Me on why I’m still grouchy about the haters language and the New Urbanism

Dear Mr. Speck:

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, a 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. But not by me.

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 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 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” perversely (and unintentionally) undermined 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 we 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 that comes up.

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 followers, 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.

As to my missing your subtle references to 9/11 in your portrayal of the barriers facing the New Urbanism, I have to say that I did catch it but I didn’t like it. I don’t find 9/11 amusing in any way, and I assume you don’t either, not really. Moreover, if that’s the analogy you wanted to draw, you have made my point for me. The clash ensconced within 9/11 can be interpreted as a clash between progressives and reactionaries (one read; the one I assume you mean) or it can also be interpreted as a clash between a bullying superpower and those who have been structurally excluded. You can read New Urbanism as progressives under fire from reactionaries; I can read it as the bullying superpower in my field, where anybody who raises doubts or criticisms gets treated like an enemy of the people. In reality, the complexities of these contexts mean that all these reads probably contain a grain of truth.

Again, thanks for stopping by. We don’t get celebrities around these parts often.

L