a pre-modern critique of the new urbanism – mammoth // building nothing out of something

a pre-modern critique of the new urbanism

A minor point, but this is kind of fascinating — a critique of New Urbanism which, rather than going the common route of charging New Urbanism with nostalgic pre-modernism, argues that New Urbanism is insufficiently pre-modern — in this specific case, arguing that New Urbanists have praised a certain kind of narrow traditional street but produced a zoning code which doesn’t permit the construction of that kind of street.  (It’s a bit like a right-wing critique of Wall Street — there’s certainly room to make it, but you don’t hear it often.)  These guys should be introduced to Rudofsky and Alexander, who (for what it’s worth) were arguing for a return to pre-modern urban patterns years before the New Urbanists showed up.

7 Responses to “a pre-modern critique of the new urbanism”

  1. Part of that is because of fire codes, not necessarily the land use code. While it might be coded that way, the fire chiefs actually have more power than the zoning code in most places around the country and push the zoning codes to adopt their stances.


    • Rob says:

      That’s certainly plausible, though Old Urbanist probably scores points on the dissonance between Duany’s rhetoric and the code, regardless of whether there is a good explanation for the difference. I’m more interested in the meta here — that there is a pre-modern critique of New Urbanism at all is quite interesting to me, whether it is an accurate critique or not.

  2. Will says:

    At the risk of being a pedant, grids and other rigidly geometric street patterns are eminently pre-modern; indeed they’re as old as urbanism itself.

    • Bryan says:

      Although grids have been around since modern times, they aren’t as “pre-modern” as streets the developed organically over time. And also, while grids have been around, the scale and intent for a given grid can help place that grid on the spectrum of grids ranging from Caesar to Moses (R.).

    • rob says:

      Sure, Will, at least in a strict sense (the caveat being that, as Bryan notes, the grid is not the typical pre-modern pattern). But the critique I’m calling “pre-modern” is (at least in the specific post I referenced) about width, not geometric pattern.

  3. Nathan Lewis says:

    This term “pre-modern” is not particularly helpful. Although it is true that the patterns of 19th Century Hypertrophism and 20th Century Hypertrophism appeared alongside industrialization, the Traditional City design has also continued into the present day. I would look particularly at the Japanese examples, many of which were green fields fifty years ago. The idea that a pedestrian environment is “premodern” is, in my opinion, rather stupid.

    • rholmes says:

      Nathan: I think you think I think “pre-modern” is a derogatory term. As I am using it, it is neither derogatory nor complimentary, merely descriptive.

      And in that, I think it’s quite accurate — there is a real correlation between modern thought (modern in the historical sense — Baron Haussmann was a modern — not modern meaning contemporary) and, to use Old Urbanist’s particular example, a move away from narrow streets and towards wider boulevards and avenues. (Both broader modernity and the move towards boulevards were about the rise of rationality and the philosophical orientation towards control which reached its apothesis in positivism.) The late 19th and early 20th century urban patterns which New Urbanism most directly seeks to imitate are, similarly, modern in this sense. So while “a pedestrian environment” is, of course, not pre-modern, the particular urban pattern that Old Urbanist and you have both referenced is. That pre-modern patterns are still constructed today (as in your Japanese examples) no more contradicts this than the fact that some farmers still use pre-industrial techniques contradicts the fact that the primary mode of farming in the country is industrial. (And, of course, there is nothing pejorative about the prefix in that case, either.)

      Most critiques of New Urbanism, however, are either implicitly or explicitly post-modern — interested neither in replicating a pre-modern condition nor in any variation of modernity (be that the older modernity of the boulevards and grids, the streetcar and early automobile modernity that New Urbanism is patterned after, or the late modernity of the modernists). While I (perhaps this is obvious) wouldn’t go so far as to agree with the prescriptive program of “Traditional City design” that you’ve described on your site, it appears to me that there is at least some truth in your critique of New Urbanism and it isn’t one that I’d seen made before, so I appreciate that.