New Urbanism for the Apocalypse

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Has the New Urbanism outlived its original purpose? The movement's charismatic founder, Andrés Duany, seems to think so.

Last week's 18th annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Atlanta should have been an unalloyed triumph for Duany and his fellow travelers. Their planning tools for reforming and retrofitting sprawl with denser communities was formally adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the role of the urban landscape in public health policy. But Duany appeared deeply suspicious of his own movement's success, repeatedly excoriating the government as a "nanny state" and telling Fast Company "New Urbanism has been so successful that it has a lot of dinosaur DNA. The honchos are on board — you've seen them here. They want us to join them. Do we want to run among the dinosaurs, or among the mammals? I want to be is among the mammals."ag-urb

The choice of metaphor is intentional. Duany believes the metaphorical asteroid — call it peak oil, climate change, the collapse of complex structures — is on its way. He's trying to push the body of planners and architects toward a small-town America that more closely resembles pre-1850 America than pre-1950. When I mentioned that his colleagues suspected he had recently become more radicalized, he scoffed. "I've always been radical," he said. "That's why they're trying to shut me up." "The end of the world is not in my timeline," he added, "but circling the wagons is."

Spending four days embedded with the New Urbanists is one long exercise is cognitive dissonance. Thirty years after Duany first formulated their basic principles, they have far outgrown their image as the advocates of quaint cottages (see: Seaside, Florida, Celebration, Florida) and are really in the business of finding spatial fixes to social challenges, whether public health, water scarcity, affording housing, disaster relief, or the future of good. What they can't agree on is the scope of the problem — should they be making the best of suburban America's bad situation, or building lifeboats for the end of the world? Nowhere was this cognitive dissonance more apparent than in the session introducing what Duany might as well call the the New New Urbanism: agrarian urbanism.

Agrarian urbanism, he explained, is different from both "urban agriculture" ("cities that are retrofitted to grow food") and "agricultural urbanism" ("when an intentional community is built that is associated with a farm)." He was thinking bigger: "Agrarian urbanism is a society involved with the growing of food." America abounds with intentional communities, he pointed out — golf course communities, equestrian ones, even the fly-in kind. So why not build one for locavores? And they can have as much land as they like — it's just that they would have gardens instead of yards, or community gardens and window boxes if they choose to live in an apartment. Their commitment to "hand-tended agriculture" would be part of their legally binding agreement with the homeowners' association. "You design your own utopia," he said. Instead of a strip mall in the town square, there's a "market square" comprised of green markets, restaurants, cooking schools, an agricultural university, and so on. "This thing pushes buttons like mad," he said. "The excitement this triggers — they get as excited about this as they did in the old days about the porch and the walkable community."

Duany conceded growing food is hard work, which is why his agrarian communities would still end up hiring Hispanic laborers to do the dirty work. But "you don't pretend they don't exist," he said in a particular utopian moment. "The people who grow the food must be known to the kids. And they're the ones who actually know what they're doing — they know how to build buildings and they know how to grow food." The money to pay for them — and for the farms — already exists in developers' landscaping budgets. Stop building golf courses and start building farms, in other words. "We have American cheap labor, too," he said. "Ourselves, except we're spending it on ornamental bushes."

It all sounded quite reasonable, given the demographics of Michael Pollan readers and Whole Foods customers, and has already proven quite profitable too, as the developers of the agrarian New Urbanist community Serenbe, Georgia, could attest. But underlying Duany's modest proposal are darker suppositions. In a recent interview posted on YouTube, Duany compares this moment to August 1914, with the Great War underway while everyone is in denial believing the Belle Époque will return. With "megastuctures" like banking and industrial agriculture and poised to collapse, perhaps the next urbanism will be single-story buildings built on a cash (or barter?) basis, while jitneys and "bottom-up" forms of transportation will replace both cars and mass transit.

Follow this dystopian line of think far enough and you will eventually arrive at the dystopian worldview of James Howard Kunstler, who spoke on the same panel as Duany. Kunstler's rhetorical style is reminiscent of the prophet Jeremiah, and he has function as the New Urbanists' id since his breakthrough book The Geography of Nowhere. These days he's one of the most prominent collapsars, having sketched a roadmap to the Dark Ages ahead in The Long Emergency and rewriting The Road twice since then.

"I have a harsher view of the situation we are actually in," he informed the audience, before declaring that "techno-grandiosity" and "organizational grandiosity" will not be enough to save us from the Long Emergency. "Farming, at one level or another, is going to be your occupation." Walking through historical forms of agrarian communities — plantations, prison farms, hippie communes and Soviet collective farms among them — he dismissed vertical farming as impractical and dense cores like Manhattan as impossible in the coming age without oil. Overpopulation would take of itself. "There's a reason we don't talk about population is because we're not going to do anything about it. There isn't going to be any protocols or policies. There will be the disasters and famines, and we don't how much social disorder will stem from that." That he was predicting this in the air-conditioned Grand Ballroom of the downtown Hilton in Atlanta was not lost on him.

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3 Comments

  • Dustin Urban

    Great article. hey there, steve! Unfortunately I missed the last CNU, but I love hearing Duany's line of thinking. I very much enjoy Kunstler's commentary on events, and perhaps things will become every bit as apocalyptic as he suggests. On the other hand, I really like Duany's different take on things. I think it's quite wise of him to be pushing the New Urbanists as he is, to be wary of the "dinosaur DNA" effect of the big government endorsements. He is about pushing the envelope, and it would certainly be a mistake for the CNU to get complacent and comfortable with its current circumstances.

    I have a back yard garden and shop diligently at the farmer's market, etc. On the other hand, is HOA-mandated food growing really a viable solution? I guess there's no reason it couldn't be. While the banking and finance megastructures may still come crashing down in the near future, it won't be until the finance world gets on board with New Urbanism being more profitable that we will see major shifts.

    Dustin Urban. livefromsouthmain.com

  • $4421453

    I attended the New Urbanism conference last year and really enjoyed the Transportation 202 sessions regarding how connectivity can increase physical activity, safety, transit use, support access to businesses from residential neighborhoods, and allow cities to change over time as markets, demopgraphics, even resource costs change over time. New Urbanism certainly is "in the business of finding spatial fixes to social challenges, whether public health, water scarcity, affording housing, disaster relief, or the future of good."

    I also appreciate the urban and regional agriculture models as studies show they can reduce carbon footprints of freight, re-invigorate rural economies, and in season provide some good food, and allow (sub)urban dwellers to make use of all the bluegrass spaces for the growing of high-value crops.

    But I think Duany is too quick to conclude that New Urbanism has run its course. We see new developments in entire cities that are adopting new-ruban inspired form-based zoning (Denver, Miami, etc.)

    At the same time, vast swaths of America continue to insist on subsidized roads and fuels, strict zoning with minimum lot sizes, etc, based on (largely) spurious claims about quality of life and property values etc. In most of America it is ILLEGAL to finish an in-law suite with a kithcen and bath so your own in-laws, parents or grown child can live at home (forget about renting it out!) People still protest density with complaints like, "when I have a party my guests will have to park 1 or 2 blocks away." The obesity epidemic is growing, and over half of able-bodied Americans seem to feel they are incapable of a 15-20 minute walk or bike ride for non-recreation trips. Realtors swear they can't sell an entry-level home (or even an "affordable home") without a 2-car garage, and recently 56% of Americans indicated their ideal home would have a 3-car garage. People say they want transit but then protest or refuse to live in even medium-density development. Most high schools continue to provide (free) parking for students, a practice unheard of in other countries. These preferences then drive public policies, government subsidies and restrictive zoning codes. Another issue we don't like to touch too often, many urban areas continue to struggle to attract families because of poor school systems, crime (or perception thereof), poor parks systems, etc.

    So, I would congratulate the New Urbanists on moving forward form-based codes, mixed use, smaller lot homes, context-sensitive street design, and so forth. But I belive we are at the early stages of seeing meaningful urban change. We are just starting to see the fruits of this effort. LEED-ND is just in its pilot stage. At the macro level few metropolitan regions have enacted effective metro governments; we struggle to fund transit or high speed rail.

    I believe the key to become sustainable and preparing for rising resource costs and the "next 100 million" Americans is to continue to develop livable cities and to grow smart suburbs, not move to small agrarian towns. I think New Urbanists should continue to focus on this effort to ensure we continue progress. Absolutely, incorporate local/regional ag and urban chickens and the like, but I belive New Urbanism needs to continue to celebrate cities. But leave the apocalyptic anti-urban stuff to Kunstler and the Transition Town folks ...

  • Steve Mouzon

    Thanks, Greg! The only caveat is that while Jim's view is clearly apocalyptic, Andrés' has a clear bright side. It is always true that some points in the future might be more filled with fear than today... but higher reliance on resources nearby as opposed to further offshoring of things as essential to life as food supplies doesn't necessarily signal the arrival of that more fearful future. There are other possibilities to consider:

    • Shipping things much shorter distances has clear benefits all around whether viewed through the lens of sustainability, local economy, etc.
    • Food grown locally doesn't have to be genetically engineered to endure the 3-week ride from thousands of miles away, meaning that locally grown food isn't just more nourishing, but it tastes better, too.
    • Fostering local trades and industries produces numerous benefits, including the fact that if the farmers are your neighbors, then the presence or absence of fair trade agriculture is obvious rather than invisible.
    • Local food fosters local cuisine again, reversing a pendulum that has swung too far since WWII.

    I could go on, but please check out http://www.originalgreen.org for these issues and more rolled into a much broader view of sustainability than is commonly found in today's Gizmo Green discussions.

    ~Steve Mouzon