New Urbanism, as explained by architect Dhiru Thadani last Wednesday in Berlin, is just a new name for the old way this country’s cities and towns were developed in the pre-suburban sprawl era.
Towns and big city neighborhoods back then seemed to have one of everything within walking distance for most people, as population centers reflected the interdependence between businesses and residents.
But then, post-World War II prosperity led to four things that changed all that: the rise of car travel, the proliferation of chain stores with good prices, the increasing desire of residents for bigger yards and quieter neighborhoods and the imposition of new zoning laws written to protect the chosen lifestyles of the rapidly emerging middle class.
Berlin suffered through that change and is one of the few even now that has managed to recover much of its in-town commerce glory days. But now, as officials look to the future, the question is where does it go and grow from here?
Enter the pitch for New Urbanism, which differs little from the Smart Growth philosophy introduced by Gov. Parris Glendening after his reelection in 1998.
These development strategies encourage moving inward toward town centers with a mix of commercial uses and housing at all levels of affordability.
It’s a great concept — government benefits from the reduced cost of delivering services, green space is preserved, environmental protections are enhanced and town centers thrive with their built-in neighborhood clientele.
But could it be done? That’s a different matter altogether, as it would depend on keeping housing affordable, whether people of vastly different income levels and circumstances will happily co-exist on the same street, and whether owners of prime property on the edge of town will howl if their land is written out of the development mix.
Thadani put the question to Berlin Wednesday, but the reality is town officials and residents will have to answer many questions before anything happens … if it ever does.