This is the second in a series exploring city vs. suburb for homebuyers.
There are many steps to buying a house. But the first is figuring out where to do it. What suits your lifestyle? If you’re a young-ish American, your lifestyle probably points to a diverse, walkable neighborhood with groceries, restaurants, great friends, maybe a live music venue, and with luck even your job all within a few blocks (or so a recent Nielsen report suggests). But you may not have to live in—and pay for—the big city to get all that, thanks to New Urbanism.
That’s right: your wish list isn’t a dream, it’s a movement.
New Urbanism: Not New, Not Urban
As we wrote in “City, here I come?” some of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States look kind of like suburbs. They’re less dense, maybe not what you’re used to thinking of as “urban.” But they function like cities. In some cases, that’s no accident. Suburban communities have been busy retrofitting themselves with urban-esque functionality, creating walkable downtown areas and putting everyday needs nearby.
This so-called New Urbanism is really quite old: it’s based on the way cities naturally developed. Never content to leave well enough alone, we moderns at some point decided it would be much better to zone our settlements into submission via districts of preferred use: residential, commercial, industrial. That artificial and typically car-intensive setup became the norm.
New Urban zoning encourages a vibrant, creative mashup that puts pedestrians first. In other words, the New Urban suburb looks and lives a bit like an old European village, albeit one with more concrete and better Internet service. Dozens of cities and towns have adopted such codes at least for certain areas. Some smaller communities have completely replaced their conventional zoning with New Urban codes (and some not-so-small, notably Miami).
Walkability Is Number One
If you had to sum up New Urbanism in one word, it would be walkability, which, not coincidentally, is number one on the movement’s list of 10 principles.
Having most of what you need just a few minutes’ walk from home and work is key. But it’s also about what it’s like to get there. Do you want to walk 10 minutes between a four-lane highway and a parking lot for that gallon of milk, or down a sidewalk with trees on one side and all kinds of storefronts and apartment buildings and bungalows on the other? Among the things that feed into that are diversity (number 3)—a nice mix of shops, offices, apartments, and single-family homes—and quality architecture and design (number 5).
And then there’s green transportation (number 8): trains connecting cities, towns, and neighborhoods, and design that encourages not only walking but also bicycles, blades, scooters, and skateboards towed by dogs (why not?) as daily transportation.
Visit www.newurbanism.org, New Urbanism’s online HQ, to read about all 10 principles.
Want Quality of Life? Urbanize!
Quality of life: that’s what we all want. So what’s stopping New Urbanism from totally sweeping the country? Basically, old habits die hard. Especially when they’re written into law.
“The most important obstacle to overcome,” according to newurbanism.org, “is the restrictive and incorrect zoning codes currently in force in most municipalities.” Further, “An equally important obstacle is the continuous road building and expansion taking place in every community across America. This encourages more driving and more sprawl.”
New Urbanism is simply not allowed. Crazy but true. And all roads lead toward sprawl.
If your dream house and the perfect affordable urban ’burb just aren't coming together for you, maybe it’s time to DIY more than a new kitchen. The Center for Applied Transect Studies has developed a set of “Smart Codes” that promote New Urbanism without a total rewrite of existing codes. You can download it here for free. You can work on rehabbing your house and your neighborhood at the same time.
In our next post we'll explore which is greener, city or suburb.