Friday, January 31, 2014

Railroad Suburbia 2.0

A lot of the New Urbanist corpus--particularly the town planning elements--focuses on the traditional town planning model. Their ultimate desire is to build communities like these:
Now the thing is the communities the New Urbanists have built
have tended to look a lot like
each of which happens to be a railroad suburb.

Railroad suburbs were primarily developed during the Victorian era, fin-de-siècle, and into the 1920s. Aping developers' success in using streetcar lines to sell new housing, several railroads decided to enter the development game themselves and build "New Towns" lineside. This pattern--small, semi-dispersed centers of population highly centralized around train stations (a major railroad suburb giveaway is when a train station lies at one end of Main Street) became a primary mode of outward urban expansion for the better part of a century, and has left us a rich heritage of the nicest, leafiest communities in cities all across the nation. And, despite catastrophic disinvestment in anything that wasn't a house farm from the 1950s to the early 2000s, railroad suburbs continued to be the effective archetype of quality American community.
(And sometimes they became something more.)

New Urbanism got its start replicating railroad suburbs as new towns--even if the original railroad discontinued passenger service, the railroad suburb is, for all intents and purposes, a new town. Duany and Plater-Zyberk folded in some Southern Baroque town planning tradition, and--voilà!--an alternative to house farms, Levittown tracts, and meandering anti-grids was born.

There are profound implications to this. First, one of the great successes of the movement is the re-creation of the railroad suburb. Transit-Oriented Development, an idea about as old as New Urbanism, is (in essence) a manner of development built on the workings of a railroad suburb.
In the eventuality transportation policy changes--as it must, if Italy is at the vanguard of the trend--we have reclaimed the development model associated with a smaller, smarter, more compact type of urbanism and town-building.

The key becomes, then, developing the right transportation policy: Most cities have enormous wealths of historical (largely disused) potential commuter rail lines--lines on which, were they active, we can hang New Urbanist (re)developments and intensification...These should be the avenues of growth in metros.

1 comment:

  1. The MBTA has an extensive network of commuter rail lines but is choking each one to death on thousands and thousands of parking spaces surrounding each station. That, plus barebones service levels = no transit oriented development.