I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had joined the Congress of the New Urbanism and would be attending their annual "Congress". I had indicated in that entry that I have always had some interest in joining CNU, but have had hesitations that have kept me from doing so. These are the same hesitations, by the way, that have kept me from being an advocate of Smart Growth. I'll use my posting today to explain.
A little about me is needed for this explanation, unfortunately. Politically, I would label myself a "pragmatic-conservative". This does not make me a very popular person in the planning profession, which tends to be more liberal-oriented than I am. For planning problems, I tend to search for solutions that are not government-oriented and I am not a big fan of regulation (despite the fact that I spend half of my time each day administering regulation).
The pragmatic side of my thinking understands that many government "solutions" to our problems are a result of a failure-to-plan. One need only look to the current financial crisis and the concept of "capitalism on the way up / socialism on the way down" to understand how a failure to plan can induce BIG government solutions. A little well-applied pragmatism, tempered by a strong reluctance to overreach and confidence in people's overall ability to govern themselves, could prevent most of the world's problems before they ever manifest.
Isn't that what planning is supposed to be anyway?
To me, both New Urbanism and the concept of Smart Growth contain elements of a pragmatic approach to planning that, in my opinion, could solve a lot of our problems. I'll get to that in a minute, though. First, let's examine what proponents of New Urbanism and Smart Growth believe are the benefits of their approaches.
The benefits of New Urbanism from the website NewUrbanism.org(in the order they are presented on their site):
- Higher quality of life
- Better places to live, work, & play
- Higher, more stable property values
- Less traffic congestion & less driving
- Healthier lifestyle with more walking, and less stress
- Close proximity to main street retail & services
- Close proximity to bike trails, parks, and nature
- Pedestrian friendly communities offer more opportunities to get to know others in the neighborhood and town, resulting in meaningful relationships with more people, and a friendlier town
- More freedom and independence to children, elderly, and the poor in being able to get to jobs, recreation, and services without the need for a car or someone to drive them
- Great savings to residents and school boards in reduced busing costs from children being able to walk or bicycle to neighborhood schools
- More diversity and smaller, unique shops and services with local owners who are involved in community
- Big savings by driving less, and owning less cars
- Less ugly, congested sprawl to deal with daily
- Better sense of place and community identity with more unique architecture
- More open space to enjoy that will remain open space
- More efficient use of tax money with less spent on spread out utilities and roads
The benefits of Smart Growth, as expressed in principles on the website www.smartgrowth.org:
- Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
- Create walkable neighborhoods
- Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
- Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
- Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective.
- Mix land uses
- Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
- Provide a variety of transportation choices
- Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
- Take advantage of compact building design
Put yourself in the shoes of your standard rural council member, representing people in a place where land is (relatively) cheap, congestion is non-existent, "walkable" means going to get your mail at the end of the driveway and you pretty much see everyone in your town at least a few times a year at church, at the coffee shop or at the municipal liquor store. Now sell New Urbanism by saying:
New Urbanism is going to provide you with a healthier lifestyle with more walking, and less stress.
Or my favorite:
You know, with New Urbanism we can have pedestrian friendly communities, which offer more opportunities to get to know others in the neighborhood and town, resulting in meaningful relationships with more people, and a friendlier town.
I'm sure it would be immediately embraced (not).
And this is what brings me to the problem I have always had with these movements: they are exclusive and not universal. The way this is presented, you need to buy into the entire (liberal) social perspective on how transit is great, we should all live closer and get to know our neighbors and walking more will help the environment, before you get through the basic principles and its impacts. This is impossible to sell in most of the country.
But here is a different way to present these same concepts in a way that would be more universal.
- New Urbanism requires less government regulation, not more.
- New Urbanism requires less government subsidy, not more.
- A town developed on the principles of New Urbanism will see lower costs of providing government services along with greater appreciation of property values. Together, this equates to lower taxes.
- New Urbanism is good for business and for attracting investment.
New Urbanism is a traditional approach to development that was successful in a free market United States for many decades. Planners, and their big government inclinations of regulation (Euclidean zoning) and spending (highways, roads and other infrastructure), messed with this natural approach, to the detriment of us all. Throwing out these misapplied regulations and adopting simpler, form-based codes along with reduced government subsidies (for roads, sewers, watermain and other sprawl-inducing ventures) is the answer.
....and by the way, in addition to those clear economic advantages that we are all seeking, it also helps people live healthier, reduces congestion, conserves energy, preserves habitat and sensitive environmental features, promotes diversity and helps you get to know your neighbors.
It will save you money, reduce the size of government and, to top it all off, you just might like it.
The Congress opens Wednesday and, if possible, I plan to do some live-blogging, so check in and find out my impressions on what is going on.