Picture imperfect?

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Urbanization, Worth A Look

To most of us who live here, Orange County is a beautiful place, filled with well-kept neighborhoods, dramatic views, great restaurants and shopping, and … well, you know all the lovely things that are here, from La Habra to San Clemente, from Seal Beach to Yorba Linda.

To the Congress for the New Urbanism, a group of planners, architects, academics and others who held their annual conference earlier this month in Pasadena, Orange County is “the epitome of sprawl.” It’s a troubled place, populated by car-dependent, soul-destroyed automatons who would really prefer tolive in a world similar to Manhattan, Chicago, or at least Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo.

As Orange County developers prepare to build tens of thousands of new houses in the next decade at places such as East Orange and Rancho Mission Viejo, it’s crucial to consider whether these influential urbanists have a point or whether their ideas amount to utopian nonsense.

I’d suggest New Urbanists raise certain reasonable points, but it’s mostly the latter.

Some of what the New Urbanists like, I like too: pedestrian- friendly neighborhoods, traditional architecture. But their depiction of suburban America is wrongheaded, and policy prescriptions from New Urbanists and their allies in the Smart Growth movement range from the commendable (i.e., reducing zoning restrictions in urban areas) to the outlandish (i.e., growth controls, metropolitan governments).

The New Urbanists dislike current design forms, in which most people live in a fairly large house on a suburban street with a decent-sized yard and a two-car garage. We should live in townhouses or apartments, they explain, with little or no back yards, and should walk to work, to shopping, or take the light-rail line or other form of transit when we need to travel.

New Urbanists display little interest in the reason most people prefer suburbia – it’s a good place to raise kids. As one architect friend of mine explains, New Urbanism is good for a specific demographic – i.e., childless yuppies – but fails when it seeks to impose that one idea on the entire nation.

Unfortunately, New Urbanists aren’t content simply designing stuff for that small, wealthy group. They want to change society, so these sprawl-haters use doomsday language to push forward their ideas.

“There is going to be such an implosion of suburban property values that it is going to make people’s heads spin,” boasted author James Kunstler to CNN in 2001. He claims that suburbs will “be the ruins of tomorrow.” The $590,000 median price in O.C. is nearly twice what it was when he made his prediction, but I digress. Kunstler was referred to at one CNU conference presentation as a possible heir to revered planners Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard, whose ideas are the basis of New Urbanism.

What about people’s freedoms and choices?

“The argument that people like driving around in their SUVs and living in pod subdivisions is really beside the point,” Kunstler added. “People also like shooting heroin. People also like drinking too much. … We are spiritually impoverishing ourselves by living in these environments.”

Perhaps I overstated things when I called this movement “totalitarian” in a column earlier this year. There are hard-core elements within the movement, but not every New Urbanist is a wannabe Pol Pot, who emptied entire cities to reform the way Cambodians lived.

In fairness, many New Urbanists simply want to build new towns within the marketplace, and want zoning changes that allow them to do so. CNU President John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee, talks more about limiting government than about expanding it, although he is far more moderate than many others.

But New Urbanism is a moving target. When I criticized self-described New Urbanists’ use of eminent domain, subsidies and government planning (I used downtown Brea as an example), CNU officials told me that is not the New Urbanism.

But when I spoke to a panel at the conference, as one of two New Urbanism critics in a session called “Conservatives and New Urbanism,” I noted that literature CNU handed out celebrated Brea as a great example of New Urbanism. Is it New Urbanism or not?

When I criticize heavy-handed regulatory approaches, New Urbanists tell me that isn’t really New Urbanism, but Smart Growth. Yet my conference packet included promotions for a Smart Growth event, New Urbanists often make no distinctions themselves between the two movements, and the Charter of the New Urbanism, the document that underscores the movement’s philosophy, includes these words:

“We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces … .”

Restructuring public policy sounds an awful lot like Smart Growth. The charter also calls for metropolitan solutions. In Orange County, for instance, we have 34 separate cities and no single dominant city, as in Los Angeles County. Bigger cities make it easier for special interests – i.e., unions, planners, developers, environmentalists, etc. – to control things. Smaller cities breed innovation, competition, efficiency and freedom.

New Urbanists are gaga over Portland, Ore., which is the most tightly regulated big city in America, in terms of land use. A “green line” has been imposed around the urban limits, essentially outlawing all suburban development, and it is run by a dystopian metropolitan land-use agency mired in legal challenges.

So are the New Urbanists for more freedom or less freedom? My conclusion: They are for more freedom when it suits their design goals and less freedom when it suits their design goals. No one at the panel talked about property rights, freedom, individualism, etc. Their guiding principles are communitarian.

During my panel, one of the movement’s founders, Andres Duany, admitted that he would use any means available – including eminent domain and government regulation – to achieve the desired result of more New Urbanist communities. I take that as the final word on the matter.

To the degree New Urbanism is a design movement operating in the free market, I’m for it. No writer has been more vocal in his support for efforts by the city of Anaheim, for instance, to reduce zoning restrictions to allow higher-density construction in the Platinum Triangle. To the degree New Urbanism is defined by subsidies, growth controls and a new regimen of government planning, I’m against it.

Beyond the debate over public policy, I question some of the underlying assumptions of the New Urbanists. They say suburbia destroys a sense of community. But I live an interconnected life with work, friends, school, church, family, neighbors, local merchants … in suburbia.

Really, New Urbanism is about an aesthetic, and an aesthetic preferred by a high-income academic-minded elite. The New Urbanism conference, despite its blather about diversity, had the approximate diversity of the architecture faculty at a major university.

This elitism was, at times, shocking. The panel on religion and New Urbanism did not, as I expected, focus on urban land-use policies that discourage church building, but degenerated into cheap shots against the supposed evils of evangelical “mega-churches.”

Even New Urbanist hatred of strip malls drips with elitism, notes architect Frank Hotchkiss, the former planning director for the Southern California Association of Governments, and attendee at the conference.

“How many immigrants made their way in America by opening a business in one of those places?” he asked. By contrast, the new trendy downtowns the New Urbanists prefer are often high-end affairs, where only corporate chain stores can afford to locate.

Since World War II, America has added 100 million new urban residents, Hotchkiss told me, and there’s no way they could have been squeezed into existing urban boundaries, as New Urbanists prefer. What a wonderful revolution – even middle- and lower-income people could own their own homes, with a yard. Yet the New Urbanists dismiss this achievement, depicting tract homes as tawdry and “unsustainable,” something destructive of our very civilization.

By all means, let’s remove the barriers to New Urbanism so developers can build these types of projects, but let’s not create new barriers that make it harder to build the suburban houses needed to shelter the millions of new residents heading to (or being born in) America in the next 50 years.

I’m left with this final thought: If Orange County is the epitome of what they hate – sprawl – then there apparently are no serious problems left in the world.

Wendell Cox Consultancy : Demographia
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“Absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.” -Lone Mountain Compact