Old Urbanism

IMG_4029New Urbanism is an urban design movement which promotes environmentally friendly habits by creating walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types.”

– Wikipedia

New Urbanism is one of our primary tools against sprawl. Greater density, alternative transportation, layered development, increased diversity — all contribute to a more efficient community. I had a chance to see New Urbanism in practice while in the UK recently, although I suppose that over there it’s actually “Old Urbanism,” — development just the way it’s been done for hundreds of years.

The big cities we visited were a lot like US cities, but the smaller places were where you could see the differences. First, most construction is stone, brick and steel. There’s a sense of permanence that seems to carry over into the rest of the community. In the old days in the US, we made our important structures (government buildings, banks, libraries, post offices) out of stone, often with columns — imposing and oozing reliability and permanence. It’s hard now to tell the difference between your bank or city hall from the copy center or the dry cleaner. I accept the greater convenience, but feel that we lost something as a community in the process.

In most British towns, the buildings have been there for centuries, so the roads are retrofitted around them — narrow and not well-adapted to automobile traffic. I do appreciate the convenience of roundabouts, if not always enjoying their confusion. Inner-town streets often require careful negotiation in oncoming traffic, particularly lorries (trucks).

Also, the rules of parking cars on the street in England are very explicit, but almost universally ignored. Start with a narrow street with low stone curbs and narrow sidewalks hard against the building fronts. A double line against the curb means “no parking.” However, since most cars are parked at least halfway up on the sidewalk, the lines apparently do not apply. In addition, the rule of lane direction (we drive on the right, they drive on the left) doesn’t apply to parking, so cars are canted willy-nilly upon the curb facing in any direction. This is disconcerting when you make a turn, diligently keeping left, but confront parked cars facing you in your lane.

And on the parking note, it’s better to just forget about it. Street parking in most places is limited and chaotic (see above), and the few parking lots or garages are pricey, particularly in touristy areas. We returned our rental car during our several-day stays in Edinburgh and Glasgow rather than fight (and pay) for parking. Hotels or inns with attached parking are at a premium in many places.

Another feature of the “new urbanism” is the layering of development, where ground floors are devoted to commercial activities and upper floors to offices or residences. Staying in several inner-town hotels, we learned that noise becomes a major irritant. The surface-level activity from stores and bars, not to mention traffic, intrudes into the upper floors. (Note that ‘ground’ floor is our ‘first,’ and ‘first’ is our ‘second’ — somewhat confusing the first time you ride the elevator.) Several places where we stayed provided ear plugs along with the shower cap and shoe shine cloth.

A related feature of the older places we stayed in is the lack of air conditioning, not normally a problem in Britain. Usually opening a window is all that’s needed and some places provide fans to supplement the outside air. Although we found that the 80 degree weather was more than a match for the small windows and clunky fans, the fans did provide some semblance of ‘white noise.’ In one hotel, the pub was just below our ‘first’ floor room and open windows, but was closed at 10 pm to minimize the noise. However, we found that the departing pub customers tended to stop in the street just outside the pub, and actually ended up attracting the pub customers from across the street where the revelry continued.

Every English or Scottish town has at least one, if not several, prominent hundreds-of-years-old churches. The steeples rise above other buildings, presumably pointing the way to heaven. Having been raised in an evangelical church of cinder block and linoleum floors, I have always reacted negatively to the grandeur of more decorated churches, where the cost of the organ would have fed hundreds of families for a decade. Britain, like the rest of Europe, thrived on elaborate, ostentatious religious buildings that proselytized the wonderfulness of a pious, meager existence.

There are lots of row houses, often out in the country or in small towns, that were built during the industrial revolution to house workers and their families. Two- and three- story, brick or stone, they promised a better life for the rural folks drawn to the jobs at the local mill or foundry, but a century later they are dingy and dilapidated.

It seemed that in the cities, the old buildings are merged with the new, usually tastefully. Modernism and Americanism does creep in though, in the new building design, outdoor advertising and even the stores. At one inner-city intersection in Glasgow, each of the four corners was occupied by a glass and steel high-rise. The ground and first floor corners of each building housed a two-story fast food restaurant: a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, and a Tim Horton (Canadian chain).

I’m not sure if that qualifies as either new or old urbanism. Maybe just tacky urbanism.

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