A balanced view of New UrbanismThis columnist in Orange County might be a tad harsh towards New Urbanism, but the jist of his argument pretty much matches mine:
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.
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.
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 think Houston public officials recognize the impracticality of imposing the New Urbanist/Smart Growth model on the whole city. That said, we should still do everything possible to encourage New Urbanist transit-oriented development near the LRT/BRT stops, because it's a lifestyle choice we currently offer very little of and a good way to absorb population growth with minimal traffic increase. It's also the best way to maximize property tax return on investment from the huge capital costs of rail.