11/27/2009 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can New Urbanism Save America?

Most of the public spaces that define the American landscape today foster a sense of loneliness, isolation and fundamental discontent -- at least according to New Urbanist Andrés Duany. Many cities and their surrounding suburbs have been constructed in such a way as to discourage public interaction, thereby engendering a fundamental sense of alienation that inspires wanton consumption and an increasing withdrawal from society. This problem, Duany says, is manifested in the McMansion. These distinctly American homes, "are a surrogate of what we are missing from the public realm," he says. We build entertainment centers, personal spas and mini-health clubs in our basements and by our bedrooms, if only to avoid seeking these services in public.

"The American private realm is the best in the world," Duany said recently at a lecture in Houston, Texas. "And the public realm is the worst in the world." Think about it: aside from thriving metropolitan centers that emphasize a pedestrian culture, like New York or San Francisco, there are few spaces that resemble the villages of former societies, where public experiences were a pervasive part of daily life.

Now, cities and their outliers -- the sprawling, strip-mall and highway lined suburbs -- repress public interaction. Virtually the only time Americans linger in public space is when there's occasion to consume. Fewer and fewer public spaces are built to encourage lingering for the sake of lingering. European cities and villages are constructed differently: church, school, markets and offices surround a central square that encourages foot traffic and community interaction. Most of America's cities and suburbs don't have that. Instead, public spaces are built in isolated pods. In the event that you don't have a gym in your basement, you can always go from your house, into your car, to the elliptical then get back in your car to get home. Very little interface is required for this ritual -- or a host of others, from grocery shopping to buying coffee or clothes.

While our automotive way of life may seem convenient and efficient, a total lack of public interplay creates a host of problems and a fundamental discontent that can't be assuaged by fitness, fine food, fancy clothes or comfortable homes and cars. In order to fill a social void caused by the lack of public interface, people turn increasingly to consumerism. Of course, argues Duany, this only perpetuates the cycle.

It's not just consumerism that results. Another, even more dire consequence -- though certainly a related one -- is the environmental impact of suburban America. Sprawling roads that need to be driven, single-family homes that need to be heated and cooled, and the constant development of new shopping centers and mega-malls have lasting environment consequences. Water cannot drain, ecosystems and habitats are destroyed and greenhouse gasses are emitted in great quantities. Climate change and urbanism are closely related. The suburban way of life, Duany argues, "Is destroying the Earth." Furthermore, the car has liberated geographic rules of traditional urbanism: communities and individuals are segregated like never before, creating an even more fragmentation and isolation in American society.

Fortunately, this long list of problems can be fixed in a relatively straightforward way. Simply put, American developers need to spend more time constructing public spaces that foster pedestrian activity, diversity and human interaction. Developers need to create spaces that encourage urban and suburban agriculture, thereby both mitigating environmental damage and stimulating community interaction among diverse groups of people -- especially among young and old, an essential component to continuing the health of neighborhoods and communities. Anyone who studies culture, society and environmentalism can agree in one fundamental fact: diversity in habitats is key. This fact is no different in human communities than it is in natural habitats.

New Urbanism is an essential theory, as it allows for the loss of space. The more people America produces and absorbs, the more space will be taken up by development and humanity. This is an inevitable fact: but continued sprawl and social fragmentation need not be set in stone. New Urbanism encourages the integration of a variety of groups of people -- and the social interaction of all. If urban planners and developers were to focus on creating towns that encouraged -- even mandated -- the growing of food by the community, while also providing ample street life, they could recreate the public experience of old world villages.

Duany's firm, Duany Plater Zyberk & Company (DPZ) has created several master-planned communities that embody the principals of New Urbanism, a theory that describes itself as working against, "disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society's built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge," according to a charter published by the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Duany does not argue that consumerism or suburbia are inherently detrimental to society, but rather that their current manifestation is destructive. Inevitably, cities will encourage growth outside of their urban boundaries, just as the economy depends on continued consumer activity. However, by pushing up the efficiency of single-family suburban homes; by restoring existing urban centers to encourage public interaction, diversity, street-life and greenery in order to attract and retain a diverse population; by encouraging the use of pedestrian life as well as public transportation and by shaping cities and towns around universally accessible public space and community institutions like universities, libraries and museums, we can change the way American society moves forward, while mitigating the effects of urbanism on the environment. What's more, we'll be happier and healthier people.