New Urbanism’s new way

July 30, 2009


By Kendra Langdon Juskus

Sometimes we can get stuck. We can get stuck in radical (though often justified) positions on crucial issues, to the point where compromise is inconceivable, potential allies retreat, opposing viewpoints dig their heels deeper into the sands of bitterness and suspicion, and nothing gets done. But hopeful and healthy change rarely starts with radicalism. Instead, most lasting change is precipitated by incremental steps, unlikely alliances, learning and re-learning, compromise, and balance.

This is an implicit theme in Marvin Olasky’s recent WORLD magazine article, “Building Blocks,” a look at the school of planning thought called New Urbanism (for a brief introduction, watch the video to the right). New Urbanism promotes the revival and improvement of walkable, green space-oriented, business-friendly, “human-scaled” neighborhoods. And what  Olasky highlights most about New Urbanism is its refusal to be pitted in one radical societal camp or another. Currently headed by John Norquist, the former Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) deviates from assumed left-of-center positions on subjects like school vouchers and big-box stores. And while New Urbanism emphasizes the importance of careful planning in reducing car dependency and carbon footprints, Olasky writes that “Conservative New Urbanists argue that the development of car-dependent suburbs was not the result of free markets: Governmental policies—freeway construction, zoning regulations, income tax deductions for mortgage interest, a lack of school choice—boosted suburbs and hurt cities.”

In other words, New Urbanism refuses to be stuck in any one predictable ideology, and instead makes concessions and moderations to many sides in order to actually get constructive ideas moving. Writes Olasky:

Such CNU embraces of diversity even allow room for one of the left’s whipping boys, “big box” stores that feature large inventories and relatively low prices within windowless, standardized one-story buildings surrounded by parking lots. One new urbanist goal is not to eliminate them but to incorporate them into the surrounding community by incorporating windows rather than blank walls and putting at least half the parking at the back or sides.


I’ve seen New Urbanism–and its attempts at forging a third way in development–at work. Until a year ago, I lived in the rapidly-changing Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, where New Urbanism took root in the form of DCUSA, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly revitalization project. Of course criticism has been leveled at the project, but it has largely incorporated the old and the new, respected architectural and cultural traditions in the neighborhood, made pedestrian and public transportation options appealing, and provided local jobs and housing to serve the economically- and racially-diverse surrounding community. Columbia Heights was once a lively, culturally important urban center–a legacy that was crippled for a time by race riots, discrimination, and drug epidemics. And while it looks different today, its residents can proudly claim the continuation of that heritage. Having lived in the area, I have my own store of bones to pick with the project, but I can ultimately say that something good happened in my neighborhood.

It’s New Urbanism’s pursuit of that good, rather than the perfect, that allows communities–not just cities or suburbs–to develop in ways that support both people and the creation they rely on. In Olasky’s article, an entrenched radical viewpoint that cities are only hazards to the earth and economic enterprise only a barrier to environmental health is constrasted with New Urbanism’s approach. He quotes Norquist, the president of the CNU:

“[Norquist] calls his CNU “the free market arm of the environmental movement” and touts his “strong appreciation for markets. . . . We want to reform development, not stop it.”

And reform is what happens when we don’t let the ideal get in the way of the possible. It’s the benefit of un-sticking ourselves from our radical loyalties, of refusing to get stuck in negative criticism of anything but our own convictions. When you act, as the New Urbanism movement has undoubtedly discovered, you’re bound to get criticism, and you’re bound to get things wrong. But when you don’t act, you don’t get anything at all.

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