What is “progressive” urbanism? How does it differ from New Urbanism?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION What is “progressive” urbanism? How does it differ from New Urbanism?

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    Vanessa Ruiz

    Hi there!

    Lately, I ran across the term “progressive urbanism,” but have been unable to find a good description of the term. I understand New Urbanism, as well as it’s pros and cons, and am curious as to how progressive urbanism compares to New Urbanism.

    From what I have found so far (mostly Matthew Yglesias’ rebuttle to Aaron Renn’s piece in New Geography), Seattle, Portland, and a few other cities are model cities for progressive urbanism, however, I recognized a lot of new urbanist characteristics when I visited these cities in late October.

    Any hints please?


    From what little I know of the tenets of New Urbanism, Progressive Urbanism, without looking for a definition sounds antithetical in that New Urbanism is based more in regression in a sense. The architectural and physical planning archetypes which accompany the new urban style harken back to the way American cities were built 100 years ago.

    I think a lot of the disdain for NU comes from a certain fear of conservatism in a largely liberal (professionally, not politically) group of disciplines (arch + LA design mainly, engineering and construction seem more ‘conservative’ imo) in which progressive thought often translates to something we can’t quite comprehend or unusual. Ordinary design that just works imo is often discarded as pedestrian almost always solely for the reason it’s ‘been done.’

    Take a look at the science ‘disciplines’-geology, physics, mathematics, etc…Creativity and progressive thought is essential to these fields as well, but generally innovation stems from prior proofs, not last weeks conjecture. This is where I think design and LA specifcally have veered off course, probably in response to contemporary culture/mores. Design is being replaced by style. To bring my rant back on topic, progressive, in this context translates most readily in my mind to new style, with not as much regard for whats worked.

    I wonder if ‘landscape urbanism’ falls under the umbrella of ‘progressive urbanism?’ or vice versa.

    I’d like to hear someone explain the differences or similarities between these three, LU, NU, and PU without necessarily citing a specific publication, laymens terms as they see it.

    Roland Beinert

    Based on a quick google search, my guess is that the term progressive urbanism is a general term for places that are walkable, bikable, etc. It seems to be close to the same thing as new urbanism, but new urbanism tends to concentrate more on small towns and neighborhoods designed to be like small towns. Progressive urbanism seems to describe any urban place whether it’s big city urban (like Manhattan) or small town (Seaside), as long as it’s easy to walk and bike, etc. That’s just a guess, though. I could be completely off.
    I think landscape urbanism is more about taking the emphasis off architecture and putting it on landscape in urban areas.


    Way to stay on topic Roland..

    I think NU puts a lot of focus on the building architecture, LU is evidently a response. So, are they all progressive then?

    Tom Cluff

    Sometimes “progressive” is just a buzzword that people use to deflect criticism. As in, “This project will be built using principles of Progressive Urbanism, so if you aren’t supporting it, you must be against good design.”

    Otherwise, as the term has been used, I don’t see anything to distinguish the design principles of one from the other. Good, sensible attempts to make the places we live function better at the human-scale.

    Vanessa Ruiz

    Thanks for the great responses.

    I agree with both of your descriptions of New Urbanism, and it seems that many of the basic guidelines of New Urbanism exist for Landscape Urbanism and Progressive Urbanism as well: walkability and bikeability, accessibility, user safety, etc.
    Does progressive urbanism differ then by making these principles applicable to any scale of urban setting (Big City vs. small town core)?
    If so, are you just zooming out and extending your infrastructure while adding more “neighborhood centers” within walking distance of everyone?

    Nick, you said:
    “Design is being replaced by style. To bring my rant back on topic, progressive, in this context translates most readily in my mind to new style, with not as much regard for whats worked.”

    Nick, do you mean that the aesthetics, and not the guidelines, are what changes from new urbanism to progressive urbanism?

    And does landscape urbanism differ by offering a different means of achieving the same objectives?

    Vanessa Ruiz

    I remember first hearing the phrase “New Urbanism,” and being quite intrigued by it. It seemed, just by the phrase, that it was a “new” thing, that I can jump on board with. If I had heard “Progressive Urbanism,” I think I would have been a bit more skeptical (which is a good thing) as to how exactly it proposed to make something better. Maybe not. Obviously, it must be working for some people.
    Marketability….makes sense.
    Anyone agree/disagree?


    Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was saying, but the same is probably true for most areas of design.

    If PU was intended to suggest an adaptive approach to neighborhood design including a comprehensive program of aesthetics, economics, architecture, culture, and art in direct accordance with place I’d buy it. That could be something I’d subscribe to.

    Cities themselves are natural systems which grow and change organically. I think the key is to learn not so much how to imitate the end product of all this growth, but how to plant the seed and cultivate a community with all the qualities I mentioned above.


    I agree that only an architect could brand their idea ‘New’ with a capital ‘N.’ Haha, just kidding.

    I remember I asked someone from Olin if they see any of their work as ‘Neo-Classical.’ I thought the guy was going to hit me. To say he balked would be a serious understatement. He ran so far from that word it made me think I was right. Thing is, I don’t see any issue in reintroducing classical form or theory in a contemporary light, which is what I see in so much of Olin’s work. That said, I’m sure someone will be right along to tell me how mixed up my idea of classical design is and how wrong I am about Olin.

    As Tom alluded to earlier, I see everyone in the world of design wanting to be progressive, but I also see a thin line between progressive design and trendiness.

    All that said I actually have enjoyed the NU neighborhoods I’ve visited locally. I have been to Prospect New Town in Longmont, another I forget the name of in Broomfield, both by DPZ and a Peter Calthorpe/EDAW/?? project at Stapleton (which I didnt like so much).

    I think you’re right that any ideology like NU or PU or whatever is about marketing, whether thats to a group of professionals, internally, or externally to the end user. We need to brand things so we can affirm theyre differences and ‘progressiveness’. ha. How else do you describe to a layperson or even another architect in five words or less a really cool neghborhood that takes some ideas from both the past and present and assimilates them into a new urban form based around traditional neighborhood values, public/civic space, walkability, and timeless design? Sounds pretty heady.

    Trace One

    I wrote elsewhere, that i think the principles of New Urbanism have been around for long enough that we can address how they function in reality..One thing I really object to, as a lifelong pedestrian, is the concept of putting cars/people/bikes in the same space..Ok, it’s great to make the cars slow down, etc..but I feel reallly strongly that unless pedestrians have their own space, they are just not safe..One of the miracles of Prospect Park in Brooklyn is the incredble weaving of different forms of motility, on separate paths, throughout the park – bridal path, pedestrian paths, vehicle, all separated..and water-paths, also.
    I want every time we built a road, to have a separted, dedicated sidewalk, and a separated dedicated bike path..Why subsidize cars so much? Here in the central valley, if I wanted to walk between towns (god forbid, nightmare prospect, I admit..) I cannot do it..Jerry Brown wanted to turn Caltrans into agency for public transport..Too bad he didn’t win..
    I think there are other aspects of New Urbanism that I also think are wrong.. I think infill is better than a new town, no matter how much you label the plans for business and residential..it will still be a new urban sprawl construction, a bedroom community to somewhere..Always go for infill..
    what else?


    I agree.

    I learned a new term last Spring- ‘Dense Sprawl.’

    Roland Beinert

    Trace, I guess this is somewhat off-topic, but I want to address what you said about areas where pedestrians and bikes share the street with the car.
    Shared streets are a tough sell for Americans. The concept seems very counter-intuitive to us. Oddly enough, people don’t seem to object much at all after they are installed, though. There’s a small section of 8th Street in downtown Boise that I would call a shared street. At least it’s design is somewhat similar to Dutch woonerf concepts, even if that wasn’t the original intent. It’s probably the only area where I am really comfortable riding my bike in the middle of the street. There’s plenty of cars parked along the street, but drivers rarely use it as a through street. There is plenty of sidewalk on both sides, but the difference is that pedestrians feel free to cross the street at any point. It’s a very vital area compared to the rest of downtown Boise.
    Shared street ideas come from Europe rather than the American new urbanist movement. In fact, Andres Duany actually advocates separation between pedestrians and cars in the form of street trees, curb and parked cars. Shared street concepts come from the Dutch woonerf ideas and the work of people like Hans Monderman
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Monderman ). Take a look at some of the articles and pictures of these places so you fully underatand the concepts before you judge them too harshly: http://www.livablestreets.com/streetswiki/woonerf
    I have problems with new urbanism, too. I agree that we should concentrate on infill development. I also think it’s become too much about style. Why make a neighborhood look like a small town when it’s part of a bigger city? City neighborhoods need to connect to one another rather than being separate islands of development. I’ve seen very few examples of neighborhoods that really do everything Andres Duany, et al, talk about. A lot of the so called new urbanist neighborhoods I’ve seen were really just large residential neighborhoods with slighty (very slightly) better architecture. There’s usually no attempt to mix uses and zone by building style rather than building use. New urbanism really makes very little attempt to solve environmental issues other than car pollution, either.

    Trace One

    I am quite familiar with ‘livable streets’ – went to school with his son – he had a really ironic and tragic death..(appleyard)..and woonerfs..You may be right, the shared street concept may be more from woonerfs. but it is really in vogue, and I really hate it..I judge it very harshly, sorry..The amount of resistance one gets from designers, for a simple sidewalk – man do they have a bad name right now (sidewalks!)..and bikers are really big on how the bike should be with the car – I spent a year fighting that fight at UCSD..Tried to get the bikers to help me back a separated bike lane..WOW! No dice..
    so, yes, it is nice to have cars go slow, and people able to cross the street where they will, but I want separtae spaces for pedestrians and separate spaces for bikes, built into every design..enough with the massive investment in vehicles..
    I see the new urbanist movement as a real setback for separation – it totallly absorbed the woonerf concept, took it as it’s own, as far as I can tell..
    but, man, is design a relief from politics! Now that is where I really get into the harsh judgments.
    back to the political fray.


    I just googles it as well and one of the first hits was an artical or blog entitled, ‘Progressive Urbanism, Stuff White People Like?’

    I laughed as I read further that one of the cities the article refers to is Denver, the city I currently call home. I’ve lived on both ends of town east and west, cherry creek and lower downtown. The article talks about how ‘black people’ don’t like the new urban forms designers have developed. It’s a strange stereotype, but at the same time I think I see where the author was going.

    I come from NEw England and have become accustomed to old downtowns, cobble streets, potholes, corner stores (not Conoco), alleys with 18 ” of asphalt built up over the past 50 years, mismatching urban architecture, etc, etc. If you grew up in or near an established city, you probably know what I mean. These places have evolved organically over 100 years plus. They’ve cured or seasoned over that time to a point beyond the possibilities of gentrification. There are options abound for a variety of living situations all within a single city block. There’s nothing contrived or over designed.

    Living on Lower Downtown Denver I expected a similar environment, but LODO Denver is an entirely contrived segment of urban fabric, most of which is designed evidently for average or greater income families and college students. There are brick rowhomes fronting a riverfront park, hip granite clad plazas, and compact single bedroom lofts all within a matter of four or five blocks.

    I like the layout and design of the neighborhood, but there is obviously very little cultural diversity. Rent is steep while access to public transit is easily accessible. The main attraction for people living in that area seem to be the proximity to bars, overpriced, cafe and restaurants, shopping, and perhaps work.

    Unfortunately, I think the article I came across does a major disservice to the ‘progression’ or contemporary urban design in that the author seems to make the assumption that urban places need to look like the people that are supposed to live there and furthermore goes on to allude to a stereotype that ‘black people’ dont like to ride bikes. I don’t think there’s a ‘picture’ typical to any urban environment. I think the author was using some tongue in cheek humor.

    But I also think the author may have missed the target or lacks forethought to understand that it’s not necessarily a cultural issue so much as a matter of making urban spaces more organic and meldable, as well as inclusionary for a broader range of users, expecially people who may need better access to transit, work, and basic services without an automobile. The true issue with contemporary urbanism goes far beyond any issue of race, but offers opportunity to address larger scale social and economic concerns we all face.

    Roland Beinert

    I’m defending the concept of shared streets, not saying we should do away with sidewalks and bike lanes. Sidewalks and bike paths are left out of a lot of development, because people are too cheap to build good public infrastructure, not because of ideas about shared streets. I’m all for sidewalks and bike lanes on most streets.
    Most streets aren’t shared streets, though. Shared streets are only supposed to be used in areas with low traffic volumes. Plenty of shared streets do have sidewalk areas. The real difference is the lack of curbs or bollards.
    As I said, they’re a tough sell in the U.S. People here like the idea of separating everything from everything else, even though good cities are really all about integration. Oh well, I don’t expect to convince you, Trace. I’ll just agree to disagree.

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