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Monday, June 12, 2006

Suburbs Old and New

We happened to be in St. Charles County last night for a family function, and decided to take the grand tour of New Urbanist development there. We looked around Frenchtown (where silly New Urbanist ideas are threatening an authentic urban area), New Town, WingHaven and Dardenne Prairie (where a large development is being considered). What a marked contrast to Friday's travels through East St. Louis, Alorton and Belleville where years of change and accumulation have produced truly interesting suburban and urban fabric. In St. Charles County, it is difficult to find a soul -- and the supposedly progressive projects we toured were especially problematic. We'll be thinking more about what we saw and writing substantial criticism later, but in the meantime one big observation is beating in my head.

The old modernist suburban designers truly believed that they were shaping history. While autocentric, they paid attention to little details of proportion, materials and site planning. They also created environments that actually can be walkable and pleasurable to walk through. These designers embraced history, and tried to change it to fit their modern ideals; all that they built reflects an optimism that is now dated but still discernible.

Today's suburban designers, however, seem to shun their role in history. They seem most interested in redeeming the suburban form so that it does not perish. These designers don't create anything inspirational even by their own standards. Their projects mix historic styles and details in a displeasing way, and their materials choices show that appearance overrides sustainability. They are trying to deny that their projects are marks of a particular place in history that will leave traces.

So, while suburban environments are unsustainable in the long-term, older suburban places have a functionality and beauty that the new ones do not. The older environments are worth defending and researching, while the new ones are simply products that do not try to transcend their private economic functions.


Don said...

New Town has creeped me out every time I've driven through it, as it feels like an empty movie set. Sure, it may have some interesting mixings of architectural stylings, but only on certain blocks do they coalesce into a solid appearance. Unfortunately, the appearance isn't too different than what you would find in any subdivision in West County or in Saint Charles County. The cover of the Riverfront Times, which had the article on New Town, looks like a profile shot of a subdivision that has street names like Babbling Brook Court or Cooing Pigeon Drive, with the colors of the vinyl siding being the only significant difference in design.

In many ways, "New Urbanism" simply equals a nicer way to express a large suburban development. The people living in New Town still have a long commute for goods, services, schools, and for reaching their jobs. The community has no relation to its neighbors, which right now are farmland, an industrial park, the quasi-interstate MO 370, and St. Louis Mills. People living in New Town are, effectively, living in a gilded cage by choice, but thanks to a great marketing phrase, they feel better about themselves for doing so.

Lana Jacobs said...

I recently contacted a group called CNU in Chicago. That group is the voice of "New Urbanism". I voiced my concern about my visit to New Town last summer, I was appalled at the lack of accessibility and visitabilty. My daughter got her masters 10 years ago in design with an emphasis on visitability. I am appalled at the developements that are exempt from accessibility and not a thought for visitability. I live in a brick house built in 1917 and we have put a lot of effort into access for our daughter and other wheelchaair users. That said, very few neighbors are visitable for her.