Modernist urbanism was centered on new technology: cities were designed around high-speed roads for automobiles and around large-scale superblocks planned by experts. Modernists designed what Clarence Perry aptly called “housing for the machine age.”The error is in believing that a coherent culture is something that can be codified. Encouraged in its good features, perhaps. But subject to taming or reconstruction by a vanguard, or by Wise Experts? Good luck with that.
New Urbanism centers on creating good places for people. The New Urbanism rejects the modernist idea that cities should be made up of single-use superblocks with interior streets for local access and surrounding arterial streets for through traffic. Instead, it creates continuous street systems with small blocks, with development oriented toward the street and sidewalk, and with a variety of different land uses within walking distance of each other. This sort of design works for both pedestrians and automobiles, while modernist design does not work for pedestrians.
New Urbanists developed form-based codes as an alternative to conventional zoning. Zoning laws are typically proscriptive, telling developers what they cannot do, while form-based codes are more prescriptive, telling developers what they should do. These codes have guidelines to define the building types allowed on shopping streets, streets of single-family houses, streets of row houses, and so on. In addition to these urban codes, which control the massing and location of buildings, many New Urbanist developments also have architectural codes, which specify materials that may be used, the roof overhangs that are required, and other design elements that give the entire development a consistent architectural style.1 These architectural codes generate the consistency with variation that is typical of traditional design, but the styles can seem artificial when they are imposed from the outside in this way—different from old cities and towns that have a consistent style because they had a coherent culture.
Modernist urbanism began as part of the progressive movement of a century ago. In the early twentieth century, when most people were near the poverty level, its faith in technology seemed justified as a way of lifting people out of poverty by promoting economic growth.Rromotion by example, or by reinforcement of good habits, yes. Promotion as the national version of scolding the youngsters to eat their peas, no. "But twisting a complex system somewhere, even with the best intentions, may have unintended consequences elsewhere. An evolution might be a better approach than just allowing technology to disrupt." Everything else is elaboration.
By the 1960s, most Americans no longer were near the poverty level. Rather than seeming progressive, the freeways and sprawl became symbols of failure. The official goal of national economic planning was to promote rapid growth of the gross national product, but many progressives began to suspect that promoting the most rapid possible growth was not as important as promoting a higher quality of life.