New Urbanism irks even green Westerners


 In my last post, I explored what appear to be conflicting views on what we today call environmental justice in Edward Abbey’s cult classic Desert Solitaire. The book is fun to assign to my Environmental Rhetoric students because between the lyrical descriptions of Utah wilderness and the fist-pounding Luddite rants it’s guaranteed to provoke lively discussions, even among the usually sleepy and stealth-texting back row. The upshot of these conversations, if there is one, is that Abbey’s a tough nut to crack, and his brand of environmental consciousness resists pigeonholing.

We’re certainly not the only ones invoking the ghost of Abbey lately; Michael Branch’s recent HCN essay memorably related an episode where he and his friends applied the question WWEAD (What Would Ed Abbey Do) to the seductive temptation of dislodging a precariously-perched hillside boulder. The virtuous greenie would “leave only footprints,” and feel pretty guilty even about those. Though Abbey was green at heart, Branch implies, he wouldn’t be opposed to shaking things up a bit, “freeing” the boulder, even (perhaps especially) if it infuriated the virtuous.

So in the spirit Abbey’s cantankerous brand of environmentalism, I’m going to come right out and confess that I’m not completely on board with the whole virtuous New Urbanism thing. I’ve been stewing about this for awhile, but a recent series of posts in Grist, especially this one which advocates the New Urbanism-friendly plan of abandoning one’s car for a bike and a smart phone, really got me fired up.

To be fair, the New Urbanist idea is eminently sensible and sustainable: Design communities that are walkable and human scale, where all socioeconomic groups can come together and interact, shop, work, live, play, and worship without long commutes or other unhealthy, expensive barriers. Parks and other green spaces provide Agritopiabalance to the necessary increased density. Despite the name, the idea isn’t new; European villages are partially the inspiration for this model, and European villages are indeed delightful and fun to visit. Many Americans who currently live Old Urbanist or Suburbanist lives obviously long for such an existence, and New Urban developments like Celebration, Florida and Agritopia in Arizona (Phoenix area) are popular, though debatably accessible to certain parts of the socioeconomic scale. (Also see HCN's recent story on a New Urbanist development in the Albuquerque suburbs)

We should embrace New Urbanism, and I’m trying. But it wasn’t so long ago that members of my family fled those picturesque European villages and took up residence in the big wide open spaces of the West, where life was tough but success meant your neighbor couldn’t hear your toilet flush and you could plant any kind of tomatoes you wanted to in your garden without getting the approval of the neighborhood committee.

If we want a more environmentally and economically healthy and diverse society, then New Urbanism is probably the way to go, but I say this with a sigh. The dreams of the suburban – and rural -- West die hard, and it seems evident that today’s immigrants and less fortunate folks haven’t given up on them either. Can’t we be sustainable and long for some personal space to call our own?

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

Agritopia image courtesy Flickr user Brandon Hunt.

Robert Russell
Robert Russell
May 14, 2011 07:00 PM
Whoa. It seems to me that Prof. Wheeler is cheesed off at most of the newish, suburban HOA (home owners associations), and has decided to lump them all in with New Urban developments. I can't speak for the West (having left it in 1965 for a new life in the midwest), and I certainly can't speak for the situation in Arizona, but having the great privilege of living in a piece of Old Urbanism, I can say that her dismissive comments about toilets flushing and the Wrong Kind of Tomato send the wrong message about what urbanism is. I live on a real street, in a real town, and no one has the right to tell me what tomato to plant. I can also walk to work and to the grocery store, but I can't walk to the country. We all sacrifice something. Professor Wheeler laments the fact that at some point we have to give up something. She wants sustainability AND personal space. You get that by being a farmer. You give up a lot of other things (potentially) to be a farmer, but you can be sustainable and not worry about toilets flushing. If you believe James Howard Kunstler, a lot more of us will soon enough become farmers whether we want to or not, though it's true that being a farmer in most parts of Arizona is a dicey proposition without guaranteed water (mostly from Colorado).

People who live in new suburban developments here (and almost everywhere) have to accept the sorts of restrictions Prof. Wheeler complains about. People who live in real towns don't. I guess the answer to her lament is to live in a real town. If that it too constricting, live in the desert. But be prepared for the constrictions THAT will bring. In the long term we are all going to be constricted by something. I prefer the constrictions that come from a neighborhood and my neighbors.
Robert Russell
Charleston, South Carolina
george McCloskey
george McCloskey
May 15, 2011 06:58 PM
Isn't that called a City Jackie? My wife and I raised our family in a sub-urban environment, because it lacked the very things that an urban environment had; poor schools, high crime, crowded public resources (parks, libraries, etc...) and a generally a lower quality of life (for a family). We swapped the suburban life for the urban, after our kids grew up and moved on to their own personal choices for how THEY wanted to live. We live in San Francisco, about as urban as it gets. And we love it! We walk, meet anybody, and enjoy the fruits of the very things that you point out as beneficial.

I only take issue with the "we know what's good for you" and the "central planners" of society - like yourself, who feel that they can (and should by god) direct how others live. It's elitist. Humankind is free and self determination paramount for justice in our world.

I escape to the high country regularly to "escape" my urban dreamland. I walk the woods alone with bow and arrow in hand because I desire the solace and need the time, to escape the urbanism I choose to live in.
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen Subscriber
May 16, 2011 10:22 AM
The "New Urbanism" strikes me as pretty much the same thing as "Old Small-townism." The town I live in (Salida, Colo., population 5,500) was platted in 1880, and the older parts of town fit well with the precepts of New Urbanism.

    That is, we have relatively small lots and narrow streets, with sidewalks and alleys. Many of the downtown commercial buildings have apartments on their second floors. And the place is easy to walk around.

    Does that mean we give up on privacy? I do hear when my neighbors are mowing their lawns or splitting wood, but I don't hear their toilets flush, and nobody cares what kind of tomatoes we grow. As for "wide open spaces," there's a block-size city park just two blocks away, and if I want to walk or bicycle less than a mile, I can be across the Arkansas River amid thousands of acres of BLM and Forest Service land. That the town is compact, rather than sprawling, makes this easy access possible.

    All this is a result of a town plat made 131 years ago. It wasn't some imitation of European villages; geographers know it as a classic Midwestern American "T-town" where the vertical stroke of the T is the town's main street, and the crossbar is the railroad.

    The "New Urbanism" offers a lot of benefits, but there's really nothing new about it. And it makes for a good place to live, unless you're seriously anti-social.

Everett Volk
Everett Volk
May 19, 2011 05:23 PM
New Urbanism is City-Lite for the people too weak and lazy to live in the city proper. I've heard it all before: afraid of this, afraid of that, bad amenities, blah, blah, blah. And then the suburbanites bitch and moan about their commute and demand ever wider, faster and straighter roads to zip them back and forth from their place of work to their place of residence. Just live in the fracking city already, quitcherbitchen, and put some time and effort into changing it into the place you want to live (I'm directing this not at you, the author, but the general "you").

I live in the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver, and I can run to work, bike to the grocery store, stumble home from the bar, and still have enough yard to grow a garden and raise chickens. If it weren't for those pesky low-income minorities that also live in the neighborhood, this would be a New Urbanist's wet dream.