the view from stockton house

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Dec 2002 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

Much of the focus in the realm of architecture and planning today centers around the terms "New Urbanism" and "Sustainability," yet often these terms are used merely as buzzwords and marketing strategies. It is rare that the foundations of both are fully understood and seen as interdependent parts of an ineffable whole. The "experts" have erected great myths around the two, announcing that, at last, they have discovered new panaceas to our problems of wasteful construction and development. However, these solutions are not new, nor do they offer the multi-faceted approaches required to truly make a difference. If we honestly wish to develop creative solutions to these problems, we must first understand what New Urbanism and Sustainability are capable of achieving, and what they cannot achieve without more holistic thinking and action.

Seaside: 'urban' living for rich people Growth and development cannot be prevented — at least not without great resistance — but they can be guided and properly planned. How we spread about over the landscape is the primary cause for most our problems and the basis for New Urbanist thinking. New Urbanism is a land-planning strategy developed in 1993 by a few architects/planners such as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Andres Duany (the creator of famed Seaside, Florida), and Stephanos Polyzoides, who are known collectively as the Congress for the New Urbanism. At the hand of this pluralist body, wise planning and design strategies from yesteryear were resurrected and given a chic modern gloss. Planning and design standards such as ground floor retail, street-facing front porches, central mercantile districts, etc. date back from even before the Middle Ages in many parts of the world, yet now they are presented to us as something new.

Since 1993, developments conforming to the ground rules laid down by the Congress have sprouted up all over the country, offering primarily the upper-middle class new opportunities for pseudo-urban living. For the past couple of years, the development of Winghaven in O'Fallon, Missouri, has brought the "principles, the style, and the grace" of New Urbanist living to the people of Metropolitan St. Louis; however, at what price? New infrastructures tore expensively through prime arable land to make this vision a reality. What separates New Urbanist developments from any other development, whether in or out of the sprawl? The architecture looks the same — poorly constructed re-regurgitations of misunderstood and therefore bastardized "styles" and design elements. The Herculean efforts required to prepare the land for development are often the same — Polyzoides' New Urbanist community outside Sante Fe required the same amount of grading, new roads, power lines, and water and sewer pipes as any other development located fifteen miles outside the urban fringe. So what is it that categorizes New Urbanist developments as unique? What does Winghaven have that a typical McBride and Son housing tract does not have? The real estate agents would have us to believe that the deciding factor is "community." These "communities" have a great diversity of people of different backgrounds, economic classes, expertise, races, etc.

MasterCard @ Winghaven: same crap, different place We strongly urge hesitancy and trepidation as the appropriate response to blanket statements such as these. First, diversity and community cannot be planned. They are the byproduct of many years of neighborhood evolution. Certainly, we can try to plan for a variety of housing types (read costs), and thereby create intricate dependencies and micro-economies within a neighborhood. At least, we would hope to see Resident A crafting an objet d'art for Resident B, and in return Resident B barters for Resident A to baby-sit his child for a weekend. But can we plan for Resident A's skill as an artist, or Resident B's appreciation of art? Can we plan for Resident B to thoroughly trust his or her neighbor enough to care for his offspring? Beyond this, what is to stop the value of the larger units within a development from skyrocketing due to their desirability? What happens to the people who live next door in the "affordable" unit, when they are gentrified out of their neighborhood because they cannot afford the property tax increases? Take a look at who — or should we say, what economic class — primarily resides in Duany's Seaside planned community. And so, where are the North Sides and Kinlochs of tomorrow's Winghaven?

Second, the character that attracts people to specific neighborhoods and keeps them there is the product of randomness and chaos, and therefore cannot be duplicated. Yet much of the imagery of the New Urbanism shows watered-down versions of history. Can we truly replicate the architecture of the past? Most of the buildings within Saint Louis City were not created by elitist architects, but by talented builders who had seen the great buildings of the world, and who had been to events such as the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis and perceived the unique design elements of multiple cultures. They carefully selected elements seen in books and built from intuition, but the elements from each style were so artfully arranged that they could still be instantly identified. Often, they gave birth to new styles, such as the Prairie School. And yet today, these elements are mixed and matched again, cast in plastic, more for the sake of overall visual impressiveness than for calculated composition.

Third, urban planning and design should, as the New Urbanists claim, provide for a more pedestrian-oriented living and working environment of better scaling, residential developments of traditional typologies, and the clustering of commercial and mercantile areas, but we must also respect the natural environment and the existing conditions, whether they be physical, sociological, or economical. These are issues to be addressed, not ignored. We must, for the sake of our precious landscape and natural heritage, design, plan and build with greater sensitivity and respect for our natural and manmade legacy, and we must not think that our actions are guaranteed to be successful or even beneficial. The modernists thought they had the right idea for us, and they gave us Pruitt-Igoe.

Pruitt-Igoe on its way down The second term, sustainability, describes the effects of the environmental consciousness movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When our nation faced an embargo on oil, we found our motivation to remain true to the ideals of conservation and re-use. The generation that grew up during the Depression understood why to turn off a light after exiting a room, yet with the rise to power of the Baby Boom Generation, wastefulness crept back into the mainstream, and now we expend resources faster than ever before. In resistance to this pattern, the Sustainability movement found its start.

Sustainability asks us to do more with less. It asks us to provide for the future. It asks us to save resources for our progeny. It asks us to reduce, reuse, and recycle. To many of us, these seem founded in common sense, for not only do they preserve resources, they assist us in opening our pocketbooks less. And now, for many, it seems all the rage. In a sense, this is good, for more people are asking pointed questions before they act; however, as with everything, there is also a downside. Through a sales pitch based in moral chastisement, advertisers easily dupe consumers to join on the bandwagon of purchasing eco-goods, which many times are as destructive as those they intend to replace.

One of these is Sustainable, or Green, Architecture. Certainly it makes perfect sense to utilize recycled materials in building. As more people populate the planet and need more buildings in which to be housed and employed, it behooves us to utilize materials and methods that have a minimal impact upon our natural world. Methods such as proper building orientation reduce electricity requirements, and therefore, dependence on foreign oil. Materials such as shredded tire rubber for playground surfaces, oriented stand board sheathing, and plastic lumber serve their purposes well and with durability, and eliminate massive amounts of waste from going to the landfills.

The selection of recycled and reusable materials must not be thought of as limited to post-consumer tires or plastic grocery sacks. Older buildings slated for demolition should be considered as stop number one for anyone with a materials shopping list. In 1984, the Gradwohl Building — a private school for the training of laboratory technicians, and the next-door neighbor of the Stockton House here in Grand Center — closed its doors. Since its inception in the early 1930s, the school had been housed in a grand and elegant 1880s, four-story, Second Empire-style mansion that was modified with additions in the 1940s and 1960s, pushing the footprint of the building to the sidewalk and to the alley. Only the two sides and upper front floors hinted at the original structure when the demolition crew arrived on site in March 1985. As the work commenced, the crew focused almost exclusively on the original house, where the process resembled more of a dismantling than a wrecking. From roof to basement, the building's original masonry, framing, flooring, and woodwork were carefully dismantled and hauled away. As workers removed each large wooden joist, they carefully cleaned them of nails and stacked them for transport. Within one month of the beginning of this massive undertaking, nearly 95% of the original building had been dismantled and carried away for re-use. Although it was sad to see such a finely crafted building lost, there was nonetheless a deep satisfaction in knowing that the materials would find new uses in other building construction. The same, however, cannot be said for the two building extensions. Well after the original house had disappeared, they continued to stand for several more weeks until a bulldozer knocked them down and scooped up the remains for shipment to the landfill. With the exception of some interior appointments, virtually no effort was made to salvage anything from these two additions. Fully 99% became landfill material.

Since that time, countless other demolitions in the area have confirmed an interesting fact: usually buildings constructed prior to 1920 are almost entirely sustainable in that they can be salvaged and reused. With rare exceptions, nearly everything built within the past 80 years, when demolished, finds its end in a landfill. Unlike older buildings, which are constructed almost entirely of organic resources which can be harvested, mined and molded fairly easily, modern construction utilizes great amounts of synthetic materials which are almost entirely non-reusable unless put through a costly, energy-intensive process to break them down. Although more varied and flexible in their applications, these materials are manufactured in a way that consumes cheap, non-renewable resources. For the most part, the buildings that they end up forming are only intended to stand for a short period of time. Then we tear them down, toss the plastics into the landfill, and build another structure to last merely ten years. If we are to build temporary buildings, then they must be designed of reusable materials that are easily to disassemble.

A change of mindset is in order. We must look at the conservation of resources and planning policies as being part of the same issue, and therefore, instead of pushing further and further into the landscape, we must repair and reclaim what has already been built; and when we do build, we must build structures that last for the ages. They should be constructed of durable, long-lasting materials from renewable resources, such as plantation-grown lumber, and we must limit, if not even prohibit, our use of endangered species such as teak. Our efforts must not be token — we must not simply attach horizontal sunshades to the west side of a building and expect them to reduce the building's energy consumption. If we do not fully understand how to use elements such as these, their use does nothing but look eco-friendly. Our living environments and their associated infrastructures must be designed to capitalize on the specific climatic conditions of a location. Buildings must be oriented to take in the sun's warmth, defend themselves against its harmful rays, and permit the prevailing breezes to pour through. We must consider a building's performance over its lifespan. Would the initial cost of utilizing alternative energy sources such as solar power through the use of photovoltaic panels be offset in energy savings in the first five years of the building's life? Is the building flexible enough to be retrofitted in the future for an alternative use? Efforts must be made to reduce earth-moving in order to prevent future erosion and runoff. The energy required in transporting materials to building sites must be reduced through the use of local resources, both in material and labor. We must limit the demolitions of fine, older buildings solely to instances when public safety requires them. As is, these shells are valuable in situ resources. Not only are the costs of a project reduced in that the shell already exists, but priceless character and history have been preserved from which our children and grandchildren can learn about the type of people who built these buildings and the type of people who valued them enough to save them.

How much of the hype created around New Urbanism and Sustainability is well-intentioned social benevolence, and how much is posturing? We would like to believe that at least the experts' thoughts are in the right places. But are their hearts in the right places? Can they see the issue as the big picture? Or are they simply going along with the crowd to make a profit or to sustain their role in the marketplace? Only time will tell. New Urbanism and Sustainability will be with us for a very long time, for they have been with us in one -ism, one school, and one form or another since we first required shelter and community millennia ago. If we fuse the ideas of the two, and understand that the many underlying issues and the available solutions are all interrelated, we may finally achieve what we all truly desire: communities of a world in balance, the divine manifestation of an organic ideal.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2002 The Commonspace