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Open letter to New Urbanist movement

Colin Dabkowski

Dear New Urbanism,

I want to like you. Really I do.

You have offered a lot of fantastic ideas for making cities into more friendly, livable and attractive places. Your accomplishments in Western New York – ridiculously idyllic Larkinville, walkable Elmwood Village, compact East Aurora – are shimmering examples of the movement’s positive impact on communities.

But to my ears, something rings hollow in your city-building rhetoric, so much of which has been flying around town this week during the 22nd annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the flagship organization of the movement.

Two of your outspoken and charismatic leaders, Andres Duany and Jeff Speck, were in town this week to offer their perspective on the movement they helped to create and to recruit new members with their siren song about a new urban utopia. I attended Speck’s address to the conference on Wednesday afternoon and came away with plenty of smart suggestions and solid data supporting the New Urbanists’ arguments for developing walkable communities.

But something Speck said toward the end of his presentation gave me serious doubts about the movement’s claims to inclusivity and its interest in improving life for all urban residents. Speck espouses a theory of urban development he calls “urban triage,” a term that means infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.

In explaining that philosophy, Speck said cities need to “concentrate perfection” in certain neighborhoods, distribute money in a way that favors those neighborhoods and focus primarily on downtowns in an effort to increase the health and wealth of citizens.

“Most mayors, city managers and municipal planners feel a responsibility to their entire city,” Speck wrote in his book “Walkable City,” a follow-up to “Suburban Nation,” the so-called “Bible of New Urbanism” that he co-authored with Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek. “As a result, they tend to sprinkle the walkability fairy dust indiscriminately. They are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive.”

It seems clear that the problem with the New Urbanism movement is not in the sensible strategies it suggests for the design and transformation of communities, but in where it believes those strategies should play out and who they should benefit.

As a movement, New Urbanism seems primarily concerned with making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous and then hoping against hope that the benefits of that prosperity magically extend into sections of town untouched by their charming design sensibility. Hence “urban triage,” a term that connotes a lack of concern for the human occupants of those neighborhoods deemed unworthy of infrastructure investments.

On a recent bicycle tour through the East Side led by activist and East Side resident David Torke and local planner and New Urbanist Chris Hawley, it’s obvious that this neighborhood needs infrastructure development and that local activists and urbanists recognize this need. To suggest that we need to choose between developing our downtown and improving the lives of residents in blighted neighborhoods, as New Urbanists’ “urban triage” philosophy would suggest, is beyond irresponsible.

We’re now living in the nightmarish legacy of trickle-down economics, which has created an unsustainable degree of economic inequality. The last thing we need to do now is create a new crisis of supply-side architecture, only to have to repair it in future decades.

While there was some talk about developing mixed-income neighborhoods, neither the New Urbanist manifestos nor anything I heard during the conference proposed a convincing or coherent strategy for accomplishing that on a grand scale. We mostly heard about reducing the number of street lanes, replacing stoplights with pedestrian-friendly four-way stops, building bike infrastructure and planting trees – all unquestionably smart strategies for making cities safer and more appealing.

But the many small fissures in Duany and Speck’s thinking were on full display this week, especially in Duany’s casual use of the word “retarded” to describe some tendencies of urban design and his disparagement of members of Generation X in a recruitment appeal to Millennials on Thursday night at Silo City.

This is the sort of rabble-rousing language Duany is known for using, and it has gained him a legion of loyal foot soldiers, but I think it hints at some of the movement’s more juvenile and regressive tendencies.

Both Speck and Duany, for instance, are outspoken critics of much contemporary architecture – not only work by starchitects such as Frank Ghery or Zaha Hadid, but of any structures that lack traditional details of the kind you see in buildings by H.H. Richardson or Louis Sullivan.

This is not only a prescription for aesthetic blandness, but a visual representation of the movement’s regressive tendencies, which harken back to some imagined “good old days” that never existed. It’s for this reason that New Urbanism, at least as represented by Speck and Duany, strikes me as deluded, myopic and dismissive of the actual problems American cities face today – namely poverty, the need for broad-based economic development and continued segregation along socioeconomic lines.

You cannot create a truly progressive city merely by reconstituting the neighborhoods of the past, with all their physical, socioeconomic and racial divisions and boundaries perfectly intact. A genuinely progressive city-building movement does not throw up its hands at a city’s most intractable problems or say, as Speck so blithely does in his book “Walkable City,” that we can get to them in another decade.

We need to get to them yesterday. And to solve them, it would help to have the assistance of the architects and city planners who are now trying to remake our cities into smaller and equally exclusive versions of Manhattan. We don’t need to rebuild a traditional city, a traditional neighborhood or a traditional way of life. What we desperately need is to create a new one.


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