Thesis: Cities are dynamic places, where different forces constantly push against each other. Among those many forces are the desires of local residents to maintain a “sense of place,” or in some cases create that sense de novo in locations where it does not already exist. At the polar opposite from that tendency are the sophisticated methods that national retailers use not only to capture local sales, but to control the landscape, as well. Will the branding of national companies control the image of our fast-growing cities, or will that role fall to the forces of nostalgia and manufactured charm?

Case History: The midtown area of Milpitas, a city of 65,000 people in Santa Clara County is our chosen example, although many other cities have similar stories to tell. I chose Milpitas because it provides a dramatic, direct contrast between the branded environment and the kind of development often described, in a cringe-making way, as the urban village.

Exhibit No. 1: The Great Mall. Representing the branded environment in our exercise is the Great Mall of the Bay Area, an enormous outlet center that occupies a former auto assembly plant in this city on the eastern edge of Silicon Valley. The Great Mall is a large, anonymous-looking building with all the usual backlit signs.

Nearly all these signs are familiar to any person who has lived in America for more than six months: These are the brands of merchants so ubiquitous in American life they could be called the Fifty Famous Names. In the Great Mall, those famous names include McDonalds, Starbucks, Calvin Klein, Cinnabon, Dave and Buster’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, Brooks Brothers, Mrs. Fields Cookies, Gap Outlet, Hot Dog on a Stick, Zales the Diamond Store. These brands give meaning and identity to this big, dumb building.

The problem with the branded environment is that brands have meaning that extend far beyond the local. A McDonalds sign does not refer simply to a single fast-food restaurant, but to the entire universe of McDonalds and its firmly rooted place, like it or not, in American culture. For that reason, those Fifty Famous Names tend to overwhelm most commercial streets, drowning out the local merchants, even if the latter might offer food or goods or services that are more tied to the traditions and history of a particular place than a company with a billion-dollar line of credit with Morgan Stanley.

At risk is the unique sense of place that each city potentially offers. This unique sense of place — whether it is based on the architecture, the landscape or the local industries — in many cases is the reason why people have chosen to live in a particular community.

Exhibit No. 2: The urban village, here represented by the Parc Place and Park Metro housing developments. In 2002, the Milpitas City Council approved the midtown specific plan, which called for filling in the midtown area with 4,800 new housing units and more than 1 million square feet of new office and retail space. The design of the housing shows the influence of the new urbanism and its affinity for the quaint, vaguely historicist detailing favored by that doctrine. Among the notable goals of the plans are 48 acres of new parks and open spaces, together with a network of wide, walkable sidewalks, and easy pedestrian access to surface rail and a possible future BART station.

The coherent neighborhoods are a clear contrast to the former state of midtown Milpitas, described in these pages in November 2003 as having “extensive strip commercial development with abundant surface parking, numerous mom-and-pop retail and service businesses, some vacant parcels, and a mishmash of housing.” Inspiring the change, of course, is the popularity of such traditional-looking places as the Kentlands in Maryland and Seaside in Florida, both designed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek.

Criticized by some architects and planners for their strident pronouncements, Duany and Plater-Zybek re-introduced the notion of a hierarchy of open spaces, while emphasizing the importance of being able to walk to services, especially shopping and transit stops, within a quarter mile or so of home. Better still, the doctrinaire duo found a way of controlling the rampant branding, by subjecting all signs to strict ordinances. If the new urbanists could not extinguish the proliferation of brands, at least they could tame them.

One emphasis of the new urbanism is a gentle, nostalgic architecture, which in part recalls the past and in part reinvents it with a golden halo. True, style is a secondary issue when the goals are preserving open space, bringing housing and transit into close proximity and creating comfortable ways for people to do their daily tasks on foot. In my view, one strong impulse of the new urbanism is to create a sense of place—a sense both of domestic comfort, familiarity and uniqueness, as opposed to the everywhere-in-general-and-nowhere-in-particular character of the branded environment, which is always familiar but rarely comforting. For Americans, who are generally conservative in their housing tastes, something that looks venerable and old might look like home.

Conclusion: Even if the steeply pitched rhetoric of Duany et al. sets some architects’ teeth on edge, the new urbanist movement has been a net benefit to urban America. A set of humane values has come to challenge the unexamined practices of sprawl, neglect of open space and lack of genuine social centers and public space. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the soft, derivative new urbanism that has trickled down through the marketplace is also a product—generic, placeless, often as blind to local culture and customs and traditions as McDonalds and Tommy Hilfiger.

Home builders customarily speak of housing as “product,” and in Milpitas as elsewhere, the urban village is a product. It is a much better product than strip development, unregulated sprawl or the branded environment. But it is still not authentic urbanism. That is, the urban village is still not a reflection of our unique moment in history and culture.

Perhaps the kind of neighborhood that acknowledges both global change and local culture, in which the buildings are designed less for style than for the convenience and health of their occupants, and where public spaces might encourage social interaction among people who would otherwise disappear inside their cell phones does not yet exist. If the urban village is a positive step forward, it falls short of being a unique, local place. The genuine urban neighborhood of our time remains to be discovered.