The Trouble With The Congress For New Urbanism

37 thoughts on “The Trouble With The Congress For New Urbanism”

  1. Great discussion of the issues here. We’re experiencing some of this tension in my town of Poughkeepsie, NY, which is starting to catch up the rest of the Hudson Valley…for better and for worse.

  2. Why are alleys considered good things? Aren’t they just additional infrastructure to maintain and a waste of space? I personally loathe alleys, and prefer side-loading attached garages.

    1. The alley behind my row of townhouses is great. It provides access to the back of my lot, a place for everyone’s trash and recycling bins to live out of sight, and I suppose it enabled my garage to be built (although that would never be allowed today). Ideally it would provide a storm water hookup for gutters or at the very least be graded as a V to channel runoff, but ours is non-functional in that aspect until the city gets around to renovating it. I like having a place to wash the car with my own hose, to wash the dog, to take out demo debris and bring in materials. It also provides a bit of separation between us and the people on the opposite street. All in all, I love my alley.

  3. Your message is important; I hope you are given the chance to say it in Savannah. Good, small development is taking place, despite all the challenges. And it’s not all underground. Just the other day here in Iowa City, Prairie Hill Cohousing (cohousing itself is a rarity in Iowa) put out a request to its friends to invest in the project (currently in construction, which makes the pitch much easier), thereby reducing Prairie Hill’s debt to conventional lenders, and helping move forward an uncommon model of living in a more community-oriented manner.

  4. I know things are cheaper by the dozen, but this economies of scale thing seems to reaching for its reductio ad absurdum. In business, we’ve seen the end of the sole proprietor as small business owners are either forced out of business or forced to grow. I’m not sure if its modern logistics, the death of local banking or what, but everything seems stacked against businesses with just a single branch or single iron in the fire. This is true with real estate development as well. It is easier to develop an entire mixed use city block than to put in a mother in law apartment. It’s kind of weird.

    The CNU is offering you a forum. Maybe they’ve gone corporate, but they started from a good place. Say what you’ve said here, that new urbanism works after a fashion, but it only works at a scale beyond that of the small developer. It only works for a certain income class. Tell them you want to talk about a new frontier, an area that the new urbanism has not yet trickled down. Point out the obstacles and why the issue is often that of scale, not of intent. Right now it may look hopeless, but surely not every attendee will be a corporate tool. If they find what you propose unacceptable, then to hell with them, otherwise, go for it.

  5. >And the remaining middle class residents of these places will come out with pitchforks and firebrands in opposition to public transit and higher density.

    This line in particular rings a bell. North America is about as nice a place to live as the planet has on offer, but Americans culture seems maladapted to living in it, or anywhere else for that matter. In my home town in Tennessee the city government gets massive pushback even when they try to do simple things like planting trees downtown.

    1. I’d love to give you a detailed answer to your question, but I can’t. I’m not at all technical. I use Word Press and started the blog so long ago I don’t remember the template or settings I used anymore. Fortunately, Word Press is super easy to use so even I was able to stubble through the process. I recommend you experiment and see what works.

  6. It seems you’re saying CNU has a problem because what they’re proposing won’t fix all our housing and infrastructure problems within a decade. That’s a pretty ridiculous standard. New Urbanism has helped millions with nice places to live and millions more by improving the financial situation of host towns. What’s being built now will help with affordability some now and a lot in 20 to 40 years. That’s a big win even if it doesn’t fix everything.

    1. No. I’m not arguing about the end results which I acknowledged in my piece. I’m arguing about scale and the entry hurdles for participation.

      Over the last 25 years CNU has worked with the existing set of institutions and bureaucracies to try and change the regulatory environment. Along the way CNU itself was changed by spending so much time neck deep in these systems. The result is a merger where everything scaled up, complexified, professionalized, and became seriously dependent on heavy debt loads. The results may be good, but no mom and pop can participate in the process.

        1. No, he’s right. Bankers (who, after all is said and done have to finance this stuff) don’t love mixed-use commercial/residential buildings unless they’re BIG, with big real estate companies and big geographically diversified portfolios.

          CNU, in promoting mixed use, deserves some of the blame for not delivering models of and promoting small-scale mixed use as Johnny suggests. This is left to community redevelopment professionals who have to cobble together “alternative financing” for the six-storefront building with six or eight apartments up in a redeveloping or still-challenged neighborhood. CNU’s model really only works in conjunction with greenfield or urban renewal development.

          1. For the record – I’m not saying CNU is doing anything bad. I’m just saying it’s irrelevant to anyone trying to do anything on a small scale. I’d like a system that is agreeable to multiple options, but the regulatory and political environment only permits BIG.

            1. Well, I guess they are the Congress for NEW Urbanism, which implies that they are not focused on OLD Urbanism or old(er) urban areas.

  7. Sigh. I’m a member of CNU. In the words of Def Leppard: “Action! Not Words.” Obviously that applies to sub rosa solutions as well. I’ll take what I can get. Life is short. Does that make me an enabler? Maybe.

  8. You’re a Gen X boy. Have you ever read Jeff Gordinier, X Saves the World? He says that his generation dislikes big projects and loves “Urban Acupuncture” as opposed to the grand schemes that both Boomers and Millennials love.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Howard. I’ll add it to my reading list. Yes, I’m an Xer. Born at the height of the counter culture in 1967. The Summer of Love. It might have been great for the Boomers who were young and exploring their inner spirituality. The “Me” Generaton. My generation was raised by wolves. Days – sometime weeks – would go by and we wouldn’t see an adult. They just weren’t around much. We watched as our parents dismantled the old stuctures, but they never got around to building new ones. No one was minding the shop… We Xers had no choice but to become independent and fend for ourselves. Millenials will rebuild things once the Boomers shuffle off stage and I’ll go along with whatever new plan they come up with. I won’t have much choice in that either.

  9. Johnny, I’m traveling from Michigan in a rather circuitous route back to Arizona. I have alway been a searcher, meandering the by-ways, and in the last few years I have found the natural beauty of my America spoiled and abused by a mechanism that I am just beginning to comprehend. Thank you Johnny for sharing your insightful scholarship that has helped me begin to grasp the gravity. The wax that anchors the feathers to our wings is beginning to liquify.

    1. Icarus… Honestly, you have to let go of the idealized world we might prefer and embrace the world we have. In a thousand years (a millisecond if you’re a forest or prairie) nature will hardly remember we were here.

  10. What about the Lean Urbanism project? I thought this was an initiative to make it easier for small- to mid-size types of retrofit and infill to happen.

    1. If you’re building a subdivision or a shopping plaza you can convince the local authorities that a “constructed wetland” is better at managing storm water runoff than underground culverts and concrete retention tanks. It’s cheeper, better for wildlife, and can be more attractive (give or take the chain link fencing to prevent lawsuits from an attractive hazard.) But if you want to build a corner shop with an apartment upstairs on a 25′ x 125′ lot you’re SOL.

      1. Perhaps that’s what the CNU should focus on. A lot of their previous wins required convincing skeptical government agencies about changing development practices. Can that sort of influence be repackaged for empowering practical adaptive development?

        No, of course not everywhere, but maybe somewhere. A few places at first, then lots of places as people see the success stories?

  11. My problem with the sub rosa adaptation is, without structural reform, it is an exercise in decay. The ADU without amenities or transit in walking distance becomes a source of increased traffic and parking problems. Without the ability to create buildings that suit our changing needs, we become the late Romans, people who can see the great engineering of the past but unable to create our own.

    What troubles me is that the places in economic bubbles are not far behind the suburbs. New York is currently famous for spending $2 billion per km on tunnels, an order of magnitude more than any other civilized country. They can do that because of growth and inflation. When the growth machine stops favoring New York, then what? Nobody has any practice with decreasing costs. Governor Jerry Brown of California has one proposal, but he is termed out of office next year.

    This civilization cannot keep going at the current rate. I’d rather see reform, but I’m afraid I’ll see collapse.

    1. My expectation is that reform will come by other means. We aren’t going to sit down and rationally formulate a plan to solve all our festering troubles. Instead failure will overwhelm our current set of arrangements and involuntary change will result. New institutions will emerge that will work better – until they too become sclerotic and dysfunctional. That’s just the way the world has functioned for 5,000 years.

      The sub rosa adaptations will necessarily be smaller, less complex, and achieve more modest goals. Personally, I can live without iPhones, frozen microwave dinners, and Jiffy Lube if I have a roof over my head, a full belly, and friends and family all around me. “Less” doesn’t have to be terrible. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.

      1. Instead failure will overwhelm our current set of arrangements and involuntary change will result.

        I suspect there will not be a “big bang”, but more like “death from a thousand cuts” that plays out over a generation or two. I think there will be time to adapt to each cut.

        Unless a certain Asian god-king lobs a nuke over the US and produces an EMP that knocks everything out.

      2. The difficulty with “liv[ing] without iPhones” is that it is a mass issue. I dumped my cell phone and went back to a regular home phone some years back. Then I asked my friends why I never hear from them! The replies: “We prefer to text, we don’t call.”

        It seems I can live without but, in order to keep up with the folks I like, I have to live with. Annoying, but true.

      3. I am not so sanguine about collapse. I like molecular biology and semiconductor physics and our current mastery of metallurgy. Those are only possible because of the immense energies that this civilization has harnessed, unsurpassed in the history of the world. The easy to reach stores of energy that we used to get to this point are now depleted, and I’m not optimistic that humanity will be able to bootstrap to this point again.

        Even things that we take for granted, like indoor plumbing and being able to drive to work, are the result of recent advances in science and engineering, and take incredible resources to maintain.

        My main consolation is that there are a lot of communities, so if the West collapses under the weight of its dysfunction, hopefully our tools and techniques can be maintained in other civilizations.

    2. Well, to take your example, this is merely an example of how badly NYC is currently being governed.

      Even the mayor of CHICAGO laughed about NYC’s transit problems and expenses. The PROBLEM is the money is being used, like in the DC metro — to EXPAND public transit and not to MAINTAIN or IMPROVE the over-used transit that exists.

      Bad management.

      California? Don’t get me started. Especially in L.A.

      I agree somewhat with Johnny that change will come when failure gets too much — I probably disagree with him about some of the details of the causes — I don’t think the Car is going anywhere, I don’t think our future is mostly democratic transport in tubes or whatever — all one has to do is read a bit on the New Geography site to see that that anti-car proposals benefit few people at a GREAT expense to the many.

      Johnny is right when he says that things will be abandoned — just like cool downtowns ONCE were — and even he points out how in many areas old, soulless inner suburbs are often the “sweet spot” for people of small means — mostly because of location, but also because a lot of what is needed is ALREADY THERE — I love reading and seeing about how people have changed the character of both the ranches and capecods AND the whole neighborhoods.

      In many areas, you can buy yourself some land, a 1500 sq. foot home that can be lived in immediately and a small garage for the PRICE OF A TINY HOUSE. Benefits — its comes with land, so no rent to pay; its LEGAL; its much bigger than a tiny house; you can easily drive to the money centers of your metro.

      The biggest downsides are psychological — which it is WHY it is the Sweet spot — everyone thinks they won’t like the people who live in these neighborhoods or they are not the kinds of neighborhoods they picture themselves in.

      Schools are almost as bad environments as many of the city schools.

      House is neither cool in large or tiny way — but, if one must, they can renovate the garage and live there and rent out the main structure.

      Not so long ago, the sweet spot was the precursor to the Post War suburb — the Street Car suburb. THOSE are now considered ideal for MANY people — none of the problems of the urban core areas (except possibly the public schools) but all the sidewalks, front porches, mixed-use neighborhoods the urbanites want — except with a place to put their car and let their kids run around.

      But in the Richmond, VA area — the streetcar suburb has DOUBLED in RE prices in recent years — and in selected post war suburbs that Johnny dislikes (mostly) — the costs have been recently skyrocketing too, as people take their blinders off and consider them. There is one neighborhood in particular that houses are only on the market a few days before they are bought — even though most of the people who live there are now elderly.

      That is NOT true where I live in Petersburg, VA — our streetcar suburb is still cheap, and our postwar suburbs even cheaper.

      1. @Shawn Harper; “Maybe.” You say that one of the advantages of the “Sweetspot” Streetcar suburb is that “much of what you want is already there”. I suppose you put infrastructure in that basket? Does Petersburg, tick off all the boxes? While it may have ranchers for the price of ‘Tiny Houses”, there is a reason the market is pricing real estate so low. The locality was recently identified as one of five at risk of going into receivership.

        When was the last time the municipal infrastructure was updated? How are the streets? Public services? Yes, the Schools are in desperate straits. I don’t hear of stories about Urban Pioneers settling in Petersburg, to make it the new Hip neighbor west of RVA. I agree that it, could be, probably should be, yet for reasons I’m unable to grasp, this isn’t happening.

        Petersburg’s decline is not the result of the ’08 recession, it’s trajectory stretches back to the mid ’70’s at least. I’m aware that some public investments have been made in this time but I’m unaware of any large block of private capital being made available, and I don’t understand what barriers are prohibiting that.

  12. Bravo, Johnny. I’ve been of the same mindset for years. At a New Urbanist panel discussion that was organized in Beaufort, SC in 1997, I asked head guru, Andreas Duany the following question: With all of the preaching of mixed use and mixed income residences, all I can see are high end housing options. How do you propose to accommodate mixed incomes? His answer: “Well, when more of them come on line….they will become more affordable (as he looked around the panel for reassurance, then nodded in agreement with Himself).

    I realized it was just “everything old is new again”.

    1. Andres was right in the long term. If you want affordable real estate build lots of expensive new buildings… and wait forty years. That does nothing for lower income people in the short term except push them to whatever the older less desirable stuff is at the moment. But affordable it will be…

      1. Well, that is the way it has ALWAYS been.

        Have you ever been to Harlem or Bed-Sty? The QUALITY of those buildings are OFF THE CHARTS — beautiful, solid, wonderful.

        But they were overbuilt neighborhoods built on spec — especially Harlem.

        The way they were built, even the much of the upper-middle class today would not be able to afford all the carved granite and fancy brickwork — not by a long-shot — yet, they were rented out to low income people for generations.

  13. Any recommended websites about sub rosa household adaptations? I’ve gotten the gist from you (thanks!), And am curious in working concepts.

    1. I’m amoral and omnivorous so I draw from many quarters.

      #1 David Holmgren. He documents a dozen households and their strategies for sub rosa adaptation. Check out the Case Studies with photos and descriptions.

      #2 Mormons. The Mormon preparedness system is very similar to David Holmgren’s case studies – give or take the superficial cultural stuff.

      #3 Nicole Foss. She describes the Big Picture.

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