Non-Creepy New Urbanism


truman-still07

The Truman Show was set in a fictional community that was actually a giant set filled with actors.

by Barry Watkins, 3/8/15

New Urbanism (walkable development) has gotten a bad rap in certain circles. Some say it produces places that feel “creepy” and contrived (http://www.gizmodo.in/design/Why-Is-New-Urbanism-So-Gosh-Darn-Creepy/articleshow/33922328.cms).  Some have said that New Urbanist communities feel more like movie sets than real communities.  Even though I’m a huge fan of NU, I tend to agree that this is sometimes indeed the case.  How can we avoid falling into the “creepy” trap and create great, walkable NU that doesn’t feel fake?  Here are some ideas:

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Learn from historic architecture to create authentic communities.

1. Honor local history.  A lot of architecture these days can tend toward bland sameness creating places that could be located anywhere.  New Urbanist communities, or any community for that matter, should be careful to avoid this pitfall.  One way to keep from looking like “Anywhere, USA” is to pay attention to and honor historical precedents in the area.  Look for ways to incorporate unique local flavor into your designs.  I love Steve Mouzon’s approach (www.originalgreen.com) — find how things have been built historically in the local area, and ask the question “why did they do things this way?”  That will inform what designs are appropriate for any community.

North_Duke_Street_Lancaster

Lancaster, PA. When buildings differ in style along the street it feels organic and natural.

2. Allow room for diversity.  Some people are under the impression that New Urbanism dictates that you can only use traditional architecture.  Totally untrue!  A diversity of building types and styles can be completely compatible with NU.  New Urbanism is all about walkability, but the architecture of buildings in an NU community can vary widely.  Traditional forms do tend to do a better job of complementing a walkable place, but modern design can be made walkable too.  A departure in design style can especially be appropriate as a way of setting civic buildings apart from the general neighborhood fabric.

gb_2_mixedhousing

Mix of building types on the same block

I think another source of creepiness is when things are just too perfect!  We can lighten up a little on creating architectural guidelines or siting rules that are too restrictive.  If we give people a little more leeway on design they will naturally introduce more variety into the community.  We don’t want it to feel like a dictatorial master designer has overseen every detail.  Also, avoid repeating anything too much throughout a community.  Let each park be unique, let each named section of the community have its own theme in the signage, etc.  All of this helps a place feel organic.  Don’t repeat apartment building designs too much for the same reason.  Let each part of the community, even each building feel like it was designed by a different person!  It’s a little more expensive to do it this way, but it will go so much further in making the place feel comfortable to residents and visitors from day one.

wp valencia campus

This building does not generate street activity because the “entry door” facing the street has a sign posted on it, “Not An Entrance, Enter from Parking Lot Side”! Looks like an empty, lifeless building and feels fake.

3. Blend with surrounding development.  The edge of an NU development should blend as seamlessly as possible with surrounding existing or planned development.  This can be accomplished by requiring that buildings honor the context of their neighbors.  Parameters like building heights, front setbacks, etc. can be softened at the edge to help with compatibility.  Also, street sections shouldn’t change abruptly at the development edge.  A common mistake that can feel fakey is when buildings near the development edge don’t address the street properly.  It’s very important that buildings are oriented to activate the street.  Buildings that don’t generate activity at the street can look just like empty movie props.  Not a good thing!

Flatwoods+Conceptual+Master+Plan

Abrupt transitions with different zones on either side of street.

florence-hi

“Like Faces Like” or same zoning on both sides of the street creates gradual transitions.

“Like faces like” is a rule that helps a community to feel organic and comfortable at the street level.  If the edge of a community has existing development across the street from it the new development should be of a character that is compatible with the existing to create a smooth transition if possible.

winter springs tc

Fake second story!

fake balcony

Fake Balcony!

4. Don’t cheap out!  We’ve all seen designs that look great on paper but don’t look authentic when built.  Depth in building facades is sometimes the missing element.  Don’t cheap out by trying to simulate depth with trim or reveals.  A building facade with some variation in depth is a must for creating interest.  Another common practice that can kill authenticity is to resort to pasting simulated balconies or fake windows on the outside of a building in an effort to mimic traditional design or create interest.  People can tell when you’re faking it vs. the real deal.  Don’t fake a second story to try to simulate a traditional feel.  Building it real is the only way to make it feel truly authentic.

5.  Activate, activate, activate!  One of the things that will feel totally wrong is when this beautiful community has no activity on the sidewalks.  There are a couple of important ways we can consider to bring the right amounts of activity to neighborhood streets.  Put parallel parking in front of buildings, encourage sidewalk cafes and displays, allow  some compatible, walkable businesses to locate on residential streets, create parks that have practical play areas that children will actually use!  Visible activity makes a place feel inviting.  Allow grills and firepits on front porches so people are invited outside in the front of the building.  Don’t make it difficult for residents and business owners to be creative in their front yards.  Allow and encourage unique things like gazebos, front decks, tire swings.  All of this brings human activity and will help us escape the movie set feel!

I’d love to hear your ideas about how to make sure communities are authentic and more pitfalls to avoid!  Leave your comments here, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Barry Watkins, Walkable Brevard, Viera, Florida, walkablebrevard@gmail.com, 321-355-2747, walkablebrevard.wordpress.com, facebook.com/walkablebrevard, twitter.com/walkablebrevard

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3 Responses to Non-Creepy New Urbanism

  1. I think New Urbanism tends to feel very faux-urban because usually they’re these large master-planned mega projects.

    http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53dd6676e4b0fedfbc26ea91/t/546d29f7e4b0f54deccf00a8/1416440312319/blog48-4.jpg?format=750w

    Compared to true urban places that are the result of incremental development (old buildings built at different times constantly being replaced, refurbished, renovated):

    http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53dd6676e4b0fedfbc26ea91/t/546d2a2de4b041a6cb8b00b2/1416440369113/?format=750w

    http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53dd6676e4b0fedfbc26ea91/t/546d2a4be4b041a6cb8b0162/1416440395481/?format=750w

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Give a NU project some time and they do just fine. When it is brand new, it may feel odd, because it is build all at once and it is brand new. But come on, -“creepy” compared to what? If you compare Kentlands to Georgetown, Kentlands looks pretty weak. If you compare Kentlands to anything else built in the late 20th Century in Gaithersburg, it’s dramatically better. New Urban infill projects don’t even get a mention in these kinds of discussions, because they fit in pretty well. Building something that is not awful in the suburbs is a man bites dog story and so , gets plenty of attention. The segregated pods across the arterial from the NU project gets a pass, because nobody expects anything from those projects.

    Liked by 1 person

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