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What does success mean?

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…

Although I’ve expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism’s resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

I agree with what Corbusier is saying, but I think we have a different perspective. As a professional designer out in the field, it is natural for him to judge success in monetary terms. If I were in his shoes, I would evaluate competing design philosophies in the same way. You have to pay your bills if you want to eat. And I like eating.

But I am not a professional designer. I am a savage who is philosophically inclined. As such, I evaluate the success or failure of design philosophies by how well they succeed in furthering their ideals. On such a criteria, New Urbanism is a failure and likely to stay one for the foreseeable future.

As Corbusier himself admits in his post, New Urbanism has consistently failed to put people on the streets. Heck, you will see more people walking in a Wal-mart parking lot than you will on a New Urbanism inspired main street. And yet, one of New Urbanism’s central tenets is that urban areas would be healthier socially and environmentally if people walked more. The complete failure of New Urbanism to generate any more pedestrian traffic than existing strip malls is a pretty damning indictment in the terms of its own ideals.

Don’t get me wrong. I like most of the ideals behind New Urbanism. But the whole philosophy is akin to the neo-con’s idea that you could change the Middle East by imposing democracy. Without an underlying value system that binds a community together, both democracy and New Urbanism are nothing more than gilded facades.

To put it another way: everyone wants to be fit, but people have made more money selling fast food then they have selling gym memberships. More to the point, everyone who buys fast food eats it. But most people buy gym memberships because the thought makes them feel virtuous and not because they are actually going to put in the effort to get in shape. In the same way, people will say that they would like to live in a New Urbanism type world. But they will spend more money in the strip mall.

And I think most people buy into New Urbanism-style developments because it makes them feel virtuous, not because they actually intend to change the way they live.

One Response to “What does success mean?”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About What does success mean? By Ape Man | October 20, 2007 – 2:00 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Art 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… Although I’ve expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Click Here to continue reading. […]

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