Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Decoding the Language of New Urbanism

With the work of the Gateway Planning team on the Owensboro Downtown Placemaking initiative the community has heard a lot of new terminology and new discussion about new urbanist ideas. Concepts like new urbanism, placemaking, walkable urbanism, mixed-use, sustainable development, smart growth, and form-based codes are all key elements of downtown revitalization in cities all across the country. What do they mean?

Known by a variety of names, the defining characteristics of new urbanist projects appear to be walkable neighborhoods, a mix of land uses that integrate housing, shops, civic facilities, and work places, and preservation and respect for the natural environment in the form of maintaining greenspace. The economic and fiscal effects are summarized as follows:

New urbanist developments tend to enhance quality of life, which is crucial to both recruitment and retention of companies;

Mixed-use developments promote greater land-use density, which can help ease the pressure on transportation systems and other infrastructure;

New urbanist developments tend to have a longer “shelf-life” than traditional developments, which will tend to create a greater fiscal impact over the medium and longer-term. A portion of this impact is due to the inclusion of housing in the project, both through direct enhancement of the tax base and the indirect effects of relocating consumers to the central city.

Charles Leinberger, in the book the Option of Urbanism, outlines the movement away from the pre-industrial walking city away from urbanism to an era of driveable sub-urban development in the post World War II 20th Century. This shift lead to our dependency on automobiles, gasoline, automobile manufacturing as a base on employment, and ultimately sub-urban sprawl as the preferred development option. This shift away from walkable cities to auto-dependent development in the suburbs is reflected in popular culture on TV with families like those in Leave it to Beaver to the Brady Bunch living in the suburbs.

By the late 20th century the pendulum began to move back to the center with a reemergence of walkable urban developments in many larger cities around the country. Again, popular culture reflected this shift. Rather than the living in the suburbs, TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends were once again set in walkable urban settings.

This does not mean that drivable suburbia and automobiles are becoming a thing of the past. Both will co-exist in cities large and small around the country. With $4 a gallon gasoline and the push for environmental conscious development, the setting is ripe for walkable urbanist development. To read more about New Urbanism, go to the following links.,,,

To see the urban design standards prepared for Owensboro by the Gateway Planning group, please visit and click on Owensboro Urban Design Guidelines.

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