Right-thinking New Urbanism

Fenster quotes:

Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing (on New Urbanism) has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

That’s from Robert Steuteville, at Better Cities and Towns.

And here’s a blog devoted to New Urbanism at The American Conservative.

And an article in The Week.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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18 Responses to Right-thinking New Urbanism

  1. JV says:

    This is interesting because I never considered a conservative resistance to New Urbanism. It’s probably the word “urbanism” they’re blanching at, which to some may connote throngs of brown people or something, I don’t know. I bet if the term Tradition Neighborhood Development (TND) was used, as it is here (http://www.tndtownpaper.com/neighborhoods.htm), those some people against NU would be all for it.

    What’s really happening, I think, is that conservatism is moving more and more towards personal isolationism and further away from community engagement. To many, freedom is more about “freedom from” than “freedom to.” NU or TND is about creating neighborhoods with public space as the focus, which means more contact with, shudder, “the public.” But whatever, everyone has their preferences, mine tend more towards multi-use neighborhoods rather than the slow and quiet death of suburban bedroom communities. And hey, I live in the latter, so obviously I’m not one to lecture people as I should probably reevaluate some of my life choices, ha.


    • fenster says:

      Was your use of “blanching” in a white-and-black context intentional? Or your subconscious at work?

      I suspect you are right about that to some extent. Urban issues have been Democrat issues in terms of policy since the 60s.

      There is also the fetishization of the market apparent in some conservative quarters. Individual choice is paramount and if that leads to sprawl, well then it must be the case that that is somehow a true preference.

      There’s a communitarian side to the right, though, as there is to the left. TAC has that tendency–witness Rod Dreher. The paleo can lean that way too, bring unafraid to endorse things like tradition even if that means bowing down to authority figures that hold power over a collective and demand respect.

      In the end, there is no real political analysis without an understanding of the cultural underpinnings. I am a communitarian when it comes to things that require collective action–which are many!–but a proper community is only possible when there are shared values sufficient to allow community to flourish.


  2. JV says:

    “Was your use of “blanching” in a white-and-black context intentional? Or your subconscious at work?”

    I wish I could say it was intentional, but I’m not that clever.

    That’s a good point about some conservatives believing in the wisdom of the market. Give the people what they want! Although, it wasn’t purely market forces that led to suburban sprawl; rather, it was a myriad of government policies, starting with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, that not just enabled but spearheaded sprawl.

    I agree that you can’t have community without some kind of shared value system, and manufacturing that is hard if not impossible.


  3. JV says:

    Meant to add:

    I agree that you can’t have community without some kind of shared value system, and manufacturing that is hard if not impossible. But, physical spaces can influence group behavior for better or worse. Get people in contact with each other and I think we’d see possibilities to build shared values increase. And then we’re back to “world-government” worries.


  4. Sgt. Joe Friday says:

    I have never considered Joel Kotkin to be a “conservative,” and I doubt he’d characterize his own views that way. He has a weekly column in my hometown newspaper, the Orange County Regiser, and it’s pretty apparent that he considers himself to be a Pat Brown Denocrat.


    • fenster says:

      I think that’s right. Suspect Kotkin gets dumped in with conservatives since he is not a lockstep progressive and, in this context, a bit too warm about sprawl.


  5. yak jam says:

    “Was your use of “blanching” in a white-and-black context intentional? Or your subconscious at work?”

    whitesplaining whitewash


  6. agnostic says:

    Like most fronts in the culture war, this urbanist vs. sprawl thing is mostly a battle between elite factions.

    There’s the big business elites (Republicans) who want us to live in company towns dominated by Walmart, Home Depot, and Taco Bell.

    Then there’s the lifestyle elites (Democrats) who want us… or at least them, to live in as convincing of a simulation of Paris as possible (or rather, Paris before the darkies). But given how desperate, urgent, and hurried the project will be, it will be fake and annoying rather than organic and charming.

    Instead of a sprawling big box center with Walmart, Home Depot, and Taco Bell, they bring us a “lifestyle center” with a Target, TJ Maxx / Home Goods, and Starbucks.

    The location is definitely not urban, in the sense of dense urban core, but the sprawling outer rings of the city limits. Technically not the suburbs, though. The footprint is a bit smaller than the big box center, though still vacant enough to feel alienating — worsened by the rootless nature of the buildings and the business operating in them. And there will be some overpriced, shoddily built apartments or condos nearby, perhaps with an overrated “deli” and ATM below them to qualify as “mixed use”.

    That’s really-existing New Urbanism — a lifestyle center with a cube o’ condos.


  7. agnostic says:

    It’s not like there aren’t any small towns left in America. But participating in the real history of real towns and neighborhoods puts you in the role of preservationist and steward — hardly what some rootless tax-dodger has in mind, or the airhead lifestyle-hopper.

    Why the obsession with re-creating Main Street and small-town life rather than returning to a still-living small town with a Main Street? The New Urbanists are taking the transplant striver phenomenon as an inexorable force, and trying to make it less alienating and soul-crushing.

    But you can’t get communal blood from a deracinated stone.

    You also can’t get it from a place where there are no clans. In order to achieve a higher level of communal integration like a town, city, or region, it must be standing on the next-highest level — the extended family or clan. You can’t just plop a bunch of nuclear families and singletons in Phoenix and expect them to form a strong community.

    Both the business and lifestyle elites reject the clan as a prerequisite, for varying reasons, but the upshot is that they both favor shallow and rootless residing-areas.

    Just as you can’t have a cohesive nuclear family with a bunch of isolated apathetic individuals, you can’t have a cohesive clan with a bunch of isolated apathetic nuclear families. Nor can you have a cohesive community with a bunch of isolated apathetic clans.

    The “new tribalism” is supposed to be what sociologists call achieved status rather than ascribed status. But tribalism cannot be held together by shared values — just look at how atomized the right-wing gated community and the left-wing hipster enclave always turn out. They need shared history and shared blood.


    • JV says:

      Those old small towns started with the design and construction of walkable, multi-use downtown areas and organically grew around these very intentionally designed town centers over the decades. But they were new, once, full of recent arrivals. Neighborhoods built around New Urbanist principles haven’t been around that long, so I’d say it’s too early to write them off as “fake.” What’s fake about actual buildings and walkable town centers with actual business in them? Authentic and charming downtown areas are really just the same intentional publics spaces plus the patina of time. They didn’t just happen. Also, physical spaces have a lot of influence over how people behave. Build a neighborhood around public spaces and accessibility and you’ll find people out walking. Build one around the automobile and strip malls, and you’ll find people driving from one enclosed area to another.

      As for revitalizing existing small town centers, that does happen, quite often. It happened in the small town I live in, which went from almost vacant when we moved here in 2003 to what you might consider almost too quaint and charming, but quite busy. We’re lucky in that we’re 10-20 minutes from larger cities with plenty of jobs. In more isolated small towns, the jobs just aren’t there any more, so the town centers don’t get revitalized and those “rootless” people are forced to move elsewhere to put food on the table.


  8. slumlord. says:

    There’s a lot to unpack here Fenster.

    I got admit, I nearly spat my coffee out when I found out–to my surprise– that that the Right is against the New Urbanism. The fact is that the biggest critics of the New Urbanists have been the Left. Trendy architects who despise the “pasticheness” of it and town planners who regarded it as unegalitarian. In fact New Urbanism is premised on the goodness of traditional architectural forms and Urban planning, and tradition is not something the Left is known to be a champion of.

    Conservatism has pretty much been on a losing streak during the 20th Century with the exception of architecture, where spontaneous popular movements have risen to stop the destruction of beautiful old buildings. Preservation, is perhaps, the only populist form of Conservatism left which is socially acceptable.

    Now, ‘m generally in broad agreement with the Principles of the New Urbanist movement…. However…

    The New Urbanism is a funny thing and needs to be broken down into its two constituent components;

    a) It’s embrace of traditional design forms, something I strongly approve of.
    b) It’s adherence to the modern notion of town planning, with town planner being strictly in control of the development of the town and strongly regulating it down to the smallest detail. It’s the Lefty town planner in conservative drag. Here is where I think legitimate criticism of it lays and it is here where it most strongly resembles the Left.

    Cities and towns are organic things, and there needs to be a little “give” with regard to land use in order for the spontaneity of city life to flourish. Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” speech isn’t just great dialog but points to the danger of excessive control by too much order. This idea is antithetical to the modern town planner who micromanages to the smallest detail. Dressing near totalitarian micromanagement in a conservative aesthetic doesn’t really change it’s nature. And the one thing that New Urbanists do, much like their modernist counterparts, is obsess about every detail of land use.

    If you ever get the chance, I would recommend you read Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. It’s, in my opinion, an masterpiece of architectural insight, and needs to be really seen as a companion to Jane Jacobs’ book. American intellectualism at its best. While Brand doesn’t take on the New Urbanists his ideas do challenge some of their notions. He can see the utility of some “messiness” in urban regulation, something which would horrify most of the NU crowd.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. fenster says:

    “Lots to unpack.” Right!

    There’s this from agnostic: “But you can’t get communal blood from a deracinated stone.” There’s an irony here, no? I mean, as you point out, there are plenty or existing places that embody NU principles without having to start from scratch. I have tended to live in them over time, and do so today. But there are many such places that upper middle-class NU advocates would tend to avoid. Why? Too many people there are not like them. Working class, Actually diverse. So in an odd way, some of the fuel for NU development comes from the tribal impulse: I want to not only live in a walkable neighborhood, but I want it to be safe, cute and filled with people of my tribe. So I think there is a bit of the blood instinct at work.

    Whether that makes for a sound development is another issue. It may be that upper middle-class types may want walkability and the look and feel of an old neighborhood but that they do not have the habits of the heart that we tend to associate with small town life. I remember a realtor telling me once that as pretty as Cranbury NJ is from a small town perspective


    the place tended to empty out each morning with DINK commuters who, on returning, would forsake the front porch for the BBQ out back. That could be unfair to Cranbury since I didn’t live there, but it points to a kind of mismatch between ostensible taste and actual use.

    Of course, just as buildings can learn from people, people can learn from buildings. And as JV points out, living in a real neighborhood may have the effect over time of rebuilding the habits of the heart that went missing.

    I agree with slumlord on the dangers of too heavy a hand. On the other hand, and as much as there is a decent argument that bad zoning and not just markets contribute to sprawl, it does not seem sensible that the invisible hand will do the job. Back Bay in Boston didn’t just happen. The framework for development was done in a collective fashion. But a lot of the messy details were privately decided.


    • slumlord. says:

      “The framework for development was done in a collective fashion. But a lot of the messy details were privately decided.”

      That’s the sweet-spot. What I’m trying to push through is something similar in my neck of the woods much to the opposition of the architects. What I’d like to see is more stringent design guidelines with less stringent town planning regulations. I’m quite happy to see new development–as are most of the other locals–provided the design is in keeping with the architectural features of the surrounding area. This, of course, drives the architects nuts.

      “So in an odd way, some of the fuel for NU development comes from the tribal impulse: I want to not only live in a walkable neighborhood, but I want it to be safe, cute and filled with people of my tribe. ”

      I dunno Fenster. I reckon part of NU’s appeal–unlike the rest of building industry establishment–is the fact that it advocates traditional architectural forms which is what people, especially most middle class people, actually want. The nicely preserved old bits of the major cities are now super-expensive and out of reach for nearly all except the upper middle class and above. New ‘affordable” developments are either flat out ugly or architectural experiments which everyone but the architects hates. So whenever anything new Urban comes along it gets snapped up very quickly by the highest bidder. Jakriborg, in southern Sweden has a two year waiting list for purchase of properties.

      Le Plessis Robinson, another Le Corb inspired hole was remarkably transformed by its Gaullist (Right wing) mayor, much to the opposition of les proles. i.e. The Left. It is now thoroughly bourgeois.

      This limited supply ensures that only those with the coin can get in and that’s still the WASPy types or their equivalents. It’s the economic barrier, due to limited supply, that ensures the tribal homogeneity.


  10. agnostic says:

    “But they were new, once, full of recent arrivals. . . Authentic and charming downtown areas are really just the same intentional publics spaces plus the patina of time.”

    Sadly not. They require time to grow, but they don’t grow all by themselves. They need people to stick around — individuals, nuclear families, clans, and broader social circles. Otherwise they never develop roots, and the place will only amount to an artificial town that serves transplants, each wave hitting the big reset button on community ties.

    Without folks sticking around, there will be no stewardship, no civic life, no superorganic ties that stretch back into the past and the future.

    Let’s see how many of these lifestyle hoppers and tax dodgers are hanging around the same general place 20 years from now. Approximately: zero.


    • JV says:

      I’m sure there are stats somewhere detailing percentage of residents moving vs. staying for various periods of time. It would be interesting to see. Anecdotally, here in the small California town I live in, I’d say 80% of the kids’ friends have been here at least as long as we have (12 years and counting). My brother lives in the neighboring town, same there. Are you seeing something different where you live?

      People have always moved around in the US, even during the period you mention, the 20s to the 70s. Are people really moving around more today? For the life of me, I couldn’t find those stats online. Do you have such evidence? Also, I’m curious to know how long must one reside in one place before he/she is not longer a “transplant?”


  11. agnostic says:

    The top-down vs. bottom-up thing also ties into the fast vs. slow growth factor. The faster a town grows, the more artificial and alienating it will be, and the worse its prognosis as a community. Prolonged double- or triple-digit growth is just another pathway for roots to be blocked.

    Just look at any Gilded Age boomtown, from Butte to Detroit to the cities along the Erie Canal.

    They might have coasted through the Great Compression of circa 1920 to 1970, but they are ghost towns or worse by now. Meanwhile cities like Birmingham or Columbus, which got later starts as large cities, flew more under the radar, and have not hemorrhaged natives and turned into ghost towns or transplant colonies.


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