Acton Commentary

The New Urbanism: Can it Survive the Company it Keeps?


Anyone who has visited even a few of our nation’s medium-sized or larger metropolitan areas no doubt sense a problem. The problem is more than the obvious and apparent social ills—the homeless, drugs, crime, etc.—but very often a problem of the physical environment. Who has not experienced, viscerally, the overwhelming feeling of inhumanity engendered by the massive scale and coldly functional architecture on display in most urban and suburban neighborhoods? Or rage at the traffic jams that forces even the simplest errand to be measured in terms of time, rather than distance from home or office? Who among us has not quietly longed to stroll the streets of a picturesque New England town when confronted by the quiet despair of the prosperous conformity embodied in the endless rows of identical strip-malls, chain stores, and subdivisions? In answer to all this has arisen a new movement in architecture, urban planning and community living, known as the New Urbanism. This movement has many excellent insights to offer, but as in all “isms,” these insights must be approached with prudence and discretion, lest enthusiasm for the cause undermine the spirit of authentic human and economic liberty.

The most important insight of the New Urbanism movement is its emphasis on planning communities based on actual human experience. As such, the movement has been careful to study real communities, where human interaction has coalesced to form that most elusive of realities—human community. The New Urbanists seek to facilitate this reality by offering people-friendly, attractive architecture, workable networks of sidewalks, easily accessible commercial centers, and higher density living patterns, to name only some the movement’s central components.

The reality of the “human community” desired by the New Urbanists is somewhat elusive and problematic as an axiom of urban/suburban planning and land-use considerations. “Community,” however one defines it, is known more in its effects than in its essence. Identifying and pinpointing the exact elements that form a successful “community” is somewhat akin to what a Supreme Court Justice once famously said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Properly understood, there is some veracity to the Justice’s remark, but his thoughts, at least as a foundation of a stable rule of law, do lack a certain helpful substance that offers clear guidance for future adjudication on such matters. I have no doubt this ambiguity of the New Urbanism leaves its best insights open to being co-opted by a more organized and well-defined political agenda that is more than happy to piggy-back on its efforts—the sustainable development and smart growth agenda.

While the New Urbanist movement surely has its share of followers that harbor anti-free market, anti-property rights and other neo-elitist socio-economic views, it has, on the whole, been approving of market forces. This is in grave contrast to the sustainable development agenda, and its urban/suburban planning wicked twin sister, the smart growth agenda. Both of these “agendas” envision high-levels of government regulation, intrusive bureaucracies, and the undermining, perhaps even the abrogation, of private property rights to realize a pre-determined plan of urban and suburban development. These agendas have become central policy manifestos for left-leaning environmental coalitions the nation over.

In recent years there has been no better example of the pernicious effects of the sustainable development and smart growth agendas than the city of Portland, Oregon. So bad are the effects of the smart-growth plan adopted by Portland, that in policy circles the term “Portlandization” has been coined as a shorthand reference for a set of policies that lead to increased housing costs, artificially inflated property values, lower rates of home ownership, and policy-induced sprawl beyond the reach of urban land use-regulations. While the New Urbanists in the Portland area did not lead the charge for Portland’s draconian smart-growth plan, smart-growth advocates did have them as allies, if not in their specific policies, at least in the goals to be realized. As often happens, smart-growth advocates were all too happy to co-opt the more legitimate and intellectually vigorous program of the Portland area’s New Urbanists for their ideological purposes.

As a result, the major challenge confronting the New Urbanism movement is to keep its intellectual vigor and original thinking from being politicized by the agenda of its allies. Preserving its integrity over and against the politics of the sustainable development and smart-growth agenda is vital to New Urbanism’s goal of facilitating genuine community, based, first and foremost, on the exercise of authentic human and economic liberty. So the question remains: Can the New Urbanism survive the company its keeps?