Where to park cars – old urbanism vs new urbanism



In the days before automobiles dominated the neighborhood streets a single family car could park on the street in front of a house or in an alley behind the house, or on the side of the house, or in a detached garage behind the house.  Urban streets were historically never equipped to deal with multiple car households.   The attention to multiple-car garages facing the street is a suburban phenomenon.  That style of neighborhood provides homes that are dominated by a garage, the driveway to get to it, and inevitably, unsheltered cars parked on these driveways,  since there is a lot of stuff in the garage already (especially aggravating in localities where home do not have basements.)

old_urbanism_webPlanners and designers of ideal city streetscapes are understandably concerned by the over attention given to dealing with the automobile in the front yard of suburban homes.  Among the many tenets of NEW URBANISM is the desire to return to a style of residential development that is dominated by people and porches and pedestrian sidewalks and landscaping, rather than garages and driveways and front lawns. The real estate marketplace is coming along slowly to the return to the value of an idyllic streetscape,  but not without some holdouts kicking and thumping for suburban automobile accommodations, a la 1960’s, when gas was cheap and roads less congested.

The convenience of the alley garage and its driveway has obvious appeal, keeping cars behind the house instead of facing the street. This is possible when a development is being created from scratch.  It allows lots can be narrow, houses closer together; add front porches within talking distance of a person walking on a front sidewalk.  Presto! the end result can look just like urban streets of the early 20th century and even more so when contractors can be directed to provide a style of the house architecture to look historical.  There are many nostalgic styles to emulate, every community has some architectural presidents with characteristic details to copy.east-beach-norfolk-va-web

A development that provides for garages in the alley is not really a new concept. It has been around since horse drawn carriages.  Its appeal is coming back in vogue along with a revived interest in home architectural styles fashioned to match early 1900’s neighborhood streets: Victorian, Arts and Craft, Shingle, Colonial Revival, to name a few.  Creating the NEW old urbanism is most successful when the streets and lots are laid out with a certain organized irregularity that requires different size homes and even a mix of multi-family with single-family structures. This mixture of lot sizes and densities is a radical departure from a typical suburban development strategy that seeks to keep everything the same encouraging builders to repeat a model house style again and again.

The development of East Beach in Norfolk is a new urbanism development that is fashioned to provide all of the virtues of old urbanism, including rear alleys for the automobiles. It is a masterpiece of neighborhood planning and walkable streets, including a number of parks (house lots are too small for children and dogs to run) and walking paths for pedestrians. Its randomness belies the carefully laid out opportunities for landscape vistas, architectural discovery, and meeting places. There is one other important planning ingredient that has insured continuity of the nostalgic neighborhood theme; enter the “town architect”. In the words of a Congress for New Urbanism article about East Beach in 2011:

The architecture of the homes is carefully managed by a design process that includes a full time town architect, a 5 member design review committee, and an award winning Pattern Book. No two houses are alike. There are 4 vernacular styles fashioned after traditional Tidewater Virginia architecture…. The homes are designed and built by a 35 member architects guild and a 20 member builders guild. Implementation of the design is enforced with frequent field inspections. Exterior materials are durable, sustainable products designed to have lasting, enduring quality and look natural. No vinyl siding or PVC railings are permitted.

The result is a neighborhood of tenacious resident loyalty and shared values inspiring community celebrations and activities.  Households are passionate about preserving the character their neighborhood.  The love for it as a place to live is noticeable everywhere you look in East Beach. The simple decision to get private automobiles out of the view is hugely important to the beauty of the community. That feature alone suggests how important it is to the potential success of future planned urban residential development layouts, making a difference in residents emotional attachment to their neighborhood; stabilizing prices into the future.

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  • GREGORY M. FRECH

    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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