This was not an empty gesture, as a vaguely New Urbanist design approach came to be reflected in dozens of Hope VI projects built over the ensuing fifteen years. But just how new was this approach, really? A close examination of justifications given for the projects themselves reveals certain overriding concerns, which for those familiar with the history of urban planning in the 20th century may seem familiar, but which have little do with New Urbanist principles.
A concrete example might help illustrate the point. The project I'm most familiar with is the recent Hope VI redevelopment of Nashville's J. Henry Hale Homes, a project that was typical of the low-rise public housing constructed in Nashville during the 1950s. Although the original project was demolished around 2006, Google earth shows it as it existed before:
The buildings shown are all two-story structures. The planning principles at work in creating such a development were perhaps not as careless and insensitive as they're sometimes made out to be:
"...[W]ith houses and gardens in compact groups ... there can be playgrounds for different age-groups and parks and perhaps even a community center, instead of dead chasms between houses and acres of unnecessary pavement in streets, sidewalks and alleys. The whole neighborhood may be just one super-block, which means complete play safety for the children and clean, quiet green surroundings and outlook for all the houses. For access to the houses there may be small dead-end streets. Garages and parking spaces are conveniently located at the nearby street-front. The house itself, shallow and never more than two rooms deep, has sun in every room and far more real privacy than an 'individual' house on a narrow lot." -Catherine Bauer, A Citizen's Guide to Public Housing (1940).This is hardly traditional urbanism, but there is a clear acknowledgement here of the problems of welcoming the automobile into the heart of a residential environment, as well as a backlash against the repetitive, amenity-poor process of speculative lot subdivision that had characterized the seven decades or so preceding 1940. The development relegates the handful of parking lots in groups to the fringes of the development, or to dead-end access ways. The few auto streets are quite narrow and naturally control speed with T-intersections and sharp turns. Far more numerous are the narrow pedestrian paths linking the housing units to the streets and to the two large park areas within the project. Overall, it is a pedestrian-focused environment, with a balance of built space, streets and park space reminiscent of a college campus.
For reasons that have been hotly debated, this project, like many others, quickly degenerated into a focal point for crime and poverty. Was it the fault of its design? Nashville's director of the Metro Development and Housing Agency, Phil Ryan, thinks so:
“Part of the problem with public housing in the U.S. is overly dense housing that’s unappealing and unattractive,” Ryan explained. “The extreme density has created a bad environment for people. ... We think a beautiful mixed-income neighborhood is a net gain for low-income people versus an overly dense, traditional 60-year-old housing development,” Ryan said.Does this sound at all familiar to the claims of the early 20th century Progressive housing reformers? It's a position Jacob Riis would have applauded, and which Lewis Mumford might have endorsed. The key elements might be summarized as environmental determinism, or belief that one's built surroundings influence social behavior, and out of that thinking a belief that decongestion, or a dispersal of population, is the best means of positively influencing behavior -- among a certain segment of the population anyways. (At least, the Nashville planners, to my knowledge, have never criticized nearby high-end condominium developments for being "overly dense.") These are not mere idle words, on this project (see below) or others, as a net loss of housing units is characteristic of the entire Hope VI program.
In any event, here is the new project, developed with $20 million in federal Hope VI funding:
A comparison of the projects reveals the following changes:
Is $20 million dollars for a loss of 255 housing units a good use of taxpayer money, one could ask, even if the new units are of higher quality? Long-term maintenance liabilities have presumably increased as well, with the total paved surface increasing from 7% to 30% to serve less than half the number of units. And of the new street grid, that presumably New Urbanist-inspired addition? Does this automobile connectivity serve any purpose in the absence of the mixed uses that New Urbanism advocates but which are absent here, or have Catherine Bauer's "acres of unnecessary pavement" simply reappeared?
The streets have been dramatically widened, flattened and straightened, as well, which has necessitated the placement of speed bumps throughout the project:
And although an article touting the project refers to it as "a neighborhood with real front and backyards, green space and duplex homes," not only has green space been reduced and identifiable parks nearly eliminated, the homes do not, in fact, have backyards:
Front yards do exist, though, with thoughtfully-located utility boxes. Brick is reserved only for the facades, or rather parts of the facades:
I'll let the reader compare the design and aesthetics of these homes to those of the nearby Andrew Jackson Courts, public housing built some 15 years before the original J. Henry Hale homes:
With this design-focused analysis I won't delve into the city's motives, why it might have wanted to dramatically reduce density in existing public housing projects, or whether the city planners truthfully believed their own pronouncements on density. The project did "succeed" at largely replacing the population in the project, and there is evidence that tenant management, one the key elements of the relative success of New York's public housing, is now given greater attention.
From a planning perspective, though, is it possible to argue that this new design approach is always an improvement over the public housing of the 1950s? Even some of the most sensitively-designed developments replacing notorious projects, such as the redevelopment of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, show a similar emphasis on wide streets, low building footprints, large parking areas and residual "green space." Perhaps the design philosophy underlying these redevelopments has not changed quite as much as one might think.