Not too long ago, in communities across America, towns and neighborhoods were developed block by block, house by house, as the population required it. As homes, apartment buildings, stores, schools and other services were built, a complex sense of community began to take shape. My neighborhood in south St. Louis is no exception and is typical of many neighborhoods across St. Louis and the country.
My neighborhood is designed on a grid of streets that create rectangular blocks divided by alleys. The streets are narrow with sidewalks on both sides lined with mature trees that were planted decades ago. Cars are parked on both sides of the street and when combined with the trees, calm the traffic speed. Most of the lots and buildings in my neighborhood are relatively small, although there are a variety of structures that contain apartments, two and four-family flats, and single-family homes. On any given block, there is a wide range of building materials from masonry to wood frame and the occasional stucco. They are all built relatively close to the street with small yards in front. Homes vary in size, style and cost, which allows for many different household types, incomes, and ways of living.
Within a few minutes walk of my house are several shops including a grocery, pharmacy, dry cleaners, photo studio and of course the neighborhood tavern. You may not be able to buy everything you need, but many of the day-to-day basics are within walking distance. If I choose not to drive, ample public transit service can take me to a variety of shopping locations along Kingshighway or Hampton Avenues. In addition, there is a park nearby where I often see parents bring their children to play or where dogs get a chance to stretch their legs.
All of the characteristics I mentioned so far are near to the hearts of New Urbanist planners and architects. New Urbanism is a term that emerged in the early 1990s in response to the disillusionment with low-density, single-use zoning of housing developments, office parks, and shopping complexes that characterized post-World War II suburban development. Over the last several decades, many of the traditions of design and town building gradually disappeared or were simply not allowed by municipal zoning ordinances. The characteristics of my south St. Louis neighborhood that makes it so great could not be built in most typical suburban communities today.
New Urbanism is a movement that promotes the idea that there is an alternative to the current method of planning and building communities. New Urbanism, in tandem with the Congress for the New Urbanism is dedicated to promoting and achieving a promisethe promise of communities that are considered whole; communities that are sensibly located, socially diverse, comfortably secure, and architecturally rewarding. In sum, they are places you enjoy to live, work and play and they promise a place, not simply rows of mass-produced houses, or generic shopping centers or sterile office parks surrounded by vast parking lots.
New Urbanism or neo-traditional development as it is sometimes called, is not a nostalgic reaction to a more simple time, but it is a committed alternative to the status quo currently seen in the "placelessness" of today's modern community. New Urbanism is viewed as creating a sense of place, rather than allowing it to be determined by ever-changing retail stores and other short term uses. Through careful examination of older neighborhoods and small towns, we can identify the lessons embedded in the past that provide guideposts to sensible development of the present and the revitalization of neighborhoods long overlooked.
While the development of New Urbanist neighborhoods and communities in both urban infill and suburban "greenfield" locations have risen each year across America, the St. Louis region has been slow to follow suit. In a city and region with so many excellent examples of "old urbanism" it often makes me wonder why more neighborhoods have not been revitalized in St. Louis.
In 1998, a group of people decided to take action and form an organization focused on promoting New Urbanism in the St. Louis region. Called New Urban St. Louis, this group of dedicated architects, planners, educators, lawyers, developers and citizens promote New Urbanism through educational workshops, speaking engagements, and coordinating tours of New Urbanist developments. Currently, New Urban St. Louis is sponsoring a tour that will feature one of the best examples of New Urbanism in the Midwest.
On February 23-24, 2001, New Urban St. Louis is offering a bus tour to Memphis, Tennessee to examine Harbor Town, one of the first New Urbanist developments in the Midwest. In addition to Harbor Town, participants will tour both urban and suburban New Urbanist developments to provide different aspects in design. The goal of the trip is to expose St. Louisians to the concept and success of New Urbanism in a city and region similar to St. Louis. Brochures of the Memphis trip are available at www.mo-apa.org.
As New Urbanism begins to gain more acceptance in communities across America, keep this in mind. The 1990 Census showed that only 11 percent of U.S. households are families with children and one-wage earner. While some of the 89 percent many want single-family homes on suburban cul-de-sacs, others may want different housing choices than what is currently offered. If more choices were availablebungalows in walkable villages, townhomes in real towns, lofts in vital urban neighborhoods or affordable housing just about anywhereAmericans just may take us up on the offer. If communities allowed zoning for more compact neighborhoods that offer urban amenities, much like my south St. Louis neighborhood, we may find that people actually want more diversity, not less. The American Dream is changing. The quality of place, its connectiveness to the community and the region, and its diversity makes New Urbanism so appealing. The alternative to suburban sprawl development is not a forced march back to crowded urban tenements but providing a range of unique places in various locations, both urban and suburban, for all Americans.