In the site’s “Utopia Week” back in April, Gizmodo Urbanist Editor Alissa Walker tried to put her finger on the root cause of an instinctive objection that she (and others) can have to New Urbanism developments. Specifically, she asked, “Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?” She touches on the fact that Seaside, one of the earliest New Urbanist communities built by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek on the Florida coast, was tapped to serve specifically as a model of artificial nostalgia as the setting for Jim Carrey’s television set hometown in The Truman Show movie. She also references Celebration, Florida, the Disney-built community whose graphic designer reflected that “when I lecture and describe any number of projects I’ve worked on, nine times out of ten the first question is about Celebration, and the question is usually some version of: But isn’t that Disney town sort of, you know, creepy?”
Because New Urbanism explicitly calls back to traditional ways of building and planning, its practitioners can sometimes be tagged, as Leigh Gallagher describes in her excellent The End of the Suburbs, “as sellers of a kind of fakified nostalgia.” There may be some cognitive dissonance at work, seeing classic architectural styles and neighborhood designs spring up de novo in previously empty lots, sparkling in fresh pastels beside trees that remain saplings. Indeed, as Celebration’s graphic designer relates, New Urbanist architect “Jacque Robertson once said in Celebration’s early days, ‘This will look great when all these trees grow in.’ I suspect he’s right.”
Yet James Howard Kunstler wrote in his classic Atlantic essay “Home From Nowhere” that the older, traditional buildings are not only more appealing because “the trees have grown in,” but because they were built in keeping with what Burke called “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”:
The buildings our predecessors constructed paid homage to history in their design, including elegant solutions to age-old problems posed by the cycles of weather and light, and they paid respect to the future in the sheer expectation that they would endure through the lifetimes of the people who built them. They therefore embodied a sense of chronological connectivity, one of the fundamental patterns of the universe: an understanding that time is a defining dimension of existence — particularly the existence of living things, such as human beings, who miraculously pass into life and then inevitably pass out of it.
Because traditional builders inherited their craft from builders gone before, they were both the heirs and the keepers of the practical wisdom necessary to build a place properly. One of my own Amish ancestors moved down to the Baltimore area from Pennsylvania around the turn of the century, and carried his trade with him to make houses with room for large families that would last through the generations. The plain Mennonites have long left those homes, but the care and quality put into providing for an Amish family have ironically made them highly sought-after mansions for the downtown upper crust (after making Jacuzzi accommodations, of course).
Old houses have plenty of drawbacks, as the walls were not built for easy wiring and the rooms not designed for big-screen TV viewing. It is often easier to grab a pop-up McMansion built to the spec of the moment. And that was the pattern set for Americans in the 1950s, as Kunstler notes that “It is no small irony that during the period of America’s greatest prosperity, in the decades following the Second World War, we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings.” Built with the expectation of expiring in step with a 30-year mortgage, well within the lifetime of the home’s first generation of owners, a tremendous amount of the housing stock in the United States has been built, like the rest of our consumer goods, to be disposable.
But homes built for the generations hold an appeal beyond convenience, and a resonance with souls that recognize soulful work. Kunstler continues,
Chronological connectivity lends meaning and dignity to our little lives. It charges the present with a vivid validation of our own aliveness. It puts us in touch with the ages and with the eternities, suggesting that we are part of a larger and more significant organism.
New Urbanism is in many ways a project of recovery, rescuing the shards of wisdoms shattered by a half-century of sprawl in an effort to recapture the warmth and comfort that people feel in those older houses and neighborhoods. But the one thing that’s impossible to rush is time. As the trees grow in Seaside, and Celebration, and Kentlands, as the homes turn over and are passed on, we will learn whether the New Urbanists got it right, or if there are still more lessons left to recover.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.