The field of housing development, particularly high-density development, has seen many faces and known many facets. In the past, high-density developments were primarily cost-driven, and they focused on merely creating housing for a large number of individuals, instead of creating homes. Today, the focus of development is on the community, on creating spaces in which individuals and families can lead full and sustainable lives. Ideas such as New Urbanism and Transit-Oriented Developments have this community concept at the forefront. Walkability, mixed-use-mixed-income, green or open spaces, pedestrian or transit orientation, and a focus on the public realm are ideas driving today’s affordable and high-density housing industries. These innovations in design, and the systems thinking surrounding affordable and dense housing, are important to be aware of and understand because they make drastic, positive impact on affected communities and individuals.
A concept that has recently started getting attention and gaining momentum is New Urbanism. This design movement promotes walkability within mixed-use, traditional neighborhood structures that support planning for green and open public spaces. New Urbanists hope that these practices will increase quality of life by creating spaces that support and uplift the individuals living there. Take at look at the principles of New Urbanism as explained on their website:
New Urbanism, though first practiced in the 1980s, is still a relatively new idea. High-density developments of the past focused on housing the largest number of people for the least costs, often not taking into account factors like the ones that New Urbanism centers itself around. One of the most famous examples of a new type of dense housing is the Pruitt-Igoe Development, built in the 1950s. Pruitt-Igoe was a large public housing project in St. Louis, comprised of 33 high-rise, concrete structures with nearly 3,000 apartments. Because of its isolation and high concentration of poverty, the development became an area known for its crime and segregation.
Pruitt-Igoe is known as a failure within affordable housing, and developers have learned from the mistakes of this project. Today New Urbanism can be seen in recent projects across the United States like the Orenco Station development outside of Portland, Oregon, which has received much praise for its innovation and creativity, and is a well-known up-and-coming Transit –Oriented Development (TOD). Orenco Station is built along the MAX line in Hillsboro, allowing residents to travel to and from Portland easily. This project has a mix of townhomes and live/work units among narrow streets, town centers, and green spaces, and it has been praised as a trailblazer in infill and TOD housing.
Communities like Orenco Station are being developed across the country, but that does not mean that hope is lost for existing communities that don’t reflect the ideas of New Urbanism. In Fairfax, Virginia, Tysons Corner is being redeveloped to incorporate new innovations and systems. Developers hope to transform what is now a disjointed region including a shopping mall, offices, and suburban neighborhoods into a more walkable urban center where people can live, work, and shop easily, and reduce the need for cars.
New Urbanism is more than the next big thing in development design. It is a set of principles shaping a new way of living that will hopefully become the model of higher-density developments across the nation. It views housing not just as a number of units, a style of architecture, or location of a site, but as a system of people and processes. This way of thinking about development allows a community to grow in ways that create more sustainable, safer, higher quality, and more efficient living.