Rybczynski on New Urbanism

There’s an interesting interview with architect and urban scholar Witold Rybczynski in the June issue of AEI’s The American Enterprise. Here’s an excerpt on New Urbanism and land prices:

TAE: What is your view of the New Urbanist movement and its effort to restore the traditional pedestrian scale of historic communities in new suburban and urban development? RYBCZYNSKI: Well, first of all one has to say they’re the only game in town. Most architects have essentially abandoned any attempt to shape a broader environment–they’re creating very exciting buildings, and architecture’s probably more in the public eye today than 25 years ago, but it’s very much about signature designers and individual flamboyance. New Urbanists are the only group of architects who have looked at the broader physical environment. I think they deserve enormous credit for that. And I’m certainly sympathetic to their focus on pedestrians versus automobiles, on studying older cities and trying to understand why they’re successful, and how these things can be adapted to contemporary life. I think they’re sometimes too doctrinaire, almost religious in their inflexible dogma. Some of that I think has to do with having a movement. You have to be very strong in the way you express yourself, and if you start compromising all over the place, pretty soon you don’t have a movement any more. They at least have an idea of what the city should be, and most city planners don’t. TAE: The New Urbanists are waxing indignant over sprawl, and we hear a good deal of gloating over fat people, McMansions, energy hogs, plastic, and so forth. RYBCZYNSKI: This may be interfering with their ability to connect with mainstream America, although two of the most successful movements in the last century have been the environmental movement and the historic preservation movement, and New Urbanists have tried to form links with both. I don’t think they’re easy links. The environmental movement has been essentially anti-development, and the New Urbanists, whatever else they are, are about development, and building more stuff. So there’s a real contradiction between the criticism of sprawl and wanting to build. There’s a lot of New Urbanism that is part of sprawl. Celebration, Florida, is a nice place, but it’s also part of the general sprawl around Orlando. Kentlands in Montgomery County, Maryland is part of the spread of the city farther out. These places first require using automobiles, and only then are about creating attractive places to walk. In any case, New Urbanist developments are not having a huge impact on how much sprawl there is. TAE: Do you see denser living becoming a national trend? RYBCZYNSKI: It’s happening. It’s happening because development has become more difficult, particularly in the Northeast and California. When development is difficult and land becomes increasingly expensive, naturally your lots get smaller and smaller, because people just can’t afford more. TAE: Statistics show that only a small percentage of our national territory has been developed, yet land is becoming expensive. How is that? RYBCZYNSKI: I’ve been studying this in Pennsylvania, where it takes about four years to get permits for a project. In Texas it takes about four months. And that’s roughly the comparison. Because it’s so difficult (if possible at all) to get building permits in places like New Jersey or southeast Pennsylvania, while population and demand are growing, the result is that the few things which are permitted become extremely valuable. So when we say the land is more expensive, it’s not because of some sort of physical reason. It’s simply that less land is being made available for building, and so what there is costs more. And that’s what pushes up the price of housing. It’s not the cost of construction; it’s not primarily about demand, it’s mainly about supply.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole interview. The June issue also has a fantastic piece by Sprawl author Robert Bruegmann, which is so chock-full of choice nuggets of wisdom that I’ll have to blog it separately.