“New Urbanism,” the latest fad in urban planning, promises less traffic, better air, and lower taxes. Here’s what it really delivers.
Randal O’Toole | January 1999 Print Edition
In 1992, residents of Portland, Oregon, were terrified that their growing city was fast becoming the Pacific Northwest’s version of Los Angeles–as they saw it, a congested, polluted city with too many cars and too little sense of community. The threat was considered so serious that a traditional anti-growth response–a tough, comprehensive land-use plan limited to the actual city boundaries–wasn’t enough. To prevent the paving of Portland, area voters signed off on the creation of Metro, a regional planning authority with dictatorial land-use planning powers over 24 cities and three counties.
To hear Metro boosters describe it, Portland-area residents can now rest easy. The concrete landscape of Southern California won’t be copied any time soon in the Beaver State. Far from it. Though Metro’s experts predict that the region’s population will grow by 75 percent in the next few decades, the agency has a plan that will accommodate these newcomers while promoting “livable neighborhoods,” “protecting open space,” “reducing dependence on the automobile,” and maintaining “affordable housing” and lower infrastructure costs. All in all, an idyllic package: better neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets, cheaper housing, and lower taxes.
What will it take to reach such goals? Only the community’s desire–as codified in Metro’s planning and zoning laws–to squeeze more people and more businesses into smaller spaces under tighter regulatory control. Metro’s regional plan restricts development outside of an urban growth boundary that allows only a 6 percent expansion of the urbanized area for at least two decades. The plan also doubles or triples the population density of many neighborhoods by rezoning them to require apartments, row houses, or other high-density housing whenever new construction is undertaken.
Additionally, Metro sets strict population targets for each of the 24 cities and three counties under its dominion, forcing them to convert 10,000 acres of prime farmlands, golf courses, city parks, and other open spaces to high-density residential or commercial uses. Finally, Metro plans to spend billions of dollars to build 100 miles of rail transit lines to free residents from their cars.
Reduced congestion, better air quality, lower taxes. No wonder Portland has gotten great national press and praise. There’s only one little problem: Metro’s own data say the plan is doomed to failure.
Consider, for instance, Metro’s bold, confident prediction that its plan will double public transit usage. Since transit currently carries less than 2.5 percent of Portland-area trips, doubling that doesn’t get you very far toward a car-free utopia. Similarly, Metro expects at best a modest decline in auto usage, from 92 percent of urban trips to 88 percent. In fact, given the 75 percent population increase that Metro predicts over 50 years, that translates into five cars driving around for every three cars today. Accordingly, planners estimate that traffic congestion will triple or quadruple and that air pollution will increase.
Then there’s the tax question. Metro wants to pay for the rail lines it says will lure people out of autos by adding billions of dollars to local property taxes. And to promote high-density development in an area already glutted with apartments, Portland and other area cities are giving developers millions of dollars in tax breaks and other subsidies that will ultimately come out of residents’ pockets. Meanwhile, housing prices are skyrocketing because of the artificial land shortage created by the urban growth boundary, giving Portland the least affordable housing in the nation after only San Francisco.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. Remember how Metro was supposed to save Portland from becoming Oregon’s answer to L.A.? In 1994, Metro planners studied the nation’s 50 largest urban areas to see which one was closest to the future they envisioned for Portland–one with higher population densities and fewer roads. It turned out that the metropolitan area–defined as all of the land in and around a city whose population density exceeds 1,000 people per square mile–with the highest population density also had the fewest miles of freeway per capita. Its name: Los Angeles. While the city of Los Angeles proper has a lower density than New York City, the Los Angeles metro area is nearly one-third denser than the New York metro area, which includes–among other places–northeastern New Jersey and Long Island. Far from being the incarnation of evil, auto-dependent sprawl, L.A. was the model to emulate.
To their credit, Metro planners did fess up to this unexpected and uncomfortable finding, daring to write, “With respect to density and road per capita mileage, [Los Angeles] displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate” in Portland. Of course, saying this out loud would have meant instant death for their plans, if not their persons. So the document in which this conclusion is reached is available only to people willing to pay $10 for a 60-page booklet filled with eyeball-glazing graphs and statistics.
Here’s another irony: Despite such glaring and self-evident contradictions, Portland has become a shining beacon for urban planners, who envy Metro’s Singapore-like regulatory authority. Places ranging from Minneapolis-St. Paul (with a metro population of about 3 million) to Missoula, Montana, (43,000) have adopted plans based on the Portland model.
Welcome to the crazy world of the New Urbanism, the latest fad in urban planning. The New Urbanism is a broad-based movement of planners, architects, environmentalists, central city governments, downtown business interests, transit agencies, and engineering and construction firms that has coalesced over the past 10 years. Proponents seek to recreate the high-density cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To impose their will, New Urbanists take particular aim at suburbs and the automobiles that helped make them possible. Indeed, a more appropriate name for the movement might be Suburban Renewal, since the New Urbanists’ chief goal is to convert the suburbs–invariably regarded as banal, ugly, sterile, and inefficient–into something like inner-city areas.
A recent Sierra Club study, “The Dark Side of the American Dream,” is representative of New Urbanist thinking. “The automobile way of life is unhealthy, anti-social, and unsustainable,” claims the report, which was partly funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The New Urbanism, in contrast, seeks to create neighborhoods “where jobs, shopping, services, and recreation are all nearby” so that people can get around without cars. Low-density suburban development–pejoratively termed “sprawl”–leads to “increased congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed habitat, higher taxes and dying city centers.”
None of these claims is documented, which isn’t surprising, because none of them is true. What is true is that the Sierra Club, the American Planning Association, and other New Urbanists have definite ideas about how the suburbs should be rebuilt. Their plans usually call for the following:
- Urban growth boundaries to restrict suburban expansion.
- Prescriptive zoning and development subsidies to force higher-density development inside growth boundaries. Prescriptive zoning mandates higher densities whenever building or rebuilding occurs. If your house burns down, you may even be required to build an apartment in its place.
- Discouraging driving through “traffic calming” measures such as narrow streets, parking limits, roadway barriers, and zoning codes that require shopping malls to turn their parking lots into apartments. There may also be rules requiring employers to write up plans to reduce workers’ auto commuting.
- A focus on hugely expensive–and hugely ineffective–rail transit to the exclusion of highway construction or expansion.
New Urbanists firmly believe they can change people’s behavior by redesigning the cities in which they live. That’s not an indefensible notion, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Consider the fate of Laguna West, a widely touted Sacramento suburb designed by California architect and New Urban guru Peter Calthorpe. Calthorpe thinks suburbanites suffer from a “sense of frustration and placelessness.” To fix this, he designs what he calls “pedestrian pockets” or “transit-oriented developments” that plug people into where they live.
As envisioned by Calthorpe, Laguna West would have consisted of a “transit center” surrounded by high-density apartments and condominiums. A ring of single-family homes on small lots would surround the high-density core. Scattered throughout would be stores, offices, and other commercial uses. Most people would be able to walk to shopping, and many would be able to walk to work or the transit center.
But Laguna West was a financial failure. No one wanted to live in the high-density area, and as a result its developer went bankrupt. Instead, a new builder put low-density housing in the core. While those houses were actually salable, their presence also meant that most transit riders had to drive to the transit center. Since Calthorpe provided no parking at the transit center, drivers parked in front of other people’s homes. The homeowners objected and successfully lobbied to have the transit center moved outside of the development. Meanwhile, residents do all of their shopping at a conventional strip mall outside the development. The only commercial use inside Laguna West–a quick oil-change joint–hardly testifies to people’s decreased dependence on the auto.
If it’s hard to design a successful suburb from scratch, it’s that much more difficult to shift residents from already established patterns of land use and behavior. But urban planners all over the country are trying to impose New Urban ideals on existing suburbs and cities. Metro even hired Calthorpe to show them how pedestrian pockets and transit-oriented developments could be scattered throughout the Portland area.
Congestion as “Positive Urban Development”
The vision of a place where people walk to the grocery store and take the train to work certainly has its charms. But far from delivering urban zones from the curse of “auto-dependent” lifestyles, New Urbanist policies have consistently led to significant increases in highway congestion; deteriorating air quality (because autos pollute more in slow-moving, congested traffic); dramatic infrastructure shortfalls as sewer, water, schools, and other systems designed for low-density cities must be rebuilt for higher densities; rapidly increasing housing prices as land becomes scarce; and disappearing urban open spaces such as parks and golf courses as developers turn them into residential and other developments. Such negative outcomes are not accidental. Indeed, they are the predictable, inevitable, and often intended consequences of New Urbanist plans.
Consider the New Urbanist claim that increased population density will reduce traffic congestion. The idea makes some intuitive sense: If people are closer to one another, to jobs, and to shopping, they won’t need to drive so much to get to their destinations. But the reality is that while higher population density may slightly reduce per capita driving, it vastly increases congestion and pollution. Say, for instance, that doubling density reduces per capita driving by 10 percent. Two hundred percent as many people each driving 90 percent as much results in 180 percent as many cars. Unless the road network is expanded by 80 percent–which New Urbanists would oppose–80 percent more traffic produces a huge increase in congestion.
Real-world experience suggests that 10 percent less per capita driving with a doubling of density is about the best that can be expected. In fact, it may be overly optimistic. What’s more, Census Bureau and Federal Highway Administration data show little correlation between density and the number of miles people drive. The Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach metropolitan areas all cover about the same number of square miles. Miami has twice the density of West Palm Beach, and per capita driving is indeed about 10 percent less in Miami. But residents of Ft. Lauderdale, whose density is halfway between those of Miami and West Palm Beach, drive more than residents of both areas.
In Portland, planners have used a sophisticated computer model to predict the effects of their plans on driving habits. Under their most optimistic scenarios, by the year 2040, auto use will drop from 92 percent of all area trips to 88 percent. Since planners assume a 75 percent increase in population, this translates to a massive expansion in traffic and congestion–they figure three to four times the current number of congested road miles.
But that’s OK, say Metro officials in one of their we’ve-got-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-save-it moments, because congestion actually “signals positive urban development.” Indeed, though they rarely talk about it in public, a major short-term New Urbanist goal is to increase, not reduce, congestion. After all, clogged, slow-moving traffic might encourage a few people to get out of their cars, while punishing those who do not.
Minnesota’s Twin Cities Metropolitan Council takes a similar view of increased congestion. In addition to planning the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, the council runs the area’s public transit system. Bus ridership has declined by 40 percent in the past 25 years, while highway traffic has greatly increased, with further increases projected. So what does the Metropolitan Council plan to do? Build no more roads for at least 20 years. The council wants to promote ridership on its buses by increasing highway congestion to intolerable levels. “As traffic congestion builds,” says the council’s Transportation Plan, “alternative travel modes will become more attractive.” Of course, as congestion builds, alternative places to live will become more attractive too.
If New Urbanist attitudes toward traffic congestion are muddled–they seek to alleviate traffic congestion by increasing it–their attitudes toward commuting are no less contorted. As with the assumed relationship between density and miles driven, the real world refutes New Urbanist claims that low-density suburban development forces people to spend more time commuting. Census data show that, regardless of the year or the urban area’s size, commuters spend an average of 20 to 25 minutes getting to work. This is as true in Los Angeles (with a metro area population of 12 million) as it is in Houma, Louisiana (68,000).
Indeed, if New Urbanists were really concerned about long commutes, they would advocate more road construction and less emphasis on mass transit: The average public transit commuter travels a shorter distance yet spends more time commuting than the average driver. The first-, second-, and third-longest average urban commute times are in New York, Washington, and Chicago–which, not coincidentally, are the urban areas with the first-, second-, and third-highest shares of commuters riding mass transit.
A similar paradox undergirds New Urbanist air quality policies. Since automobiles pollute the air, New Urbanists convinced Congress to deny federal highway funds to cities with significant air pollution problems. Not only does that policy make it tough for congested areas to build bigger highways, it almost certainly makes pollution worse in those cities. That’s because most auto pollution is a function of congestion and density: Cars use more energy and pollute more when they drive slowly or in stop-and-go traffic than when they drive fast in free-flowing traffic. The best prescription for reducing air pollution, then, is to reduce congestion by adding highway capacity or making other improvements to speed up traffic.
Dirty air is also a function of density, which promotes the concentration of dangerous levels of pollutants. The EPA rates urban air pollution as extreme, serious, moderate, marginal, and none. Not surprisingly, the worst pollution is found in the urban areas with the densest populations (see chart). Thus, the New Urban prescription of increased density with few new roads doubly increases urban air pollution.
Worsened air quality is a price New Urbanists apparently are willing to pay. But when it comes to what they call “the costs of sprawl,” they’re not so generous. As with most of their core beliefs, New Urbanist cost analyses of suburban development rely more on faith than on empirical data. Hence, a 1974 Council on Environmental Quality report arguing that low-density development imposed higher costs for urban services–roads, sewers, schools, and the like–than higher densities remains a holy text among the New Urbanist faithful. That the document was based entirely on speculative and unverified estimates doesn’t seem important; neither does the fact that numerous studies since that time have found that taxes and urban service costs are actually higher in high-density areas.
A 1992 Duke University study, for example, analyzed data from 247 counties that contain well over half the population of the United States. The researchers found that, above a density of 250 people per square mile (which is a rural density), costs rose as densities increased. In fact, urban service costs in areas of 24,000 people per square mile–a density typical of the core of older cities such as Philadelphia and Boston–were nearly 50 percent greater than in areas of 250 people per square mile.
But even if a new high-density development did impose lower costs than a low-density development, it does not follow that it costs less to rebuild a low-density suburb to high densities than it would to simply build a new low-density suburb. That’s because infrastructure such as sewers, water, roads, and schools are built for the densities they serve. Suddenly doubling densities means tearing up streets for utilities, widening roads (or increasing congestion), and buying land for new schools.
Residents of San Diego know all about that. In 1980, the city adopted a New Urban plan that discouraged development outside of an urban ring and promoted “infill” development in the core area (“infill” is the development of vacant lots and redevelopment of existing residential areas to higher densities.) Ten years later, the sewage system was regularly breaking down, traffic congestion had significantly increased, and the city estimated that it needed $1 billion to bring urban infrastructure up to its 1980 levels. Ironically, the Sierra Club cited San Diego as one of the nation’s worst examples of sprawl.
In a related way, New Urbanists get it backward when it comes to housing and living costs: Policies they think will lead to cheaper housing and living costs actually make things more expensive. In low-density cities such as Houston and Minnesota’s Twin Cities, land represents a tiny fraction of the value of a home. In higher-density cities, it’s common for land to account for half or more of the value of a home. This means that people of a given income level in a high-density city can afford less house than they might buy in a low-density area. That’s one reason why the suburbs are so popular–you tend to get more house (and property) for the money.
The same basic economic reality affects retailing as well. A major reason why megastores and supermarkets gravitate to the outskirts of areas is that land is cheaper and allows for bigger buildings. The New Urbanist dream of shopping at a corner market may be quaint, but it ignores two basic things people look for in stores: good prices and a wide selection of products, neither of which is characteristic of small shops (as any inner-city grocery shopper will tell you). Stores get bigger when they can serve more people. When they get bigger, they can offer a greater variety of products, fresher produce, and lower prices than small stores. Corner grocery stores might serve the occasional emergency need for a quart of milk or six-pack of beer. But most people will do most of their shopping where choices are greater and costs are lower–which means that they will shop by car.
In spite of New Urbanist claims, such residential and retailing mobility hasn’t led to unchecked sprawl. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 95 percent of the lower 48 states remains undeveloped. In fact, the vast majority of Americans live in the less than 3 percent of the country that is urbanized (defined by the Census Bureau as more than 1,000 people per square mile). The only open spaces that are truly threatened are golf courses, u-pick farms, and large suburban backyards. All are targeted by New Urbanists for “infill” development. Portland is even selling park lands at discount prices to entice developers into building high-density apartments.
The Congestion Coalition
Despite its theoretical and practical failings, the New Urbanism is quietly sweeping the nation. Portland’s Metro recently passed the most restrictive plan ever adopted for a U.S. city. The legislatures of Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington have enacted “smart growth” or “growth management” laws, both New Urbanist euphemisms. Pressure groups in Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Tampa, and other cities are demanding and getting New Urbanist plans for their communities. If you live in a metropolitan area, your city planning bureau is probably infested with New Urbanists.
This success is all the more remarkable given the manifest and widely recognized failure of grand, utopian planning schemes. As Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) showed, the urban renewal movement in the 1950s and ’60s destroyed living communities and replaced them with sterile monuments to human arrogance. In Nowhere to Go (1988), Fuller Torrence credibly blames much of the homeless problem on planners who demolished the low-income apartments where many of these people lived. Planners also created many of the public housing disasters of the past few decades. The history of urban planning is a lesson in the law of unintended consequences.
How do the New Urbanists respond to the failure of their forebears? They not only admit that past planners made mistakes, they themselves blame most urban ills on previous generations of planners. Their perverse, if savvy, solution is to give planners more power, so they can correct past mistakes through even stronger rules and regulations.
New Urbanist supporters include planners, environmentalists, federal bureaucrats, central city officials, downtown businesses, and construction companies. Their motivations range from idealism to economic self-interest, but all have a stake in maintaining or rebuilding tightly packed urban cores. Together, they also have the clout to get things done.
Planners and environmentalists are among the idealists in what can be dubbed the “congestion coalition.” Recognizing that traffic congestion is one of the major concerns of urban residents, most New Urbanist planners no doubt think their convoluted approach will eventually alleviate the situation. (To put a more cynical spin on their designs, they can at least rest assured that increases in congestion caused by their plans will lead to calls for more planners.) Environmentalists’ idealism is less concerned with urban quality of life per se than with preserving what they see as pristine wilderness; New Urbanist nostrums of denser urban areas and less automobile usage are means to that end.
By themselves, however, planners and environmentalists are not powerful enough to persuade anyone to implement the New Urbanism. That’s where the other members of the congestion coalition come in. If planners and environmentalists supply the vision, bureaucrats, local officials, downtown businesses, and contractors provide the money and the might to make New Urbanist dreams a reality.
A number of friendly federal agencies directly finance the New Urbanist agenda. For instance, as part of its Transportation Partners program, the EPA gives several hundred nonprofit organizations money to lobby for transit and pedestrian ways and against highways. The avowed goal of the program is to reduce the number of “vehicle miles traveled.” (In true New Urbanist fashion, the claims to success are meager at best: The EPA boasts these “partners” reduced annual vehicle travel by 1.25 billion miles in 1997. That’s a questionable figure, but even if valid, it represents less than 0.1 percent of all urban driving.)
The U.S. Department of Transportation also supports the New Urbanism. The Federal Transit Administration, the branch of the department charged with promoting transportation planning, strongly influences urban spending because New Urbanists convinced Congress that cities receiving federal transportation funds should be forced to create regional transportation plans. The onerous planning process gives New Urbanists plenty of opportunities to skew the results their way. For example, federal transit officials grade local transportation planners for the effort they make at getting cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders–but not auto drivers–involved in the planning process. The transportation bill recently passed by Congress provides $20 million a year in local grants similar to the EPA’s Transportation Partners program.
New Urbanism is also supported by DOT and Department of Housing and Urban Development requirements that urban areas have metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) representing most or all local governments. Originally conceived as clearinghouses for federal grants, many MPOs function instead as political safety valves. As Brookings Institution economist Anthony Downs notes in Stuck in Traffic (1992), a regional planning agency “can take controversial stands without making its individual members commit themselves to those stands. Each member can claim that `the organization’ did it or blame all the other members.”
That’s exactly what has happened in Portland, where Metro has ultimate planning authority over two dozen cities and three counties. Metro requires these cities and counties to rezone existing neighborhoods to meet its population targets. Far from resisting such targets, many cities view them as a way to increase their tax base by packing more residents into their jurisdictions, and some even asked for higher ones. But when neighborhoods object to being rezoned, they are told, “We don’t have a choice. Metro is making us do it.”
The turn to MPOs is a godsend especially to officials in large cities seeking to consolidate, if not increase, their power, which has been on the wane for most of the postwar period. Since 1950, nearly all urban growth has been outside big cities. That massive population shift toward suburbs and mid-size cities has made it tougher for traditional central cities to generate tax revenue and to qualify for pork-barrel spending tied to population. The MPOs change all that.
Because of its relative size, the strongest player in any MPO is invariably the largest city in the region. The MPO gives such cities an instrument to redirect development dollars their way and to get revenge on the suburbs (tellingly characterized as “godawful trash” by one Portland City Council member). The same holds true for downtown business interests: Like their public-sector counterparts, they resent the shopping malls, office campuses, and modern factories that have grown up in the suburbs. For central city officials and businesses, then, the New Urbanism represents the latest ploy to maintain their way of life.
Of course, it’s unlikely it will succeed any more than the billions of federal and local dollars already spent trying to maintain particular urban areas. The problem with most central cities is that they were built in an age when primitive transportation and communications dictated high densities; people had to live near one another. The “decline” of cities that officials worry so much about is due to the fact that cars, telephones, and electricity make it possible for people to live in lower densities–and most choose to do so.
Fretting over urban “decline” is misguided in another sense too. Downtown interests, argues Joel Garreau in the brilliant Edge City (1991), “believe settlement patterns to be a zero-sum game”: Any gain in the suburbs represents a loss for downtown. Yet Garreau notes that even as suburbs have boomed, American “downtowns have been going through their most striking revivals of this century. From coast to coast…downtowns are flourishing.”
To be sure, most recent downtown growth has been in the areas of arts and entertainment. This fails to impress downtown traditionalists, who still think downtowns should be the main retail and commercial centers of a city. So New Urbanist prescriptions, such as limits on new shopping malls and parking restrictions in existing malls, are appealing to downtown businesses. If new stores can’t open in the suburbs, goes this line of thought, they’ll have to set up shop downtown.
Such zero-sum thinking undergirds what is perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Urbanism: an undying reverence for light-rail networks. Central city officials and downtown interests know that, if transportation dollars go into highways, they will be spent in the suburbs, where most growth is taking place. But if those funds are spent on a rail transit system, the vast majority will be spent in the central city because most, if not all, rail lines will radiate from a downtown.
Light rail not only restores to downtown some of its former centrality, it represents a huge pork-barrel project for the fifth member of the congestion coalition: the civil construction industry. With the Interstate Highway System effectively completed and strong resistance to new roads in the cities, the construction industry has been looking for work. What better opportunity exists than to rebuild the rail systems that moved urbanites in the pre-automobile age?
New Urbanists spuriously claim that light rail is more efficient than highways. For the construction industry, the attraction of rail systems is that they cost much more to build than highways. A typical urban freeway costs about $5 million to $10 million per lane-mile, or $20 million to $40 million per mile of four-lane road. By comparison, Portland just opened a new light-rail line that cost $55 million per mile–and is planning a new line that will cost a whopping $100 million per mile. (That neither of these lines will carry as many people as a single freeway lane is the sort of consideration that never seems to make it onto the planner’s ledger sheet.)
Light rail isn’t always as expensive as in Portland, but its costs when finished are almost always far greater than when originally proposed. For the construction industry, then, rail is not only less controversial than highways. Because of typical cost overruns and “gold-plating,” rail adds up to huge profits for a wide variety of consulting, engineering, and building firms.
Light rail does nothing to reduce congestion; in fact, because most transit systems sacrifice more-popular bus routes once they introduce less-popular trains, it typically increases congestion. But that is not the construction industry’s concern. So long as New Urban interests can channel money toward rail, the construction industry will be only too happy to finance the political campaigns of New Urbanist city officials and any ballot measures that might be required to obtain local rail funding.
The Metro Dilemma
Given the strength of the congestion coalition, it’s no surprise that the New Urbanism has gotten as far as it has. While the movement has visible critics–including Joel Garreau, Peter Gordon of the University of Southern California, and John Charles of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute–sometimes it seems as if it is an unstoppable civic juggernaut. Beyond underscoring its inconsistencies and misrepresentations, one way of challenging the New Urbanism is to recognize its place in the urban planning tradition.
Far from being the “scientific” and “rigorous” school of thought its proponents claim, the New Urbanism is best understood as simply the latest attempt by planners to pass narrow, essentially moral judgments on American cities. Beginning with the “City Beautiful” movement in the late 19th century, planners believed that good design would lead to a “new urban man” who would be a morally upright member of the community. Given the proper architectural circumstances, planners theorized, urban residents would work hard and not turn to crime; social ills such as drunkenness would disappear.
Early land-use planners believed that the crowded, dirty cities where houses were mingled with factories and commercial uses should be replaced by low-density residential areas separated from other uses. There, workers would be free from easily transmitted diseases and have cleaner air. A few decades later, in the 1920s, early transportation planners hoped that good roads would revitalize downtowns–threatened even then by “sprawl” –by reducing congestion and attracting new investments. But all the freeways did is give residents and employers a quicker escape from the crowded central cities.
New Urbanism has learned well the lesson that roads let people go where they want to go. They’ve wedded that insight to the early land-use planners’ goal of improving people’s moral behavior. The immoral behavior New Urbanists want to end now is driving, which they see as wasteful, noxious, and anti-social. Interestingly, to stop people from driving, they are trying to turn entire urban areas into the crowded, mixed-use cities that 19th-century planners found so degrading. “The politics of stasis,” says interstate highway historian Mark Rose, “has displaced the politics of growth.” What hasn’t changed is the belief that people cannot or should not be left to their own devices when it comes to deciding where and how to live their lives.
If the New Urbanists put the actual quality of life of urban residents ahead of their theories about quality of life, they would chart a vastly different course. The best prescription for the central cities is to let them depopulate as people move out to the suburbs. As their densities fall, they will become more attractive places to live. This has happened in Cleveland, the former national joke which has become one of the more livable cities in the Midwest. But such a policy bruises the egos of the city officials who want to maintain political hegemony over the suburbs; it also fails to satisfy the demands of the rest of the congestion coalition.
So the New Urbanists turn instead to regional planning, growth boundaries, suburban “densification,” congestion-inducing road policies, and light-rail transit. This is a prescription for destroying not only the central cities but the suburbs as well. As baby boomers retire and telecommuters increase, fewer and fewer people will need to live in urban areas. If the New Urbanists succeed in making the suburbs as unlivable as many central cities already are, people living in cities and suburbs are likely to become “exurbanites,” moving out to rural areas. Exurbanization will be sprawl with a vengeance, as people forbidden to live on quarter-acre suburban lots happily move to five-to-40-acre rural lots.
A recent survey of Portland residents should give the New Urbanists pause, even as it apparently confirms their agenda. The poll found that most Portlanders do in fact support Metro’s plan. But then the poll asked where people would live if they had a choice: the city, the suburbs, or rural areas. The same majority said “rural areas.” That response might seem odd, but it’s in keeping with the New Urbanism, which produces in abundance everything its adherents claim to oppose: congestion, pollution, unaffordable housing, and higher taxes.
©2007 Reason Magazine.