Living in new urbanismI'm staying at the Chautauqua Institution lakefront resort in western NY state this week, and thought I'd pass on some personal observations about living in a new urbanist community. Well, to be technical, it's old urbanism - it started in 1874 - but it absolutely fits many new urbanist ideals: beautiful, large (2-4 story), dense Victorian houses on very small plots of land (almost no yards), built right up against each other, with very narrow streets and almost no parking (pictures, maps). It's incredibly walkable and bikeable - in fact that's pretty much the only way to get around. Cars are only allowed in for loading and unloading, and then have to park in a giant parking lot outside the community across the highway. It's a pretty good-sized place - filling up with about 7,500 people every summer - so the streets have a lot of pedestrian vibrancy. It even has a classic town square in the center everybody can walk to with a fountain, library, bookstore, restaurants, convenience store and other retail.
While it is an idyllic place, what I can't figure out is how much this works just as a summer resort vs. "real life" applicability. It's only open during the summer and shuts down the other 8-9 months of the year during the brutal NY state winters. Each house is jammed with people. I'd say our 3-story Victorian is hosting 12+ couples in small bedrooms packed on the floors with shared bathrooms - far, far more people than if it were occupied by a normal family household (draining the needed pedestrian vibrancy and density to support shops and services). Lectures, classes, and other events happen around campus all day long, drawing people out to walk around more than they might normally. People are here on vacation, meaning they're not doing daily work commutes or running the errands of daily life - where the trek to the car in the far lot would be intolerable. And the weather is perfect up here in the summer, making the pedestrian experience wonderful. I imagine it would not be so wonderful the rest of the year.
All that said, it might work in the "real world" with narrower townhomes for smaller households set on top of garages, although the steady car traffic that would create would make the narrow streets much less pleasant for pedestrians or bikers. There's a danger issue too: with sightlines so limited by close-in houses up against the street, it's easy for a pedestrian or biker to come out of nowhere. Combine that with the steep hills and winter ice, and it's a dangerous mix. My father already ran his bike into a tree pretty hard, dodging a surprise pedestrian while coasting a downhill curve. Yes, in theory the narrow streets and sightlines should make everybody be more careful and go slower, but people are human, and safety is not always top-of-mind (especially with kids).
All this drives home for me why new urbanist projects that aren't apartments stacked on top of a town center mall are so difficult and so rare: there are just too many hard tradeoffs in a modern society built around the car. All this nostalgia we have is for old urban places built before cars were common - when walking and biking and transit were the only ways to get around. Any modern household today - even living in a TOD where they walk, bike, and use transit for some trips - will still own a car and use it often, and that's really hard to reconcile with the ideal new urbanist environment.