Friday, July 1, 2005
by Jocelyne Leger, The Register
A question for the New
Urbanists: If sprawl is so bad, how come life is so good for
so many in Orange County?
To most of us who live here, Orange County is a beautiful
place, filled with well-kept neighborhoods, dramatic views,
great restaurants and shopping, and ... well, you know all the
lovely things that are here, from La Habra to San Clemente,
from Seal Beach to Yorba Linda.
To the Congress for the New Urbanism, a group of planners,
architects, academics and others who held their annual
conference earlier this month in Pasadena, Orange County is
"the epitome of sprawl." It's a troubled place, populated by
car-dependent, soul-destroyed automatons who would really
prefer tolive in a world similar to Manhattan, Chicago,
or at least Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo.
As Orange County developers prepare to build tens of
thousands of new houses in the next decade at places such as
East Orange and Rancho Mission Viejo, it's crucial to consider
whether these influential urbanists have a point or whether
their ideas amount to utopian nonsense.
I'd suggest New Urbanists raise certain reasonable points,
but it's mostly the latter.
Some of what the New Urbanists like, I like too:
pedestrian- friendly neighborhoods, traditional architecture.
But their depiction of suburban America is wrongheaded, and
policy prescriptions from New Urbanists and their allies in
the Smart Growth movement range from the commendable (i.e.,
reducing zoning restrictions in urban areas) to the outlandish
(i.e., growth controls, metropolitan governments).
The New Urbanists dislike current design forms, in which
most people live in a fairly large house on a suburban street
with a decent-sized yard and a two-car garage. We should live
in townhouses or apartments, they explain, with little or no
back yards, and should walk to work, to shopping, or take the
light-rail line or other form of transit when we need to
New Urbanists display little interest in the reason most
people prefer suburbia - it's a good place to raise kids. As
one architect friend of mine explains, New Urbanism is good
for a specific demographic - i.e., childless yuppies - but
fails when it seeks to impose that one idea on the entire
Unfortunately, New Urbanists aren't content simply
designing stuff for that small, wealthy group. They want to
change society, so these sprawl-haters use doomsday language
to push forward their ideas.
"There is going to be such an implosion of suburban
property values that it is going to make people's heads spin,"
boasted author James Kunstler to CNN in 2001. He claims that
suburbs will "be the ruins of tomorrow." The $590,000 median
price in O.C. is nearly twice what it was when he made his
prediction, but I digress. Kunstler was referred to at one CNU
conference presentation as a possible heir to revered planners
Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard, whose ideas are the basis
of New Urbanism.
What about people's freedoms and choices?
"The argument that people like driving around in their SUVs
and living in pod subdivisions is really beside the point,"
Kunstler added. "People also like shooting heroin. People also
like drinking too much. ... We are spiritually impoverishing
ourselves by living in these environments."
Perhaps I overstated things when I called this movement
"totalitarian" in a column earlier this year. There are
hard-core elements within the movement, but not every New
Urbanist is a wannabe Pol Pot, who emptied entire cities to
reform the way Cambodians lived.
In fairness, many New Urbanists simply want to build new
towns within the marketplace, and want zoning changes that
allow them to do so. CNU President John Norquist, the former
mayor of Milwaukee, talks more about limiting government than
about expanding it, although he is far more moderate than many
But New Urbanism is a moving target. When I criticized
self-described New Urbanists' use of eminent domain, subsidies
and government planning (I used downtown Brea as an example),
CNU officials told me that is not the New Urbanism.
But when I spoke to a panel at the conference, as one of
two New Urbanism critics in a session called "Conservatives
and New Urbanism," I noted that literature CNU handed out
celebrated Brea as a great example of New Urbanism. Is it New
Urbanism or not?
When I criticize heavy-handed regulatory approaches, New
Urbanists tell me that isn't really New Urbanism, but Smart
Growth. Yet my conference packet included promotions for a
Smart Growth event, New Urbanists often make no distinctions
themselves between the two movements, and the Charter of the
New Urbanism, the document that underscores the movement's
philosophy, includes these words:
"We advocate the restructuring of public policy and
development practices to support the following principles:
neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population;
communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit
as well as the car; cities should be shaped by physically
defined and universally accessible public spaces ... ."
Restructuring public policy sounds an awful lot like Smart
Growth. The charter also calls for metropolitan solutions. In
Orange County, for instance, we have 34 separate cities and no
single dominant city, as in Los Angeles County. Bigger cities
make it easier for special interests - i.e., unions, planners,
developers, environmentalists, etc. - to control things.
Smaller cities breed innovation, competition, efficiency and
New Urbanists are gaga over Portland, Ore., which is the
most tightly regulated big city in America, in terms of land
use. A "green line" has been imposed around the urban limits,
essentially outlawing all suburban development, and it is run
by a dystopian metropolitan land-use agency mired in legal
So are the New Urbanists for more freedom or less freedom?
My conclusion: They are for more freedom when it suits their
design goals and less freedom when it suits their design
goals. No one at the panel talked about property rights,
freedom, individualism, etc. Their guiding principles are
During my panel, one of the movement's founders, Andres
Duany, admitted that he would use any means available -
including eminent domain and government regulation - to
achieve the desired result of more New Urbanist communities. I
take that as the final word on the matter.
To the degree New Urbanism is a design movement operating
in the free market, I'm for it. No writer has been more vocal
in his support for efforts by the city of Anaheim, for
instance, to reduce zoning restrictions to allow
higher-density construction in the Platinum Triangle. To the
degree New Urbanism is defined by subsidies, growth controls
and a new regimen of government planning, I'm against it.
Beyond the debate over public policy, I question some of
the underlying assumptions of the New Urbanists. They say
suburbia destroys a sense of community. But I live an
interconnected life with work, friends, school, church,
family, neighbors, local merchants ... in suburbia.
Really, New Urbanism is about an aesthetic, and an
aesthetic preferred by a high-income academic-minded elite.
The New Urbanism conference, despite its blather about
diversity, had the approximate diversity of the architecture
faculty at a major university.
This elitism was, at times, shocking. The panel on religion
and New Urbanism did not, as I expected, focus on urban
land-use policies that discourage church building, but
degenerated into cheap shots against the supposed evils of
Even New Urbanist hatred of strip malls drips with elitism,
notes architect Frank Hotchkiss, the former planning director
for the Southern California Association of Governments, and
attendee at the conference.
"How many immigrants made their way in America by opening a
business in one of those places?" he asked. By contrast, the
new trendy downtowns the New Urbanists prefer are often
high-end affairs, where only corporate chain stores can afford
Since World War II, America has added 100 million new urban
residents, Hotchkiss told me, and there's no way they could
have been squeezed into existing urban boundaries, as New
Urbanists prefer. What a wonderful revolution - even middle-
and lower-income people could own their own homes, with a
yard. Yet the New Urbanists dismiss this achievement,
depicting tract homes as tawdry and "unsustainable," something
destructive of our very civilization.
By all means, let's remove the barriers to New Urbanism so
developers can build these types of projects, but let's not
create new barriers that make it harder to build the suburban
houses needed to shelter the millions of new residents heading
to (or being born in) America in the next 50 years.
I'm left with this final thought: If Orange County is the
epitome of what they hate - sprawl - then there apparently are
no serious problems left in the world.
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