I am a bicyclist and a railfan. I've never liked cars and I hate driving. If New Urbanism worked as promised, I might be attracted to it.
But I am also an economist, which means I ask questions about policies and programs such as New Urbanism that sometimes produce embarrassing answers. I have three questions in particular about New Urbanism.
First, is the New Urbanist version of history correct? Is it true that past zoning, Interstate highways, and other government programs created the suburbs and denied traditional neighborhood choices to people? While it is impossible to be absolutely sure, the answer to this question appears to be "no." Although Kenneth Jackson, in his book Crabgrass Frontier, has documented a number of federal policies that he says promoted suburban growth, he himself observes that, "The dominant residential drift in American cities had been toward the periphery for at least a century before the New Deal, and there is no reason to assume that the suburban trend would not have continued in the absence of direct federal assistance."
For proof, we only need to look at Canada, Europe, and other developed nations, most of which have had anti-suburban policies for decades, yet all of which are rapidly suburbanizing. If zoning laws were really preventing people from living in New Urban developments, then the New Urbanists' favorite large city would be Houston. I can assure you it is not.
My second question is, "Are New Urbanist predictions of the benefits of New Urban communities accurate?" Here my answer is an emphatic "no!" As near as I can tell, New Urbanism was contrived in the minds of a few architects who imagine how they think people ought to live and then design for that fantasy. They never checked their fantasies against reality and as a result they got almost everything wrong.
New Urbanism was then taken up by the planning profession, which oversold it as solving every urban and suburban ill imaginable, including congestion, air pollution, obesity, high taxes, high housing costs, class warfare, teenage suicide, crime, grouchy neighbors, and crummy fast food restaurants. There is no evidence that New Urbanism will solve any of these problems, and plenty of evidence that it will make many of them worse.
Take congestion and crime as two examples. There is very little evidence that New Urbanist design will significantly reduce the amount of driving people do. While it does attract people who don't want to drive, they weren't driving much before anyway. What New Urbanism does do is concentrate people in areas with narrow streets and, often, limited parking, thus exacerbating local congestion problems. Plus those people then mostly drive to work from their concentrated villages, whereas in the suburbs they would be more spread out. New Urban village thus increases congestion in the major corridors on which they are located.
The effect of New Urbanism on crime is even more indisputable. In 2001, the American Planning Association published a book called SafeScapes that advocated New Urban designs such as mixed-use developments, alleys, pedestrian paths, common areas, and gridded street networks, claiming that all of these things would reduce crime.
In fact, as long ago as 1976, architect Oscar Newman, who created the concept of defensible space, proved that all of these things make neighborhoods more susceptible to crime. SafeScape's authors wrote, "Newman took the 'eyes on the street' concept argued that the reason 'eyes on the street' provide safety in urban, mixed commercial and residential areas is because there is a visible link between residents and the street." That is such a distortion of reality that it amounts to an outright lie.
The truth is that Newman examined what he called "the unsupported hypotheses of Jane Jacobs," namely "eyes-on-the-street," and found that it did not work. To protect neighborhoods against crime, he proved, you had to maximize private areas, minimize common areas, avoid mixed uses, and minimize the number of access points to the neighborhoods. Cul-de-sacs are an important crime-prevention device; gridded streets and pedestrian paths facilitate crime.
Newman's work has been substantiated by much additional research in England. Every English police force today has an architectural liaison who helps developers design out crime. One of these liaisons has conducted research showing that New Urban designs have five times as much crime and cost police departments three times as much to keep secure as neighborhoods designed to defensible space standards. Actual experiments have shown that the introduction of New Urban elements, such as pedestrian paths, into existing neighborhoods dramatically increase crime, while the removal of elements such as the privitization of common areas dramatically reduces crime.
The claim that New Urbanism promotes a greater sense of community is similarly exaggerated and is based on an obsolete notion of "community." I personally am active in close to a dozen different communities, including the community of Belgian shepherd owners, the cycling community, the railfan community, and the free-market community. I doubt there is anyone within 150 miles of my home who belongs to more than one of the communities I belong to, but I have no problem participating in these communities because of autos, airplanes, and the Internet.
Finally, we come to my third question, which is, "Is New Urbanism compatible with property rights and freedom?" My answer to this question is colored by my living in Oregon, where New Urbanism is being forced on people with a vengeance.
I have never seen Seaside, but I have seen Kentlands, and while I thought it was pleasant, I was most interested to learn that the original project went bankrupt, and it was only the introduction of what amounts to big-box stores that made the retail portion of it succeed. I very much appreciate Andres Duany for his ability to learn from this and his adaptability to the market.
Out West, we have a similar story, that of Laguna West, which was designed by Peter Calthorpe, which similarly went bankrupt, and the new developer who finished it similarly made dramatic changes to the plan, mainly by significantly reducing the densities of what was supposed to be the town center. But the lesson Calthorpe learned was that he could make more money helping cities write coercive zoning codes requiring New Urban design than he could building for the market.
There is a market for New Urban design, but it is much smaller than New Urbanists claim. It consists mainly of young singles and childless couples, and nowhere near a majority of them. The 2000 census revealed that the populations of every major demographic, including empty nesters, singles, double-income no children, and so on, grew faster in the suburbs than in the central cities in the 1990s.
The real market for New Urbanism is so small that that it probably could not long support the 1,100 architects, developers, and planners who attended this year's Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Chicago. If they want to keep building New Urban designs, they are going to have to turn to coercive techniques.
One of the most popular such techniques, adopted by cities in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, and even Montana, is to create artificial land shortages through urban-growth boundaries. This drives up the price of land, forcing people to accept homes on smaller lots when, in the absence of such shortages, they would prefer a larger lot. The 2000 census revealed that every urban area, city, and town above 2,500 people covers only 2.6 percent of the land in the U.S., so such artificial land shortages impose huge costs on people with no significant benefit.
By the way, I don't know where the notion that Portland's Orenco commands 30 percent greater prices that other developments in the city comes from, but I am sure it is not true. The developers of Orenco have publicly called it their "non-profit development," which they did only to please the powers that be so that they could get permission to do the kind of developments that people really wanted to live in.
I have often said that I would not object to New Urbanism if it were voluntary. But the truth is that I find New Urban designs to be truly repugnant. When I bicycle by New Urban neighborhoods in Portland, Denver, or elsewhere, I get a sick feeling in my stomach because I know many of the people in these neighborhoods have been forced to live there because of various government coercions, and that this has severely degraded their quality of life.
Where are the backyards for their children and pets to play in? A little girl was recently killed by a UPS truck in a New Urban neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon, because the backyards were too small for children to play in so they all played in the streets.
Why is there so little parking that people are forced to park on the sidewalks, in the fire lanes, and in front of their neighbors homes? After an emergency service vehicle was unable to reach a heart attack victim in a Calthorpe-designed Portland New Urban neighborhood, the fire marshall ordered people to park on only one side of the street. One of the many angry residents of the neighborhood said, "The planners who designed this neighborhood should be required to live here for a year before being allowed to design another."
Why are the streets so narrow that they feel threatening to me as a cyclist? All of the curb extensions, traffic circles, and other so-called traffic-calming devices seem to me to be cyclist-killing devices. The suburban neighborhood I lived in near Portland had broad streets with no sidewalks, but the neighborhood's low densities meant there weren't very many cars, so residents felt very comfortable walking and cycling on the streets.
Who thought up the idea of front porches, which the city of Portland now requires on all new homes? If I am going to have some guests over for an outdoor bar-b-que, I want to do it in the privacy of my backyard, not in front for every stranger who drives by to see. The lesson of Radburn, New Jersey, that planners failed to learn is that the real front of today's homes is the side facing the backyard, while the side facing the street is the utility side. An alley in back is redundant and takes away the possibility of a private yard.
Where are the cul-de-sacs that reduce traffic, noise, and crime? At Chicago's New Urban Congress, someone showed photographs of cul-de-sacs and everyone but me laughed because they "knew" cul-de-sacs were bad. They were wrong. Here is a cul-de-sac in once-happy neighborhood in Bradford, England. Then New Urban planners built a pedestrian path connecting it with the shopping mall next door. The result was that crimes in the neighborhood skyrocketed to fourteen times the national average.
New Urbanists say they are for "choice," but in practice much of what New Urban planners do reduces choice. Take the Congress for the New Urbanism, which says, "All development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods." Not some; all. The Congress also says it "stands for . . . the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods." Again, not some; all.
Or take the "transect" that Philip Bess has described. Does anyone really think we can pigeonhole every possible lifestyle choice into just seven categories? I can easily think of two that are missing: exurbanism (sometimes called "hobby farming") and urban farming. Significantly, the state of Oregon has done its best to outlaw both.
Like it or not, we live in a world where the automobile is the dominant form of travel, and it is going to stay that way no matter what happens to the price of oil. Again, you only have to look at Europe, where punitive taxes make both cars and fuel expensive. While Americans drive for 86 percent of their travel, Europeans drive for 79 percent, which isn't significantly different, and their rates of per capita driving are growing faster than ours.
Given that this is true, people neither need nor want to live near their work, near shopping areas, or near recreation areas. Americans happily drive miles to work so they can live in the neighborhoods of their choice, not the neighborhoods chosen for them by planners.
To design for a world where few people drive, as James Kunstler says we should do, is absurd. To mandate and heavily subsidize such designs, as the state of Oregon does, and as cities such as Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake, and Missoula have done, is insane. Outside of college towns, the market for New Urbanism is going to be tiny and will probably be saturated by existing inner-city developments anyway. Unless New Urbanists accept this, New Urbanism will be continuing threat to America's freedom, quality of life, and property rights.
Randal O'Toole is a Senior Economist at The Thoreau Institute. He is the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.