The practice of New Urbanism as an urban reform movement is popular among modern planning professionals. The movement seeks to promote qualities that urban reformers have always sought: vital, beautiful, just, environmentally benign human settlements. Despite its positive intentions to improve the quality of life for the average American, New Urbanism has inherent inequality vested in its practices. Although unintended, the effects of New Urbanist planning create economic and social inequality. Gentrification, social exclusion, intrinsic conservatism, elitism, and nostalgia based on white American histories all enforce the standard against minorities and Americans with a lower income base.
The Congress of New Urbanism defines it as, “the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.” Pedestrian-centered neighborhoods, community orientation around public transit systems, and mixed land use within neighborhoods along with Neo-Traditional design are the basis for New Urbanist communities.
This somehow relic framework relies on the idea that people want to return to a small town model that encourages a dense living network and reduced personal automobile use. The nostalgic, small-town life created by New Urbanism communities is preferred by some, but is generally a limiting factor. Critics argue residents care more about privacy and security than community, and that most people want detached homes with yards and multi-car garages at arms length from the folks next door. The idea of sharing a block with neighbors who make far lower incomes also frightens some people. The advent of middle-class America occupying suburbia is harmful to society and the environment, and New Urbanism models cater to those who can afford to move to these new communities and who have the flexibility to adapt to a new style of living.
New Urbanist cities can be pockets of isolation within a larger framework of suburban communities. Faux urbanity allows for the perception of living within the context of a larger city, without the resources such as trade and industry to support jobs and a diversity of economic opportunities. Small towns may be appealing for those who can afford to live within an isolated framework that lacks connection between itself and more common suburban communities, but for many, this is a majorly restrictive factor that detracts from the benefits of living within and New Urbanist designed town.
Inconsistent with the current design of cities surrounding the New Urbanist settlements, these communities can appear to be artificial. Neo-Traditionalist style relies on the architecture from early American settlements that came from primarily white, upper-class citizens. New Urbanist developments may be aesthetically pleasing, but aesthetics alone do not create community or urbanity. The fantasy of small town life, pedestrian based within a human scale, are relics of a time before personal automobiles. Design may allow us to revert back to a more sustainable way of life, but by not accounting for modern lifestyles, New Urbanism can lack the depth needed to reform the American way of life.
Zoning within New Urbanist communities has also come under fire. Mixed use zoning within the downtown center promotes walkability and creates a pedestrian shed where many personal necessities and entertainment are within a 5-minute walk radius. Although mixed use is often used to create a thriving and heavily used downtown district, zoning segregation still occurs. It’s not uncommon to find smaller scale commercial establishments within residential neighborhoods in New Urbanist communities, but the larger uses are still zoned separately.
New Urbanist zoning relies on outside funding in the form of subsidies to ensure diverse housing opportunities for lower income residents within these communities. Affordable housing subsidized by local government can only last for a limited period of time. Once the time period of subsidization is over, properties are then placed on the market. Since the period for which subsidies are guaranteed varies, this creates an environment in which the negative and racist consequences of gentrification are spread out over time.
Providing affordable housing for residents is essential to having a diverse community, and one that is accessible for all. Third-wave gentrification produces cities that are colonized by white people through mixed-use zoning, a development trend in which the new-age colonizers target neighborhoods that have been previously occupied by economically disadvantaged people of color.Minorities and those with lower incomes feel the brunt of exclusion from a market based property led economy. A key indicator of gentrification is when the majority pushes the minority out of their place of establishment. This increases the housing prices in a neighborhood, making their current residency unaffordable. Functioning under the ‘best and highest use’ for a framework of a neighborhood, property values rise when a location is perceived to be more desirable to live in. Without subsidization, only the rich and elite can afford to live in New Urbanist neighborhoods.
The ‘best and highest use’ often means new developments of lofts and high-end apartments take over cheaper options for housing and family dwellings. Although there is supposed to be enforcement of rules that require low income multi-family dwellings to be in the gentrifying areas, these areas quickly are altered to cater to wealthier clientele and provide mainly service jobs in place of even the lightest industry that formerly employed the low income and minority populations. Employment opportunities for traditionally lower-income jobs get outsourced to communities that resemble urban centers of cities, rather than the dense mixed-use New Urbanist community.
Elitism and classism are inherent to the problems of gentrification. Neo-liberals and traditional conservatives associated with wealth become the main candidates for living within New Urbanist developments. Gentrification in New Urbanism is similar to urban renewal in the past. Planning can discriminate by allowing for certain social norms to justify the urban sociology of a space. Restricting the ability of minorities and low income Americans from living within the human-scale cities, which they would benefit from more so than a wealthy individual, creates a negatively reinforced trend against New Urbanism. Solutions do exist to mitigate these inequalities associated with New Urbansim. Although these solutions are not completely solvent, they offer planners the ability to consider the perspectives of those affected by inequality.
Utilizing sociology in planning theory is essential to understand the population being planned for. Integrating residential and community participation in the planning process also allows for citizens to directly influence the New Urbanist community, and can account for some problems associated with exclusion. Creating long-lasting regulations and funds for income diverse housing will help to solve many of the problems associated with New Urbanism. If housing opportunities are permanently fixed for lower income residents, diverse neighborhoods can exist. These opportunities also extend to the need for diversity in employment opportunities within the pedestrian shed, or within an easy ride away from the home. Mixed industry along with commercial employment is essential not only providing for the economic stability of a community, but for the diverse residency that relies on mixed backgrounds and educational experience.