Strong Towns and New Urbanism
I had never heard of Strong Towns before last year. In graduate school, while I was preparing to become a licensed architect, I learned of New Urbanism during a site planning class. I summarily rejected it for reasons rooted in my governing principles. I am a liberty first person. I believe that individuals, left to their own devices, who have been raised in generally moral and religious society, will overcome challenges, solve problems, provide security and in all ways make life good for themselves and those around them. And they will do it with little to no interference from governments, committees, boards, and councils. Those entities are more about self preservation than the altruistic charters they claim to champion. And so, I saw New Urbanism as promoting top down, Orwellian solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
I understood the New Urbanism mantra to be that cities in the United States should be more like the cities in Europe. They believed this because some enlightened people got together and decided that European cities were more beautiful and their density promoted a collective mentality. I love community as much as the next guy. But in my opinion, community is created by the free will of individuals who choose to live and work in proximity to each other…or not. They are not created by bureaucrats who deem it a virtue and compel society, through zoning ordinances, tax incentives and public funding, to live on top of each other. My reaction was also fueled by the arrogance of the professor who introduced it. The professor was the stereotypical know-it-all academic elitist. Pretty sure she didn’t like me either.
On top of that, all the examples of New Urbanist developments appeared to be contrived with homogeneous aesthetics (think Seaside Florida featured in “The Truman Show”) which promoted equality at the expense of liberty. This is akin to the modernists of the 1950’s and their socialist experiments which have ultimately failed, literally, in a heaping pile of junk. Beyond that, it seemed to me that this development model missed a fundamental premise of cities in the United States. All of the European cities that the New Urbanists propped up as worthy of emulation were cities that evolved and matured in an era that had never even conceived of the idea of an automobile. The practical reality of cities in the U.S. is that car ownership has become the norm. The reality simply is, cars take up more space than feet. It just isn’t practical to have an automobile owning society live in the type of density the NU’s were promoting. So, I heard it and I dismissed it and really haven’t given it another thought since…until…
Several months ago I came across an interesting post on facebook. The post was a share from one of my friends of a blog written by a local engineer in my town. In the blog post, he compared 2 pieces of property and their relative value. They are blocks on the same street separated by an intervening block. They front the same street, have access to the same neighborhood, are the same size, but have 2 fundamentally different development styles. If you want to read about it, you can here. What he showed was that one block had a far higher value and slower depreciation than the other. Guess which one it was. It was the block designed and constructed decades ago with a high density, pedestrian style program and in a dilapidated condition. The other block had a shiny and new, auto oriented, development.
This moment marked a paradigm shift for me. The real costs, both in infrastructure and maintenance, of automobile based development is hidden from the user. I believed that the automobile culture and the physical world it produced was a natural outgrowth of the democratic society we lived in. That users had weighed the cost/benefits and had chosen this type of development pattern. What I didn’t understand was that governments have been running a Ponzi scheme (as the blogger called it) using the promise of future development to leverage debt to fund current infrastructure. When presented with the economics, the real numbers, there is only one conclusion. The automobile based infrastructure we currently live in is as government manufactured as was the modernists projects of half a century ago and both are financially unsustainable.
This is the problem with governments, committees, boards and councils. They hide information to promote their own agenda…which is to look like they are doing good things so that they can continue to exist and grow. In one way, this revelation shattered my preconceived notions. But in another, it confirmed them. If the cost of the infrastructure and it’s maintenance had been placed at the feet of those they served, instead of funded with debt and other people’s money, such an unsustainable model would never have been created.
So now, I am in an interesting position. I find myself aligned with the New Urbanists…sort of. I am convinced that the density of development they promote has financial merit. But I still believe that it can only succeed and become a reality if it happens because of the exercise of individual liberty through incremental growth. But individual liberty will only produce these results if the government gets out of the way and stops trying to force top down development through zoning regulations and tax incentives, and placing the financial burden on the users.
Thank you Strong Towns for the education!