Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thoughts on New Urbanism

Today is full of preparations for the big trip so I don't have too much for you but I did find an interesting article in the local weekly at my parents house. They live in a suburb of Lansing and the article was an extended interview with the township supervisor. At one point she lamented the board's recent approval of a mixed use development code that had allowed a very large project to be approved. As she described it, the project was clearly inappropriate for the township as a whole as well as its immediate surroundings. In addition, she showed great concern that businesses would be drawn there from more traditional strip malls which would then face bankruptcy and blight.

I think this illustrates the difficulty that suburban governments--which often lack the authority or funds to fight off unwanted development--face as they transition to mixed use zoning. I don't think that zoning is a particularly effective tool. Zoning isn't the only reason that suburbs all have the same feel, the economics practiced by seasoned developers all come from the same place and all come to the same conclusions.

Mixed use zoning simply does not result in vibrant self-sustaining developments. I'm not certain whether this is caused by uninspired developers superimposing strip malls on tract housing or by archaic code restrictions that have yet to be updated to the new code. I suspect the problem lies with both the developers and with concerned citizens who don't know what to be concerned about.

This is my main problem with New Urbanism, it doesn't accurately reflect the differences between cities and outlying areas. Specifically, it doesn't accept that cities are inherently good and productive places.

Towns are small places. People know one another. They don't want strangers coming near their places of habitation because the only protection towns offer from outsiders is isolation. The Garden City concept that has been duplicated over and over again was never intended to function as a city, but as a town where everyone knows their neighbors. Geographic isolation provided safety.

Modern day suburban planners have tried to introduce this isolation with dead ends, tangles of streets, a lack of through streets...etc. New Urbanism tries to roll back these and other alterations to the Garden City concept without realizing (I'll give them the benefit of doubt) that it is the assumption that must be challenged.

Isolation is folly. Unlike Ebenezer Howard's turn of the (last) century England, we have the technology to build clean, healthy and pleasant cities that people would flock to live in. There is no need to "escape" from the city. All we need is to start building real ones. High density, high building footprint, no silly zoning restrictions. New Urbanism, with their "prescriptive" zoning only creates the appearance of cities (or of towns that were emulating cities) while maintaining the limited functionality of small towns.

In the end, mixed use New Urbanism isn't right for suburbs. The suburbs are a wrong. The solution is to let them devolve into the agriculture that they once were and carve out the suburban projects from cities so that they can become wonderful urban places.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a new urbanist and I generally agree with your comments about isolation. The urge to exclude the public realm, street life and strangers is the essence of suburbia.

    There are plenty of new urban developments and codes that have revitalized central cities with infill. There is a tendency by people who don't know any better to apply suburban design standards to cities; one of the good uses of new urbanism is to counteract that tendency.

    There are some suburban projects that are reasonably well balanced in terms of jobs and housing, have adequate transit and bike connections, and function like a small town. I think that's valid as a sustainable pattern, and it's what a lot of people want.

    Then there are suburban projects that basically are, as you say, isolated bedroom communities. It's a good idea to identify those projects and label them accurately as suburbia, or hybrids at best.

    I disagree that new urbanism doesn't accept that cities are inherently good and productive places. There are a lot of valid criticisms of new urbanism, but I don't think that's one of them. If you look a the projects, especially the award winning projects, the books and articles, the codes and rating systems, the experience and background of the designers, I just don't think that criticism holds up.

    I hope you will write about the brownfield redevelopment project in Chicago that opened your eyes to the greenwashing surrounding the new urbanism. I'd like to learn more about that.