Urban Myths

The architectural reform movement called New Urbanism is proving highly influential, and therefore it merits rigorous critique and analysis. But some recent arguments may reveal less about the movement's real flaws, and more about one line of attack and its deceptive polemical practices.

Photo: Michael Mehaffy

A spectre is haunting America and the world, according to prolific libertarian
author Randal O'Toole:  the spectre of New Urbanism.  As he
wrote in the magazine Reason in 1999: "The New Urbanism is quietly
sweeping the nation... If you live in a metropolitan area, your city planning
bureau is probably infested with New Urbanists." 1   Yuck.

O'Toole was even more visceral in a recent exchange at the Claremont Institute with conservative New Urban architect Philip Bess, when he said "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." 2

What a menace this nasty "New Urbanism" must be!

O'Toole, a self-described economist (though he has no degree in that
field) 3 is head of the Thoreau Institute,
a veritable one-man army against the City of Portland, "smart-growthers," and,
as he lumps them together, the "coercive" New Urbanists.  This
is in spite, it should be noted, of Portland's cool treatment of the
New Urbanists, frequent feuds between the smart-growth and New Urbanist communities,
and the New Urbanists' stated claims to embrace market processes and
a "level playing field" to allow greater choice - more on
that below. 

In any case, O'Toole's views could easily be dismissed as being
something other than, shall we say, mainstream.  He recently challenged
publicly the legitimacy of any government beyond 50-person homeowner associations - a
sort of one-house, one-vote utopianism, perhaps. 4

Misguided Planning?

But to be fair, there have been enough horrifically misguided planning schemes
in the past that we should indeed be wary, and we should carefully examine
the merits of any critique, from whatever source.  So is O'Toole
right that the New Urbanism is just another coercive, top-down planning regime?  Do
his many sweeping claims (for example his recent claim that New Urbanism is "crime-friendly")
have merit?

More accurately, the New Urbanism is not a "planning regime" but
a member-based movement consisting of a cross-sector of professionals, backed
with a charter of principles, and meeting at annual "congresses" (where
O'Toole himself has been an invited guest).  It is modelled on the
hugely influential early twentieth-century architectural reform movement called
the CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), which sought
architectural and urban reforms for the genuine overcrowding and poor sanitation
of nineteenth-century Europe.  That movement's radical prescription
was to get rid of the walkable urban street altogether, and to segregate housing,
commercial and various other uses far out in the suburbs, accessed by wide
freeways.  As CIAM founding architect Le Corbusier put it, a secretary
could work downtown and have lunch under a tree in the suburbs.  (Obviously
he didn't figure in the traffic congestion; but his drawings feature
little biplanes, so perhaps that is how she might do it nowadays.)

Of course a version of that suburbanization scheme became the ubiquitous model
for US development after World War II - not as a "natural" result
of market forces, but as conscious, restrictive - what O'Toole
would call "coercive" -- government policy. 

Government's Futurama

It began with policymakers' enthusiasm generated by a CIAM-inspired
diorama shown in the 1939 World's Fair exhibit called "Futurama",
and sponsored by General Motors and others.  (No fools, they recognised
the profits in such a far-ranging construction programme.) The plan was implemented
with massive post-war Keynesian "corporate welfare" in the form
of government-funded freeway construction, government-backed GI mortgages (red-lined
away from inner-city areas) and a strict new zoning regime that heavily favored
suburban "greenfield" construction over renovation.   Where
inner-city "renovation" did occur, it followed the disastrous "urban
renewal" model of bulldozing older neighborhoods and replacing them with
super-block complexes, many of which failed in short order.  All of this
was conscious, top-down government policy. 5

It is true that market forces did respond positively to this suburban regime - of
course economic behavior is often a complex mix of government and market processes
-- and the affordable new communities did sell quickly, leading to ever more
explosive growth. And clearly, there were major benefits offered by the new
communities, at least in the early years.  They were more affordable,
more tranquil, and their yards were bigger. They left behind, at least temporarily,
many of the problems of the older city: crime, congestion, ethnic tensions
(yes, that too), and decay.   

But what is notable is that the market forces served by this regime were monocultural - that
is, they were almost exclusively single-family suburban ranch houses aimed
at young families able to afford exclusive automobile transportation.  If
you were elderly or disabled and couldn't drive, tough.  If you
were too young, tough.  If you were a mother in one of these communities,
you could enjoy the privilege of dedicating much of your time as taxi driver
to your children, who often couldn't walk or bike the dangerous "dendritic" hierarchy
of arterials to school, friends' houses or other activities.

That these communities worked well for a significant if diminishing portion
of the market is not in dispute.  The point is that they were the only
solution allowed by a top-down regime of zoning, finance and transport requirements - all
government or government-initiated actions that under O'Toole's
definition qualify as "coercive".  (I will leave alone fascinating
questions of where democratic decision-making ends and "coercion" begins
for another discussion.)

Moreover, this government policy initiated an unsustainable pattern of leapfrogging
older developments, leaving behind the problems of older communities rather
than encouraging (or even allowing) creative market-based ways of regenerating
them.  The result was an ever-increasing requirement of driving longer
distances, increasing levels of traffic congestion, spiralling cost of infrastructure,
and increasing problems in the left-behind city cores - to be "remedied" with
the disastrous inner-city "urban renewal" version of Le Corbusier's
super-block scheme. 

In later years the "holes" of these urban doughnuts simply got
bigger, leaving first the downtown core, then consuming the inner suburbs that
began as solutions to the problems, and ended as even more dysfunctional new
additions to those same problems.  (While there is much criticism of perimeter "urban
growth boundaries," it is often overlooked that these expanding "doughnut
holes" amount to an inner no-go "urban growth boundary" too,
putting their own pressure on home prices from inner areas that could not effectively
regenerate their housing stock.)

The New Urbanists' Response

So what is it that the New Urbanists propose to do about this state of affairs?  O'Toole
seems to assume that the principles listed in the Charter 6 are
supposed to be implemented in some sort of rigid government plan of restrictive
use, mirroring the old so-called "Euclidean" zoning regimes.  But
many of the principles call for the liberalization of existing government controls,
for example on use zoning, on the width of streets, on accessory dwellings,
on business use and the like.   

Rather than prohibiting detached suburban single family dwellings, New Urbanists
generally recognise that there is a legitimate and real sector of the market
to be served with such dwellings, and they discuss and debate -- at the congresses,
and on sometimes raucous listserv discussion groups like "Pro-urb" --
how such dwellings can be integrated into a broader range of dwelling choices,
including a choice of healthy and vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods.  They
note, as do the developer organisation the Urban Land Institute, the National
Association of Homebuilders and various economists (but curiously not O'Toole)
that there is a strong market demand for such mixed-use developments.  Where
he acknowledges market demand for New Urbanism at all, O'Toole portrays
it as a tiny segment, barely able to support work for what he says are the
1,200 members of the CNU (actually 2,400, but what's a doubling error
between friends?)

When it comes to the role of government, New Urbanists are hardly of one mind.  True,
some New Urbanists do favor government activism with rather rigid top-down
governmental controls, often centering on environmental issues; but they by
no means represent the entire group, and there is vigorous debate within this
politically and philosophically diverse movement on this and other matters.  What
New Urbanists do agree upon is the principle of diversity - that there
should be, or should be allowed, a variety of choices to meet a variety of
needs and lifestyles, unlike the government-prescribed monoculture we have
now.  In itself that is certainly a market-facing approach.  

But quite apart from the role of government, this debate also calls into question
the professional and consumer choices we make, and the responsibilities we
share, as part of a culture -- and not merely as a random collection of individuals
whose choices have no impact upon one another.  We can probably find large
areas of agreement that it is best to make these kinds of cultural decisions
as close to the grass roots as possible, and with a mix of bottom-up and top-down
approaches as each situation requires. This is where "communitarian" conservatives
like Philip Bess, and more libertarian pragmatists like Andres Duany, part
company with the more radical libertarians like O'Toole, who seem to
think that there is no professional responsibility on the part of architects
and planners - indeed, that there is no responsibility of citizens to
act in any unified way beyond homeowner associations, and that we should just
throw up our hands and see what the market delivers.  History suggests
it will deliver an atomized mess.

O'Toole's Critique

In any case, there can be a lively and respectful debate on such issues.  But
what of the merits of O'Toole's attack on the agreed principles
of the New Urbanism? Interestingly, since O'Toole described the New Urbanism
as a passing "fad" some six years ago in these pages, the movement
has become even more widespread;  The CNU now has chapters around the
world; a "Council for European Urbanism" modelled on CNU has been
formed in Brussels; the Chair of the CNU has just become Chief Executive of
the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, Prince Charles' charity
in London (where this author also happens to work); and the Deputy Prime Minster
of the United Kingdom has explicitly embraced New Urbanist principles for his
national planning authority, attended a recent Congress, and pledged to continue
to work with the CNU. 7   (O'Toole
rather coyly describes these developments as "Even Britain has its New

These events seem to have prompted O'Toole to change tactics.  Writing
recently in Reason magazine with the English author Stephen Town,
O'Toole now claims that the New Urbanism inherently generates high levels
of crime - "criminogenic," as he dubs it. 8   Surely
this polemical move will hit the New Urbanists in their Achilles Heel - the
notion that their design principles really are "bad for the neighborhood," so
to speak.  Yet as the editor of New Urban News, Rob Steuteville, noted
in a letter in response, O'Toole's argument is constructed entirely
on sweeping theoretical claims and visceral anecdotes (like the one about the
little girl hit by the UPS truck), with not a single genuine substantiating
bit of evidence to back up these extravagant claims.  Indeed, the available
evidence seems to point in exactly the opposite direction.

Regarding the English "report" that O'Toole and Town cite
in their February 2005 paper, "Crime-friendly Neighborhoods," Bill
Hillier, a respected researcher into the relation of crime and spatial design,
and a professor of Urban Morphology at University College London (and sometimes
himself a rigorous academic critic of New Urbanism) was asked to comment on
its merit.  He responded this way: 

"I've just heard from Peter Knowles (the author of the report) that nothing
else can be put in the public domain because of confidentiality. So no one
else can look at his evidence! We can't even find out what these supposed 'New
Urbanism' places are.  At the moment I'm caught between disbelief and
outrage. You can't claim the status of 'research' for a piece of polemic and
at the same time deny all access to the evidence." 9

In any case, a cursory examination of photos of the community by Hank Dittmar,
Chairman of the Congress for the New Urbanism, led him to conclude in a 2004
debate with O'Toole that the single supposed "New Urbanist" community
cited in any detail is not a New Urbanist community at all, but rather a conventional
cul-de-sac subdivision with a few added bike lanes and sidewalks.  Dittmar
made a compelling case that the report betrayed a very poor understanding of
the issues under discussion.  No matter to O'Toole; he cited the
study again in 2005, with no mention of the successful challenge to his supposed "evidence".

Also typical of O'Toole's "evidence" is the following

"British New Urbanists consider Hulme, in Manchester, a model of New Urban
design. It consists of a mixture of low-rise and four-story apartment buildings
with a semi-public interior courtyard. The latest Police Crime Pattern Analysis
found that it suffers three and a half times the national average rate of crime,
and a recent survey found that many children felt unsafe even in their immediate
home environments because of the public nature of the streets."

Photo: Hulme Street Scenes

Hulme, Manchester, UK: on the left, the original crime-ridden "social housing", replaced with a park and street-friendly buildings.

There's trouble in River City!  O'Toole leaves the obvious
implication that the high crime is a direct result of this "model" New
Urbanist design.  He fails to mention that the "New Urban" section
is a small part of one of the worst existing high-crime areas in Britain, that
it simply restores the original street pattern, and that it did not add to
the existing crime level - in fact that level fell. 10   Such
deceptive comparisons are rife in O'Toole's sweeping claims.

Indeed, the core of O'Toole's most recent line of assault is built
upon the theories of Oscar Newman, who, long before New Urbanism was articulated,
studied the failed Le Corbusier-style high-rise "project" Pruitt-Igoe
and an adjoining low-rise project, and concluded (entirely without controversy
for New Urbanists) that a measure of "defensible" private space
was a good thing.  From that O'Toole extended the argument to suggest
that any shared community space is a bad thing - hardly conveyed in Newman's
analysis, but that doesn't stop O'Toole.    Perhaps,
then, we should continue the logic and say that fortified, privatised single-family
compounds with no public realm whatsoever would be best?  Indeed, that
seems to be the direction O'Toole would have us take: a world of gated
compounds, 50-homeowner strongholds, surrounded by anarchy.

Sweeping Claims

Here's another typically sweeping claim about a particular project in
Portland, Oregon that O'Toole made in the exchange with Philip Bess,
as a way of adding further "proof" of New Urbanism's fatal

"By the way, I don't know where the notion that Portland's Orenco (Station)
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."

Photo: Orenco Street Scene

Orenco Station features single-family houses with back yards

Note the calm, assured dismissal -- as if these facts are well-known and beyond
dispute.  So is any of this in fact correct?

The fact-checking for this particular allegation is easy for me, as I happen
to know the project manager and owner representative on that project for that
same master developer, PacTrust.  In fact he's me!   For
over five years spanning its planning and development I handled budgets, oversaw
design, construction, all that sort of thing. 11   The
30 percent figure was from our own sales agents' commissioned appraisals
and comparable sales; in fact it was quite a challenge at the beginning of
the project when we couldn't get comparable sales from the surrounding
community, and didn't have enough of our own comparable sales to qualify
mortgages for the significantly higher prices we were successfully fetching;
the resale prices that we later saw were even higher.  Of course if O'Toole
were intellectually honest about it he would note fairly that many New Urbanist
communities tell a similar story of high appreciation (often then drawing criticism
as being "elitist" and "only for the rich"!) 12

I also know that on a social occasion when I happened to be standing next
to him, my good friend and colleague Dick Loffelmacher, our marketing and retail
expert on the team, jokingly referred to our team as the company's "non-profit
wing" -  meaning that our project was more difficult, as we
had to deal with the maze of typical post-war codes and regulatory burdens,
and learn again how to make successful mixed-use designs - a complicated
and expensive business, with high up-front costs.  To his chagrin, Dick
later learned that he was also within earshot of the local paper's architecture
critic, who printed that remark.  While the company is a privately-held
pension-fund partnership and does not disclose its profits, I do not think
I am telling tales out of school to simply say that, as of the last time I
was privy to the figures, we enjoyed remarkable returns indeed on some portions,
and were in line for a healthy return on the overall investment, in spite of
the high start-up costs and management headaches of such a groundbreaking project. 13   Dick
Loffelmacher later stated flatly to correct the record:  "Orenco
Station is successful."

Regarding whether the company did the project "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," O'Toole is guilty here of pure
invention.  Very simply, our company was an industrial and commercial
developer, not a residential developer, and Orenco Station's residential
components were an exceedingly rare foray for us into residential development.  However,
our residential partner, Costa Pacific Homes, has gone on to do other New Urbanist
projects. (As did I, by the way, prior to coming to London, where we follow
similar principles in some 20 projects around the UK and more internationally.)
The president and CEO of PacTrust, Peter Bechen, is on the record stating often
that he is proud of Orenco Station, the contribution it has made to development
practice and to the quality of life of those who freely choose to live there, 14 and
pay a premium to do so - and, I might add, who report extremely high
satisfaction with the community when asked.   (See for example Podobnik,
2001, The Social and Environmental Achievements of New Urbanism:  Evidence
from Orenco Station. 15 )

Photo: Orenco Street Scene: Father & Son

Orenco Station's streets are designed to be pedestrian-friendly

Libertarianism for me, but not for thee?

O'Toole says he finds such communities "repugnant".  Of
course he has that prerogative.  But ought not those who say they love
living in Orenco Station and other such communities - or indeed, in Portland,
Oregon for that matter - be able to have their choice too?   Ought
not they, like O'Toole, be able to vote with their feet, and with their
pocketbooks -- and, perhaps even on occasion, with their ballots?

This is why many New Urbanists find O'Toole's attacks puzzling,
and ultimately troubling.  Why isn't he joining in lifting the restrictions
that make such communities illegal, and in creating more choices?  Why
isn't he at least careful to affirm and support this well-documented
libertarian goal of the New Urbanism, while maintaining his reservations about
any additional "coercive" smart growth agendas? Is it that he simply
has a strong personal aversion to any kind of urban lifestyle other than single-family
large-lot suburbanism?  Is his brand of libertarianism "for me,
but not for thee?"

"Siloed" Thinking

As for the matter of crime, if there is a central theme to the New Urbanism,
it is that all of the factors of neighborhood design need to be treated as
a whole; no one factor, nor one specialism, should be specified in exclusion
of the others.  That's the kind of segregated or "siloed" thinking
that has caused us so many of our problems in recent years - looking
too much in isolation at traffic engineering, fire codes, building codes, architecture - or
even crime.  When we do that, we are blindsided by unintended consequences
(a famous example is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, where the engineers
and the meteorologists didn't work together, and missed a crucial unintended
consequence.) The lesson coming out of the segregated, hyper-rational era of
Le Corbusier is that we have to be more integrated in our thinking.

But as we've seen, O'Toole's brand of polemic is in the
habit of taking just such a single-issue matter out of context, inflaming it
with an emotional anecdote.  O'Toole's argument cited earlier
about the little girl who was hit by the UPS van is typical: it leaves the
insinuation that New Urbanist street and lot designs are inherently dangerous.

But the account contains three curious flaws.  First, New Urbanist developments
often do have back yards - indeed, many of Orenco Station's homes
do.  Second, children can be seen playing in the street in any number
of neighbourhoods across the USA, including those with cul-de-sacs (which,
remember, also require busy arterials as part of their traffic system design).  Tragically,
they are sometimes killed in those same streets.  Third, this anecdote
is presented alone, out of context, unsupported by any meaningful information.  How
many other children were killed by trucks in streets across the USA that same
year?  How many per community?  How many per community type? We don't
know.  The anecdote is meaningless, or worse, deceptive.

So it is with crime - lots of nasty guilt-by-associations, very little
real evidence that stands up to the barest scrutiny.  

Target-hardening fortifications?

O'Toole's argument, where it has merit at all, amounts to an exclusive "target-hardening" strategy.  Of
course we can always barricade and fortify, and thereby reduce crime - at
least for those behind the fortifications.   That may not be a surprising
preference, for a man who seems to prefer an utterly privatised series of fiefdoms
of around 50 homes each. 

O'Toole is welcome to live in such a community with others who share his
anarchic vision; but many of the rest of us do not favor such a radical approach.  Using
a combination of private and communitarian strategies - and yes, even democratic
government on occasion -- we would rather roll up our sleeves and find ways to
make our existing communities work better for human beings.  We think we
owe ourselves and our families that much.

Michael Mehaffy is Director of Education for The
Prince's Foundation
in London, a charity that works in partnership with many UK and international
organisations to offer a more humane basis for architecture and urban design.

  1. http://reason.com/9901/fe.ro.densethinkers.shtml
  2. http://www.claremont.org/projects/local_gov/essays/prconfotoole.html
  3. O'Toole stated his degree qualifications in a legal declaration made in August 1998: "I earned a degree in forestry from Oregon State University in 1974".
  4. CNU 2004 public debate with Hank Dittmar.
  5. There is a large body of literature on this subject, much of which O'Toole has demonstrated some awareness and sought to challenge.  See for example the conservative observer Michael Lewyn, Associate Professor of the John Marshall Law School, "Why Sprawl is a Conservative Issue," http://user.gru.net/domz/conservative.htm, discussed on O'Toole's website. Also see the book by Owen D. Gutfreund, Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape, Oxford University Press, May 2004. 
  6. http://www.cnu.org/cnu_reports/Charter.pdf
  7. See for example the following article in the conservative UK paper The Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/01/15/nditt115.xml&sSheet=/news/2005/01/15/ixnewstop.html

    See also Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's inaugural speech at the January 2005 Urban Summit, where he said "In the United States, anger at the unchecked sprawl of suburbia led to the rise of New Urbanism. I've seen how the New Urbanists are working in communities like Chicago, Washington, Milwaukee and in new places like Seaside in Florida. Like us, they're working to reconnect the art of building with the making of communities."http://www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_about/documents/page/odpm_about_034864.hcsp

  8. http://www.reason.com/0502/fe.st.crime.shtml
  9. Personal email, published with permission of Dr. Bill Hillier, Professor of Urban and Architectural Morphology at University College London - who, incidentally, reviewed this essay in its entirety and made comments reflected herein.
  10.  O'Toole should be well aware of this, as these facts are contained in the "Design Against Crime" website cited by O'Toole's co-author Stephen Town:  http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/cri/adrc/dac/hulme.pdf.  For example, quoting from the website case study: "This case demonstrates the value of design in creating a safe, green and communal environment within an area of a city, previously notorious for high levels of crime especially in relation to robbery and burglary."

    Also New Urbanist Laurence Aurbach wrote a letter to Reason in response to O'Toole's polemic, rebutting this and other points in great detail: http://users.rcn.com/aurbach/correcting.htm.

  11. See for example a case study on the project that I wrote for Planetizen, http://planetizen.com/oped/item.php?id=95
  12. See for example "New Urbanism and Housing Values: A Disaggregate Assessment," the Journal of Urban Economics, Volume 54, Issue 2 , September 2003, Pages 218-238: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WMG-49C4NVC-3/2/49c98cc033e8473d31ac8d1f888ae31f
  13. Note that as a "patient-money" pension-fund developer much of PacTrust's return comes in the later years of long-term ownership in growing areas like Orenco's.  This "patient money" investment approach is a common feature of the best new projects, in contrast to the "pump-and-dump" nature of so much low-quality residential development today. 
  14. See for example Peter Bechen's press release statement on the occasion of Orenco Station winning the "Masterplanned Community of the Year" award by the National Association of Homebuilders: "'This is a great honor for the Orenco Station development team,' said Peter Bechen, PacTrust's President and CEO. ‘The industry has nationally recognized the impact of good planning, design and development in our region--a testimonial to talent, hard work and the much talked about but rarely achieved, 'public/private partnership.'" http://www.costapacific.com/CP_press_119.html
  15. http://www.lclark.edu/~podobnik/orenco02.pdf



Michael Mehaffy Responds

Dear Robert Coté,

Please read the piece again. It is not a vicious personal attack, but a critique of one line of argument that (as I argue) lacks intellectual fairness and integrity. In an atmosphere of open and honest debate, that is certainly fair game.

Cheers, m

Where are the Critics?

Mary C. asks; "Well, now, what do those nonsensical attackers have to say for themselves? Funny that they sneak off in to the shadows when their opinion is the one on the line!"

I might suggest that the vicious personal attack on one person rather than a spirited defense of New Urbanism deserves no dignity of reply. The question Mary C. asks includes "nonsensical" and other undeserving insults thus cementing the general opinion that it isn't a valuable use of time to attempt rational discourse.


Charles' comments are correct but mis-directed. "New urbanism" didn't define the program of taking public housing developments, and recreating them as "new urban" communities, without providing for one-for-one replacement of lower income housing. That was a political and social decision made by HUD and others. While I believe it is necessary to deconcentrate poverty, one of the ways this can be done is by adding more middle- and upper-income housing. This is easy to do in strong markets like DC, and probably harder to do in smaller cities (Louisville) and weak markets. Prettily built communities aren't enough to break the cycle of poverty, you also need the social institutions and structures able to address these issues. Rebuilding unworking public housing communities was just one piece of what could have and should have been a total program. Not providing for one-for-one replacement of lower income housing is one of the serious downsides of the HOPEVI program, one that causes a great deal of hardship for many.


Well, now, what do those nonsensical attackers have to say for themselves? (I speak of those who wrote so vehemently in response to June 2003's article titled "Making TOD's Work: Lessons from Portland's Orenco Station") Nothing nasty to write today? Funny that they sneak off in to the shadows when their opinion is the one on the line!

Elistism rules suburbia

Three cheers, Mr. Mehaffy! I marvel at the illogic of any critic who says new urbanism doesn’t serve market demand ~ and who simultaneously bemoans new urbanism’s well-documented price premiums as evidence that the poor are being left behind.

Prices are higher in new urbanist communities because demand far outstrips the supply. The solution is more new urbanism, not less, to better serve the full work, play and life-cycle housing needs of a truly diverse population ~ from renters to families and retirees.

New urbanism isn’t "new" but the continuation of a tradition. What IS new? Many ~ most ~ municipalities' adherence to postwar baby-boomer ordinances that were poorly (if at all) planned from the outset, and today are horribly obsolete. The then-dominant baby boomer generation has given way to a myriad of smaller market segments not reflected in local "comprehensive" plans, but built into the DNA of new urbanism.

Nothing good has come from planners' enforcing low/medium densities, segregating land uses and ignoring pedestrian and transportation issues. These characteristics of sprawl work against visual diversity, societal needs and economic health.

The resulting suburban sprawl is a far more elitist anti-utopia than any full implementation of new urbanist planning.

Michael Mehaffy Responds

Dear Charles,

You are right to point up the problem of gentrification, and the wider problem of housing affordability and skyrocketing real estate valuations, leaving a significant segment disposessed.* But this is a problem that is hardly limited to New Urbanist projects. It is, however, a problem that the New Urbanists take seriously, as you would detect from the frequent discussion of this topic in congresses over the years. From the Charter: "We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population..."

As is often the case, outcome should not be confused with intention; and when outcome does not match intention, more work is needed. I for one have been impressed by the degree to which the members of the CNU have been willing to self-criticize (often raucously, and the gentrification issue certainly has been so) and to work pragmatically at different approaches to accomplish the goals of more coherent, more livable, more "sustainable" human environments. I don't think they have the right answers necessarily; but I think they have the right questions.

Cheers, m

* The Prince of Wales' development of Poundbury addressed this problem by making arrangements with a "social housing" association to provide afordable housing in 30% of the units; they are "pepper-potted" tourghout the development and are indistinguishable from the "market-rate" units, which have appreciated very fast indeed. This approach has its own drawbacks, but it does maintain a percentage of affordable stock regardless of market behavior, without creating public housing "reservations".

The real problem with New Urbanism

Despite the merits of this well-argued technical analysis of New Urbanism, the real problem with it is that 9 times out of 10 "New Urbanism" is simply a euphemism for "gentrification".

The New Urbanist developments in the inner cities--particularly in NYC, Chicago, and SF--have almost without fail replaced working class neighborhoods and domiciles with high-priced (or over-priced) units that only the upper-middle class and upper class can afford.

Moreover, the "New Urbanism" movement is almost exclusively populated by a white neo-bourgeoisie that was germinated in elite universities with haughty P & D departments. There is very little participation and advocacy for affordable housing, and despite all the talk about returning cities to diversity in order to make them vibrant and eclectic, there is in fact very little diversity now in inner-cities redeveloped using New Urbanism. And New Urbanist communities outside the central cities are even more exclusive and socio-economically homogeneous.

To argue about whether or not big back yards are important in New Urbanist developments completely overlooks the fact that many, if not most, cannot afford even a single unit in the central city, much less a yard.

Charles Shaw
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Newtopia Magazine

Development Editor and Contributing Writer
The Next American City


An excellent expose of O'Toole's shameless distortions, mistatements, and manipulation of data to make provably false claims.

I'm all for open debate and fair exchange of ideas, but let's uphold some standards of intellectual honesty! Just because an contrary argument is made does not alone give it legitimacy.

Can we please stop posting pieces by O'Toole until he can substantiate his claims and refute the allegations made repeatedly about his work?

Urban myths

An excellent rebuttal. As an urban bicyclist, I might add one question. If new urbanist developments are so dangerous and unfriendly, how did Mr. O'Toole safely bicycle there?


Whew! This is a devastating, well-documented critique of mean-spirited attacks on sound planning for better communities. How will O'Toole respond? Why is he so opposed to progress? Can't we learn from past mistakes? Surely O'Toole can adapt as well. Let's go forward.

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