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.