New Urbanism and Markets: A Delicate Balance

Though I share many of author Steven Greenhut’s opinions on modern urban planning and the need to curb the rampant abuse of eminent domain, I have been mildly critical of his recent writings on New Urbanism (see here). In short, I think that he has shown a tendency to blur the distinction between New Urbanism (a movement advocating a return to traditional urban forms and architecture styles) and Smart Growth (a movement aimed at using all manner of intrusive, anti-market, and often counterproductive policy mechanisms to produce radical changes in development patterns and, ultimately, human behavior). While there are common goals between the two movements, New Urbanists tend to be at least marginally more receptive to the use of markets to achieve their goals. Smart growth advocates, by contrast, may support a cherry-picked set of specific market-based policies, but then augment them with all sorts of coercive, anti-market policy prescriptions, such as urban growth boundaries and open space preservation schemes. In my opinion, Smart Growthers distrust markets because they wrongly perceive that the urban sprawl they abhor is the result of unfettered market forces, rather than the inevitable by-product of a market constrained by outdated, Euclidian zoning ordinances and poor planning policies and frameworks. Anyway, with this (arguably subtle) distinction in mind, it was welcome to see Steven Greenhut clarify his sentiments on New Urbanism in Sunday’s Orange County Register:

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. . . . . 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 [recent Congress of] New Urbanism conference, despite its blather about diversity, had the approximate diversity of the architecture faculty at a major university. . . . . 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.

Kudos to Greenhut…whether you agree or disagree with his opinion of the philosophical foundation of New Urbanism, he certainly hits the nail on the head with regard to policy. (Via Planetizen)