The suburban public realm II: Eurourbanism, new urbanism and the implications for urban design in the American metropolis

Michael Southworth & Balaji Parthasarathy

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Southworth, M. & Parthasarathy, B. (1). The suburban public realm II: Eurourbanism, new urbanism and the implications for urban design in the American metropolis. Journal of Urban Design, 2(1), 9–34.

While the first part of this two-part essay portrayed the bleakness of the suburban public realm in the USA, the debate over how physical planning can contribute to making it more vibrant is the subject of this second part. Eurourbanism, or the practice of looking to European cities for a design paradigm, has been criticized on the grounds that the USA has its own distinct public realm which is either non-spatial in character or is located in 'non-traditional' public spaces, such as shopping malls, in contrast with the more 'traditional' European sites such as streets and squares. But there are questions about whether the distinctive 'American public realm' is as democratic, or can offer the diversity of experience of the 'traditional' public realm. A more recent addition to the debate has been 'new urbanism' or 'neotraditionalism', whose proponents have put forth a set of planning guidelines for suburbia by drawing on design principles embodied in the traditional American small town. The essay critically evaluates these guidelines by examining their application in two neotraditional develop- ments and proposes a research agenda to move the debate ahead.

Main finding
The author(s) posit that new urbanist planning strategies (based on the alteration of suburban form to improve the quality of the suburban public realm) should represent a point of departure for further investigation and not as a final solution to the question of restoring the public realm since it prejudges the relationship between physical form and human behaviour. The article notes that more specific insights into the variations in these complex sociospatial patterns across social and age-groups in various development and neighbourhood contexts to show how differences in density, zoning and land-use, and street patterns and streetscapes affect the use of public space are essential.

Description of method used in the article
To evaluate the efficacy of neotraditional development, two such developments, Kentlands and Laguna West, are compared with Elmwood in Berkeley, California, a district with a lively public realm.

Policy implications

Organising categories

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Case Study
Urban Design
Physical types
Geographic locations