The ‘New Urbanism’ Movement Might Be Dead

City revival has ceased to be a radical idea, and that’s a good thing.
October 2017
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William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

This is part of Governing's special 30th anniversary coverage.

Thirty years ago this month, when I first started writing for this magazine, the idea of a column on the growing trend toward urbanism would have been laughable. Sure, some downtowns and old industrial districts were showing signs of life, and the first loft conversions were taking place. But generally speaking, downtowns were 9-to-5 office districts, and “urban” was often a code word for “ghetto.”

What a difference three decades make. Today, Governing’s readers can’t get enough about cities, urban life, new transit lines and kids making zillions of dollars writing code on laptops in coffee shops. It’s a world I hardly could have imagined back in 1987.

As an urban planner, one of the most interesting trends has been to watch the gradual mainstreaming of urbanism as a legitimate aspect of city life. Around the time I first wrote for Governing, I also first saw Andrés Duany speak. Duany, the Miami-based architect, was one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement and he provoked people by challenging conventional wisdom not just about cities but about suburbs as well. Maybe people didn’t want to drive everywhere. Maybe we didn’t need to set every office building 30 feet back from the street. Maybe there’s a dignified way for somebody to get a cup of coffee and wait for the bus. To a young urban planner, Duany and his colleagues were exhilarating.

But today … yawn. New Urbanism has become so mainstream that it’s hard to think of it as a separate movement anymore. It’s been replaced by something else. Call it Ubiquitous Urbanism, an urbanism so prevalent in our society that it’s no big deal: Of course people want to live and work in cities. Of course that’s where innovation in our society is occurring. We don’t even have to think all that much anymore about how to get urbanism to our town -- it just shows up.

It’s interesting to me that many people view Ubiquitous Urbanism as an almost un-American attack on suburban life. These people ask, don’t people still believe that a single-family home with a yard is the best way to live? Aren’t most people still living in the suburbs?

Sure, lots of folks are still moving to the suburbs and living in single-family homes. But these days, when they drive to the mall, it’s probably no longer a bunch of department stores; rather, it’s a faux downtown urban district, where they can shop, eat, walk around and, perhaps, visit friends at their homes just like people do in cities.

I’m not saying one way of life is superior to the other. Obviously, there’s room in America for both. But what’s heartening to me is that nowadays there is room for both -- and there is a choice. If you want to live in the suburbs with your SUV, you can. If you want to live in a city and take public transit all the time, you can. You can even live in close-in suburbs and drive your MINI Cooper to your local faux town center. But whether you like it or not, urbanism is no longer a niche life. It’s a pretty standard American life, and that’s a big change.