Advocates of the New Urbanism present an extensive list of the movement’s benefits, which are aimed to appeal to both professionals and interested stakeholders. However, after two decades, there is still not sufficient evidence to confirm or reject the success of the approach. One of the principal features of the New Urbanism is the fostering of a ‘sense of community’ through physical design. Emily Talen (1999), noted that the “creation of a sense of community is the essence of new urbanism design theory.”
What is ‘sense of community’?
There are many different definitions of what constitutes a sense of community. Various researchers – depending on their research interest and discipline background – often present contrasting definitions of this concept. For example, Lund (2003) believes ‘sense of community’ to be the “latent aspect” of a community. This includes such aspects as: interactive support; neighbourhood security; and a sense of belonging. In another definition, Nasar (2003) states that “sense of community refers to the feeling an individual has about belonging to a group”. This sense of community has many personal and public advantages including identity, safety, satisfaction and mental health.
There are many factors that contribute to the creation of sense of community. Lund (2003) puts these factors into three broad categories: the social environment; personal/socio-demographic status; and the physical environment. The first two categories have been extensively investigated, especially by social researchers. However, the importance of the physical environment in improving sense of community has not been examined in great detail, and there are many debates in this field among planners and urban designers.
What is the research evidence?
Advocates of the New Urbanism movement claim that neighbourhoods which are built according to physical design principles – including the integration of mixed land uses, high densities, walkability and connectivity, the provision of adequate public transit, good access to open spaces, community and social facilities – can create a stronger sense of community than other, differently designed, neighbourhoods. However, recent literature in this field is quite inconclusive and in some cases, contradictory.
Some studies confirm the role of the physical neighbourhood design principles which are advocated by the New Urbanism as fostering the sense of community (Lund, 2003; Kim and Kaplan, 2004; Kim, 2007; Rogers, 2009). On the other hand, there are some studies that question the strong relationships between these two aspects (Brown and Crooper, 2001; Nasar, 2003). All of these studies were conducted in the context of US cities.
While it seems that the New Urbanism could be an appropriate alternative for conventional suburban development, examining the claims of this movement can provide opportunities for applying its principles to different cultural contexts. Australian cities as a multi- cultural context can be a good case to examine one of the most important and challenging claims of New Urbanism: fostering sense of community.