A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 1



Gary Shallcross’ discussion of the seminar with Andres Duany (Prinicples & Practices of New Urbanism) was one of many articles about New Urbanism we hope to see in forthcoming issues of Planning Minnesota. There are two points worth reinforcing in Gary’s article.

First, New Urbanism is more about building typology than it is about zoning, and its paradigm is the structuring of human-scaled.
Second, multi-disciplinary discussion is a valuable part of the educational process necessary to deliver this new paradigm in built form.
That is why Town Planning Collaborative invited Andres Duany to address the Twin Cities planning and development community.

Through a variety of media, there is a lot of discussion around the Twin Cities these days about future development and redevelopment of our region. As can be expected, particular attitudes are being expressed by our regional planning authorities, local builder associations, municipalities within the core and on the urban fringe, planning professionals, environmental preservation advocates, and concerned citizens.

However, the discussion has a peculiar tone not tending toward authentic community building. For example, the question appears to be one of whether to permit development, rather than what urban pattern that development might take. We seem to have forgotten the patterns that have historically sustained communities before our automobile dependence. Yet at the same time there is increasing awareness that THE development market is not a sacred monolith, but rather a diverse population driven primarily by diverse stylistic and value preferences. Finally, there is a real yearning for more pro-active rather than re-active participation in local level planning activities, and for ownership in their results, especially in redeveloping areas.

If this discussion indicates a cultural hunger for that proverbial, “sense of community” and for an economic market to drive it, how do we get there? How do we get there at a local level? To the average citizen, big-scheme regional growth scenarios are a bit confusing, or seem unrelated to everyday life. Most people cannot visualize the lifestyles these scenarios perpetuate, and are therefore hesitant to endorse any of them. On the other hand, they do "know; it when they see it,” and they are not hesitant to comment on what they know.

How can we as professional designers and planners promote place-making techniques attractive, valuable and understandable to builders, consumers, and citizens alike? There are many obstacles, not the least of which is our inability to communicate in a consistent language. Zoning as the basis of our planning nomenclature doesn’t provide a true vocabulary of place-making. Zoning terms are difficult for most people to imagine in built form. The language we need to deliver &quotsense; of community” as well as economic value requires a set of familiar, multi-dimensional, historically-based terms that describe urban form to a diverse audience.

In an effort to clarify a language appropriate to a new urban form and pattern, a nomenclature is being established by the Congress for the New Urbanism. It is not a new language, but rather one that extracts words of historical merit and essential axioms of traditional planning. Many of these terms may sound familiar, but their meanings have been diluted or misused over the years for various reasons. With the pendulum of American taste swinging back to tradition, and a renewed interest in what characterizes so many beloved urban places and spaces, revisiting this lexicon is highly valuable. It offers authenticity to our understanding of traditional urban pattern. It also offers the tools for both speaking about and realizing place-making choices.

This lexicon will be presented in a series of future newsletter articles, to stimulate conversation about urban pattern and the choices those patterns offer. The framework for fine-grained, incremental development will become more apparent as the language becomes better understood, more widely used, and implemented in built form.

A distance comfortable for most people to walk, as an attractive alternative to driving. This distance is best represented as one quarter mile, 1,320 feet, or a five-minute walk.

Walking distance is a historic axiom of urban pattern, delimiting the French Quartier and the Neighborhood Unit described in the 1929 New York City Regional Plan. Current adaptations such as Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) also use a five-minute walking distance as a primary design determinant. A limited land mass, then, allows a complete neighborhood to be an incremental unit for urban evolution, as well as the sum of its constituent parts.

A complete neighborhood, in which the activities of daily living, including transit access, are within walking distance of a person’s home, reduces the number of automobile miles traveled by its citizens. Were the same population to live in a conventional suburban development (CSD) pattern, where daily activities are separated beyond a comfortable walking distance, increased miles would be traveled, and therefore more thoroughfares and parking spaces would be needed. Traditional urban patterns integrate human activities through a rich mixture of landscape and building, allowing the walk from one destination to another to be a pleasant alternative to driving.

An experiential quality created by a safe, comfortable and attractive network of pathways connecting frequently-visited destinations. The essential characteristics of pedestrian continuity are:

Each pathway’s trajectory has a desirable or useful destination.
Frequent destinations are located in places that create a succession of five-minute walks.
The pathway network offer choices of route, and is logical, uninterrupted, and inclusive of shortcuts wherever possible.
The pathway’s trajectory is spatially defined by interesting building architecture and landscape, and tempered by the local climate, providing shade when the air is hot and sun when the air is cool.
Pathways are protected from automobile traffic wherever possible.
Pathways are visually monitored by people in surrounding buildings, and therefore offer pedestrians a sense of safety.
TYPOLOGY – A body of knowledge from which physical models can be evaluated and compared based on attributes of function, disposition, and configuration. Typology also refers to creation, evolution, and transformation of physical models to account for their usefulness over time. With regard to urban form, typological attributes include characteristics of public and private building, and the spaces that construction defines. Typology of urban form includes the following:

Type – a physical form having defined attributes that could be emulated for other applications.
Prototype – a first model, having attributes worth emulation and transformation in other applications.
Archetype – the best known physical expression for a given set of typological attributes.
Stereotype – the exaggeration, misuse or misunderstanding of typological attributes.
FUNCTION, DISPOSITION, AND CONFIGURATION – Three primary attributes associated with building typology and performance coding. In conventional suburban development, land and buildings are designated for a singular use or activity. In contrast, traditional neighborhood development integrates a range of activities, and is therefore can be better described by its building typology than by land use. For planning, TND controls prescribe architectural and urban forms according to the attributes of authentic building typology. Fundamentally, these controls are intended to maximize continuity and beauty within the public realm, and minimize influence on individual building use or interior design.

TND Codes prescribe — in written and graphic format — performance criteria in terms of function, disposition, and configuration.
Function – Existing or permitted uses for the building and its lot.
Disposition – Existing or permitted horizontal placement of structures on building lots.
Configuration – Three dimensional building form.
Go to Top of Page

A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 2


The current discussion about a regional development pattern is becoming a matter of urgency. One reason is the seeming lack of a clear paradigm, or way of thinking, within the planning profession and among local and regional planning authorities as well, for organizing land development and urban redevelopment initiatives to build authentic community. In order to better inform this discussion, it is worthwhile to delineate the differences between the conventional and New Urbanist paradigms for regional development

The New Urbanist paradigm defines urban form in terms of scale, activity and building type. Its driving force is a pattern articulating a well-crafted public realm. The public realm for multi-modal travel and open space recreation becomes the first design determinant. This then becomes an attractive amenity for subsequent private development. This framework allows buildings that accommodate a variety of activities, are flexible, and change over time according to the changing needs of their users. The resulting pattern appears and functions cohesively.

This approach to planning differs significantly from conventional suburban practices, where object buildings are placed on single-use parcels of land, and collector and arterial streets and highways designed largely for private vehicles form the connections between them. Little attention is given to crafting a coherent public realm. Consequently, cities planned under this paradigm generate a pattern that appears fragmented and functions only through automobile dependence.

The organic settlement patterns of America’s first 250 years are a sustainable model of urban form. Cities never just happened, they evolved over time according to individual needs at the time. In the first era of American city-building, the need to be within walking distance of a vast number of daily goods and services resulted in a dense, compact and varied pattern. Subsequent eras dominated by railroad and streetcar transportation produced a pattern of linear corridors bordered by compact residential neighborhoods. Over time, neighborhoods grew as complete urban units surrounding specialized corridors and districts.

Regional planning practice is capable of delivering the attractive, cost-effective and human-scaled development patterns with which we are familiar, as long as the complete neighborhood once again becomes the fundamental building block of urban form. Along with districts and corridors, incremental development and aggregation of neighborhoods allows us to envision natural evolution of urban form over many years. The goal of New Urbanism is to reverse the trend of “urban sprawl” by learning from traditional urban development patterns and thereby preserving open spaces for natural habitats, active recreation, and productive agriculture.

The following nomenclature addresses regional development patterns using the complete neighborhood as the fundamental urban unit. The next article will address the essential components of a complete neighborhood.

Community – A group of people distinguished by specific common interests and a means of communicating about them. The term embodies social, economic and political relationships among people as well as physical characteristics of their environment. However, community is more about relationships that bind people together than it is about environment.

For example, a church congregation, parents of children attending the same school, and workers at a particular office are distinct communities, yet the individuals may live in different neighborhoods. In today’s society, virtual communities are formed in a shared environment that may consist only of computer hardware, phone lines and data bytes.

At the same time, those who inhabit a neighborhood are a community. They share a physical environment and a common interest in its future condition, as well as their own well-being. When neighbors communicate effectively about these interests, they may be referred to as a “community of place.”

Countryside – An area designated as free of urbanization. Designation of countryside areas is the first step in regional planning, followed by the designation of corridors, neighborhoods and districts, in that order. The countryside contains primary conservation areas (wetlands, floodplains, steep slopes, prominent vistas and natural habitats) and secondary conservation areas (active agriculture, heritage sites and future parkland). Primary conservation areas are designated as permanent preserves, while secondary areas may be designated as temporary reserves for future development. All these areas should be identified on the basis of technical criteria and should be resistant to legal challenge so that their continued existence as amenities for local urbanized areas is ensured.

Corridor – A linear configuration that connects disparate areas of countryside through natural systems, or disparate neighborhoods through transportation systems. Corridors include natural and built components ranging from wztershed flows to wildlife trails to rail lines. These should be considered public elements designed for physical continuity, including a larger network of connections between urban open spaces and the countryside.

Neighborhood – An urbanized area having a diverse range of building types, thoroughfares and public open spaces accommodating a variety of human activity. A neighborhood is a physical entity with typological attributes, and is the fundamental building block of urban form. Its appropriate size may best be described as an area in which most residents are within walking distance of its center. This distance is best represented as one-quarter mile, 1,320 feet, or a five-minute walk.

District – An urbanized area organized around a predominant human activity. Although districts preclude the full range of activities of a neighborhood, their primary activity is supported by typically neighborhood-scale uses. Example include theater districts, medical facilities, capitol areas and college campuses. Other districts accommodate large-scale transportation or manufacturing uses such as airports, refineries, container terminals, distribution and warehousing sites, and “big-box” retail sites. Appropriate connections of special districts to adjacent neighborhoods encourages pedestrian access, support regional transit systems, and increase security.

Hamlet – A compact urban settlement within the countryside, with the essential characteristics of a complete neighborhood, but with few, if any, commercial services. Typically, a hamlet is a cluster of housing around an identifiable multiple-use or open space center, surrounded by countryside prairie, forest or active agriculture.

Village – A compact urban settlement within the countryside, with the essential characteristics of a complete neighborhood, including commercial services used on a daily basis. A village is larger than a hamlet, but smaller than a town, which has a broader range of commercial services throughout. Likewise, although the population of a village may vary, its land area also tends to be larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town.

Town – The aggregate of two or more complete neighborhoods with a central commercial area. Usually at the crossroads of major thoroughfares, the town center provides daily goods and services for neighborhood residents as well as visitors. Its urban character reflects the extension of pedestrian networks into adjacent neighborhoods, while also providing automobile parking.

City – The aggregate of two or more towns, specialized districts and connective transportation and open space corridors. When organized as a composite of complete neighborhoods, districts and corridors, a city appears and functions organically, evolves in an orderly fashion, and preserves environmental resources as sustainable community amenities.

Sprawl – Haphazard outward growth in a disorderly fashion. Urban sprawl is the antithesis of traditional development patterns.

Go to Top of Page


The contemporary problem of urban sprawl is a direct result of planning practices that no longer use human-scaled neighborhoods as building block s for urban growth.

In the previous series, the Neighborhood, Corridor and District were discussed as the fundamental components of a New Urban regional pattern. Here we will begin to describe neighborhood typology and its role as a fundamental building block for villages, towns and cites. There are many differences among traditional neighborhoods based on individual topography and the creativedesign of planners and builders. Yet complete neighborhoods have many formal characteristics in common as well as proximity relationships necessary for them to function as urban units.

A complete neighborhood accommodates a variety of building uses and human activity within. There are always a number of places to go and things to do within walking distance of one another. It contains an assortment of residential buildings (i.e., houses, apartments, garages, outbuildings), workplace buildings (i.e., offices, studios, craft shops), commercial buildings (i.e., grocery stores, craft shops, boutiques, salons, rental stores, restaurants, taverns, delicatessens, (bakeries), and public buildings (i.e., schools, churches, libraries, assembly halls). These components are bound together by a well-crafted public realm. Elements such as tree-lined streets, sidewalks, greens, playgrounds, parks, benches, picnic shelters and gazebos define a neighborhood’s public spaces and offer valuable community amenities. The unique composition of these components is what characterizes each neighborhood, new or existing.

The desirability of well-maintained, older neighborhoods is a notable testimony to the durability of traditional urbanism. A virtual reference library of practical design principles can be found in the traditional neighborhoods throughout America, and the world. They provide techniques applicable to today’s urban development and redevelopment needs, independent of nostalgic architecture and ornamentation styles. Through observation of spatial relationships in the landscape between buildings, many of the attractive and functional characteristics of historic neighborhoods become evident. Measurement and documentation of specific details further enriches a planner’s design library.

More importantly, traditional neighborhood models demonstrate that the manner in which urban environments are crafted and maintained has much more to do with inherent property value than designated land use, zoning criteria, or the age of buildings. Most people invest into a traditional neighborhood or spend a great deal of time there because it feels good, even though they may not know why.

Memorable and valuable neighborhoods exist where the total sum of all the irparts generates positive human experiences.

Following are ten principles considered essential to a complete, traditional neighborhood, new of existing. They are meant to be used as both a prescriptive format for design and a checklist for compliance. For authenticity, each neighborhood should have at least nine of these principles articulated in physical form. In later articles these principles will be described individually in greater detail, with attention to their typological attributes and their capacity to foster the positive social, political, and economic relationships necessary for a “sense of community”

A. An area of 40 to 160 acres. Development of a complete, walkable neighborhood is best accommodated in an area this size.

B. A minimum density of five residential units per acre. A critical mass of citizens in close proximity to daily services and activities is necessary for mutual support between local residents and businesses.

C. An internal balance of housing, jobs and services. A complete, self-sufficient neighborhood requires many buildings housing a variety of daily activities within its boundaries.

D. An identifiable neighborhood center. The neighborhood center is both a civic focus and informal place of gathering for the community.

E. Designated sites for civic buildings. Buildings such as schools, libraries, museums, assembly halls, places of worship, and day care centers occupy the most prominent places in the neighborhood and should be planned in coordination with public open spaces.

F. A variety of public open spaces. Natural and landscaped open spaces are for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the entire community.

G. A hierarchy of interconnected streets. Complete neighborhoods contain streets of different traffic characteristics and that connect with one another and are terminated by other streets.

H. Streets for both people and cars. Neighborhood streets are public places comfortably and deliberately accommodating many modes of transportation, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

I. Many separate and distinct buildings. Small lot platting and a variety of buildings not more than four stories in height generate a cohesive urban pattern.

J. Outbuildings as affordable housing units. Outbuilding residences on single family lots offer high quality, well maintained housing for residents of limited income or special needs.

Go to Top of Page


By Richard Mclaughlin
The contrast between suburban sprawl and traditional neighborhoods is their building density and physical arrangement. Today’s suburbs are made of the same kit of parts as the older, mature neighborhoods of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Places for living, working, shopping, recreation and civic events are the basic physical components of any functioning community, and are present in both development patterns.

The relationships among such places is significantly different in conventional suburbs than in trtraditional neighborhoods. Daily activity in suburban environments is based almost exclusively on automobile accessibility, while in traditional environments it is based on pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile accessibility. How people access the places they frequently use impacts the scale of each environment’s public realm, its building density and its capacity to stimulate authentic community cohesion.

A convenient way of thinking about these relationships is to imagine the way we arrange the furniture of our living room. We could distribute the sofa, chairs, tables, lamps and chests of drawers around the room, each occupying its own portion of the room with a liberal amount of surrounding space, and facing in random directions. Such an arrangement would make for awkward gatherings, but the room would contain the right kit of parts. If, however, the sofa and chairs formed close groupings to facilitate conversation, tables and lamps were placed for functional convenience, and chests were set out of the way of circulation flow, this room would be more desirable for family and guest gatherings. In addition, the residual space could be filled with other items, such as indoor plants, artwork, or even a piano, to enhance the room’s character and activities.

This is the argument for deliberate design of traditional neighborhoods. Using common-sense relationships between urban components, we can offer opportunities to enhance neighborhood quality of life and the “sense of community.” The following five principles define neighborhood composition and relationships in ways that are not typical in conventional planning practice. The next Lexicon series installment will present the remaining five neighborhood design principles that further describe these inherent relationships.


Development of a complete neighborhood is best accommodated in an area of 40 to 160 acres. An area less than 160 acres ensures most residents are within 1/4 mile of the neighborhood center. If a larger area is developed it should be subdivided into complete neighborhoods of less than 160 acres. Because each neighborhood center requires a minimum population to support it, new development or redevelopment of an area less than 40 acres should be planned to ultimately become an integral part of a complete neighborhood.


A critical mass of people in close proximity to daily services and activities is necessary for mutual support between local residents and local business. A modest neighborhood density assures goods and services are within walking distance of residents while at the same time guaranteeing business owners a local consumer market.

Even distribution of residential density across the neighborhood is not necessary. Urban blocks closer to the neighborhood center, a transit corridor, or an employment district may have apartment and townhouse building types, while neighborhood edge blocks may have single family residences on larger lots. However, to support local businesses, the average neighborhood density should be greater than five dwelling units per acre.


Complete neighborhoods require many buildings which house a variety of daily activities within their boundaries. Planning these types of neighborhoods is therefore a matter of accommodating building types compatible with a variety of uses rather than zoning for specific land uses. Although people will travel from one neighborhood to another for various reasons, frequently-visited places should be within walking distance of home. When local business addresses local needs and human resources, road building demands are reduced and residents spend less time and money driving .

In terms of housing, there are an increasing number of building types, sizes, plans, and costs from which to chose. Some are architecturally elaborate. Some are patterned by builders for easy replication and low construction cost. Despite inevitable diversity, overall neighborhood cohesion is ultimately achieved by a well-defined public realm.

In terms of employment, the essential requirement of any business is floor space. The type of building and the place in the building occupied by that space is a function of the type of business being conducted. For example, self-employed people may work from their home or an outbuilding on their lot. Along a boulevard or around a square, small business owners may want to live in or rent out floorspace above their commercial space. A retail, restaurant, or customer service business would be best placed in a storefront building with exposure to pedestrian traffic. A business not entirely dependent on pedestrian traffic may be best accommodated on the upper stories of a building with ground level commercial activity. For a corporate business requiring greater floor space, a neighborhood-scale campus may be the most appropriate setting. Once again, cohesion among buildings is achieved by a well-defined public realm.

Diversity of opportunities ensures the evolution of a complete and integrated neighborhood. Where people have the opportunity to interact locally and form social and economic relationships, an internal balance among housing, jobs and services will evolve naturally.


The neighborhood center is both a civic focus and informal place of gathering for the community. It not only contains places of work, shopping, and commercial services, but also provides space for ceremonies, fairs, band concerts, and casual meetings among neighbors. It also identifies each neighborhood as a distinctive urban unit.

Long-term functional viability of the neighborhood center is secured by the inclusion of at least four critical components:

1) a formal public open space such as a square, plaza, or green,
2) a general store that may include or be adjacent to a coffee shop,
3) a mail, package and data delivery and receiving station, and
4) a dignified transit stop.
A day care facility may also be desirable, both to offer local care and to foster social integration among neighborhood families. Day care facilities for both preschool children and the elderly are becoming necessities in a society where most households require two incomes. For mutual care and enjoyment, some new day care programs are combining age groups, further creating opportunities for community cohesion.

As the neighborhood becomes more populated and the local market for goods and services expands, its center will become an attractive location for new businesses and civic events. Conversely, when there are more things to do, the neighborhood center will become a popular destination for local residents. For this reason, deliberately sited locations for the center’s four components

Buildings such as schools, libraries, museums, assembly halls, park pavilions, monuments, and places of worship should occupy the most prominent places in the neighborhood and be planned in coordination with public open spaces.

Civic buildings represent a community’s collective spirit. They are physical symbols of its social, cultural, and religious activities. They preserve the lessons and instruments of culture, offer a dignified forum for the issues of the time, encourage democratic initiatives, and consequently ensure the balanced evolution of the larger society.

These buildings should therefore be placed where they will be seen frequently: fronting a public plaza or at the termination of a street vista. In addition, their architecture should reflect the local culture and the building’s prominent position within the community

Go to Top of Page

A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 5


The last installment of the TND Lexicon series characterized the first five elements of an authentic traditional neighborhood:

A. An area of 40 to 160 acres.

B. A minimum density of five residential units per acre.

C. An internal balance of housing, jobs and services.

D. An identifiable neighborhood center.

E. Designated sites for civic buildings.

The remaining five elements also define relationships between components not typically considered in conventional planning practice. However, the first five describe larger scale organizing features, whereas the second describe design features of a cohesive public realm.

The public realm is the cohesive fabric of an authentic neighborhood. In mature, well-maintained city neighborhoods, it is this dominant neighborhood amenity people find attractive and desirable, even if they cannot describe all of its component characteristics. They may not recognize that it is a variety of buildings that enclose larger community places as well as smaller private places, but they love to spend time in them. They may not recognize that neighborhood streets serve multiple functions, but they know it feels good to walk them. The fact is, most people know a traditional neighborhood when they see it. By observing escalating real estate values of private property within these neighborhoods, it is also apparent many people are willing to spend money to be in them.

We should observe the characteristics that draw people and dollars to mature, well-maintained city neighborhoods as we build new neighborhoods and rebuild those which have been neglected. We should seek to spend the energy at the beginning to craft an attractive public realm. When that environment and human experience becomes the organizing neighborhood design determinant, and is built and promoted as the attractive amenity it is, incremental development will be attracted by the dignified community address it offers them.

While studying all ten organizing principles, think about the traditional neighborhoods you know and love. Think about how the arrangement and relationship between urban components is as important as the furniture arrangement of your living room. Think about how the public realm becomes the physical structure for community activity. Then, think also about how these principles may be used to create cohesive, attractive, and desirable new neighborhoods throughout the region.

F. A variety of public open spaces.
Natural and landscaped open spaces are for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the entire community. All neighborhoods require open spaces for a variety of community acti…