It’s More than a Trend
As the Lowcountry continues to “explode” and Southern Beaufort County’s “sprawl” accelerates as a result of this explosion, the concept of “New Urbanism” becomes more provocative. The idea is gaining increased attention, from developers, land planners and architects to county officials. While the trend of New Urbanism is experiencing a groundswell of interest within many geographic areas of the United States, the concept is relatively new to the Lowcountry. It’s an idea worth considering.
Suburbanism vs. New Urbanism
Through the first quarter of the last century, the United States was developed in the form of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. The pattern began to change with the emergence of modern architecture and zoning and the rise of the automobile. After World War II, a new system of development was implemented nationwide, replacing neighborhoods with a rigorous separation of uses that has become known as “conventional suburban development” or as we know it, “sprawl”. The majority of United State citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last 50 years.
Although conventional suburban development has been popular, it carries a significant price. Lacking a compact town center, conventional suburban development spreads out to consume large areas of the countryside. Automobile use per capita has soared, because an automobile is required for the great majority of household and commuter trips. For those too young or too old to drive, mobility is greatly restricted. One leading proponent for creating new urban towns and villages says, “transportation issues are huge all over the country – people are fed up with hour-plus commutes from their homes in suburbia”. Urbanists agree that the modern city must accommodate automobiles but they believe in choice. People should be able to choose to walk, bike, take transit, use a scooter, ride a motorcycle, or drive a vehicle.
A Reaction to Sprawl
New Urbanism is a reaction to sprawl. A growing movement of architects, developers and planners are working together to discuss and create human-friendly, walkable communities. They believe in the power and ability of traditional neighborhoods to restore functional and sustainable communities and to become more environmentally “sensitive”. From its modest beginnings, the trend of new urbanism is beginning to have a substantial impact. More than 600 new towns, villages and neighborhoods are planned or under construction in the United States, using principles of the New Urbanism. Historic Bluffton is one of these towns.
New Urbanism does not merely replicate old communities. New houses within neighborhoods must provide modern living spaces and amenities that consumers demand and competing communities offer. Stores and businesses must have sufficient parking, modern floor plans, and connections to automobile and pedestrian traffic and/or transit systems. Successful New Urbanism performs a difficult balancing act by maintaining the integrity of a pedestrian-friendly, walkable, compact neighborhood while offering modern residential and commercial “product” to match that of other communities. The blend of the old and the new can be very tricky and oftentimes, developers pick and choose between the two. The resulting new urban neighborhoods become a “hybrid”, or a combination of the best of each architectural and planning philosophy.
Not all developments advertised as “new urbanist” are the real thing. As there is no official certification to distinguish between the best New Urbanism and projects that adopt only the name, the quickest way to judge a project is to follow a set of criteria used by New Urban News:
The First successful “New Urbanist” Town
Of the number of New Urban neighborhoods that have been developed, the town of Seaside, located in the panhandle of Florida, is considered the most successful. In 1946, 80 acres near the coastline was privately purchased. Until 1981, when the development of Seaside was begun, the property was used for the enjoyment of the owner’s family and friends. In 1988, when only a few streets were completed, Seaside appeared on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly – the town “built for people” had become internationally famous for its architecture and the quality of its streets and public spaces. Seaside was the first “New Urbanist” town. In the early 1980’s, you could purchase a homesite in the town for $15,000; that same property today might fetch close to a million dollars. Seaside proved that developments whose vision it is to function like traditional towns could be built in the postmodern era.
Since Seaside, there have been numerous new urban towns and neighborhoods that have been designed and built, from Texas to South Carolina. Yes, New Urbanism is beginning to take hold in the Lowcountry – it’s not just a trend, it is a growing reality.
Taking Hold in the Lowcountry
The community of Habersham, near Beaufort, was planned and developed by the same architectural team behind the success of Seaside and Rosemary Beach. The non-gated neighborhood incorporates a variety of homes and homesites, townhomes, village flats and “live and work lofts”, or buildings where retail activities are on the first floor and an office or a residence on the second floor. Retail businesses in this area may include a corner store, coffee shop or a restaurant. Habersham boasts a town center, located at the main entrance, a Post Office, Fire Department and Information Center. These buildings are existing “cornerstones” of what will grow to be a center of activity that will provide the conveniences of a self-supportive community. Streets are pedestrian-friendly, where traffic is slowed, calmed down. Young and old are able to walk to the town center – for a popsicle – groceries or a cup of coffee. For those working in the town center, there is no traffic other than passing joggers or children playing on the streets or in the parks.
Newpoint on Lady’s Island
The neighborhood of Newpoint was developed as a Traditional Neighborhood Design, where everything old is new again. Although similar in some respects, Newpoint is not a New Urbanist town – it’s more of a hybrid. According to the developer, Vince Graham, “Newpoint isn’t a town, it isn’t a Seaside. It’s not Little Charleston. It is a neighborhood, comprised of nearly 130 single-family homes on a 54-acre site, with automobile access provided by service lanes that run along the backs of the lots” The streets are laid out in a modified grid pattern – they are not all perfectly straight, and every street is lined with sidewalks. There are several open green spaces permitting children of all ages to have plenty of room for pick-up games, baseball and football. The active commercial area consists of two two-story buildings that face each other across the road leading into the neighborhood. To keep all building within the Traditional Neighborhood Design concept, The Newpoint Code governs the look and feel of the entire community, from building placement to porches and landscaping. Schools, churches, hospitals, Post Office, restaurants, shopping and other “essentials” are within a 10-minute drive of the neighborhood. One resident describes Newpoint with fondness: “In Newpoint, there is a sense of neighbors as extended family. Many of us recall this feeling from our own childhoods. There is the idea of being responsible for each other and sharing both good times and bad. At the same time, each family’s privacy is respected and each person’s individuality is appreciated”. Sounds too good to be true.