While not technically correct, sprawl is a four letter word in most communities today. There is a strong contingent of well intentioned planners that believe sprawl, as defined in this post as the diffusion of population across a wide geographic area, is the cause of most, if not all environmental and community issues.
The “New Urbanist” planner concept of utopian village is significantly more compact and with higher residential densities in an urban core. As there will be more people in this urban core and walkable jobs with in walking distance of residencies, the need for automobiles will be reduced, or eliminated.
Nationally recognized New Urbanist Phillip Langdon author writing in the Planning Commissioners Journal defines the argument succinctly:
“The central argument of the New Urbanists is that the country made a costly mistake in rigidly separating housing, retailing, employment, and other land uses and in conceiving the streets almost solely as passageways for motor vehicles. The New Urbanists want communities to have the walkable character that was widespread before the car became the all-conquering king. The assumption is that if public spaces — especially streets and sidewalks — can be made enticing, residents will become more involved in neighborhood and public life, and spur a reinvigoration of community activity.”
Reading carefully, one may perceive the enemy is the land use patterns developed by the previous generations of planners and facilitated by the advent of the automobile.
Prior to the invention of the automobile, settlement patters were much more condensed, first surrounding factories and other places of highly dense employment and then as technology progressed along street car lines. It was not unusual to see residential units above storefronts. Folks would get off the streetcar grab some fresh produce at the market and walk home. Urban growth limits were the length of the, usually privately run, streetcar lines. The automobile changed all of this, as it changed the world.
In his 2006 paper, “How Automobiles Made America Great” (pdf), noted New Urbanist critic Randal O’Toole outlines the many economic and social advancements made possible by the country’s increased mobility. I must question some of the paper’s dismissive nature regarding the very real environmental impacts created by our now auto centric society.
I, for one, accept the premise that a highly dense walkable community will find a niche in the demographically aging and increasingly environmentally sensitive market. As many American families, especially those with high school and college aged children, are likely to have more than one car, I do not see this niche growing to a majority anytime in the near future.
In a classic chicken and egg question, proponents of New Urbanism suggest the lack of public demand is a lack of supply. They suggest, and I concur on a very limited basis, until someone sees what such a development looks like they can’t possibly understand the concept enough to demand it.
We have seen a number of New Urbanist concepts come into being in the last ten years. These projects, in general, have sold well in well populated areas.
These projects have also seen understandable conflicts between planner’s vision and reality. In one project I toured in Portland, the planners placed a slightly elevated brick sidewalk with no curb in front of a community building on a tight street with no on street parking. The concept was that as a walkable community people will need the sidewalk to get to the community center. In reality, the lack of parking forced residents, who drove to the community center (on their way home from work, despite being on the bus line) to get their mail to park on the raised sidewalk. I point this issue out not to be negative but to raise the real difference between New Urbanist rosy renderings and reality.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the slow introduction of New Urbanist concepts into the market, many local governments (led by next generation planners) have developed land use regulations based on increased New Urbanist density in their tightly controlled development areas and increased regulatory restrictions in their rural areas.
The very logical governmental rationale is to locate more people close to the services they need and to make the urban environment more desirable with increased amenities and opportunities for employment, education and entertainment. This statement is where I have the greatest disconnect with New Urbanist philosophy. What level of amenities would be required to entice the average homeowner in Greene County living on a ¾ acre lot to give up their car and move into a smaller house on a smaller lot closer to the downtown mall?
For better or worse, I believe America is in love with the mobility and freedom car ownership brings. The very real prospect of $4.00+ a gallon gasoline has driven many families to seriously consider downsizing from their SUV to a more economical vehicle but I do not believe it has converted a significant cohort to the idea of more urban living.
I remain concerned that government is mistaken in mandating the New Urbanist philosophy in their development areas. If new home buyers want to live in a non New Urbanist environment, they are forced, by government to build in the Rural Areas.
While I understand local governments’ desire to see increased density in the development areas to help reduce the cost of delivery of government services, their actions strictly regulating a development philosophy in the areas dedicated to growth may result in increased pressure on the rural areas they were attempting to protect.