It 2010 exchange between New Urbanism co-founder Andres

It may well be that within modern urban planning and design, no single
practice has had greater in?uence – and in some quarters, provoked greater
controversy – than the use of the “neighborhood unit” as a standardized
increment of urban structure. The best-known example of planning by
neighborhood unit – and one that is still widely in?uential almost a century
later – is that of Clarence Perry, proposed in 1929 for the First Regional Plan
of New York, under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation. His model, like
a number of other variations, standardizes the components of a neighborhood,
together with their geometric distribution and their relation to perimeter
street patterns. To some degree, as we will discuss, Perry’s neighborhood unit
also seeks to standardize social populations and their interactions, though
this is a distinct and variable element. As we will discuss, Perry’s model is
not the only attempt to standardize neighborhoods into units, or to segregate
their parts. Standardized and segregated neighborhood-unit planning has roots
much deeper in the history of planning – often with accompanying controversy.
Nonetheless, it is Perry’s model that has been most in?uential, and the most
controversial, in modern planning practices up to the present day. An
indication of the degree of in?uence (and controversy) of Perry’s model even
today can be readily assessed in a sampling of recent communications by
prominent urban planners. In August 2011, the home page of the website of the
US-based Form-Based Codes Institute featured a lecture by noted Florida planner
Bill Spikowski (2007), in which he argues for the 1929 model: “I tend to like
Perry’s view .… This stuff is mostly still valid today.” But in a vociferous
2010 exchange between New Urbanism co-founder Andres Duany and London urban
designer Paul Murrain, co-author of the classic design manual Responsive
Environments, Murrain was sharply critical of his friend Duany’s promotion of the
Perry model: “I condemn Perry because like you I observe, and I have observed
the destruction of integrated urbanism across the developed world to a
staggering degree courtesy of the model you promote” (personal communication,
14 October 2010, copied to the authors and used with permission). Duany, for
his part, has strongly defended his use of the Perry diagram. As he stated to
the authors, “I selected Perry’s as the chassis for the ?rst generation of New
Urbanism diagrams. This was a rational move as it was the most famous diagram
in the history of American planning.” At the same time, Duany acknowledged
historical problems with Perry’s model, but made clear his view that it
remained a useful framework: “By close comparison, it served to point out the
many subtle differences between old and new urbanism practices” (personal
communications, 14 June 2011, used with permission). This and other recent
debates re?ect the enduring international legacy of neighborhood-unit planning
in general (as we describe below), and Perry’s 1929 proposal in particular – as
well as its more recently modi?ed versions. The persistence of the debate also
re?ects the high stakes involved for modern planners, who are under pressure to
respond more effectively to a daunting set of increasingly complex challenges:
threats to economic viability, social vitality, public health and well-being,
ecological integrity, resource depletion, climate change, and other topics that
are increasingly grouped under the heading of “sustainable urbanism”. The
debate, in this sense, centers on to what extent the neighborhood-unit concept
is part of the solution to this set of challenges or part of the problem – and
on whether a modi?ed neighborhood unit, or indeed some other alternate model,
offers the most effective way forward. This debate is only the most recent in a
long history of controversy over neighborhood unit planning. Indeed, as a
number of authors have documented (e.g. Banerjee and Baer 1984; Silver 1985;
Rofè 1995; Ben-Joseph 2005; Lawhon 2009; Rohe 2009), the extensive history of
neighborhood-unit planning brings with it an equally extensive legacy of
debate. Lewis Mumford, a major ?gure in twentieth-century planning in his own
right, noted in 1954 that while “during the last two decades the idea of
planning by neighborhoods has been widely accepted … a counter-movement has
come into existence” that has been “drawing up for battle”. This
counter-movement included harsh critics of neighborhood unit planning such as
Reginald Isaacs, whose prominent paper “The Neighborhood Theory: An Analysis of
Its Adequacy” (1948) drew a spirited rebuttal from Mumford (1954).