The Problems and Promise of Building New Towns
New Towns for the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Planned Communities Worldwide, edited by Richard Peiser and Ann Forsyth (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2021), 600 pages.
The survey of 20th and 21st century new towns is not a task for the dreamer or the ecstatic type. It is a tour through plenty of middling results—a series of movies with three-star reviews that didn’t make waves at the box office either. If many new towns are not hives of Buckfast-addled social delinquency on the Scottish moors or Islamic radicalism somewhere in Île-de-France, there are still a few that one might call great but essentially none that seem to equal the attractions of traditional cities.
The essays in this volume offer a strong and clear-eyed view of the terminal in-betweenness of the recent new town, which has often fallen short of what we might want but still frequently has achievements worth attention. They often display the dramatic hubris of the planner and are frequently stranded in the place where that vision eventually—often quickly—collided with reality. And yet the alternative is usually not some charming traditional city; it’s generally sprawling and formless suburbs. The new town aspires to be something more than just a suburb, and is to be lauded even when it often misses. The only thing worse than a planned city is an unplanned city.
Planned communities earlier in the 20th century often traded on the idea of the obsolescence of the city, trafficking in ideas like Clarence Stein’s, that “existing cities can’t fit the needs of this age without a complete rebuilding.” That’s mercifully no longer the case, with other ambitions shaping their development, usually accommodating growing populations in ways that are simply not a sea of subdivisions.
The trouble for new towns, as for authors, is the start. It’s generally easy to acquire land far away from existing cities but hardest to attract anyone to move there. More proximate locations involve much greater difficulty in acquiring such plots, unless you already own all of the land. As Ann Forsyth writes, “Planning permissions can be incredibly tedious in all but the most authoritarian or laissez-faire situations”
The last century saw real trends in new town building across the world. Postwar Europe—East and West—built many, with a boom from the 1950s to 1970s. The U.S. had a handful of New Deal era efforts, then a number in the 1960s and ’70s, most of which didn’t make it far beyond the drafting board. As these ebbed, Asian new towns took off, with Japan, South Korea and others building frequently in the 1970s and ’80s. China is the champ at the practice, still building cities of considerable size seemingly overnight.
How do you convince anyone to move to nowhere? People want to move to places where retailers and amenities and civic institutions are established; retailers don’t want to open in locations before their customers arrive. Again, this is simple only when you can order people to do it, and even then it can certainly still fail.
This is simplest with a measure of state control or intervention, yet still happened often in Western Europe and outside of the communist world. Even with state intervention, there are still many landmines. New towns frequently fill goals of providing lower-income housing; this can easily turn south if the proportion grows overly large, and opportunities for work or advancement are often much lower than in center-city, low-income neighborhoods. At the other extreme, often in Asia or Africa, new towns are often government-subsidized enclaves for the well-off, islands of wealth, electricity, and plumbing frequently surrounded by unplanned slums.
The essays collected by Richard Peiser and Ann Forsyth here frequently refer to “dormitory towns,” which are all-too-often what new towns end up being—collections of housing with little else around. This is a common problem in social democracies where states are accustomed to building housing. They then expected business and employment to follow of its own accord and fairly often it did not. A reasonable number of new towns were built near some local industry, and most make some effort to locate business nearby, but these things can lag.
Again, it’s simpler in China, where all might simple be ordered to do so. The advantage doesn’t solely come from authoritarianism; Fulong Wu aptly notes in an essay on new towns in China that new town construction is much simpler when it accompanies industrialization, particularly compared to recent other examples that have followed deindustrialization. It’s easier to expect and find a population to work at the factory than at a dozen enterprises in the office park.
The deeper problem with planned towns tends to be a sense of urban variety. A business park and a shopping strip with pro forma civic amenities don’t make for a real community. The older neighborhood commercial strip contains a world of variety compared to most suburban centers. New towns that attract unusual praise in these essays included universities and arts facilities, but this can still result in a pallid community.
Another repeat problem is pedestrian connectivity. Automobile-oriented new towns are often a disaster at engendering any sense of place. Even new towns that are internally pedestrian-friendly are frequently poorly connected to anything else. There are efforts to correct this deficiency in many locations but they are often a considerable labor.
A common trouble is a sense of being frozen in amber, dated and too of the moment. Contributor Peter G. Rowe writes about new towns in South Asia, but his observation could just as easily apply anywhere:
Many of the towns still seem stranded somehow in the time and place of their early conception and where the “planned instantaneousness”—if it can be called that—has not yielded sufficiently to take on the seemingly inevitable, familiar, authentic, timeless, and even organic qualities of the cities with which they are associated.
Flexibility is often written out of the plan. Natural changes in locations and use are forbidden. Density might naturally grow in some pedestrian-friendly nodes but frequently can’t (although we know this is the case in many contemporary cities). Shifts of use from residential to commercial or the reverse are unlikely. Some limits on such changes, of course, all make sense, but the organic shifts that are vital to any conception of layered and lasting urban space are often absent. Think of old warehouses or carriage houses that hold other uses, or any number of repurposed spaces that lend cities color and interest; where are they in new towns?
New towns in the United States have been particularly hard to launch successfully due to the daunting financial proposition of acquiring sufficient land, and then often carrying the cost of it for years or decades. The panic button for a developer in crisis is just selling off land and abandoning the planned qualities that made their efforts distinctive; an intriguing plan changes rapidly into faceless suburbia. Even banner developments like Reston, Virginia, or Columbia, Maryland, and The Woodlands, Texas, all weathered very rough years. A recession can sink any new town, and often has.
Some of the essays in this collection incline to the technocratic, of interest to specialists, but most are fascinating, especially for the great variety of new towns the world has birthed. The Belgian university town of Louvain-le-Neuve, Scandinavian midcentury towns like Espoo and Tapiola, surprisingly traditional eastern bloc towns like Nowa Huta in Poland, Chilean mining towns, and many more. Few of them are ideal, but many are better than the alternative, and even when flawed they offer far easier blueprints for the restoration of traditional humanistic design than the ceaseless dead end of the cul-de-sac.
Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. 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.