In the lead up to CNU 23 in Dallas next week, the American Conservative asked me to write a feature story on the New Urbanism. This was quite an honor. The piece ran in this week's print publication and is also now available online.
Cities for People—or Cars?
New Urbanism rediscovers centuries of walkable wisdom.
One hot summer day I walked through an old, neglected neighborhood, the kind of place where feral cats stalk mice in the weeds near cracked foundations. I carried a tape measure and clipboard, for measuring the width of the sidewalks, the spacing between trees, the length from the back of the curb to the front of the houses. I was channeling my inner New Urbanist, my desire to practice a primitive form of urban archaeology. I was attempting to discover deeper truths about what makes a city successful.
As an engineer I had designed miles of streets and as a planner helped create hundreds of new lots. Yet I knew that I hadn’t the vaguest notion of how to build a really successful neighborhood. I had assembled developments that were a random collection of homes, each built in isolation from the next. What I wanted to know was what it takes to bind that place together in a way that will endure.
New Urbanism is a civic design movement focusing on that question. It advocates the reforming development practices to support traditional patterns: building close-together homes in slow increments over time and storefronts pulled up to the street instead of buried behind nearly empty parking lots—designing cities and towns for people first and then for automobiles, not the other way around.
Before the automobile, before modern zoning, and before massive central government intervention in real estate markets, cities grew and developed around the dominant transportation technology of the day: a person’s two feet. Cities were scaled to people who walked because most people walked everywhere they went.
We sometimes mistakenly view this approach as primitive, lacking the sophistication that today’s auto-based cities have. In that, we are disastrously wrong. Modern development represents not just a step backward in sophistication but an abandonment of complexity in favor of systems that are efficient, orderly, and dumb.