In the Fall 2003 issue, Local Liberty spoke with Phillip Bess about the new urbanist movement ("The New Urbanism: From Aristotle and God to Baseball"). Here, Steven Hayward responds with his thoughts about the New Urbanism's popularity with new homebuyers, the need for less government regulation, and a tendency toward utopianism in the movement. Steven Hayward is F.K. Weyerhaeuset Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC and is currently working on a book about urban sprawl.
In response to your last issue's interview with Philip Bess regarding the New Urbanism (NU), I would like to add a few thoughts.
In regard to the first set of questions addressed by Bess, in defining the New Urbanism, I follow the short understanding of it as "neo-traditional" planning, or as a
return to pre-W.W.II neighborhood forms. A thumbnail definition I sometimes use is that the New Urbanism represents the social theory that America was a better place when porches were in front and garages were in back, as opposed to the other way round that you see in typical new subdivisions today. There is much to be said for this.
I am not sure that I agree with the premise that NU has been attractive to a broad spectrum of people. It is not clear that it has large popular appeal with real homebuyers
and families, though I have yet to see any good survey research on this. Visual preference surveys are one thing; real sales results are another. Some NU developments appear to have sold less well than traditional subdivisions (e.g., Laguna West versus Rocklin and Roseville in Northern California). My evidence is anecdotal, but many people tell me they like the larger
yards and homogeneity of traditional subdivisions. I also suspect that many homebuyers, with resale in mind, are wary of buying into NU communities. This will change
with time, but I think NU may have more of a niche appeal for the foreseeable future.
It can also be observed that we are starting to see traditional subdivisions beginning to emulate a few of the forms of NU—not Duany's transect form of mixed uses, but more front porches, higher density (though this is as much a function of higher land prices), infill development, and some emphasis on pedestrian and neighborhood amenities. The line between NU and traditional subdivisions is starting to be blurred a bit in the real world.
Although the NU critique of typical modern subdivisions is correct in many ways,the dysfunctionality of modern subdivisions is overstated. The Classic question "compared to what?" needs to be asked. For all their drawbacks, modern subdivisions meet the needs of most families better than housing and neighborhood patterns in European cities,
for example. So it is not clear that prevalent urban planning and architecture can be said to be a failure.
It is useful to recall Herbert Gans' conclusion in The Levittowners, "The [suburban] community may displease the professional city planner and the intellectual defender of cosmopolitan culture, but perhaps more than any other type of community, Levittown permits most of its residents to be what they want to be—to center their lives around the home and the family, to be among neighbors whom they can trust, to find friends to share their leisure hours, and to participate in organizations that provide sociability and the opportunity to be of service to others."
Second, NU communities may not be to everyone's taste. Consider Joe Morgenstern's caustic comment about the New Urbanism in his film review of The Truman Show (Wall Street
Journal ([6/5/98], p. W4): "Truman's candycolored home lacks detail; it's a set for a TV show, after all, and this an idealization of shallow ideas. Truman's town, Seahaven, lacks variety and texture; its blank-faced neo-
Victorian houses suggest a slapdash backlot evocation of America at the turn of the century. Scarier still, the movie's exteriors were shot in the all-too-real town of Seaside, Florida, one of those planned communities where personal taste has been excised from the plan." There is
something to this. I have heard that some Kentlands residents have a nickname for the town: Can'tlands.
Concerning American political and social traditions and NU, an irony of some New Urbanist thinking (not Duany especially) is that it is highly harmonious with classic
American ideas of the democratic equality of citizens, the public square, and upward mobility, but in the hands of smart growthers, NU becomes another arena for the expansion of the administrative state through more centralized planning and expanded government power. If NU resists being absorbed by smartgrowth planners, it will likely thrive. If it does not, it will become another political skirmish line and limit the contribution it can make to civic renewal.
As for some of the pitfalls facing NU and government regulations, the chief limitation of the NU is that it requires a high degree of vision and insight to be successful; in other words, modern New Urbanists are would-be Olmsteads for our time. Some NU communities, such as
Kentland, are highly successful, while others (I would nominate Laguna West) are failures. The trouble is that while nearly every urban area of the country could benefit from NU, the supply of genuinely talented NU architects and planners is very small. Successful NU planning is not
something that can be reduced to connect-the-dots axioms or zoning ordinances.
This is why I think attempts to mandate NU forms through planning and zoning codes are a bad idea. I think the most creative NU designers would agree. Planning and zoning
codes will stifle the creativity and adaptation that will be learned along the way, both from failures and successes. Arguably what is needed is less government regulation. One point that New Urbanists and "smart growth" advocates are absolutely right about is that current planning and zoning codes are a large part
of the reason for our path-dependent subdivision form.
The other pitfall of the New Urbanism is its tendency toward a utopianism. This comes to sight especially in the "Ahwahnee Principles" promulgated by the Congress for
the New Urbanism about a decade ago. If made the basis for real public policy (i.e., the touchstones for zoning policy and permit decisions), they would require a large expansion of bureaucratic authority and planning power. This is not a good idea.
I believe my opinion on the EPA's office of "smart growth" is rather more decided than Bess's. I belive that it is a bad idea, for all of the usual reasons. I am amazed it still exists. During the Bush transition in late 2000—early 2001 (I was a member of the Bush EPA transition team), I mentioned on one of the conference calls that the EPA smart growth office should be abolished. I was told that EPA administrator designee Gov.Whitman agreed, seeing growth policy as more properly a state and local matter. Yet the office lives on.