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New Urbanists, Perplexed, Respond To Mr. Carson

"Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated." Architects, planners and consulting professionals respond to recent claims of New Urbanism's extinction.
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Lucy RowlandMichael Mehaffy A recent essay by a Mr. Richard Carson, frequent PLANetizen contributor, caught us rather by surprise ("Urban Realism", Archis). We were informed that we had died, while we were under the delusion that we were up and about, building and renovating communities all over the US and the world.

We are members of the Pro-urb listserv, only one of a growing number of Internet discussion groups devoted to the professional application of the principles of New Urbanism. About half of our members are practicing architects, planners, and consulting professionals from across the US and around the world. Others are public officials, academicians, and journalists (among whom is PLANetizen's editor, Chris Steins). Our group began in July, 1999, with 65 subscribers. We recently passed the 500 mark, and we're still growing.

We would certainly agree with Mr. Carson that the "flavor of the month" phase of New Urbanism has passed. That was the period when high-profile "new towns" like Seaside and Celebration attracted reams of media attention -- hailed by some as the New Utopia, bashed by others as Insipid Nostalgia, Planner Dreams That'll Never Sell, blah blah blah. We're only too happy to say goodbye to this period of excessive hype and misinformation.

Now we are in a quieter but much broader and more important stage, with hundreds of new and infill projects across the globe, and a new generation of zoning codes and standards taking root. Today we're doing the hard work of implementing, or re-implementing, timeless place making principles in a modern age: mixed use, complexity, diversity, and all the other alternatives to the failed principles of dysfunctional postwar sprawl. Sometimes the results are uneven -- no denial about that. Sometimes the work comes with great frustration, sometimes with squawks and hoots from old guard planners. That's OK -- it's part of the process of any fundamental change that some people will have to be made uncomfortable.

But we do think Mr. Carson has left some very superficial impressions on the table, and added to the confusion of some PLANetizen readers. On Mr. Carson's point of view we will not dwell, except to note that we haven't seen much that contributes to a serious debate on the core ideas of our movement. This is after all the fellow who, in a recent PLANetizen essay, described serious, committed New Urbanist professionals as pot-smoking, draft-dodging, money-grubbing New Age consultants who "didn't have a clue what to do, so they just copied the pre-war development style." (Planning, Pet Rocks and Psychobabble, PLANetizen, January 2002.)

All righty then.

To add injury to insult, we now learn from Mr. Carson that we have died. But in that light, can Mr. Carson explain this curious set of facts?

  • The American Planning Association has just now formed an entire new division called -- guess what? -- the New Urbanism Division.
  • The Urban Land Institute, the largest organization of developers in the US, has just published Place Making, a book on New Urbanist projects that focuses on town centers -- touted to the nation's savviest developers as "one of the hottest trends in real estate."
  • Even the high-profile "new towns", whose 15 minutes of caricatured fame is now over (perhaps the source of Mr. Carson's mistaken impression), are growing in number. According to New Urban News, in the US alone there are currently 272 projects under construction, an increase of 28% over 2001. The increase over the last two years is a whopping 75%. Of those, fully 50% are now on so-called "brownfield" or infill sites - not sexy to the media, perhaps, but a significant trend nonetheless.
  • A new generation of "smart growth" zoning codes is being implemented across the country, embodying the core principles of New Urbanism. For example, one of us (Howard Blackson) is working at this moment to implement one such code for San Diego County. Meanwhile, the company that publishes new zoning codes for municipalities nationwide, MuniCode, is about to publish a new "SmartCode" designed by Congress for the New Urbanism co-founder Andres Duany, and expected to be adopted by many cities and counties across the country.
  • The Congress for the New Urbanism is scheduled to convene in Washington, D.C. in June, as political opposition to policies favoring sprawl reaches an all-time high, and support for "smart growth", "livable communities" and "new urbanism" is increasingly visible. Examples:

    • The Bush Administration EPA recently announced an annual "Smart Growth" award, and named four recipients for the first year.
    • According to the American Planning Association, 17 governors issued 19 executive orders on "smart growth" and related topics during the past two years, compared to 12 orders during the previous eight years combined.
    • Also according to the APA, eight states issued legislative task force reports on "smart growth" between 1999 and 2001, compared to 10 reports between 1990 and 1998, and 27 governors - 15 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and 2 Independents - made specific "smart growth" proposals in 2001.

Hmm, if this is death, we have to ask what Mr. Carson thinks is alive. Perhaps he thinks it's his own "urban realism"? Unfortunately, we can't see much more there than a muddled apologia for much of the same old postwar sprawl. Are there any other serious, credible alternatives out there, addressing the problems of sprawl, with real-world results to be hailed, attacked, learned from?

Sorry, Mr. Carson: whether you want to call it New Urbanism, Smart Growth, or any of the other proliferating varieties, we think the evidence is clear that these core principles are very much alive and doing very well, thank you. What New Urbanists are today promoting and implementing is nothing more -- and nothing less -- than a revival of enduring principles of urban design. In the postwar era we allowed ourselves to believe that these principles didn't matter any more in a "modern" age. More and more people, both design professionals and ordinary citizens, are coming to recognize the folly of that belief.

All of us do hope you will join us in a more sober and more factual consideration of this work. Although there are many remaining obstacles to re-implementation of these principles in a technological, auto-dependent age, that does not diminish the urgency of doing so. The sustainable health of our communities -- and the integrity and respect of your own profession -- is at stake.


  • Lucy Rowland, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, owner of Pro-urb Listserv
  • Michael Mehaffy, Project Manager, Orenco Station and North Harbor Hills, OR
  • Stu Sirota, Urban Planner, Baltimore, MD
  • Will Sellman, Planner, Lancaster County, PA, and President, Association for the New Urbanism in Pennsylvania
  • J. Sean Brown, Architect, Miami Beach, FL
  • Doris Goldstein, Attorney, Jacksonville, FL
  • Howard M. Blackson III, Urban Designer-Planner, San Diego County, CA
  • Bruce Liedstrand, Planner, Liedstrand Associates, Mountain View, CA
  • Kevin Klinkenberg, Urban Designer, 180 Degrees Design Studio, Kansas City, MO
  • Lucien Steil, Architect and Professor, Catholic University of Portugal, and Editor of Katarxis Magazine, Luxembourg, Europe
  • Steve Coyle, National Charrette Institute, Portland, OR
  • Bill Spikowski, Spikowski Planning Associates, Fort Myers, FL
  • Geoffrey William Meyer, AIA, Tampa, FL
  • Dan Zack, AICP, Urban and Regional Planner, Fresno, CA
  • Geoff Dyer, Urban Designer, Calgary, Alberta
  • Andy Kunz, Urban Designer, Director, NewUrbanism.org
  • Rick Hawksley, Fuller Design Group, Kent, Ohio
  • Chip Kaufman, Ecologically Sustainable Design, Melbourne, Australia
  • Ann Daigle, Community Planner, Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Rick Bernhardt, FAICP, CNU, Executive Director Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Department
  • Diane Dorney, Editor, The Town Paper, Kentlands, MD
  • Anthony Sease, Engineer-Architect, Civitech, Durham, North Carolina
  • Milt Rhodes, Director of Town Planning, North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance
  • James Hencke, ASLA, Landscape Architect, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Portland, OR
  • Philip Bess, Professor of Architecture, Andrews University
  • Emily Talen, Ph.D., AICP, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL
  • Summer Rutherford, Activist, Washington, DC
  • Laura Hall, Fisher and Hall Urban Design, Santa Rosa, CA
  • Laurence Aurbach, TNDTownpaper.com,� Kentlands, MD
  • Matthew J. Bell, AIA, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Maryland
  • Dave Waugh, Graduate Student, San Marcos, TX
  • Randy Vinson, Project Manager, Clark's Grove TND
  • Dom Nozzi, AICP, Senior Planner, City of Gainesville, FL
  • Scott Doyon, Partner, Civitatis Communications and Marketing
  • Andrew Martschenko, Town Founders Group, Toronto, Ontario
  • William Dennis, Architect, Moule & Polyzoides, Albuquerque, NM
  • Payton Chung, Policy Analyst, Chicago, IL
  • Elaine Clegg, Co-Executive Director, Idaho Smart Growth
  • Andres Duany, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., Miami, FL
  • Patrick Pinnell, Architect and Planner, Former Chair, Environmental Design, Yale School of Architecture, Haddam, CT
  • Daniel T. Douglas, Director, Raleigh Urban Design Center, Raleigh, NC
  • Marcela Camblor, Urban Design Director, Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, Stuart, FL
  • Frank G. Greene, Architect, Greene Design Architecture & Urbanism, Chattanooga,TN
  • Paul Howey ,Senior Project Coordinator, US Architects, Senior Project Facilitator, Community Based Programs, Ball State University, Muncie, IN
  • Susan M. Henderson, AIA, Mouzon & Associates Architects & Traditional Town Planners, Albuquerque, NM
  • Jim Reminga, Development Advisors Equity Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI
  • Ryan Park, Transportation Engineer, Earth Tech, Inc., Oakland, CA
  • Kenneth Hitchens, Project Manager, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
  • Robert Alminana, Town Planner, Oakland, CA
  • Jason Miller, MFA, CNU, Author
  • Drs. Joseph and Laurie Braga, Directors, The National Foundation for Children, Miami, FL
  • George Proakis, Associate Planner, City of Lowell, MA
  • Tracy Roberts, Senior Planner, Parsons Transportation Group, Cary, NC
  • Rodion Iwanczuk, Senior Planner, Miami-Dade County, FL
  • Mike Waller, Charrette Design Group, Mandeville, LA
  • David Fuller, City of Myrtle Beach, FL
  • Charles C. Bohl, Faculty, Director, Knight Program in Community Building, School of Architecture, University of Miami, Miami, FL
  • Steven Bodzin, Director of Communications, Congress for the New Urbanism
  • Ron Kloster, Professor of Architecture, Hampton University, Hampton, VA
  • Gary William Justiss Architect, Blount Springs, AL
  • R. John Anderson, New Urban Builders, Chico, CA
  • Phyllis Bleiweis, Director, The Seaside Institute, Seaside, FL
  • Richard Mintz, Activist & Neighborhood Bookstore Owner, Atlanta, GA
  • Mark Schimmenti, Designer, Nashville Civic Design Center, TN
  • Peter Swift, Civil/Traffic Engineer/Town Planner, Swift and Associates, Longmont, CO
  • Rob Trevena, Community Planner, Athens-Clarke County Government, GA Planning & Zoning Board Chair, Madison County, GA
  • Michael Behrendt, AICP, Chief of Planning, Rochester, NH
  • Randall Arendt, Author, Greener Prospects, Narragansett, RI
  • Geoff Ferrell, Architect and Town Planner, Iowa City, IA
  • Pat Steinschneider, Gotham Design Ltd., Dobbs Ferry, NY
  • Ramond A. Chiaramonte, AICP, CNU, Assistant Executive Director, Hillsborough County Planning Commission, Tampa, FL
  • Alex Taranu, Architect and Urbanist, Toronto, Canada
  • David Sargent, Sargent Town Planning, Ventura, CA
  • Patrick Condon, Professor, UBC James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments, Vancouver, BC
  • Elaine Clegg, Co-Executive Director, Idaho Smart Growth, Boise, ID
  • David Fuller, Senior Planner, City of Myrtle Beach, SC

 

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