Politics can’t save urbanism

April 23, 2008 at 4:28 pm 3 comments

Yesterday, I pointed to this article at City Journal about how New Urbanism may have changed the conversation about urban planning, but it hasn’t changed the culture.

The article points out how many New Urbanists have grabbed on to the “climate change” movement, hoping its momentum will bring its “community-building ethos into the mainstream.” And along those lines, New Urbanists have hitched their wagon to increased regulation to make their dreams happen:

(New Urbanists’) first hope was “smart growth” — basically, the imposition of regulatory guidelines concerning things like density and access to public transportation. The New Urbanists tend to regard the triumph of the automobile with skepticism and would like to think it reversible. Al Gore would agree, and as vice president he took a stab at promoting a smart-growth “livability agenda” — with underwhelming results. Smart growth, for the record, now entails advocacy of a new stratum of government: federally mandated regional authorities would control key planning decisions for core cities and their suburbs as well as the sharing of major urban assets, not to mention federal dollars.

Instead, the article’s author says New Urbanists should move beyond a top-down approach:

They need to get beyond marketing strategy, eco-hype, and trendy buzzwords, and focus on the formidable task of cultivating political leaders across the ideological spectrum who have the gumption to redeem the nation’s urban landscape — one community at a time.

The article is correct — partially. Finding political allies at the local level is much better than finding them at the federal one.

But the article’s unspoken assumption is that politics got us into this mess, and politics will get us out. It’s a fatal error.

The problem isn’t political, it’s cultural. One reason the suburbs exist as they do is because we as Americans wanted to become more isolated from each other. Until the American people realize once again the purpose of cities — and decide that they are willing to sacrifice their own comfort temporarily to make cities more livable — then our culture will continue to spin off into increasing isolation, whether the walls are single-use zoning or technology or simply never leaving your car while outside a building.

Not even $3.65 a gallon gasoline will make us love our neighbor. Forcing us to live close to one another won’t rebuilt society if we simply don’t want to.

— photo by puroticorico on Flickr

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Entry filed under: Architecture, city culture, Jon Swerens, Urbanism. Tags: , , .

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3 Comments

  • 1. Michael Bates  |  April 23, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    You make a good point about the cultural issue. Two generations have been raised to see the tidy segments of the suburbs as normal and the city as a messy mix that needs sorting out. That’s starting to change, and a significant number of people have experienced the pleasures of urban living, either directly, or vicariously through TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends. (And it could be argued that the appealing depiction of urban life on those programs was made possible by Giuliani’s cleanup of New York in the ’90s.)

    I think the starting point is for cities like Fort Wayne and Tulsa to create and preserve urban places for the many who already know they want to live there. As these areas thrive, others will see that urban excitement is possible close to home, not just on the East Coast or in Europe. Over time there may be enough demand to redevelop badly aging post-war suburban neighborhoods in a new urbanist fashion.

    Politics still matters: You need councilors and planning commissioners with the courage and vision to approve a pilot project for form-based codes or special zoning with design guidelines to protect traditional neighborhood development from suburban-style redevelopment.

    But mostly you need entrepreneurial types willing to reuse old buildings in traditional neighborhoods, and others who are willing to build new in a traditional style. Recreating a vital urban core will happen the same way it was destroyed: one building at a time.

  • 2. john b. kalb  |  April 28, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    And this applies to the 1000 block on the west side of Broadway ! One building at a time, Scott and Hallie.

  • […] This comment by Michael Bates of BatesLine in Tulsa was too good to be ignored: Two generations have been raised to see the tidy segments of the suburbs as normal and the city as a messy mix that needs sorting out. That’s starting to change, and a significant number of people have experienced the pleasures of urban living, either directly, or vicariously through TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends. (And it could be argued that the appealing depiction of urban life on those programs was made possible by Giuliani’s cleanup of New York in the ’90s.) […]


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