New Urbanism is good, but it doesn't stop sprawl
I imagine that at this point in our debate you might be expected to celebrate the New Urbanism because of its anti-sprawl rhetoric, and I could reasonably be expected to denounce it. After all, faculty in most academic architectural departments these days tend to prefer modernist design and consider New Urbanism just historical pastiche. Many go further and condemn places like Seaside or Celebration, Florida as creepy, fake environments of the kind portrayed in the movie The Truman Show.
If that is the expectation, I'm sorry to throw a wrench in the works. In my opinion the New Urbanism has been one of the most successful movements in the world of design over the last several decades because it has supplied a number of things that were sorely lacking, and it has provided some interesting choices in the marketplace. I only fault some of its advocates for claiming too much.
First the genuine achievements of the New Urbanists. At their best, for example in the excellent book Suburban Nation and other writings by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk , New Urbanists have provided penetrating insights into the relationships among the house, the street, the neighborhood, the city and the region. Moreover, the New Urbanists have not just been critics. Their ideas have flowed directly out of their attempts to create communities that are more compact, walkable and sociable than the typical subdivision. In the process they have proposed alternatives to standard practice including, for example, a major rethinking of zoning and building codes.
Many of the new communities New Urbanists have built across the United States, starting with Seaside on the Florida panhandle in 1981, have been extremely popular with a large public, suggesting that they do fill an important market niche. Their ideas have also been popular with many design professionals because, after the fall of orthodox Modernist planning doctrine, theirs is that rarest of species, a coherent set of ideas about the design of everything from the front door of a house to the design of the entire region. The most intelligent of the New Urbanists have always been flexible in their thought. Duany, for example, has always insisted that New Urbanism need not be done in historical styles, and he constantly surprises with new insights.
So, as far as I am concerned, the New Urbanists have made quite a contribution, and I salute them for it. Where I part company with them is in what I consider to be the tendency of many of the most zealous camp followers to claim too much. For example many New Urbanists believe what they are doing is somehow an antidote to sprawl. They say that their settlements are higher in density and therefore require less driving. But few of the New Urbanist communities built to date are actually very dense. In fact, most of the best known of them have densities no higher than many conventional suburbs now going up on the periphery of urban America.
It appears to be true that residents of New Urbanist communities, particularly ones built at a rail stop and using notions of Transit Oriented Design (TOD), walk more and drive less than their counterparts in conventional suburbia. But the difference is usually not very significant, and most people in New Urbanist communities continue to get to most destinations by driving. In fact, if anything, it is probably surprising that there is not more difference between New Urbanist and conventional settlements given the reality of self-selection, the tendency of people who already know they don't want to drive to choose places designed for this purpose.
New Urbanists also advocate mixed use developments. But most New Urbanist communities to date have been little more than subdivisions. Trying to dislodge retail from shopping centers and strip malls and insert it into small buildings at the center of these subdivisions has always been a hard sell. The problem is that design itself isn't sufficient to re-order our existing economic order. It is probable that many suburban Americans wish they could walk to a corner store to get a gallon of milk which they can't do in their conventional subdivisions. But until our economic system makes it possible for that corner store to pay the clerk a wage sufficient to buy a home in the community, this can only be a token gesture.
I don't see that the New Urbanism is inherently good or bad just as I see no reason to believe that sprawl is one or the other. If that is the case, I think that the implication for public policy should be that government ought to confine itself to fixing things where there is a high degree of consensus on both the problem and the solution and leave the rest to the citizens who will decide for themselves where and how they wish to live.
Robert Bruegmann is professor of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Sprawl: A Compact History, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.
Happy at last
Good Dust-Up, Bob. Now we're putting a little feeling into it. It's interesting to take the Google Earth view and look at sprawl from a distance, in the context of civilization over the ages, with its ebb and flow of populations. But even taking the long view, I'm compelled to do what I can to help maintain life on this planet as we know it! These are the issues that compel me! What is at the heart of this debate for you?
But our debate for today is about whether New Urbanism is just a stalking horse for increased development.
Sure. It can be. But it's about the kind of development. Arguing against development is kind of like arguing against procreation. It's going to happen. It's only a question of where the development will happen and what it will be like. We can continue with business as usual and encourage development at the suburban fringes (through the provision of new roads, sewers, water lines and other infrastructure subsidized by existing taxpayers and rate-payers), and we've seen what that's done to our cities and to traffic. Or we can decide thatbecause of concern about the impending crises of affordability and traffic, the high-cost of infrastructure, climate change, our dependence on Middle East oil and the impact on habitat and biodiversityit is better to encourage development near transit.
Maybe we'll figure out how to build sustainable sprawl. Living in harmony with nature and the animalsI'm all for it. But until we have the sustainable sprawl model figured out I vote for building more mixed-income mixed-use development near transit. One recent study shows that people who live in transit-oriented developments in California are five times more likely to ride transit and that people who work in TOD are three and a half times more likely to ride it. Another shows that neighborhoods in Portland with mixed use and good transit have a much lower share of auto use: 58% of trips by auto compared to 87% in suburban neighborhoods. I already mentioned the study by the organization I work for that showed that families who live in neighborhoods with mixed use and good transit access can save 16% on transportation over households in auto-oriented neighborhoods. Many other studies show that car ownership and use is significantly lower in transit-oriented neighborhoods. This is the best kind of development for public policy to encourage at this time.
We've got a plethora of sprawl choices in Los Angeles. But we need more smart growth choices, and we are getting them. Los Angeles, like most cities across the U.S., has come back to life around all the new investment in walkable downtowns and suburban town centers. Witness the riot of small, new, locally owned shops and restaurants stretching for miles along Sunset Boulevard, the hipsterism of Silver Lake, Hollywood and Venice with all the new loft development, the South-of-France feel of the Mission Meridian rail station with its transit-oriented development, which has supported a string of new shops and restaurants all along Mission in family-friendly South Pasadena. Look at all the development in downtown L.A. And the walkable suburban town centers that are developing around train stations in places like Fullerton, San Fernando, San Juan Capistrano. Southern California is beginning to offer it allurban and suburban, walkable, transit-oriented and auto-oriented.
It's an exciting time to live in the city with everyone out and about, dining, walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, seeing and being seen. This kind of development is good for our cities and our souls and our culture! Communities once again feel like real communities.
We will continue to sprawl. And we will continue to reinvest in existing communities. The monolithic auto-oriented model of the single-family home and single-family neighborhood is giving way to something much richer. The suburban model served us well during a period of rapid growth in this country. But we've matured as a country and a culture and are able to support a more complex and more diverse range of choices for a more diverse population. We're evolving. I think we're riding off into the sunset happy, Bob.
Gloria Ohland is vice president for communications for Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit organization that works with the public and private sectors to promote best practices in development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development (TOD). She is co-author and co-editor of the award-winning Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century; The New Transit Town: Best Practices in TOD; and Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit, a national market study funded by the Federal Transit Administration and released in 2005.