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Forward To The Past: Urban Planners Seduced By New Urbanism

Stephen Svete on
Nov 1, 2006

Back in the early 1990s, regionalism was the hot planning topic. Championed by then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, regionalism sought to organize a range of planning functions traditionally managed at the state and local levels into newly defined “regions” that would better reflect actual human activity and social function.

In its fully actualized form, regionalism would have handed many regulatory and planning powers from local government to new regional governments that in many cases crossed county lines. However, regionalism was felled by a combination of political turf protection and legitimate questions about defining the regions. Within a few years of the initial fanfare and conference chatter, the idea plummeted like a lead balloon.

This episode is a telling one about the endless quest for purpose that defines the planning profession in California. Despite its name, planning is a profession that spends a good amount of time looking in the rear view mirror to confirm its bearings. The abrupt collapse of the regionalism movement is indicative of how the profession can deftly relegate out-of-favor ideologies to the dustbin with nary a staff report. This trait has likely evolved as a defense mechanism. From urban renewal to high-rise blocks of public housing, one planning theory after another has been pilloried by the drift to market-based culture and away from government-led central planning.

Largely speaking, planning’s professional culture of self-doubt is a fate wrought by circumstance, for planning is shaped by client success — and planning’s client is the culture at large. Trying to order the physical and social world in a market economy is akin to having a tiger by the tale.

So it has been interesting to watch planners warm to the biggest development trend of the last 10 years: new urbanism. In fact, the planning establishment so embraces the concept that it can be considered a core concept of urban planning — an amalgam of the previously named neo-traditional town planning with a dash of transit-oriented development (TOD) thrown in for balance. Not atypically, both branches of new urbanism were originally devised by architects rather than planners: neo-trad by Andres Duany, and TODs by Peter Calthorpe. After witnessing these architects dismantle Euclidean zoning and promote these seductive concepts during the early 1990s, planners essentially had to buy in.

But given past scrapes with trends that went south, it would behoove planners to promote new urbanism with a critical eye and to understand the movement’s philosophical underpinnings. Planners should recognize that neo-traditionalism plays to society’s pursuit of comfort derived from the past, and is ultimately a backlash against post-war modernism. Illustrative models almost uniformly hearken to urban morphology of a century ago, even physically mimicking architectural styles and describing social interactions from a romanticized civic life of yore. The TOD school has grown into the urban variant of the small-town neo-trad model. More system-based in methodology, the TOD model is open to modernist architecture but adopts the form-based, mixed-use pattern of neo-traditionalism, albeit at much higher densities.

Planners have been joined by trend-watching land developers to sell the movement, and this partnership has largely met with success. This too is important to understand. Today, planners work fervently with developers to get new urbanist projects in the ground, commonly abandoning their traditional role of skeptical regulator looking out for the public good. In fact, many planners are beginning to view regulations as bad, perhaps not remembering that the regulations were originally written to protect the public welfare. The placement of faith in the market system and the adoption of the architect’s sensibility that good design solves all problems should raise eyebrows.

But, at least for now, it appears that planners have hitched their carts to the popular horses. In many parts of California, new urbanism seems to be working. One must attribute some of the success to the rise of an urban and suburban elite whose tastes correspond with new urbanist design themes. This success, in other words, is owed in part to the emergence of urban space as a lifestyle choice.

The urban economy of the late 1990s shifted to a focus on the creative, digital and wireless sectors. The gen-Xers who fueled this sector were motivated by lifestyle. The suburbs and all they represented were — and remain — definitively passé. By contrast, urban was — and is — “in.” Thus, abandoned early-20th Century warehouses and factories were transformed into lofts and mixed-use platforms of the new urbanites. And because old buildings remain rooted in their original urban morphology, their vernacular is well suited to pedestrian life, public transportation and human scale. Center cities and older towns have benefited from the latest urban lifestyle choices. The comeback of rail transit, revitalization of downtowns and resurgence of pedestrian districts all over the state have been uniformly accepted as positive cultural developments. Planners, at least for the moment, have hit pay dirt.

Equally as dramatic as planners’ acceptance of new urbanism has been their neglect of the valuable, customary planning subjects of housing and environmental quality. The exit of government as the leading provider of housing for the lower economic classes has been dramatic during the last 10 years – and its effects are deep. The production of affordable housing has shifted largely to nonprofit groups, whose good works are able to provide for only a fraction of the need. Homelessness and overcrowding have become permanent and accepted fixtures of our communities.

As acknowledged in numerous public opinion polls, California’s interest in environmental issues has been supplanted by concerns about terrorism and — in planning parlance — public safety. Planners have followed this trend too, essentially relegating debate over environmental planning to CEQA documents. This focus on public safety explains in part why concepts like alternative energy, gray-water reuse and cisterns for rainwater collection are barely on the agenda.

How long will planners be content with remaining primarily occupied with implementing new urbanist strategies to the exclusion of other topics? If present housing market trends continue, we may have an answer soon.

For planners, success with the latest development trend has required a new partnership with developers. Planners simplify regulations, and developers finance new urbanist projects. But new urbanist successes have depended on an unusually strong housing market. If profits dwindle, as many vanguard homebuilders are already reporting, planners may run out of projects to champion, requiring a shift back to other pressing matters.

It looks today like new urbanism has plenty of steam left. In the meantime, though, it would be worthwhile to integrate diversified housing and environmental sustainability into projects. There could be great benefits to incorporating some of urban planning’s more traditional concerns into this retro new world.

Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.

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