New Urbanism and Newport – “New Urbanism: Not New or Urban-Only”

For the last twenty years there has been a growing planning movement called “New Urbanism.” This ideology advocates, according to NewUrbanism.org, the following principles: 1) Walkability, 2) Connectivity; 3) Diversity of uses; 4) Mixed (price) housing; 7) Quality Architecture; 6) Traditional Neighborhoods; 7) Density; 8) Green Transportation; 9) Sustainability and 10) Quality of Life.

What is perhaps interesting and confusing about this term is the ideas that what it advocates are not really “urban” and they are definitely not “new.”  Newport and other colonial settlements have been designed along these lines since their founding. The European models that Colonial communities emulated were designed along these principles since the time of the Romans! When communities like Newport were first built, resources were scarce and transportation was difficult so the communities grew in tight neighborhoods where the size of the homes and lots were compact and all the work and shopping was within easy walking distances. Today, as energy prices climb and as people worry about the effects of global warming, these design principles seem more appropriate to our present circumstance than they have for a very long time.

What the term “New Urbanism” also neglects in its name is that the design philosophy calls for the preservation of farms and rural areas. As the design principles encourage greater density in cities and towns, it helps protect undeveloped areas from needing to be developed into suburban sub-divisions and strip malls. The wholesale development of West Main Road is the direct outgrowth of the zoning laws passed in the 1970’s in Newport that required large retail parking lots and suburban style residential development instead of the compact and efficient designs that had long been used until that time. The growth was pushed away from the city and out into the surrounding areas. Today people decry the strip mall and the suburban subdivision but both are the direct byproducts of the Zoning laws that are currently still in place in the three Aquidneck Island communities. It is estimated than 80% of all Newport properties are “non-conforming” to the current zoning including the vast majority of historic structures that are so beloved and cherished by the community. It is a strange set of rules that prohibits what is loved and prescribes designs that are generally disliked!

Following World War II there was a great exodus of population from the cities. This was enabled by the new highways built to transport troops and resources during the war and this mass migration was fueled by inexpensive gasoline costs. As food production moved to larger, industrial operations far away, rural lands could be purchased cheaply. Also, there was a sense at that time that cities were dirty and dangerous places. Now this trend has begun to reverse. People have become tired of long commutes and anonymous tracts of houses where people lack a sense of connection and community. Many more have become aware of the expense and environmental degradation of suburban development and have come to think of cities as exciting places of culture and close community. The extraordinary increase of real estate prices in cities around the world, from New York to Moscow to Beijing, in the last forty years is one very tangible sign of this transformation in thinking.

On Thursday March 24th at 5:30pm there will be a lecture co-sponsored by the Newport Historical Society and Newport Restoration Foundation at the Colony House in Washington Square entitled “An Affinity to Newport” about the parallels in the development of Marblehead Massachusetts and Newport—two cities that grew at similar times and under similar circumstance. The lecturer is Judy Anderson, who is an historian and the former curator of Marblehead’s 1768 Jeremiah Lee Mansion. If you are able to attend, please remember that Newport and Marblehead are not just interesting historic curiosities, but are viable (and valuable) models for development in the future—both here and elsewhere. Perhaps the movement should be renamed to “Newport Urbanism”!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, March 24, 2011.

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