| Thursday, April 7, 2005
City planning by Those Who Know
Many readers may be unfamiliar with New Urbanism and Smart
Growth, two planning ideologies that are the hippest thing in
the world of urban design. While the fixations of trendy
planners might not register on the list of things that average
Americans think about, these new utopian land-use ideals are
filtering down into government agencies and city councils, and
might eventually impact the way we all live.
It's time for more of us to get concerned, and to pay
attention to what the planners are thinking, especially as
O.C. seems to be at a planning transition point - continuing
to spread out southward (i.e.: Rancho Mission Viejo) even as
it rises upward with new high-rise proposals in more densely
populated areas of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine.
Recent history, in fact, shows that crucial debates in
Orange County are to some degree an outgrowth of that new way
of thinking about land-use planning. The attempts to build the
CenterLine light-rail system despite the Orange County
Transportation Authority's own data proving that the system
would not move more than a fraction of a percent of county
commuters is just one example of it.
It was never about transportation, but about planning,
about implementing the transportation system that is at the
core of the New Urbanist thinking, which emphasizes
high-density urban living and eschews the supposed
wastefulness of the car culture.
The cartoonish redevelopment-driven, subsidy-created faux
downtowns built (or planned) in cities such as Brea, Yorba
Linda, Placentia, Buena Park (officials there have dubbed the
old mall a "downtown"!), Huntington Beach, Dana Point and
elsewhere also contain echoes of New Urbanism/Smart Growth.
(New Urbanism is the planning philosophy and Smart Growth is
its implementation in the political world. For purposes of
this article, I use the terms interchangeably.)
Here's a description of the New Urbanism from the Web site,
"New Urbanism is the most important planning movement this
century, and is about creating a better future for us all. It
is an international movement to reform the design of the built
environment, and is about raising our quality of life and
standard of living by creating better places to live. New
Urbanism is the revival of our lost art of place-making, and
is essentially a reordering of the built environment into the
form of complete cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods ...
Whenever some ideologue claims to offer the most important
thing since sliced bread and then promises to reorder my life
around it, we should all get nervous.
New Urbanists are reacting against the suburbanization of
American society. In their world, selfish Americans abandoned
the inner city, with its joyful mix of high-rise living and
neighborhood stores, and took up residence in ugly, look-alike
tract houses rimmed by Wal-Mart-encrusted strip malls.
Suburbanization embodies everything they hate about our
society: consumerism, automobiles, the triumph of low
New Urbanists never mention that urban liberalism helped
destroy urban life through its emphasis on social engineering
and its failure to provide decent basic services (schools,
safe streets, trash removal, etc.) and thus propelled
family-oriented people into the hinterlands.Butthere is some
truth that the newer suburbs lack distinctiveness.
A non-New Urbanist, Joel Kotkin, puts the matter succinctly
in a recent Washington Post article, which I found on the
Claremont Institute's Local Liberty blog: "The suburbs have
given us - in terms of space, quality of life, safety and
privacy - much more of what we call 'the American Dream' than
cities ever could. What they have failed to do, often
miserably, is to live up to their promise of becoming
self-contained, manageable communities that can both co-exist
amiably with the natural environment and offer a sense of
Proudly, fiercely suburban Orange County might strike the
urban sophisticate as a miasma of sprawl, but it is no such
thing. Many cities have their own downtown, their own
distinctive flavor. Fullerton functions like an old Midwestern
city. It runs together with other cities, but so what? That's
what happens in urban areas.
Look at the thriving Little Saigon in Westminster, at the
stylish beachfront cities such as Laguna Beach and San
Clemente, at Old Towne Orange or downtown Santa Ana, or at any
of the many beautiful, tree-lined suburban neighborhoods that
epitomize this lovely county. This county is awash in style
and personality - even if it is not the particular style and
personality preferred by Those Who Know Best.
The New Urbanists pick on the ugliest form of suburban
sprawl and compare it to the loftiest vision of urban living.
They don't mention that even the most sprawling older suburbs
(such as those in north Orange County) are bubbling with life,
as immigrant businesses revamp strip malls. The suburbs are
not uniform or soulless, despite the rhetoric.
New Urbanists never mention the word freedom. They are
consumed by the form of a city, without thinking about the
people who inhabit the communities they seek to reorient.
Well, they think about them, much in the way that chess player
thinks about his chess pieces. But they don't think about the
hopes and aspirations of individuals.
The New Urbanist paradises have a certain appeal,
especially when one is on vacation. But because of the growth
controls and central planning, these are expensive places to
live. The average family cannot afford to live in places like
San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Ann Arbor, the model
societies the New Urbanists want to create everywhere.
In Portland, Ore., the city where Smart Growthers have had
control of the government for years, the hip neighborhoods
"seem to have everything in new urban design and comfort,"
reported the New York Times last month. "Everything except
children. ... Officials say that the very things that attract
people who revitalize a city - dense vertical housing,
fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes
a car unnecessary - are driving out children by making the
neighborhoods too expensive for young families."
The New Urbanists claim to want to give our lives meaning
by creating superior urban forms of living, yet they miss the
most meaningful things in life because they emphasize
architecture over people. Like all totalitarians, they assume
that what they prefer is so good and noble that they have the
moral right to impose it on everybody else.
The rest of us need to take notice now, so there is still
time to oppose it.
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