I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.
Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.
The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?
After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.
The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.
My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.
And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.
If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.
Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.
Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.