well as forwards. Community members should participate in the design of new buildings and be given power to shape their own environments. Urban Husbanders are concerned that old buildings and neighborhoods be shaped to current uses. (Gratz 1998, pp. 65-67)

New Urbanists tend, in a more one-way fashion, to see buildings as helping to shape the community. William Lennertz writes:

"... design affects behavior. Duany and Plater-Zyberk see the structure and function of a community as interdependent. Because of this, they believe a designer's decisions will permeate the lives of residents not just visually, but in the way residents live." (Lennertz, p. 21)

The process of design often includes a charette, an on-site gathering of designers, architects, historians, engineers, ecologists, and financial and marketing consultants. These then view local architectural examples to serve as models, meet with local officials and local advocates (who will not actually live in the community), and ultimately unveil a complete design, with codes, master plan, and examples of typical buildings.(Lennertz, p. 23). Then the design is "implemented," the units are sold, and the community members enter. Over time the incoming community makes changes to the neighborhood, but by then the architects' jobs are over.

The focus on buildings shaping community can be taken to extremes. Architects Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides write,

"Threshold elements at the setback line, such as arcades, porches, stoops, stairs, balconies, eaves and cornices, loggias, chimneys, doors and windows are the means by which buildings interface with and determine the life of the street." (p. xxiii)

Life on the street comes from the people on the streets, not the buildings or their elements. Some New Urbanists have acknowledged that, for example, walkable communities don't necessarily mean pedestrians will use them (Calthorpe 1993, p. 10), but the emphasis on buildings and other architectural elements tends to make the actual members of the community something of an afterthought. Although it may be understandable, as they are in a milieu in which large suburban neighborhoods are built from scratch, nonetheless it is unfortunate that community is more an abstraction than a reality to New Urbanists.

Despite this, the focus on building design brought by the New Urbanists can be useful. Urban Husbanders often emphasize the beauty and importance of old buildings in comparison to new ones. As Urban Husbandry is closely related to the historic preservation movement1, this is not surprising. However, very little attention is given to the importance of architectural features in new buildings. The aversion to seeing the city as a whole oversimplified and regularized as an art form seems to have extended to the buildings themselves, in spite of the presence of older, aesthetically valued buildings in older cities. As long as new buildings are oriented towards pedestrians and are not so large that they not block out the sun, Urban Husbanders have little to say about their architectural qualities.

New building promoted by Urban Husbanders, such as the West Village Houses in New York's Greenwich Village, tend to be serviceable and appropriate for their neighborhoods, but plain. (Gratz 1994, p. 172) They will not be among those buildings whose loss would be mourned. New Urbanists, with their specific design codes, attempt to build buildings that both fit into the context of the street and, in a way reminiscent of local traditional building patterns, are attractive.

Another difference between New Urbanists and Urban Husbanders is their treatment of residential density. Automobile-centered development tends to be of very low density, because automobiles allow inexpensive land to be accessed more easily, and because the large amount of space required to park them decreases the available land for other uses.

New Urbanists and Urban Husbanders agree that a higher density than that found in suburbs is important. As discussed earlier, density is important for achieving the benefits of pedestrianism. However, they disagree on the level of density that is desirable. Typical suburbs tend to build residential units at between 2 and 6 units to the acre. New Urbanists plan for densities of between 10 and 25 units to the acre (Calthorpe 1993, p. 64). This is consistent with the density of the traditional towns from which New Urbanists such as Duany and Plater-Zyberk take their inspiration.

Urban Husbanders, however, believe that truly urban density -- at least 100 dwelling units to the acre (Jacobs, p. 275) -- is necessary to provide a sufficient level of pedestrian travel for safety and vitality. Beneath this density, there simply is not enough street life to provide the informal network of voluntary controls that ensures safety, and there is insufficient business for many enterprises to survive. Areas of low density within large cities, whether new projects or simply older suburbs engulfed by expansion of urban areas, become blighted areas. Surrounded by the city,

"they lose their protection from people who do not ‘fit in' to each other's private lives economically and socially, and they lose their aloofness from the peculiar problems of city life. Swallowed into a city and its ordinary problems, they possess no city vitality to contend with these problems." (Jacobs, pp. 274-275)

Again, this difference stems in part from the difference between the urban and suburban areas in which the two schools predominantly work. Also, the traditional small towns and streetcar suburbs the New Urbanists use as models were oriented towards the pedestrian, but did not generate the kind of urban diversity that is the goal of Urban Husbandry.

One reason New Urbanist neighborhoods may end up with different results, when engulfed in larger cities, than traditional towns is because traditional towns did not have a formalized edge. Although there was a relatively sharp break between the town and the surrounding countryside, (Whyte, p. 137) as the town grew larger, the edge was pushed further out. When engulfed in a city, the edge disappeared. (Jacobs, p. 273)

As discussed earlier, New Urbanist neighborhoods have a formal edge, one that is established at the founding of the neighborhood and which stays constant -- most often a park or greenbelt. For New Urbanists it, along with the center, defines the neighborhood for the residents. (Duany and Plater-Zyberk, pp. xvii-xviii) On the other hand, for Urban Husbanders, an edge is an obstacle for pedestrians, who might want to get to the other side. Edges depress pedestrian traffic in their vicinity and therefore sap urban vitality in what Jacobs calls "border vacuums." (Jacobs, pp. 336-339) Attempting to create community by architectural fiat here directly works against the kind of urban diversity that Urban Husbandry attempts to create. Perhaps a useful middle road can be found in New Orleans, where as they were laid out, each new neighborhood or "faubourg" oriented its street grid on the river's curve, which varied from district to district, This varying grid provides a distinction to each district, although each is connected to the next. (Rybczynski, p. 63)

A similar phenomenon is that of the center. For New Urbanists, the defined center of the community -- usually a public square or transit stop -- defines the community by giving it a focus. It is the converse of the edge, the focus that gives the community its identity. ( Duany and Plater-Zyberk, pp. xvii-xviii)

For Urban Husbanders, centers form naturally, gradually, by the actions of the members of the community itself. While often a park or other monument will define a district, other areas can also become centers, depending on the state of the community at the time. Centers -- areas of "outstanding success in cities" (Jacobs, p. 316) -- form and dissipate. Because success is created by diversity, whenever an center becomes particularly successful for any one single use -- whenever residences, or retail, or offices, or restaurants, dominate a center -- its general success goes down, because that diversity is diminished. (Jacobs, pp. 316-319) The New Urbanist idea of an immobile center, defined by the city plan, is very different from the Urban Husbanders' center, defined by the way the community develops.

New Urbanism and Urban Husbandry are two very different responses to automobile-centered land development. Arising in different situations, their suggested remedies are appropriate at different times. In spite of the environmental and social advantages of city life, it seems unlikely that suburban development will suddenly end. However, in some places it does seem to be slowing. In a few places, such as Sacramento, California, zoning regulations once tilted away from pedestrianism are being rewritten to allow for pedestrian-oriented development.(Kunstler 1993, p. 261) Urban growth boundaries, adopted first in Portland, Oregon in 1980, help protect agricultural and wild hinterlands from development while at the same time tending to concentrate the development that does occur within the city region. (Langdon, p. 209)

Ultimately, if the automobile's hold on American cities is to be released, it cannot happen only in the cities. As the population grows, at some point new building on formerly undeveloped land is bound to occur. Having a better model than the automobile-centered subdivision is important. New Urbanism has accomplished this. At the same time, New Urbanists must understand the limitations of its approach -- the limitations of planning and the one-way view of community that Urban Husbandry recognizes.

1. In fact, the publisher of Roberta Brandes Gratz's books The Living City and Cities Back From The Edge: New Life For Downtown was Preservation Press, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Formation of Sprawl
Urban Husbandry
New Urbanism
Similarities and Differences

Thesis Home
Previous    Next