New Urbanism is just growth by another name

  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 the automobile.

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?

Plenty, starting 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.)

New 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.

It's an 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.

For 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.

But what 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.

Bill Roberts is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is editorial page editor of the Durango Herald in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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