Objections to New Urbanism

On this page:-

  1. That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!
  2. It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way
  3. Cities are ugly!
  4. What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?
  5. How do we pay for all this?

1. That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!

Some react negatively because they are under the mistaken impression that ‘the market’ controls city growth. Wrong. Private developers might slap the bricks and mortar together, but in most western democracies they have to go through local and State town planning authorities. Suburbs are ‘planned neighbourhoods’ — but sadly, the wrong plan. You live where you live because some ‘Suburb Nazi’ authorised your division. Deal with it.

The lifestyle benefits of New Urbanism actually increase individual freedom, save personal time, decrease stress, builds community awareness and involvement, decreases alienation, increases fitness by walking and cycling, decreases pollution and generally seems better for us. As the Australian Centre for Policy Development think tank put it when critiquing suburbia:

If privacy is socially desirable what about its flipside, social isolation? If sprawl is low density, then the implication is that the distance between homes, workplaces, schools and parks will be long, and therefore people will not be able to walk, and hence will potentially be less mobile — which could, in fact, be seen as an urban form that constrains choice.

2. It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way

Some people don’t like the idea of a ‘planned community’ as it sounds too much like a ‘planned economy’. However, they forget that after America’s frontier period, many Americans lived in the city. The home of free enterprise initially started with huge populations living in an Urban environment — but sadly some of these were quite horrible during the early industrial period. (Resulting in fear of Urban forms, see below). However, the point is that the Urban environment can be as American as the stars and stripes! As “The End of Suburbia” documentary points out so well, suburbia is not the ‘American dream’ — that’s just the particular package that is currently being sold. The ‘American dream’ is that anyone can make it. Being ‘right wing’ is not about town planning but economic models. I repeat: someone in government authorised your subdivision!

For evidence that a new town plan is not some lefty conspiracy, please consider that many American’s now want to live the ‘Seinfeld life’ but just cannot afford it because of the high demand on inner city accommodation. What if we lowered that price by supplying more urbanism??

Also consider some of the right wing bloggers attitudes to New Urbanism. One of my favourite science fiction writers is Orson Scott Card who wrote the classic Ender’s Game. He runs a very right wing blog, was for the Iraq war, and seems to even be afflicted by Global Warming scepticism. But even he has written some blogs that could almost appear on this site. Walking distance neighbourhoods (April 2007) states:

1. Oil dependence funds our enemies.
2. We waste huge amounts of time driving.
3. Cars kill 40,000 Americans a year; drive less, save lives.
4. Car ownership is a crushing tax on the poor.
5. Our oil supply will run out someday.
6. Parking lots have paved our landscapes.
7. It’s not like we need the air pollution.
8. The exercise of walking or biking makes us healthier.

Then there’s Oil, past the peak in which he writes:

But my friend has forgotten his history (or, knowing America’s educational system, he never knew it). Towns all start bunched up. Even tiny villages bunch up — for protection, so you know who belongs and who doesn’t. The spreading only began with the car….But my plan would require the developer to build the grocery store into the plan for the village he’s building right from the start. The streets would all connect; no cul-de-sacs. There would be sidewalks everywhere, and retail close at hand. It would be a neighborhood from the moment you move in.

Right now, the reason we build in distant, isolated neighborhoods is because they are undesirable and therefore easier to afford. If they were desirable, then that is the land that would be in the most demand, and therefore it would be the most expensive.

See another post of Card’s, Life without cars.

3. “Cities are ugly!”

This objection I can sort of understand. I’ve seen some VERY ugly Urban areas. Basically, any planning tool can go wrong, but the vast majority of Urban areas you hate were probably built for the car. Compare the New Urbanism built for pedestrians on the left with ugly Car-Urbanism on the right. (Image from Ped-Shed.)

Also please consider which are some of the most romantic cities in the world…. I doubt the McDonalds on your local interstate qualifies! Consider Venice and Rome as models of ‘dense and diverse’ living.

4. What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?

What happens to the massive areas outside the new city zoning limits? This is where Re-zoning is so beautiful. Natural attrition solves most of the problem. As each suburban house reaches the end of its life and is demolished, instead of rebuilding it in the same lot on the same boring old suburban grid, the house is torn down. Many of the materials are reused and recycled. Bitumen is torn up and used as local construction materials, and the land is gradually restored to local agriculture. Farmlands, woodlands, bee-keepers, chook-runs, pig pens, dairy farms all return to supply a significant quantity of local food and recreation to the future eco-city. Indeed, check out these diagrams from a contact I respect who has visualised Adelaide collapsing back around a more sustainable city plan over the next few generations.

However, getting there may be easier for some areas than it is for others. There are some truly VAST areas of suburbia across the USA, I’m not sure how sustainable they will be. See “End of Suburbia” for more. I’m sorry. The risks are real, and I’m not sure that a magic technology will arrive just in time to save ‘deep suburbia’. We may even see some areas being abandoned as New Orleans was after Katrina. I just don’t know. I’ve offered a vision of where I wish society would head, FAST, but can only guess as to how vast tracts of suburban beltway are going to cope. Some areas in Western Sydney could be in serious trouble as well.

5. How do we pay for all this?

The first thing to note, as I stated on my summary Rezone page, is that cities are changing anyway. Over time, cities are gradually rebuilt. We just need to rezone the rules, and let natural attrition take over and most of this will be done within the next generation. Indeed, it may not be a question of how to afford New Urbanism but how can cities afford not to adopt New Urbanism! The reality is suburban sprawl is expensive and largely subsidised by denser city cores.

Next page: Tall Timbers – the fastest way to build New Urbanism for 3 billion people in record time? Easy! Build from wood!

4 Responses to Objections to New Urbanism

  1. In response to no 2., auto-centric suburbs only started taking off after WW2. Prior to that, all neighborhoods in America were built in a similar way around walking and streetcars, extending a tradition of proven city-building techniques extending back to the Ancient Greeks. This nonsense about the “The American Way” is just a massive propaganda campaign to sell cars and shoddy suburban houses.

    In response to no 4, the sad truth is that the vast majority of the stuff we’ve built in the past 50 years will just have to be bulldozed. There is no way we are going to build enough nuclear plants, solar panels, wind turbines or whatever to both cover all of our electricity needs AND replace all the oil we use in cars with electricity for EVs. The only answer is electrified mass transit and walkable cities and towns.

  2. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I agree with your first paragraph, but charging EV’s is not really a problem for a decade or so.
    See point 2 here:

    • Ok, I’ll concede the point. But there’s still the basic problem of how to store all these electric vehicles. If you require free parking at every location, every place takes up 3-10 times more space than it would otherwise and the result is sprawl. If cars are going to continue to be used in the future, and it looks like they will be, then we should at least require that all parking be below ground or in garages, and that all parking be paid parking. In addition, highways should not go through urban areas or if they do, they should be below ground, with a pedestrian-friendly boulevard above.

      From an aesthetic and safety perspective, it would be better to just ditch cars completely, but that will probably never happen.

  3. Eclipse Now says:

    As Robot Cars hit the market, they can just drop us off at our destination and drive away to charge in a half-sized bunker underground somewhere. They’ll build them more compact because for the most part, people will not be walking through them. Garage service techs will just scoot around on low bikes. Robot cars will eventually create much cheaper cab fares, because there will be no cost of driver labour. This means people will be happier on public transport. It’s win win.

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