New urbanists may be better off if they distanced themselves from the ever-expanding smart growth political agenda. Most growth experts equate the new urbanist movement with smart growth or at least consider it part of the smart growth movement. However, the smart growth movement has been severely diluted by slow growth advocates, no-growth extremists, NIMBYism, the transit lobby, and downtown development advocates. Each of these groups has an agenda too distinct to be grouped together. Consequently for new urbanists, they will bear criticism aimed at other facets of smart growth and we may end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.
For new urbanists, it is not simply the actual dispersion or sprawl of land development that is disturbing, but rather the character or style of that development. In other words, it’s as much about look and feel as it is about density. But the problem with smart growth is not its critique of contemporary subdivision design, but rather the rigid and ineffective policy choices they advocate. Contrary to popular belief, smart growth critics do not necessarily have a distaste for the new urbanism and its design, but rather the promise (or threat) of a neatly packaged set of voluminous design specifications that will dictate all development in every city. As long as developers voluntarily choose the design and believe it will make their project more marketable and consumers respond favorably, free market advocates would applaud such design.
Despite images of heavy-handed, restrictive land use controls that legislate urban design and land use (concepts supported by many smart growth advocates), new urbanism can be viewed as a concept that relaxes traditional local government land use and zoning controls to provide neighborhoods as the market demands. The last part is key. Even Andres Duany, founder of the Congress of the New Urbanism, recently admitted that he supports new urbanist communities only if there is demand for them. New urbanism at the neighborhood level is a development innovation, one that is stifled by current restrictive land use controls. We should strive to encourage development innovation whether it be new urbanist or some other form.
New urbanists should avoid being aligned with the all-encompassing smart growth agenda by offering a more targeted, market-oriented message. The following concepts illustrate how new urbanism designs can be perceived by the general public as market-oriented without restrictive government controls that don’t respect personal freedoms.
- Focus on the neighborhood level, not the region. Regional redistribution attempts are almost always exposed as social engineering of which we need less.
- Emphasize new urbanism as an innovation that can occur in suburbs, urban villages, central cities, and exurbs. Kentlands, MD and Seaside, FL, two of the most popular new urbanist communities are hardly central city areas. This is precisely why they work so well – urban-like and suburban-like amenities.
- Understand that while walkable and transit accessible may be nice, most people will drive most of the time. Consumers may love the quaint village atmosphere, walkable main streets, and picturesque streetscapes, but they will also want the convenience of the suburbs. Traffic congestion will not be alleviated by the occasional walk to the store or bus trip downtown.
- Realize that the concept of new urbanism can succeed only if it is perceived as an improved development innovation from the average suburb, not a mandated government design. New designs can be marketed, but some people may still choose a homes-only subdivision on a cul-de sac and regulation should not force them into a government pre-agreed upon design.
- Understand that new urbanism is not a policy cure for all growth ills, but rather one alternative neighborhood design that may improve the attractiveness, functioning, and aesthetics of a neighborhood.
If new urbanists can successfully separate themselves from the rest of the smart growth crowd, they stand a better chance of getting their message accepted by the public and potential customers of new urbanist communities. In this way, maybe we can start viewing new urbanism as a market-oriented response to improve upon cookie-cutter subdivisions, not part of a coercive smart growth political agenda.
Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation