Headed for the Future? Walk With Me.

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Michael E.
Arth claims to be a visionary. His
website
offers a program of solutions for oft-discussed political
controversies, including "overpopulation," "legal
injustice," "economic inequality," and "religious
intolerance." But when the curious click through to read his
plans, they only find so many dead links. And that is how it is
with Mr. Arth, judging by what I was able to read about his political
theory and his conception of "UNICE." There is nothing
visionary there, just so many dead links.

We must expect
of our visionaries that they will be self-important in many fields.
What distinguishes visionaries from nut-jobs, though, is that in
at least one field, their self-importance is justified. Well, Mr.
Arth, you have struck gold, predictably in the field where you earn
your income: New Pedestrianism is the idea, and it is visionary.

New Pedestrianism
can best be described as a subset of New Urbanism. This larger school
originated in the ideas of Jane Jacobs and her urban-conservative
comrades-in-arms. Jacobs reacted against the modernist tendency
of figures like Robert Moses to demolish the traditional city to
make way for elevated highways and Garden-City towers. You will
recognize what were then called Garden-City towers as today's housing
projects, a.k.a. “the projects.” Jacobs famously explicated, in
her volume The
Death and Life of Great American Cities
, that small-scale,
mixed-use, diverse inhabitants, and "eyes on the street"
made for livable urban spaces. More importantly for our subject,
Mrs. Jacobs distinguished between foot-people and car-people. The
city is for the former, the suburbs for the latter. Mrs. Jacobs
took care to draw the two groups as mutually exclusive, for each
represented a significant investment in a particular lifestyle.

Perhaps the
greatest failure of American urban design is the attempt to integrate
automobile use into the urban core. Over the last century, we have
become so enamored with the motorized lifestyle, that there are
hardly any places on the continent of North America where daily
life can be pursued on foot. Great for the car-people; bad for the
foot-people. Mr. Arth has provided a way out. While utilizing the
fundamental block design of New Urbanism, Mr. Arth has modified
key details that address resounding oversights in New Urban design.
Instead of creating two-story houses on a grid of low-traffic streets,
as a New Urbanist might, he has moved the garage and motorway to
the back of the homes and fronted the houses onto pedestrian lanes.
These modifications may seem minor, but have revolutionary implications
for the lifestyle of the neighborhood's inhabitants. Instead of
a motorway-centric district, where kids play roller-hockey until
someone yells "car," the front face of houses now spill
onto a plaza-like central walkway where humans come first. Cars
are thus incorporated, necessary due to their ubiquity in American
life, but relegated to their proper purpose — long-distance travel.
With a pedestrian walkway and a few nearby businesses, suddenly
it becomes more appealing to ditch the car for daily activities
and save it for a trip to Aunt May's. New Pedestrianism is, in a
word, sanity. It is sanity re-introduced to the cityscape and the
countryside that for too long have been built not for people but
for their cars, not for living but for driving.

Okay, you may
say, this all sounds great, but like New Urbanism it is overly-planned,
utopian, and the market won't support it. Here is where Mr. Arth's
brilliance becomes truly apparent: He has implemented his vision.
Besides drawing up the plans for all to see, he has actually risked
capital on rehabilitating the town of DeLand, Florida according
to New Pedestrian principles. And it was a success! What was once
known as "Cracktown" has become a gentrified living and
working town in the middle of sprawling suburbia. What was once
a trailer park has become Phoenix Court, a group of brightly-colored
homes around a central plaza with fountain. The market not only
supports this activity, it is increasingly demanding it. But are
developers too slow to adapt?

While Mr. Arth
talks dismissively about libertarians, it is actually socialist
zoning policies that are the biggest obstacle to urban renewal á
la New Pedestrianism. Much of Mr. Arth's vision is transplanted
from an earlier era, pre-Modern, before the advent of comprehensive
zoning. Having worked with developers myself, I can attest that
zoning often turns idealistic urban designers into lowest-common-denominator
subdivision builders. It introduces extra costs into the development
process, eating into the wiggle-room used for experimentation. It
mandates wide roads, allotted parking-per-unit, low densities, and
single uses. Often, developers are stripped of discretion over how
their communities will be designed by mandatory urban plans with
particular street layouts and landscaping requirements. If it weren't
hard enough to convince stubborn developers that they can still
make a buck on more friendly designs, they are almost universally
prohibited from doing so legally.

Michael E.
Arth's New Pedestrianism is the post-modern solution for urban decay.
We will return to a lifestyle that de-emphasizes the automobile
and supports human-scale interaction. The Europeans are way ahead
of us on this one, but with a dose of American ingenuity, Mr. Arth
has found a way to incorporate our automotive dependence into the
context of a true urban space. I have no doubt that ideas such as
these, perhaps popularized by Mr. Arth's new feature film on the
subject, will enter the mainstream of urban design practice in my
generation. Mr. Arth may have a few dead links, but his greatest
vision will foster many lives well lived.

September
29, 2008

Mike
Vine [send him mail]
is a writer and musician living in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. He
holds a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Tulane University, and has
worked in real estate development in Toronto. He is a member of
the Free State Project and the Campaign for Liberty. His friends
and family say he’s too intense and intellectual, concerns to which
he gave serious thought. He blogs at MikeVine.com.

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