Building New Urbanism: Less Filling, But Not So Tasty

This Article first appeared in Builder Magazine
NOV. 30, 1999

The old commercials for Lite beer by Miller which were once so popular gained their fame by having ex-jocks and other assorted celebrities stand at a bar, hold up a glass of amber-colored liquid, and repeat the slogan: “Tastes great, less filling.”

The advertising pitch worked for a while, but as any beer lover could tell you, all the “lite” beers were a pretty thin, tepid brew. The designer beers, which actually did taste great, but were also filling, shoved a lot of them out of the marketplace.

Most of New Urbanism, the new subdivision and home-building style that has been the rage in recent years, is a kind of lite-beer form of urbanism. Urbanism Lite. You take out most of the things that make urbanism urban — density, dependence on mass transit, less space for cars — and you leave some front porches, some reworked street systems, some different facades and a few alleys.

The attempt is to eliminate what people don’t like about small town or city living — less privacy and no place to park — and leave in what they do like about it, which are walking to a cafe, or buying a quart of milk without getting in a car.

But you can’t have one without the other. What you get is a slightly different looking subdivision lying off a main road on the edge of town, which functions pretty much like all the other subdivisions that surround it.

New Urbanism is a big tent philosophy and practice: that is, a lot goes on under that label. It is at various times: a theory or theories of urban design; a marketing campaign; a collection of people who love urban places; and a particular way of buildings suburbs that attempt to imitate older towns and city neighborhoods.

Some of the former has some value. But it is the latter that concerns me here. On a practical level, most of what is physically built under the label New Urban are these newer suburbs out on bare land. These are sometimes called TNDs for Traditional Neighborhood Developments. Are these new-fangled subdivisions a cure for, or part of the disease of, urban sprawl?

Let’s look on the big level of sprawl first, that of the metropolitan area. Atlanta is prime example of this. It spills across hundreds of square miles, with the result that many of its residents spend huge portions of their day stuck in a car. It’s not a very nice place to live. Excessive highway building, rather than making traffic better, has made it worse.

New Urbanism will not help much here. Building places like Kentlands outside Washington D.C., or the nearby Reston Town Center, will do nothing to shrink the size of a metropolitan area. They part of the problem. They are yet more subdivisions and shopping malls being built farther “out”, where they help reduce density and enlarge the metropolitan area.

Really limiting sprawl is pretty simple. It means building fewer big highways on the edge of town and investing a lot more in mass transit. It means growth boundaries. It means dramatically raising the price of gasoline so that the taxes cover the costs of both building roads, maintaining them and the associated costs, like policing and air pollution.

These are tough choices. For builders, any of the above would mean drastic changes in the ways of doing business. In Portland, Oregon, which is one of the few cities and states that have moved in this direction, builders find themselves doing more redevelopment work, from adding a room to an existing house, to “tear-downs” to be replaced with newer structures.

The growth boundary around Portland has had the quite unexpected effect of pushing out large corporate developers. There simply isn’t land available in the 1,000 acre chunks that they prefer. So instead, you see the rise of more locally-owned builders and developers, who will take 20 acres here, and 10 acres there to build some homes. Portland, which has a booming economy, produced a huge number of new housing units in recent years, but roughly a third of them was through redevelopment. The rest were generally not huge new subdivisions that you see outside Las Vegas or Houston.

The problem with the practice of New Urbanism, as opposed to some of its talk, is that it has generally shirked from confronting the tough choices that Portland and Oregon residents have faced to a degree. Instead, New Urbanists generally offer Americans a chance to “buy” their way out of the sprawl dilemma, in the form of cute new subdivisions and town centers.

Like a lot of marketing-driven products, this might work for a decade or so, until people catch on. Then it will go the way of Planned Unit Developments, New Towns, and all the other once new-models of suburban sprawl. And Americans will be left with actual problem unresolved and unfaced.

In general, New Urbanists are selling something they can’t deliver without charging a far higher price, and without making changes far more fundamental than redesigning a few homes. To understand why, it’s necessary to look more carefully at what we today call the suburbs and how they took form.

Cities are products of something. They represent the effect, principally, of transportation systems. The classic 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods that many people love, and which New Urbanism apes, were created by the extension of streetcar lines. Levittown was a product of a new car culture. The mega malls and grab bag of subdivisions that surround most cities are products of the limited access freeways, built at public expense. Developers and builders understand this far better than the general public.

But how about on a more individual level. Even if a neo-traditional neighborhood built on the edge of town won’t counteract metropolitan sprawl, will it deliver a better life for the people who live there?

The answer is no again.

Urbanism is a package deal. Once you weed out the stuff people don’t like about it — no place to park, smaller homes, closer neighbors — you also weed out the stuff they like about urbanism, like walkeable streets and nearby grocery stores.

The Achilles’ heel of New Urbanist developments has been their “downtowns,” the classic “main streets” meant to be at the heart of the developments. If they were built, and successful, it would be a significant improvement on suburban life. But the reasons these mini downtowns fail point to the structural flaws in the whole theory of TNDs.

Retail needs an enormous accessible customer base to succeed. Street-level retail in cities get this from enormous density and the therefore enormous quantity of people that walk by their front doors. Suburban retail get this by locating on a main highway where a high volume of traffic goes by their parking lots.

New Urban developments have generally tried to locate their mini-downtowns in the center of their low-density subdivisions. The result is that they have neither enough pedestrian, nor enough auto, traffic to make retail succeed. The “main streets” of virtually all New Urban developments have failed.

An exception is the Disney-produced Celebration in Florida. But it may be the exception that proves the rules. Disney had the enormous financial muscle to build the downtown first, before any homes were built or sold. It also had the marketing muscle to pull in tourists to its shops, even though the downtown lacks immediate access to a main highway. Tourists are making these shops succeed, not residents.

There are other tradeoffs and inadequacies that become apparent when you look at a neo-traditional development closely.

Peter Calthorpe, one the New Urbanists who is honest about the choices involved, has said the minimum density needed to make mass transit work is a gross density of ten units to an acre, with selective density even higher. Most TNDs hover around four units to an acre. The idea that these places can dovetail eventually with mass transit in some distant year is probably not the case, unless you acknowledge a tremendous amount of infill and expensive redevelopment. To really change how people live, you need mass transit in a development at the beginning, not the end.

The street system is another interesting thing to look at. Neo-traditionalists like to advertise that they have gotten away from the cull-de-sac, which has become the symbol of American bad taste, like tail-fins on that old Chevy. New Urbanists promise a more open and easy going grid.

But the “grids” these developments use are usually just as confusing and intimidating to outsiders as the standard pattern of cul-de-sacs and collector streets. These “grids” are usually a collection of loose skewed streets. They are less urban grids really, than descendents of the wavy street patterns used in 19th century cemeteries and later in early suburbs.

Finally, the treatment of the driveway and the garage in the standard New Urban house say a lot about its tradeoffs. The high priority of neo-traditional development is to get a clear, urban looking fa├žade at the front of the house, usually reminiscent of Cape Cod or Georgetown. To get it, the driveway is put either on the side, or in the back off an alley. The same goes for the garage.

The result is that the residents lose their backyards, the classic spot of backyard barbecues and swing sets. So for the sake of the appearance of urbanism, residents sacrifice one of the prime pleasures of suburbanism.

Older towns, like heralded Charleston, Georgetown or Savannah, worked well with alleys and street facades because their residents didn’t have to worry about where to park the car. When these places were built, people walked everywhere, until they got on a train, a streetcar or a ship. Trying to replicate these building types in the context of a freeway and car-dependent environment is a false equation.

For the builder and developer, New Urbanism represents a dilemma of sorts. It can be profitable. Standard New Urban subdivisions offer smaller homes on less land at higher prices. This means higher profits, even though there is higher risk, because the development costs for streets are more, and the potential market is smaller.

But a developer would have to acknowledge that is not really selling what he is usually advertising: a cure to our sprawl-oriented life style. Instead, he is offering more a change of style than substance. And as with any style, there is the risk that people will tire of it and move on.

New Urban developments do offer some improvement on conventional suburbia. They sometimes offer “granny flats,” which give a mother-in-law or lower-waged worker a place to live. That’s a real improvement. I also favor experimenting, whether it be in the suburbs or the inner-city. But we should be honest about what we are selling.

Time will tell where the New Urban debate and practice goes. In the long run, it may lead to better, more real form of urbanism. It may cost more in its political choices, but it may be more satisfying, and most of all, may taste great.

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