Notes from the Congress for the New Urbanism

by Jeremy Beer on June 15, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Politics & Power,Region & Place

Duany

DENVER, COLORADO. It seems like only yesterday that the New Urbanism was really new. But this weekend, with its annual meeting here in Denver, the Congress for the New Urbanism turned seventeen. Its founding texts are almost as old. Andres Duany et al.’s Suburban Nation was published in 2000, and when I plucked James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere from the shelf to re-read before coming here, I was shocked to discover that it had been released way back in 1996. Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere, one of the ur-texts of the New Urbanist movement, came out in 1993.

The New Urbanism, in other words, is now experiencing the bloom and vitality of late adolescence, if not early adulthood. The ideas have been fleshed out. The networks of professionals and well-wishers are well established and growing. The movement is increasingly popular and influential, and with rising oil prices and elite consensus against sprawl, there is no reason to think that this won’t continue.

The New Urbanists’ marriage of theory with practice, their willingness to engage in the exasperating nitty-gritty of city and county politics, their patient, strategic creation and marketing of alternative planning codes and zoning laws, their building of new models and sharing of best practices – all of this is admirable. At least, it’s admirable to me, because it isn’t nearly as easy as mere keyboard scribbling. The New Urbanists have begun to change and will continue to change the way some cities and suburbs and small towns develop in this country – and all without a single talk-radio show or Washington think tank to promote their ideas. Imagine!

At the conference I had the chance to hear Andres Duany, the philosopher-king of the New Urbanists (Kunstler is the enfant terrible). Duany is the kind of man who does not lack confidence in his opinions, to put it mildly. He can discourse impromptu for ten or fifteen minutes on virtually any aspect of urban planning, architecture, or communitarian thought. On Thursday he fielded questions from the newbies in the New Urbanism 101 session. Some of Duany’s comments that I found interesting follow.

On traditional architecture: people like architecture that (1) “brings weight down” (by making use of pillars, columns, arches, etc.) and that (2) “expresses human habitation.” People look at a porch or a light-filled room with a big studio window and they naturally project themselves into those places. They like what such places say about the possibilities and context of human living. Hence, they like traditional architecture. Like stained-glass windows, such architecture speaks a language that is understandable even to the untrained. Everyone can read traditional architecture; it expresses and speaks -through its forms, materials, and design – a public, common language.

People don’t like modern architecture (generally) because they don’t understand its language. Nor can this be solved merely by making the masses “connoisseurs” of modern architecture, Duany pointed out, because even within modernism there are few common meanings. The ideal of the modernist architect is to develop his own unique, idiosyncratic language that expresses his personal genius. Connoisseurship is therefore not a solution.

On sprawl: recession or not, rising oil prices or not, history shows that we are going to keep sprawling (sayeth Duany) into suburban and rural areas. What we must do, then, is to get better codes in place (and the New Urbanists have written them) so that when the economic recovery comes and new development begins again, the pattern is a New Urbanist one, and not the crappy one with which we have been saddled heretofore. Here is where the New Urbanists are concentrating much of their energy.

On whether New Urbanist developments should make room for big-box retail stores: in Duany’s opinion, yes. Otherwise, the planner risks looking like – and being – an elitist snob and will have a hard time winning over the community’s less prosperous folks. On the other hand, we know from Kunstler and others (again, this is Duany) that Wal-Mart is a temporary phenomenon. The sun is setting on big-box retailers. So the New Urbanist planner must plan the infrastructure of his master-planned community or development such that the big-box pad can be redeveloped efficiently once the Wal-Marts of the world are out of business in a decade or two.

On financing: for the most part, the banking world continues to rely on a set of mindless abstract assumptions about what makes a “good” shopping mall or other kind of development, and these assumptions are thoroughly auto-centric and anti-localist. This is the result of a financial world that structurally eliminates the operation of actual human intelligence. It is often necessary for the New Urbanists to work the system by deceiving bankers (calling an office in a live/work unit, for instance, a “game room” or something), which is easy to do because no one actually ever looks at the real thing that is being built.

So that’s The Best of Duany. From my point of view, the primary problem with New Urbanist thought, so far as it was articulated at this conference, anyway, is a lack of concern for liberty – not conceived as individual freedom or the sanctity of property rights, the American obsessions with which the New Urbanists routinely deride, and for many of the right reasons – but liberty conceived as self-government. Here we come to a fundamental difference between progressive and traditional conceptions of democracy: to the traditionalist, self-government is the essence of democracy; to the progressive, democracy is a substantive ideal and must be imposed quasi-dictatorially by experts and planners.

The result of this lacuna is that the aggrandizement of the central state – and the accompanying decline of the mediating institutions that provide the skeletal structure of community – doesn’t seem to keep the New Urbanists up at night. Government seems to be the one area in which they think little about proprieties of scale.

To all planners, community is bound to be seen as a technical problem. The general, vague idea seems to be that if we but get the right physical fabric in place – backed by the government at all levels, of course – we will finally satisfy the “craving for community” (as one New Urbanist book title puts it) that bedevils us.

Real communities, however, aren’t created out of thin air. They take time. They take multiple generations living together in the same place. They take stability and the kind of affection and loyalty that can never be the result of mere consumer choice. They have shared stories and myths and customs and mores and norms and languages. They have loci of moral authority. And they have a high degree of autonomy – economic, political, and cultural. For the vast majority of purposes and in the vast majority of areas, they must be authentically self-governing.

The right kind of physical fabric, beauty, a public realm and civic spaces that reflect and help serve the common good – these things are certainly important qualities among well-functioning communities, and by focusing on them the New Urbanists are doing something concrete toward helping to rebuild American civic life. But we have plenty of examples of places with these qualities where the thick bonds, existential richness, and mutual support networks of authentic community have failed to develop or have decayed. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether community can be maintained in places characterized by economically, politically, and culturally dependent and powerless serfs dominated by a centralized state and anonymous corporate institutions, no matter how good the physical fabric of those places.

To the extent that the New Urbanists are content to serve the servile state, the usefulness of their work will be severely attenuated. It’s the decentralists’ job to convince them that their goal of re-creating human-scale communities can only be attained within a human-scale regime.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Benjamin Reese June 15, 2009 at 8:49 am

Better a suburban sprawl-zone populated by moral traditionalists and moral communitarians than a New Urbanist development populated by moral revisionists and moral libertarians. Best would, of course, be a New Urbanist development populated by moral traditionalists and moral communitarians. But my sense has always been that New Urbanists tend to be moral revisionists and moral libertarians. Am I wrong in thinking so?

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 15, 2009 at 9:15 am

Better a suburban sprawl-zone populated by moral traditionalists and moral communitarians than a New Urbanist development populated by moral revisionists and moral libertarians.

I don’t know, Benjamin; you may be right. Then again, the suburban sprawl-zone works against the inculcation of virtues like gratitude and encourages a consumerist mentality, as Mark Mitchell notes in his post today, while if you have a living environment that enables you to find the time and space to exercise some real discipline and structure and moral options for your family, you might have a better chance to fortify your kids against the influence of the pot-smokers next door. Your ideal of a diversified, human-sized, New Urbanist environment filled with people who take moral traditions and community seriously is one I’d prefer too; as so often seems to be the case in the modern world, I think we simply have to make do with a compromise between less than ideal options.

But my sense has always been that New Urbanists tend to be moral revisionists and moral libertarians.

I’m not an expert on all those who consider themselves New Urbanists, but that being said, I’m not aware of anything in their writings and proposals that seems to presume or prioritize secularism and relativism. It may simply be that, as a movement opposed to big businesses dominating discussions of zoning, a good many of those who have flocked to the New Urbanist banner have been liberals and dissidents of various stripes, thus giving a particular flavor to their meetings and protests.

avatar Dan June 15, 2009 at 10:22 am

Isn’t suburbia itself an attempt by planners to manufacture a livable community? Didn’t we learn that you can’t design community?

avatar Benjamin Reese June 15, 2009 at 10:29 am

Russell,

I agree with you that suburban sprawl-zones are not places conducive to the cultivation and perpetuation of the virtues. But I don’t see the advantage of environments that mimic — nostalgically — the sorts of environments in which the virtues were once cultivated and perpetuated *if* those environments are merely aesthetic simulacra of the physical architecture of virtuous community *without* the immaterial or spiritual or moral architecture of virtuous community within individual hearts. If it’s a fair criticism to make of, say, contemporary evangelical Christianity that it emphasizes the personal and the immediately interpersonal at the expense of the more broadly social, the more broadly political, the more broadly economic, then I think it’s also a fair criticism to make of something like New Urbanism that it emphasizes the more broadly social, the more broadly political, the more broadly economic sphere of urban planning over the immaterial or spiritual or moral architecture of individual *hearts.* The sorts of havens in a heartless world that New Urbanism seeks to provide are no havens at all if they themselves are as heartless as the rest of the world. While architecture and urban planning do have roles to play in the cultivation and the perpetuation of the virtues *even* in individual hearts, that role is not sufficient to such an end. My worry about New Urbanism is that it involves the building of “country” cottages at Versailles for modern Marie Antoinettes. This is a worry based on the history of reformist urban planning schemes of a communitarian sort — the garden city movement for example — that ironically were one of the contributing factors to suburbanization and therefore to the same suburban sprawl that we are now trying to correct for via similar means to those which brought it about. I suppose I’m just slightly more skeptical of social reformation in the absence of personal moral reformation than I am of personal moral reformation in the absence of social reformation, though, or course, ideally for *either* sort of reformation to be realized as fully as it could be, *both* would have to be pursued *at once* and, in fact, not seen as two separate pursuits. Just my two cents. Thanks for the reply.

avatar Nathan P. Origer June 15, 2009 at 11:11 am

Mr. Reese

You note, quite rightly,

y worry about New Urbanism is that it involves the building of “country” cottages at Versailles for modern Marie Antoinettes. This is a worry based on the history of reformist urban planning schemes of a communitarian sort — the garden city movement for example — that ironically were one of the contributing factors to suburbanization and therefore to the same suburban sprawl that we are now trying to correct for via similar means to those which brought it about.

There’s a lot of sad truth in the history of the planning profession, perhaps none more troubling than the misguided-at-best, intentionally racist-at-worst urban renewal polices of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies. The point about the morphing of the Garden City movement into modern suburbanization is quite trouble, but, as much as your fears are justified, I think it’s imperative that we not overlook the seemingly simple point that New Urbanism advocates building along traditional street grids and incorporating new developments and infill into existing neighborhoods. (I’m, of course, regrettably aware of the tendency of New Urbanists to engage in “new-town” development — e.g.Duany’s Seaside or the dreadful Kentlands —, but the presence of these, I think, doesn’t negate the generally applicable rule.) The combination of more traditional forms of architecture, a human scale, and walkability, I’ve come to believe after a few years of informal and formal study, sets New Urbanism apart from, miles ahead of, other trends — especially those that more quickly become popular in ways that NU really hasn’t yet — in planning.

It’s not, as you, other commenters, and Jeremy note, perfect. Jeremy’s point of decentralism is spot-on, if not slightly insufficient, in that he, quite understandably, doesn’t take on the servile state more strongly. That, of course, wasn’t the point of his post.

Risking portraying myself unflatteringly by using the comment box for shameless self-promotion, I direct you to two postings on my humble Weblog wherein I’ve delved a little more deeply into this. For New Urbanism to work, as I believe we need it to do, we need a Distributist–Anti-Federalist New Urbanism. With this Distributism, we need to incorporate a healthy dose of Georgism (or perhaps some sort of “neo-Georgism”?), because neo-traditionally designed neighborhoods, as popular as they are, will never be adequately affordable for the sort of organic communities we want them to become until property values and “the market” experience at least a partial divorce.

Part I: http://nathancontramundi.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/reviving-our-sense-of-place-our-priorities-of-localism-agrarianism-and-self-government-part-i/

Part II: http://nathancontramundi.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/reviving-our-sense-of-place-our-priorities-of-localism-agrarianism-and-self-government-part-i/

(And further ruminations related more or less to New Urbanism: http://nathancontramundi.wordpress.com/?s=New+Urbanism)

avatar ben June 15, 2009 at 11:35 am

Mr. Beer,

I hope you had a good time in my home city this past weekend.

I think that one of the great lessosns for urban planners of any stripe must be the successful struggle to build the Church in Nowa Huta, Poland that was lead by Pope John Paul II, when he was he Archbishop of Kracow. Nowa Huta is more of a pilgrimage site that a workers paradise now.

Have the new urbanists learned this lesson? Do they know that community is dependent upon churches?

avatar John Oliver Perry June 15, 2009 at 3:39 pm

In general,it seems the immediate conversation about New Urbanism does not recognize the fast-growing movement among various greening of America groups, the well-established goals of sustainability with justice (clearly injustice makes any system unstable), buy and grow local, etc., etc. Why the focus on New Urbanism as if it were the only
progressive movement going on in this direction?

Also, as someone focussed on local neighborhood community development,
I would like to see here or elsewhere the (exemplary? anecdotal?) evidence for the following statements, an apparent argument against urban planning of any kind, even that focussed on justice, sustainability, “pedestrian friendly” neighborhoods:

The right kind of physical fabric, beauty, a public realm and civic spaces that reflect and help serve the common good – these things are certainly important qualities among well-functioning communities, and by focusing on them the New Urbanists are doing something concrete toward helping to rebuild American civic life. But we have plenty of examples of places with these qualities where the thick bonds, existential richness, and mutual support networks of authentic community have failed to develop or have decayed.
Thanks for replies here or directly…
JOP

avatar Kevin J Jones June 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I too hope Mr. Beer enjoyed Denver, on whose suburban fringe I have spent most of my life.

Ben’s mention of churches perhaps exposes a blind spot in New Urbanism.

Weren’t many of the memorialized “walkable communities” of the past in fact religiously homogeneous or close to it? They were of an age when housing discrimination on religion and/or ethnicity was openly allowed.

Now you can’t even post “Catholic church and Buddhist temple within walking distance” on Craigslist. (Look up Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. v. Craigslist Inc.)

Secular urbandwellers will not have this “problem” to consider. Does this affect New Urbanist planning and its appeal?

avatar Typical Whitey June 16, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Jeremy – interesting thoughts. I disagree though that Walmart will pass on. Too many middle class and lower class families depend upon the Walmart’s budget enhancing prices. It truly has helped countless families survive in these tough times and its workers enjoy fair wages plus health benefits. Walmart is not the monster portrayed by the Left.

avatar D.W. Sabin June 22, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Until the last technocrat is strangled by the last UBS Cable of the last Corporate Human Services Manager, the New Urbanist will be staging a last ditch effort to pretend we have a culture worth saving. With no local vertical and horizontal economy, there is no local and without the local, we have been reduced to a jibbering pack of grunting hominids begging for one last con before we hit it rich.

Limo Liberal Redoubts of Charming Gable Ended homes lining the well-appointed streetscape behind a LEED Sanctioned and Native Planted Gated Entrance is akin to hanging a Pine Tree Scent from ones toilet bowl in order to diminish the more extreme scents of the wider toilet.

One of the obvious benefits of most traditional or historic building is that it displays a reverence for craft….a recognition that labor is a source of poetry. Today, labor is a pejorative and in particular, for many of the well-heeled denizens of the gated New Urbanist community, labor is what they work to avoid. Comfort and luxury are wonderful things but when they become objects of cult-like devotion, their productive benefits wane.

I respect and enjoy much of what the New Urbanists do and say …even though I disagree that all modern architecture is bad…..some of it is very good…just not a lot of it like much of the produced effluvia of this witless age…..but if they expect that they can actually contribute to a way forward without jumping into larger economic and political circles….well, they will be sweetly playing checkers at a funeral wearing jodhpurs and drinking Pimms Cups. I hope their research of classical building techniques includes the art of windage because accuracy will be required to keep the marauding rubes away from such luxurious entrepot. Which might you select to plunder? A gated neighborhood of well-appointed obviously deluxe domicile or the average McMansion essay in Planned Obsolescence and Instant Squalor?

Kunstler is right in asserting that the New Urbanists are one of the only if not only organized force of thinkers and doers arguing the case against the Factory Drunk of the last several decades but if they really think they can prepare for another boom …well, best of luck .

avatar Misthaufen June 24, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I hope Walmart will go away. Since Walmart gave its Buy American campaign after Sam Walton died, Walmart has become one the main forces in the decline in American wages and rise in the Chinese trade. It is the beast portrayed by the left, not for the way they treat their workers, but rather for its large role in the destruction of the American manufacturing base.

avatar GmR June 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I simply don’t understand many of the comments to this article. All the worries about secularism, virtue, and churches. What does any of this have to do with the reality of urban planning and development? Communities cannot be planned perfectly. They develop organically over time in specific places and in the past for practical and necessary reasons (closeness to water, natural resources, markets etc). What will work in one place or landscape will not work in another. My worry here is that people are lured into thinking we need to do things based on models from tradition, the past or history and that is false. The choice isn’t between Doric columns or LEED but between a having a high quality of life versus an unsustainable unhealthy unaffordable one.

avatar John Oliver Perry June 28, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I applaud GmR’s questioning I still have not heard any substantiation for the following statement made here that seems to reject urban planning and development almost entirely as a useful, community building project:
<< we have plenty of examples of places with these qualities ["The right kind of physical fabric, beauty, a public realm and civic spaces that reflect and help serve the common good" ] (but) where the thick bonds, existential richness, and mutual support networks of authentic community have failed to develop or have decayed.

tHANKS FOR ANY RESPONSE WITH SPECIFIC REFERENCES TO WHERE (AND ALSO HOW AND WHY IF POSSIBLE)THESE FAILURES OCCURRED….

jop

avatar letjusticerolldown September 30, 2009 at 7:42 pm

I don’t even qualify as a planning infant. So excuse the amateur comments.

To me they read as ideological rantings that could be snatched up out of the context of planning and planted most anywhere. That doesn’t mean I do not find them interesting or important.

I am in a very theological conservative church working on what many would consider a very progressive social vision including a new urbanist community. I arrive there out of a conviction that ‘truth’ must be lived; it must exist in the context of love; or more explicitly in the context of a beloved community. A community must manifest truth in the face of the harshest human realities. Truth cannot be witnessed to or understood apart from its capacity to confront our most difficult communal challenges. It must be personal. It must be corporate.

The end is wisdom. The end is love. The end is truth manifested. The end is God’s well-being for all. God’s shalom. The end is design in which the garbage dumptsters express God’s glory.

The failure of an integration of new urbanist design with human-scale communal institutions is not solely a failure of the designers. I know quite a few mega-church sites that may someday make for great new urbanist communities birthed out of a different socio-theology.

avatar Urban Mechanic November 30, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Actually, “traditionalist” aren’t at all about self-governing. They primarily stand for the rule of law or tradition to be blunt. They are not particularly concerned with democracy, but with system and order; be that democracy, zoning, or whatever. Change is fine, so long as it is well-planned and not at all chaotic.

Not that I am a “traditionalist,” personally, but that’s what you have

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