It's hard to tell whether New Urbanism best fits the definition of a cult or a conspiracy. It has elements of both. Either way, my advice is not to drink the Kool-Aid. Embracing a politically correct excuse for growth is suicide for the West's small towns.
New Urbanism is the name given to a
collection of ideas about land-use planning and architectural
design as exemplified by a book called Suburban Nation: The Rise of
Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. It seeks to recreate
the "traditional neighborhoods" once common in American cities and
that are still a feature of many urban areas whose layouts predate
Such neighborhoods typically include a
mix of commercial and residential properties, have high densities
that make for vibrant public spaces, and are arranged to favor
pedestrians over motorists.
Think of your favorite parts
of San Francisco, or the downtowns of many old Western towns.
What's not to like about New Urbanism?
with the pseudo-religious tenor of true believers. New Urbanism
does not require donning saffron robes or chasing flying saucers,
but it does have charismatic apostles, sacred texts and the promise
of salvation, and that lends a messianic quality that is both
tiresome and silly. (A photo in Suburban Nation shows an ad for a
fancy shower stall. The caption describes it as one of the
"gimmicks that homebuilders include to fill the spiritual void
created by the absence of community" in suburbia.)
Urbanists believe their approach will let us have growth and
wildlife, development and open space. We can make housing
affordable and promote economic development in an environmentally
friendly, socially responsible way that fosters community and
encourages civic virtue. We'll be healthier, because we'll abandon
our SUVs and walk to work. We'll be better off mentally, because
proper architecture will feed our psychic needs.
appealing vision. All we have to do is live in cities. That's where
it starts to sound like a conspiracy. New Urbanism rests on an
unholy alliance between the greedheads and the greens. Developers
get to wrap themselves in the mantle of crusaders bravely battling
the alienation of the suburbs while protecting the land from the
ravages of sprawl. Environmentalists get to envision a society made
over according to their agenda, with high-density, automobile-free
cities surrounded by open space and wildlife habitat.
Identifying sprawl as the one true evil allows the greens a strong
voice in the planning process and directs discussion away from the
one thing developers do not want to talk about: growth. What's left
is a false dichotomy -- New Urbanism or mindless sprawl.
Narrowing the focus to sprawl gets everyone chanting the
developers' mantra: Growth is inevitable. Implicit in that is the
corollary that any decisions as to when, where or at what cost
building should proceed are equally out of our hands. So, with
growth off the table and all concerned agreeing to fight sprawl,
development is nothing more than a question of design.
It's like saying that a decision to continue paving Southern
California is just an architectural misstep. We really can put 10
pounds in a 5-pound bag if only we stack it just so.
all that, New Urbanism has a lot to offer. It provides an excellent
critique of what is wrong with suburbia. It affords a series of
solid insights and suggestions for improving urban development, and
it correctly identifies a number of factors that make some cities
so much more livable than others. If the question is how to rebuild
the older suburbs of Los Angeles or how to enhance the Levittowns
of the East, New Urbanism seems right as rain.
that has to do with small towns is beyond me. Lumping Jackson,
Wyo., Moab, Utah, or Durango, Colo., into the same "urban" category
as major cities is ridiculous. Small towns are not rural, but
neither are they miniature New Yorks.
They are a
different breed , and the challenge small-town folk face is not how
best to become big cities, but how to preserve what is Important
and unique about where we live. A lot of that has to do with
manageable numbers. New Urbanism does not speak to that.