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Back to the 90s: Learning From the First New Urbanists

These planned but traditional communities, now growing into their own, helped transform how Americans think about life in cities.

Not so new towns anymore. But still much to learn.

Back in 1992 (or was it 1993?), I made my first visit to Seaside, Florida, while on a college spring break trip. Yes, you read that right. It may seem especially nerdy; I took time out from cheap beers and crowded beaches to try and learn a little something about a place I’d studied in architecture school. At the time, Seaside had already become a media darling, but was actually quite small. A vast majority of it was unbuilt, but one could tangibly feel the excitement in the air for a new approach to building neighborhoods. My peers and I walked the streets, took a lot of pictures, and spent quite a few hours discussing what we saw, before heading back to the all-too-familiar hotels and beaches in Panama City. Those few hours sealed the deal for me, and likely hundreds of others, to foster a life devoted to urban design and community planning.

Seaside, along with maybe a few dozen other places, were the “new towns” of the first wave of the New Urbanism. These communities, planned and begun in the mid-1980s through the late 90s, helped spawn a movement that transformed how Americans think about life in cities. They created a whole new lexicon, including phrases such as “Traditional Neighborhood Development” (or TND), and “walkable community.” They laid the groundwork for today’s interest in Missing Middle Housing, zoning reform, transportation reform, and tactical urbanism—all ideas that have become mainstream in the world of urban planning, design, and policy. In fact, there’s even a publication called The Lexicon of the New Urbanism.

Now, in the darkness of a dismal 2020, those “TND” days seem like a lifetime ago. And apparently, that’s true for many, since I routinely find today’s younger generation has little knowledge of what transpired in those early years of New Urbanism. In the short-attention-span era we inhabit, 1992 might as well be 100 years ago, and those of us who lived through it routinely find ourselves saying, “you have no idea what it was like in that era.” In America, we have little patience for allowing time to unfold naturally, and apparently little ability to pass on lessons learned and traditions revived. Perhaps this is the fault of all of us who were part of the New Urbanism prior to 2008. 

New Town at St. Charles. Courtesy of the author.

I mention 2008 because that is effectively a breaking point for when the focus of urban planning and design discussions shifted. The Great Recession put a halt to so much development, bankrupted projects and developers, and cast aside numerous excellent professionals who’d been laboring to create these places. All of this is tragic not just for the obvious reasons, but also because there are still innumerable lessons to learn for planners, designers, builders, developers, realtors, and all of us from these places.

And what places they are now to behold. Seaside itself is sublime, often magical. Rosemary Beach, just down Highway 30a from Seaside, feels like no other place in the country, with its gorgeous public spaces, tamed state highway, and unique architecture. Kentlands, outside of Washington, D.C., has aged beautifully and has some of the finest individual streets of any new place built in the last century. Newpoint and Habersham, both near Beaufort, South Carolina, look like they’ve existed for over 100 years. Celebration, the unfairly maligned new town built by Disney, has grown up into a full-fledged mini-city. New Town at St. Charles, started outside St. Louis a few years later, is a wonder of beautiful public space and simple, attractive buildings.

Many academics and professional designers have found ways over the years to denigrate these new places—in large part because they weren’t born from their own ideas. I can’t tell you how many architects or planners I know take great pleasure in finding fault and creating strawman arguments for why these places are terrible. Too often, people let their brains get in the way of enjoying their lives.

All these TNDs have flaws, of course, because no place is ever truly finished nor perfect. Many painful lessons were learned about how to design successful town centers or how to integrate (gasp!) apartments and townhomes with single-family houses. Many compromises had to be made, just to get anything built. The success rate was very small, because the obstacles were legion. They included bureaucratic inertia and often outright hostility to anything other than standard suburban design (including from the planning profession); no recent examples to point to for appraisers; no track record for lenders; no builders experienced in anything other than typical suburban homes; no designers who knew anything besides suburban design or avant-garde architecture; no engineers who knew how to design a slow-moving street; no proven market on the buying or leasing side.

Seaside, Florida. Courtesy of the author.

And yet, people persisted, out of a deep love for what they were doing, and a completely unreasonable passion for making great places for human beings. They fought through the obstacles, made compromises where it was necessary, and moved forward. These weren’t people comfortable with simply writing a critique of postwar American suburbia or sounding smart. They were intent on doing something about it, and proving we could build beautiful, authentic places again, fashioned on our own American traditions of town-making. The developers and practitioners connected with real buyers and renters, and with people clamoring for an alternative to either the typical suburban landscape or the dysfunction of major cities.

In spite of all the struggles (or perhaps because of them), some of these early projects are still among the best examples of new construction and place-making since the New Urbanism and back-to-the-city movement was born.

As I read so much press these days about urban planning and city design issues, it often feels like the early days of New Urbanism have disappeared into the ether. So let’s remember those days, now that a new generation casts its eyes on towns and developments that are 20 or 30 years old. We’ve forgotten just how heroic these efforts were.

I applaud the desire to push for continual improvement, and to look forward. But I also recoil at the simplistic idealism I see in so many discussions that reveals a deep lack of understanding of even the recent past. There are plenty of flaws to find in those early TNDs. There’s also an immense amount to learn, and practitioners today should approach them with humility.

Kentlands, Maryland. Courtesy of the author.

When I actually became an active practitioner of urban design and architecture, I helped organize tours of developments around the country. We’d take public officials, local government staff, developers, and designers to these communities and many others in order to learn. We walked some of the same steps I walked in the early 1990s. Those trips were some of the most valuable experiences I’ve been part of in my entire professional career. We would see places for ourselves, take pictures, and have long discussions about what was or wasn’t possible in our own region. Developers talked with government staff, and elected officials spoke freely off the record. We opened minds and helped spawn another generation of projects and people willing to work on them.

It’s worth the time for anyone who cares about life in cities to visit and learn from the great, historic cities and towns we have scattered across the country. God knows I’ve done more than my share of that type of travel as well. But we can also take inspiration and education from some of our efforts not all that long ago. Most of the people who created them are still with us, and eager to share their successes and failures. Take them up on it, while you can.

Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer, based in Kansas City, MO with nearly three decades of experience in the planning and design of walkable communities. He’s the author of Why I Walk: Taking a Step in the Right Direction, the House Hacking Catalog and writes occasionally at www.messycity.com. Kevin is currently the executive director of Midtown KC Now.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.