Jeff Speck on why people hate the New Urbanism

The Evolving Debate Over Smart Growth – Urban Development, Planning, Design – Architect Magazine

And here I was thinking people hate New Urbanists because they write stuff like this, and I don’t know, maybe some of us get tired of having smugness dripped all over us.

No, Mr. Speck, nobody actually hates you or the New Urbanism. People hate Hitler and Jar Jar Binks. But we can talk about why people might find all this really annoying:

a) the fact the Speck lives in a modernist house but prescribes a way of living in cities that suggests you’re a vacuous, planet-killing consumer drone if you live in a house. Slaps forehead!

b) the New Urbanism hasn’t created “better-looking sprawl”; it’s created “different-looking, yet still remarkably unattractive sprawl.” I read here that it’s the fault of those stylistically conservative markets, not the architects who are too craven or talentless to supply something original when confronted with easy fees.

c) the way that he implies, in the very best practice of civil society, that people who don’t slavishly believe what he does are merely “haters” with an “utterly unproductive” agenda* instead of people with questions, different priorities, doubts, and concerns; and

e) the vainglorious framing of the New Urbanists as warriors engaged in some sort of “fight” when in actuality it’s the dominant paradigm in planning and environmentalism, they own the White House and just about every urban appointee in it, every mayor of every major metro in the US no matter whether Republican or Democrat, have the developers in love with the ideas (density! Woo! And I get a bonus?!), command sizable fees to write reality-defying plans which promise stuff like “putting the theater next to florist shop and cafe will stop global warming and resurrect your dead grandma.” Now, maybe all this dominance is because their ideas are so swell, or maybe it’s because they’re brilliant marketers, but does that sound like the last fight you were in? I’m clearly not doing this “fighting” thing right.

*Of course I could be one of those stealth auto lovers who aren’t for him, so in the very best reasoning that involves the incapacity to hold two ideas in one’s head at the same time, I must be an enemy in the colossal fight. Maybe Spike TV will feature us on “Deadliest Warrior: New Urbanist vs. Social Scientist: who’s the deadliest warrior?! One has regressions and data; the other has colored pencils and crowds of adoring fans. Who will win this epic battle?” I know whom my students prefer.

I would feel better about the sustainable city of the future if the supposedly evolving debate around it didn’t strike me as being about a largely symbolic dustup between oligarchs over economic rents: car companies versus the professional development army of the Smart Growth machine–all of whom want your money and cover their prodo with greenwash in order to get it. What’s Good for the New Urbanism is Good for America!

3 thoughts on “Jeff Speck on why people hate the New Urbanism

  1. Dear Lisa: I was directed to your blog, and I thought I would take the time to reply. Feel free to post it in its entirety or not at all.

    The title “Why They Hate Us” was meant to be an ironic reference to the hand-wringing after September 11, implying the silliness of such self-defensive discussions, but I guess my subtleties are sometimes too subtle. For the record, I do not feel at all like Jar Jar Binks.

    To your comments:

    a. I think you are conflating two arguments, traditionalism vs. modernism and urban vs. suburban. There are plenty of fully urban modern houses, like mine, which sits on a 500-square-foot lot three blocks from metro, and allows our family of four to not own a car. As the title of your website suggests, the real discussion is about settlement patterns and transportation, not architectural style, and one has little to do with the other. Slap forehead!

    b. I guess attractiveness is in the eye of the critic. I find most high-quality new urban projects to be attractive, and you don’t. . . fair enough. I do know a lot of traditional architects who approach their work with tremendous skill and care, who would take issue with your assumption that originality is more important than what they consider beauty. Most of them consider an obsession with originality to be the central flaw of today’s design professions.

    c. Again, the “haters” was a joke, but I won’t pretend that my goal wasn’t to stir up a lively debate with an opinionated piece. My bad. If I was less smug, we probably wouldn’t be having this useful conversation.

    d. I too feel that d is an overused letter.

    e. Were it only true! The sad fact is that while the brain of the development industry (including the feds) seems to have settled on New Urbanism as a preferred alternative to sprawl, the body of the beast is still largely unchanged, so that most (active) developers still build — and most municipalities still approve (or require) — sprawl projects. There is a big difference between winning the war of words and the war on the ground. So we keep fighting when you think we’ve won.

    I suppose I should take offense at your suggestion that I am being disingenuous about my need to fight, when just last month I fought to narrow one too-speedy in-town highway by two lanes, and this week I am fighting to keep a major downtown high school from decamping to the periphery. . . and both of these are FIGHTS, believe you me.

    So, I for one, don’t know whom your students prefer, but I could certainly use them on my side. I hope they get the chance to read this.

    Best, Jeff Speck

    • Dear Mr. Speck–

      Thank you for stopping by. I should be offended by your suggestion that I wouldn’t be fair-minded enough to post your response, but I’m willing to let that slide since you let me slide on the suggestion that you were being disingenuous about fighting.

      a) Nope, I’m not giving you that one. We have small houses all over LA, little bitty cute ones, and the New Urbanists still treat this place like it’s one of the cities of the plain, the anti-city, one big, yucky suburb devoid of life and meaning, where we all live lives of desperation and misery. I don’t think the urban/suburban distinction holds much water when you get down to looking at functions. Single-use districts are single-use districts, but suburbs have a lot of jobs and a lot of activities. The suburb has its cultural meaning along the lines of Wisteria Lane, however, and the function and culture of the suburb do get conflated in the debate.

      Houses are nice, aren’t they?

      b) I’d say the conflation of novelty with originality is the problem, not a demand for original thinking. Originality can take any number of forms; every project is happening for the first time, every context has its own vagaries; I’d argue that everything that happens when you make something–a building, a rail line–happens for the only time as it happens–if that makes any sense. Every project presents its challenges in its own way, even if you have seen various aspects of the problem before. You can reference whatever you need to so long as what you do works for that project and that place, and if it does work, I’d call that an original and strong piece of work. I’m watching cookie-cutter New Urbanism go up all over LA. You ride the train, you get off, you see the same type of apartment complexes built the the same way–with different paint!–save for a few exceptional stations, like Hollywood. If people are going to critique suburban sprawl for its sameness, they had better be showing us better concepts, even if it’s not novel.

      e) d annoyed me some time ago, and now I am holding a grudge.

      f) Everything in urban development, except for the most minor of things, is a fight. Everything. And perhaps it should be; changes in the built environment of cities are social changes, and social changes are hard.

      I would be interested in seeing the data on what is getting built right now–my suspicion is not very much due to the recession–and my other suspicion is that it varies substantially by region, but that you have been more successful than you think. Chris Nelson, for example, exulted in a recent statistic he cited that for the first time, condo building eclipsed the new construction of single-family houses. I can try to dig that up if we need it.

      There may be places doing what they have always done, but I am betting that that the war of words has resulted in far more change than you believe it has, at least in particular markets. But nothing gets built easy: I spent my practitioner career working on transport projects, and people will fight you over even getting a sidewalk put in.

      We make a lot of noise about the coding and approval restrictions on multi-family housing, but in my experience, whenever we came forward with multi-family housing and mixed use proposals, institutions never stood in the way. Ever. The neighbors screamed bloody murder and used institutional processes and rationales to stop it if they possibly could. It’s one thing to portray the fight as one where you’re taking on hidebound institutions, and that’s fine, institutions have their own problems here–and another here to be very clear-eyed about why density is so hard to build: institutions make it hard to build because they are responding to the political economy that surrounds them, where people want to control density near them. And people want to control densities for some very rational reasons, sometimes. While many urban services are more efficiently delivered with density–mine (transit) being one–others, like schools, are not after a certain scale. I don’t blame people with children in LA Unified School districts for not welcoming the news that more families are coming because the schools are already terrible and their kids are already getting short-shrift. (Some schools are pretty good, nonetheless, but still. The graduation numbers speak for themselves.) These problems are thornier than changing codes.

      People scream and shake their hands and create opposition because they care about where they live. It’s a big circle of development politics, but getting mashed up in it is the price you pay if you want a voice and influence.

      Your book has been in print since you published it, it’s an older book now, and people consider it a classic. The name on everybody’s lips when New Orleans needed rebuilding was Duany’s firm. That’s a fight won. Yeah, every single day you might have go through the same slog, but we’re all going through that slog if we’re in this business. From where I sit, the New Urbanism has created perverse ideological barriers to climate change regulation. How so? The New Urbanists are greenies, right? Well, yes, they are. But I think that the emphasis placed on “green development” has perversely (and unintentionally) undermined the movement towards stricter controls on cars. Just as some people say “Oh, we don’t need to build better cities because our cars are going to be green 10 years from now” I also encounter, with frustrating regularity, people who say “Oh, changing vehicle technology is a waste of time, you technophile! People shouldn’t be driving anyway! We should be rebuilding our cities for walking and transit!” Yeah, except for the fact rebuilding cities takes time, and if the numbers are to be believed, we need BOTH clean cars and clean cities, and we need them with some alacrity. My field, planning, has largely abandoned its interest in advocating policy and regulation: we’re not writing how cap and trade might function spatially; nobody is throwing our collective weight behind a carbon tax. Instead, it’s study after study about how VMT reduction is a good idea. Well, um yeah; but dampening VMT growth still suggests VMT growth and shouldn’t be trying to influence the nature of the V in the VMT nexus? Am I unfairly generalizing? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to deal with people who treat the New Urbanism like a cult and the answer to every question.

      So what am I saying? I’m saying: buck up, cupcake! You are a high-profile, influential voice. You may not think so, but if you do, I will call that disingenuous or at least clueless because you’ve certainly held leadership positions. You know what that entails. You can either use that voice and position to make caricatures of the people who don’t buy in–which might be a joke in your mind but which reads (to me) like think you are entitled to agreement, which makes you sound more like cult leader than a thought leader–or you can use your voice to add value to the discussion and show us why the ideas are still relevant and what new challenges the movement has to take on. What will HSR mean for New Urbanism and compact development? LA used streetcars to spread and then really spread when we got cars because of all that nice profitable real estate all over the place. Will we use HSR merely to sprawl into the spaces in between our existing metros? Would that be different in California than in the Northeast (which is what I suspect). What innovations in design and practice will it take it make that into a vision that works? Or is HSR a terrible idea for urban form? There are 40 other questions I can think of that would be productive to put out there from the New Urbanist perspective if you need them.

      All of my students are New Urbanists. All of them. And that’s ok with me, so long as they develop the critical capacity to evaluate as well as advocate.

      Again, thanks for stopping by.


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