How do you tame the urban jungle?

Mile upon mile of four-lane highways clogged with exhaust-belching, horn-tooting automobiles. Drab strip malls and garish fast-food huts squatting amidst oceans of asphalt. Massive, imposing parking ramps.
Expressionless office complexes encased in reflective glass. Giant super-stores lacking fenestration. Bunker-like civic buildings.
Fenced-off industrial parks accessible only by car. Decaying inner city neighborhoods decked out with razor wire, barred windows and “Beware Of Dog” signs. Abandoned parks and playgrounds fallen into disrepair.
Anonymous, cookie-cutter suburbs devoid of sidewalks and public spaces
Gated subdivisions monitored by video security systems and patrolled by armed guards.
All things considered, the American urban landscape isn’t a very attractive, uplifting or even tolerable place to live.
Constructed to accommodate the car, the environment that surrounds us isn’t particularly conducive to walking or social interaction. It doesn’t include enough spaces for leisure and recreation. It lacks green areas and shade trees. Its cheap, commercial architecture rarely inspires interest or pleasure or civic pride. It utterly fails to foster a sense of place or community.
Indeed, as novelist and architecture critic James Howard Kunstler has observed, the most salient feature of our urban milieu is “the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of everything in sight.” To make matters worse, the entire hideous, sprawling mess is spreading with the speed of a metastasizing cancer deeper and deeper into our rural hinterland.
Since World War II, commentators have bemoaned the steady degeneration of America’s cities into the dreary, centerless networks of overpasses and off ramps they are today. But none of their criticisms has ever had much influence on the actual course of urban development. That is, up until now.
The past few years have seen the emergence and rapid growth of a long-overdue movement among American architects, planners and policy wonks to reinvent the way we build our cities and towns. Associated with critics like Kunstler and architects like Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the new urbanism — as the movement is often called — aims explicitly at making our built landscape more livable, community-enhancing and environmentally sustainable.
As Kunstler explains in a recent Atlantic article, the new urbanism has come up with a formula for reform that could enliven even the bleakest burb.
Here are some of the highlights of the movement’s agenda:
Reviving the street. Modern city planning lets automobile traffic govern the life of our streets, especially in the suburbs. As a consequence, people don’t spend nearly as much time walking and hanging out in the streets as they once did. The new urbanism wants to give the street back to pedestrians so that it can resume its traditional function as an “outdoor room.” To this end, new urbanists advocate a variety of ambitious traffic-calming measures.
Kunstler argues that parallel parking should be permitted along almost all city streets because “parked cars create a physical and psychological buffer that protects pedestrians on sidewalks from moving vehicles.” For similar reasons, he supports narrowing residential streets, lining all roads with trees and lowering neighborhood speed limits to 20 miles per hour.
Taking the alienation out of urban spaces. The average commercial strip in most American towns is made up of single-story buildings set far back from the road and surrounded by endless parking lots and boundless open space. The vertiginous atmosphere thus created is the precise opposite of security and intimacy. As a remedy, the new urbanism would require buildings of all sorts to stand closer to the street and would ban single-story commercial buildings altogether. If needed, parking lots would have to be situated behind buildings rather than in front.
Creating lively, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods. Current zoning laws tend to segregate commerce and industry from where people live, apartment dwellers from home owners, and low-income families from wealthier ones. Not only does this make for neighborhoods that are physically and socially homogenous, but it forces people to hop in their cars just to get to work or go shopping.
The new urbanism would address this problem by allowing commercial land uses to be integrated with residential ones and by permitting multiple forms of housing (apartments, duplexes, single-family homes) in the same neighborhood. It would also make residential neighborhoods more appealing by mandating that houses be equipped with bigger porches, pitched roofs and vertical windows. Just imagine: People would be able to walk to the store again and they might even enjoy the scenery along the way.
Encouraging density. Several decades of mass suburbanization have dispersed the city-dwelling population to the point where there just aren’t enough people living together in close proximity to support a vibrant civic culture. As an antidote to this thinly populated sprawl, says Kunstler, “the new urbanism calls for higher density — more houses per acre, closer together.” As a means to achieving this, it would shrink lot sizes, erect more row houses and eliminate front lawns.
Beautifying the public realm. The new urbanism holds that civic buildings like schools, museums and town halls should be placed on preferential building sites and given appropriate architectural embellishment. And it demands the creation of “squares, parks, greens and other useful, high-quality urban amenities,” said Kunstler.
Key elements of the program put forth by Kunstler and other new urbanists are already in the process of being implemented. City officials in heavily trafficked suburbs around the country — including several in the Twin Cities region — are experimenting with street narrowing and other traffic-calming measures. There isn’t a big American city that doesn’t have at least one suburban township planning to give itself a new urbanist main street complete with parallel parking, street trees and attractive storefronts.
In Florida, the Disney corporation is building the model town of Celebration in strict accordance with new urbanist principles. Celebration’s residents won’t be allowed to vote for their municipal leaders or have much of a say in the management of their community — a definite downside — but Disney’s mini-utopia will at least have walkable streets, human-scaled architecture and a downtown shopping district instead of a strip mall.
Though the design changes promoted by the new urbanists will inevitably improve the quality of life wherever they’re applied, they are no magic bullet. By themselves, they won’t solve the worst of our urban woes.
Without cheap and convenient mass transit, even the best traffic-calming scheme will be helpless to stem the rising tide of automobiles.
Without an end to government subsidies for highway expansion and private home ownership, the sprawl will continue unabated.
Without substantial infusions of government development money, our central cities will slip further into decline.
The social and economic crises that are tearing our cities apart simply can’t be fixed by handsome facades or well crafted streets, as nice as these things are.
However, combined with the right social and economic policies, the measures championed by the new urbanists have the potential to transform the formless, concrete wastelands we inhabit today into comfortable, pleasant habitats suited to civilized existence.
As Kunstler points out, “It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection.” We certainly have nothing to lose by trying.
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.