Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A balanced view of New Urbanism

This 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.

7 Comments:

At 8:52 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger David said...

It would sure be nice to get over this myth that new urbanists and smart growth advocates want to force anybody to do anything. Of course, reality is entirely to the contrary. As a smart growth advocate who works with others all over the nation, our mission is very plain: allow smart growth, reduce and get rid of public policies that encourage suburban development and limit urban development, stop the enormous subsidies to the land speculators in the form of roads, schools, fire stations, and all the rest, and bring some attention to conserving the things we already have, including the natural services that give us clean water and other amenities. It's just laughable to refer to the "huge capital costs of rail" while we're spending $117 million per mile to expand the Katy Freeway, a pointless exercise that will only bring harm to health and welfare of the people in the Houston region.
Let's keep in mind that 80 percent of the millions who are headed for Houston in the next couple of decades are relatively low-income folks coming from Mexican cities who will live primarily in three areas within the central city and will be dependent on transit and walkable neighborhoods. It's not clear at all who will live in the suburban houses the writer thinks need to be built.
In any event, as long as the lie hangs out there that new urbanism and smart growth are about forcing people to live in ways they don't want there really isn't any integrity to this kind of discussion.

 
At 9:41 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A clarification on the Katy freeway: it may be $117M per mile, but that's for 20+ lanes that will move more people in a couple days than a transit line will in a month.

 
At 10:05 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

Tory,

>>[W]e 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.<<

Eh... If there's evidence that encouraging high-density development actually reduces congestion, I've never seen it (in fact, there's evidence to the contrary). As for encouraging New Urbanism in certain areas, I'm also highly skeptical. Wouldn't it be a better idea to simply facilitate this kind of development where it currently exists, and is expanding, without much public prodding?

I always note that the area surrounding Memorial and Allen Parkway are seeing a boom in condos, apartments, and townhomes, without any rail or BRT. I'd support repaving roads in the area, improving bus service, expediting building projects, etc, in those places rather than wherever Metro decides to slap in a rail line. Metro isn't necessarily responding to market demand for high-density housing.

>>It's also the best way to maximize property tax return on investment from the huge capital costs of rail.<<

I tend to doubt that's really a benefit, since rail reorients development, if anything, rather than actually spurring it. So you'd have the tax revenue -- it would just come from another development somewhere else.

 
At 10:13 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

David,

>> It's just laughable to refer to the "huge capital costs of rail" while we're spending $117 million per mile to expand the Katy Freeway, a pointless exercise that will only bring harm to health and welfare of the people in the Houston region. <<

Not really. Unlike rail, the Katy Freeway is 1) cost-effective, 2) subsidized overwhelmingly by the people who use it through gasoline taxes and registration fees, and 3) a major transportation artery. Moreover, they're going to be adding HOT lanes, which will add additional revenue to defray the costs.

>> Let's keep in mind that 80 percent of the millions who are headed for Houston in the next couple of decades are relatively low-income folks coming from Mexican cities who will live primarily in three areas within the central city and will be dependent on transit and walkable neighborhoods. <<

What? They'll primarily move into the inner-city? That's not necessarily the case (and if that's true, then why all the complaints about gentrification?). And as for transit, numerous cheap bus lines would better serve an impoverished population than rail. Rail tends to be designed to serve more affluent populations that transit agencies believe won't use buses, even though buses are more cost-effective.

 
At 1:43 PM, July 14, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

great comments owen

also, encouraging policies that would deter common surban sprawl would be forcing people to not live in the suburbs. Also, no policy the city of Houston places will affect the growth of suburbs since most suburbs our outside of the city. Event the ETJ regulations for subdivision design won't be able to stop the development.

Also, most of the dense urban type development occuring in the city are nowhere near rail lines. As Own mentioned about Memorial Parkway, also the north side of Uptown.

 
At 6:23 PM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The high-density development outside of the rail lines could be a problem longer term. All those people will use cars to get around, and that street grid wasn't designed for that kind of trip density. The slog up Shepherd is a sign of things to come. Along the rail lines, you would hope at least a reasonable percentage of peoples' trips would be via rail.

 
At 11:57 PM, July 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

**also, encouraging policies that would deter common surban sprawl would be forcing people to not live in the suburbs.**

the policies have been exactly the opposite since ww2, and only a few places have seen the light and stopped it.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home