Friday, February 10, 2012

New Urbanist Melange

It’s time for my annual “Bait the New Urbanists” blog (see header above). For those new to the urban scene, the New Urbanist is an urban planner (and those of like mind), who believes in the scripture proposed and adopted at the 1991 conference at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley (HERE). These principles became the constitution for the soon to be formed Congress for New Urbanism (HERE). Its urban standard bearer is the elite and very exclusive community Seaside, Florida. Another community is Mountain House near Tracy, California. Mountain House has the distinction of being a community with one of the highest foreclosure and failure rates in the United States. I guess the concept of New Urbanism includes all forms of housing and development.

During this crisis in housing there is much blame and fault to go around. Greed has a lot of admirers: banks, home owners, cities, state governments, and speculators just to name a few. The New Urbanist believes that through an innovative and far reaching program of community and regional planning, all the ills of community growth will go away. The Congress for New Urbanism’s call to the battlement is this:
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 and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
All warm and fuzzy isn’t it, and naïve. Reminds me of the phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

From this initial statement and along with the principles, significant mischief has crept into innumerable governmental zoning and general plan changes. They are heavily involved with California High Speed Rail. The Vision California report issued on state wide land use planning and the rail’s impact on the state (HERE) was written by members of this group. They have pushed through draconian Design Guidelines in cities across the country that now control every aspect of a city’s zoning, street design, and even the size of a home’s porch. And during the past twenty years thousands of young pliable city planners, architects, and urban designers have read the works of Andres Duhany, Peter Calthorpe, Daniel Solomon, and Peter Katz (The New Urbanism, Toward an Architecture of Community). There was a time where not one issue of Architectural Record or Urban Land would arrive without some glowing article about the newest and greatest Urbanist neighborhood. They even cowed and coopted the Urban Land Institute.

But where are they now? In a market where builders and developers needed planners, they lived well, now not so much. In a time when governments were flush, they cajoled and inveigled their way about. Now they live for grants and hopeful federal monies. They like all us in the design professions have been decimated. Past glories and awards are trumpeted, yet the dream for a master planned America has fallen short. And I, as a Decentrist planner, am saddened but sheepish. Americans are more rough and tumble sorts of fellows; leave me to my own devices, my own ideals, my own way. Cute communities with high fees and managers looking over my rear yard fence are not for me; roundabouts are foreign conspiracies, front porches are very nice, but give me a bigger back yard. My garage isn’t just for my truck, it’s my shop and public storage unit. Life is hard enough without rules on where to live, not just how.

While many of the principles are wise and for the most part common sense, it is the overall theme of control that bothers me. The belief in regional planning on such a scale that the power of small towns is swallowed up and lost. The belief that a small group of public employees can properly drive the future of regions and cities is foolish and scary (i.e. The Great Society, Pruitt Igoe, Mountain House). I like the confused and messy aspects of the planning process. It riles up the neighbors, gets them out the house once and while, and gets them to peek into the stew that their officials are cooking up. The one great fear about this New Urbanist ethic is that “we will take care of you, no need to look in the pot, trust us –we are here to help.”

Stay Tuned . . . .

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