Why New Urbanism is Doomed to Failure

This was cross posted over at Watching the Trades

Over at Architecture + Morality (they changed the “and” to the plus sign) Corbusier has a new post up called “What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism.” As usual, Corbusier’s post is excellent and long overdue. (How come all the good writers take so long to post on their blogs?) But I want to elaborate a little bit on his post.

As much as it might surprise the people who know me, I have to admit that I am sympathetic to core idea that lies behind the New Urbanism. As best as I understand it, New Urbanism is basically an admission that the historical way to design a city was the best and the post World War II departure from this historical standard was a big mistake.

Of course, the proponents of New Urbanism can’t just leave it at that. They have to throw in a heavy does of ecological and social justice concerns. And to top it all off New Urbanism people tend to have a big time god complex. Read too much of their stuff and you will want to clutch both your wallet and your pistol every time you hear the word “New Urbanism”.

Still, if you ignore their methods, you have to concede that ideas of New Urbanism have some merit. Since the time that man has first settled cities until World War II, cities were a place where people’s living quarters, the places where they shopped, and the places where they worked were all closely intertwined. In the medieval period the craftsmen and their families would live over their place of business. Even after the Industrial Revolution was well under way, small shops and residential areas were closely intertwined.

But after World War II, some dingbats got into their heads that commercial areas, industrial areas, and residential areas should all be strictly separated. So cities started imposing all kinds of zoning and other sorts of codes to make sure that happened. And that has stayed the controlling idea behind city planning all way until quite recently.

As any proponent of New Urbanism will tell you, the post World War II changes were all a big mistake. The whole point of cities is to have things close together. If some stuck a gun to your head and made you live in a city, which would you choose; an old style city or a modern one?

In an old style city you could walk around a couple of blocks, do all your shopping, chat with all your friends and half your family, and still make it back in time to make supper. In a new style city, you have to take your car through city traffic or fight your way through the crowds so that you can use the public transportation. Once you get to where you are going, you will be shopping in these big impersonal places where nobody knows your name and there are even more faceless crowds.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which kind of city is more livable. Such stupidity is one of the reasons why all the middle class people started moving out of the cities. They figured that if they were going to have to take the blasted car everywhere they might as well live in the suburbs where it was easier to get around. The end result is that most of the residential-only areas turned into slums where only people to poor to escape live.

Now that most of their middle class tax base has got up and walked, cities are starting to wonder what they should do differently. This is where the New Urbanism people run into the room saying “Your problems are solved. We have all the answers.”

But as Corbusier points out, New Urbanism does not have all the answers. You can’t change a culture just by building differently.

The center piece of Corbusier’s essay is a project he is working on out in the Rockies that tries to reproduce the old European city style. Most notably, residential housing built over retail space, though there is more to the development than that. Corbusier muses on some of the problems that this is likely to bring in this modern culture by saying…

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street level retail, much like traditional town life anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctive twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the programs declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people who own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owner, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord.

Corbusier goes on to blame these problems largely on prejudices against people who rent and on the financial realities of large scale development. While I think he is right as far as he goes, I think he is missing the larger issues.

In the first place, the old way of doing things would have the workers in the retail outlets below living upstairs. But the people who work in retail outlets are primarily working class people such as sales clerks, bank tellers, and waitresses. In this country working class people can not afford to live in new buildings that are up to code. Instead, they must live in older building because they are the only ones they can afford to live in. Thus, in the development that Corbusier is working on, the workers in the retail outlets will not be able to afford to live upstairs. If they can’t, who else would want to?

I think that the upstairs would be too expensive for working class people even if Corbusier got his way and the space above was rented instead of being made into condominiums. New construction is just too expensive for working class people to afford no matter how you offer it. You can’t make a profit renting it to working class people anymore than you can make a profit selling it to them.

But even aside from that, there are broader cultural issues standing in the way of New Urbanism. The old styles cities worked because the culture of the time interwove family, work, and community. Just because you build old-style buildings does not mean that you can bring back mom and pop stores, children who follow their parent’s trade, and close knit communities. But without that kind of culture, I don’t think that New Urbanism will ever work.

4 Responses to “Why New Urbanism is Doomed to Failure”

  1. […] This was cross posted over at my Ape Man blog. […]

  2. […] While Corbusier and I have some similar criticisms of New Urbanism he takes issue with my statement that New Urbanism is doomed to failure. He argues that New Urbanism should be considered successful because of its commercial success. As he puts it… […]

  3. Ana says:

    I would really like to challenge your comment about “working class people” not being able to afford buildings that are up to code. First of all if buildings are not up to code than NO one is allowed to legally live in them, and would not be up for rent. Secondly who are you to say that bank tellers and waitresses can’t afford lofts above retail. One of the goals of New Urbanism is affordable housing with variety (Benfield et al, 4).

  4. The Editor says:

    Before I reply, I need some clarification. Did am I understanding you right that you are claiming that all old building must be brought up to the standards of new construction before people are allowed to live in them?

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