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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.