x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New towns that look like the (very) old

Urban planners are seeking inspiration from the past to create new communities that eliminate high rises and suburban sprawl.

Seaside in Florida is considered the first example of an increasingly popular urban planning trend  known as New Urbanism.
Seaside in Florida is considered the first example of an increasingly popular urban planning trend known as New Urbanism.

SEASIDE, FLORIDA // Shoppers amble along the semicircular plaza, poking their heads into art galleries and ice-cream shops. Children frolic in the grassy park while teenagers stroll by in flip-flops, headed for the beach. At first glance this beachfront community in north-western Florida looks like it sprung from another era, and that is entirely the intention. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami-based husband-and-wife team who designed it in the early 1980s, nestled a tight cluster of small wood cottages on a 32-hectare tract of land in a bid to recall a simpler, bygone era. "The founders wanted to create a place that feels like home," said Lisa Curtis of the Seaside Institute, which consults on architectural and urban living issues. "It's a place where you don't have to leave town to get anything." This beachside town, so meticulously designed that even the type of white picket fence around each yard gets regulated, is often cited as the first example of an increasingly popular urban-planning trend in the United States known as New Urbanism. Seaside today is more of a resort than a year-round community: 90 per cent of the dwellings are holiday homes. It stands in stark contrast to the high-rise condominiums that line much of the Florida coastline. In 1990, Time magazine described it as "the most astonishing design achievement of its era", and five years later, Newsweek magazine called it "probably the most influential resort community since Versailles." It gained notoriety when the filmmaker Peter Weir chose it to depict the picture-perfect American town for his 1998 film The Truman Show. Originally derided by critics as elitist (it is hard to purchase a home or flat in Seaside for less than US$500,000 [Dh1.8 million]) and over-regulated, the New Urbanism movement is suddenly taking off with a generation of young US residents who want to replace suburban sprawl and high-rise towers with more sustainable, pedestrian communities. The Traditional Neighborhood Developments newsletter now lists hundreds of New Urbanist communities in 41 of the 50 US states, as well as six other countries. The first development in the Middle East is getting under way along the Lebanese coastline in old Beirut. And although it started off as a luxury of the rich, more recent New Urbanist projects have targeted low- and middle-income families, including New Town in St Charles, Missouri, where four-bedroom homes start at less than $200,000. Other projects have focused on recycling abandoned tracts of land, including Denver's old Stapleton airport, which was redeveloped into a family-friendly community, complete with schools, gymnasiums and community swimming pools. "Suddenly we are seeing a surge of interest in the urban community," said Steve Filmanowicz, a spokesman for the Congress for the New Urbanism that recently held a conference in Denver. "Forty-five per cent of the families in Stapleton have children under five years of age," he said. "This in itself provides a form of sustainability for the neighbourhood." Another Colorado project - the Belmar - reclaimed a dying regional mall and transformed it into a walkable, urban district for the suburban town of Lakewood. There are projects catering to people wanting an outdoorsy lifestyle and developments that integrate shared eco-farms for members of the community. New Urbanist planners tend to tightly control and regulate the architectural design in the communities they develop and say planning that community - and how its residents will access schools, art, music and recreation - is critical. They tend to build smaller, more tightly clustered homes, saying it represents a more sustainable use of the land, where families with small gardens can share communal pools and park areas. It also marks a recognition that suburban commutes - often as much as one hour a day into major cities in the United States - cost families tremendously either in fuel or public transport expenses. The return to the pedestrian-friendly urban community increasingly appeals to young couples wanting to be leaner and greener and to mix more with their neighbours than did the babyboomers, Mr Filmanowicz said. "Whether they live in Greenwich Village, New York, or Savannah, Georgia, young couples today increasingly want to live low-carbon, convenient lives," he said. Some analysts predict New Urbanist developments will be the leading architectural trend of the coming decade. Even though it was a housing crisis that brought on the current recession in the United States, a recent report on emerging trends from PricewaterhouseCoopers listed New Urbanist developments as still being a sound real estate investment. Homes in New Urbanist communities have, on average, held their value better than in suburbs, where prices have plummeted, Ms Curtis said. "New Urbanist communities have fared much better throughout the housing slump," she said, "and that was in part because the community planners planned for troubled times." Not everyone likes the heavily planned nature of some New Urbanist communities. Some critics describe them as monotonous and over-regulated. The recent addition to Seaside of a huge, arched shopping centre that has blocked the earlier view of the town, has angered many who live and work there. "I don't think I have spoken to anyone who likes what they have done," said Ed McCallum, a massage therapist who ran a business in Seaside for years. "Now it's too built up and the planners say they are still not finished." gpeters@thenational.ae