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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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.
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!