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The New Urbanism Movement: Challenges of The Orthodoxy of Suburban Design

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Table of contents

  1. The Garden Suburb
  2. The New Town
  3. The Radburn Approach
  4. Designing with Nature
  5. New Urbanism
  6. Conclusion

Adelaide has been a suburban city since its settlement in 1836. A suburb is a residential area of mixed-use, located as part of an urban area or within commuting distance of a city. The idea of the modern suburb became popular in late 18th Century Britain as a response to the population growth following the Industrial Revolution. As workers migrated to the city, the middle classes began to purchase villas and estates on the outskirts on major cities. Nevertheless, thorough planning policies weren’t formally introduced until the early 1900s.

In its first decades, Adelaide consisted of the main city core, surrounded by parklands, an inner ring of suburbs and some smaller towns at the port and villages. Ideas of combining city and country into a suburban utopia flourished during this time. The most influential was Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City model, which was brought to life in the development of Colonel Light Gardens. Combined with the neighbourhood unit concept, this scheme became hugely significant for subsequent stages of suburban planning in Adelaide. During the 20th Century, modifications to planning strategies were prominent in the New Town model, the Radburn approach and the Designing with Nature concept. Though some were more successful than others, they all aimed to solve aesthetic, environmental and social issues in the context of their time, often through various proposals of street layouts. At the end of the 20th century, the New Urbanism Movement called for a re-focus on formalised policies that responded to contemporary social, cultural and ecological concerns.

The Garden Suburb

The Garden City Movement, facilitated by Sir Ebenezer Howard, originated in late 19th Century Britain as a method of urban planning. It aimed to proportionally distribute residential, recreational, industrial and administrative areas to create self-contained communities. The scheme favoured comfort, aesthetics and open space, aiming to provide the best of city and country living. In 1917, Charles Reade proposed his design for the Mitcham Garden Suburb (now Colonel Light Gardens). Located six kilometres from the centre of Adelaide, he featured a strategic arrangement of hierarchal streets and spaces that followed the principles of the garden city model.

Colonel Light Gardens was introduced as a model city with several key planning principles. Topography and natural features were integrated, and emphasis was placed on the provision of a park-like environment. Land-use zoning, road classification and a diverse arrangement of passive and active recreational areas were also important features of the model city. These principles are particularly familiar with the Hampstead Garden Suburb, which benchmarked the idea of ‘garden city lines’.

The spatial arrangement of roads is arguably the most compelling aspect of the scheme. Unlike garden city standards which followed a formal grid system, Reade developed patterns of roads that varied in length, width and visual characteristics. He also implemented the use of curves to reveal different vistas throughout the suburb. This is most prominent along Prince George Parade, where the view gradually changes when heading West towards the suburb entrance at Picadilly Circus. Likewise, the extensive use of culs-de-sac separated pedestrians and vehicles. The hierarchy of arterial, secondary (collector) and residential roads was also adopted by Reade as an alternative to regulation-sized streets. Arterial roads were the widest and acted as boundary lines, followed by secondary roads intended for vehicular traffic, whilst the thinnest residential streets were for housing precincts. This hierarchal system of roads was also implemented into the arrangement of spaces as it allowed for easier control of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Reade highlighted the importance of community, safety and comfort by organising areas for designated purposes. Following the same hierarchal system, he divided spaces into residential, recreational, commercial, ecclesiastical and community areas. He incorporated ample open spaces with recreational complexes, parks and garden reserves. Moreover, community buildings such as schools, playgrounds, shops and the Town Hall were grouped into a neighbourhood centre.

Formalised as the ‘neighbourhood unit concept’ by Clarence Perry, this idea of neighbourhood design gained international popularity during the early 1900s as a diagrammatic planning model for residential development in metropolitan areas. Perry’s principles followed similar core ideas of a community-centric lifestyle, separating pedestrians and vehicles with hierarchal road systems and internal green spaces in order to guide pedestrians between residential areas and the community centre.

The New Town

In 1936, the South Australian Housing Trust (SAHT) was established to meet the demand for housing after a post-war population and migration boom. The trust generated significant investment in suburb development, leading to the formation of new towns in metropolitan and regional areas. The model for the new town at the time was an idealistic concept that promoted industrial growth and attracted people from the working and middle class.

The town of Elizabeth was considered the basic building block for subsequent suburban development where Henry Smith, the trust’s chief planner, introduced new design principles that were influenced by his travels to the United States and Britain. The street layout followed a conceptual grid that incorporated curves and loops leading to small open spaces or pocket parks, whilst deceptively implying the existence of dwelling clusters. Residential areas and neighbourhood centres were linked by collector roads and linear open spaces. However, these areas lacked pedestrian systems as the main design focus was on the planning of centres and their commercial purpose. Thus, shopping malls like Elizabeth Grove were created, featuring small plazas and retail areas but had little concern with pedestrian systems. The Town Hall was the face of the town at an important intersection. Further developments included aggregated recreational open spaces adjacent to arterial and collector roads. Interestingly, during the 1950s and 1960s, the SAHT introduced several planning alterations that resonated with themes of the early garden city model. These included curvilinear street layouts, road hierarchy, more cul-de-sacs, increasing the use of buffer open spaces along main roads and improving walkways to neighbourhood centres.

There is a key difference that made Elizabeth less successful than Colonel Lights Gardens. Garden city ideology and planning accommodated a range of social groups, whereas the new town movement favoured planning strategies and justified social consideration with a hierarchy of housing types and public investment in a private property. The approach to the project attempted to fit a set of design principles together alongside poorly defined social objectives.

The Radburn Approach

The 1970s saw a new change in direction as the SAHT obtained large portions of land. The new scheme valued pedestrian-oriented principles and high-transit use. Unlike previous models, the Radburn approach aimed to integrate high-density development with open public spaces and a connective pedestrian network. It was influenced by a combination of the English garden city and post-war American city planning, culminating in the design of the 1929 Radburn Estate in New Jersey before expanding internationally.

In South Australia, the model was first applied to the design of West Lakes. Taking advantage of the topography along the upper Port River, the SAHT proposed the development of a lake and an estate of attached housing. This included an array of open spaces and landscapes interconnected by pedestrian walkways. Community areas and the local school were at the centre, and the collector road was raised to pass over the main open space without disrupting it. In 1969, the Development Finance Corporation was commissioned to carry out the design proposal of West Lakes. The landscape was largely reworked to accommodate for the main district centre whilst residences were arranged in clusters around culs-de-sac to emphasise the sense of community.

Later, developments in Smithfield, Morphett Vale and Hackham West merged the topographical opportunities of the Radburn model with the social imperatives of the neighbourhood unit approach. Some distinct features included a main linear park with smaller connective parks, curved roads and culs-de-sac that became access roads to the neighbourhood centre. Ultimately, principles began to incorporate the aesthetic elements of the garden city, the socio-centric themes of the neighbourhood unit approach and the environmental concerns of the new town model.

Designing with Nature

The post-war population growth also involved unprecedented suburban sprawl. In an effort to slow and redirect the growth of metropolitan Adelaide, the Monarto Development Commission Act of 1974 was an application of ‘social planning’ in South Australia. The commission aimed to reconsider the social and physical development of the city under re-evaluation of the neighbourhood unit scheme. The brief proposed an arrangement of grouped dwellings, each with their own community space. Each residential group was to be connected to the main centre by pedestrian and bicycle paths. The scheme adopted a ‘designing with nature’ philosophy, with the aim to reconcile the social and environmental issues of city planning.

The design proposal of Monarto implemented these principles. The north-western slopes were coordinated with a linear park and the community centre situated beyond it. As the focus was largely on the preservation of the open spaces, a bus-only solution was suggested in order to minimise traffic within the centre. This strategy was to reduce vehicular traffic and place the centre within walking distance of residents. These themes would strongly influence successive suburban designs.

The design for Golden Grove adopted these principles through a hierarchal organisation of roads that respected the topographical conditions. The plan was commissioned by development group Delfin Property Group along with the Tea Tree Gully Council. It consisted of a series of villages, each housing a neighbourhood centre with community facilities. Moreover, villages were interconnected by pedestrian and bicycle paths. Two main collector roads spanned the Golden Grove area and culs-de-sac were the main feature in residential areas. These main roads connected the villages to the main neighbourhood centre with commercial precincts, schools and a sporting complex. The spatial organisation of Golden Grove proved to be a positive integration of neighbourhood-centric principles that consider to the importance of terrain.

New Urbanism

The end of the 20th Century brought debates on suburban design principles. A neo-traditional approach was suggested as a response to rising social, ecological and cultural concerns. Merits of street design were questioned and there was a plead to return to pre-war formalist theories of street layout, with contemporary means of multi-use developments. The New Urbanism movement began in the United States in the 1980s and has since strongly influenced urban design practices. The new scheme advocated for regional planning for open space and emphasised context-appropriate architecture and infrastructure. The focus was on human-scale urbanism by alluding to population diversity and environmentally friendly habits.

In Adelaide, this return to formalism can be seen in Seaford and more recently, Mawson Lakes. The Seaford street design employed a system of grids that expanded out to axial avenues. Linear parks were woven into street layouts. In Mawson Lakes, major residential streets were integrated into boulevards that form the collector system. Emphasis was placed on pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as the suburb was a link between a technology park and a University of South Australia campus. Wayfinding and good foot circulation systems were implemented, such that like the garden city model, promoted the importance of reference points and vistas. The clustered two-storey housing, divided shop frontages and high-density developments defined a departure from the earlier estate design model.

Conclusion

The influences and planning theories in Adelaide over the past century have proven to endure in the way they consider contextual issues. Ideas of aesthetics and comfort were expressed in Reade’s garden city scheme for Colonel Light Gardens through the use of formally planned street layouts, open spaces and amenities. This model became largely influential in Adelaide’s suburban planning. The neighbourhood unit concept illustrated the importance of social connection through the integration of a community-centric lifestyle. However, the theme of corner shops and small business clusters has been under criticism. As communities became more vehicular-dependent, many older suburbs now remain cluttered with closed up shops. With the introduction of the South Australian Housing Trust, modified schemes were implemented, all with the aim to respond to evolving contextual problems. This eventually culminated with the New Urbanism Movement, which highlighted the challenges of the orthodoxy of suburban design.

Ultimately, as Adelaide evolves as a society, city design must evolve too. City planners today face new ecological, technological and social challenges. The 21st Century has already started to present a shift in focus from human-scale issues that prevailed in the early 20th Century, to broader concerns of sustainability and ecological preservation. 

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The New Urbanism Movement: Challenges of the Orthodoxy of Suburban Design. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-new-urbanism-movement-challenges-of-the-orthodoxy-of-suburban-design/
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The New Urbanism Movement: Challenges of the Orthodoxy of Suburban Design. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-new-urbanism-movement-challenges-of-the-orthodoxy-of-suburban-design/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2022].
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