New Urbanism’s Economic Achilles Heel


By Richard Reep

Whether one believes that form follows function or that function can follow form, a town or a city needs three key elements to be healthy. Firstly, a sense of place that includes the sacred is important to people to provide a basis for spiritual involvement. The city must then be able to reliably deliver safety and security to its inhabitants in order to grow and mature. And lastly, a city must provide the means of employment for its inhabitants.

New Urbanism, in its quest to dictate the physical form of an urban development, has ignored the last key element. An examination of New Urbanism in developments in Central Florida shows a glaring lack of employment, raising questions about their sustainability and long-term viability.

As we enter the second decade of Celebration, it is useful to look at this city and its influence on the surrounding region. Opened in 1996, Celebration incorporated much of the design philosophy that was formulated around the idea that a city should have a certain “look.” This design philosophy was promulgated to the general public in Suburban Nation, a book that lashed out at the current suburban form and proposed a new form based on a nostalgic notion about a golden age of American town-making, generally in the first decades of the last century.

By regulating the specific architectural form of a new development, the New Urbanists proposed to improve the blandness, placelessness, and lack of character that is the lot of most contemporary suburbs. Celebration, sponsored by Disney, opened to white-hot press acclaim nationwide. Phase 2 was opened ahead of schedule due to demand for new homes. Market values of homes rose quickly beyond the norm for Central Florida. Developers took notice.

Soon, other spawn of Celebration began to show up in Central Florida, and today we have several New Urbanist communities that aspire to the same level of success. Baldwin Park, funded by Chicago’s Pritzker family, is a smaller scale version of Celebration located in the City of Orlando and convenient to downtown. Avalon Park, in the southeast corner of Orange County, is accessed from the perimeter highway that is turning Orlando into a mini-Atlanta. Horizon West, the youngest of these, is due west of Downtown Orlando, and offers another New Urbanist antidote to subdivisions, adhering to the same formula of “live, work, and play.” All of these, including Celebration, are coping with the housing crisis, foreclosure crisis, and various other current market conditions just like the rest of us.

Sadly the “live, work, and play” slogan, which comes from New Urbanist literature, does not bear out in reality. The notion is fine enough: that people can reduce commutes by living and working in the same community. During the supposedly halcyon days of pre-auto, early 20th century America, this was the reality for many Americans. One’s life could occur within a small, walkable radius, reinforcing itself and reinforcing the social bonds of a community.

But the early 21st Century is very different than the early 20th and New Urbanist attempts to travel backwards in time have met with limited success. To work near where you live, there needs to be employment down the street. None of these communities have employment opportunities – jobs – down the street from the residences. The dwellers of all these communities get in their cars and drive to their jobs off-campus. New Urbanism thus becomes an after-6pm-and-weekend lifestyle choice, not a new way of life.

In Celebration, many of the early residents were Disney executives; only 4 or 5 years after opening did Disney develop office space in Celebration for some of their offices. Baldwin Park, approximately 2 miles from Downtown Orlando, never pretended to capture the employment aspect, instead selling itself (to many Celebration residents who rushed to this newer, hipper version of their town) as a downtown commute. And neither Avalon Park nor Horizon West have employment opportunities within their town centers. What they do have is easy access to the area’s ring road – ensuring vehicular congestion outside of their New Urbanist communities.

What is in their Town Centers? Ironically, you find only a small shopping district and the ubiquitous Publix, Florida’s home-grown grocery store chain. The formula of “live-work-play” must stick in the craw of those who are employed in these stores, because the Publix employees, Starbucks baristas, dry cleaner cashiers, and others who do work in these Town Centers can not possibly afford the New Urbanist real estate. Rather than a social continuum (as was more common in the idealized version of America), there is a new social schism, with the New Urbanist underclass forced to commute to the New Urbanist communities from more affordable but less trendy housing nearby.

In contrast, the region’s native communities have been thriving throughout the same growth period. Communities like College Park, adjacent to Orlando’s downtown, offer something that New Urbanist communities do not: diverse housing, from garage apartments and rental communities up to stately mansions, all within walking distance of each other. They offer an idiosyncratic mix of sacred places, playgrounds, schools, and shops in what the Philadelphia architect and theorist Robert Venturi calls “messy vitality.” No overarching body dictated the form, developed transects, or rigidly controlled the distance between the front porch to the street to achieve these vibrant, socially cohesive, and proud neighborhoods.

New Urbanists claim to reduce the need for cars, but Orlando’s New Urbanist communities make the car more necessary than ever. Built on the periphery of the metropolitan area, they require a vehicle to complete the circle of functions necessary for a healthy society. Orange County planners have been submissive to the New Urbanists – especially after Celebration – but increasingly recognize that they do not solve the problems they claim to solve and instead invent more: higher traffic, less affordable housing near city centers, and lumpy development sprawl.

The lesson for Orlando is to refrain from being seduced by the beauty contest that New Urbanists proclaim, and instead integrate all the key deeper social values such as safety, security, sacred places, and employment together. This is basic stuff recognized by greater minds – think of George Mitchell at the Woodlands or Victor Gruen in Valencia – who understand that employment constitutes a critical component to building a successful new community. Until New Urbanists learn this basic economic lesson, their contribution to our communities will remain sharply limited.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

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Urban Planning as a profession

Urban planning, as a profession, has had a controversial history and mixed results. Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of American Cities" was a diatribe against postwar planning. It seems like every 5-10 years, the urban planning profession takes a slam from pop culture.

The problem with planning Class D office space within a New Urbanism development is that the NU movement is completely private-interest driven. A private interest will want to develop his land to maximize revenues. Until public-private balance is returned to the conversation, we will not see class-D space mixed with cute architecture and privately-planned downtowns.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL