The Myth of New Urbanism

During the last couple of years I was in El Paso Texas, one of the most vocal public policy arguments was the notion of infill development and downtown revitalization. Wrapped around the nostalgia of yester-year walk able communities, the notion of “new urbanism” seems to have manifested itself across various communities, including El Paso. As with any public policy endeavor one must look at what is the driving force behind it.

As the public commentary rages on, the issue of new urbanism has interested me. Coupled with my interest in the movement, my frequent cross-country travels and my previous experience living in other major cities; the façade of “walk able communities”, “cost-cutting savings” and “better communities” has begun to peel away to reveal the ugliness and failures of a design movement designed to fail from the onset.

My recent experience in San Francisco, my recent move to Orlando and my Thanksgiving trip to South Beach crystalized for me the failure that is “new urbanism”. The Achilles heel for the walk able communities is the fact that people are not meant to be concentrated on top of each other.

If humans had been meant to concentrate themselves together in dense groupings then we would never had ventured beyond our original borders in search of greener pastures. Yet, our history continues to show that we strive to expand our influence across vast spaces in search of some distance from each other. Although we build communities and linkages among ourselves, these are not indications of our need to live on top of each other, rather they are support mechanisms designed to pool our resources while keeping our remoteness from one another.

The empirical evidence is clear, large cities designed vertically beget community problems socially and health wise that rarely, if ever, manifest themselves in rural communities. Although urban sprawl is the “ugly word” du jour, my experience is showing me that the movement is being driven not from a need to be socially conscious but rather, it is being manipulated by some that stand to make money from forcing “new urbanism” into community policy.

Take for example South Beach. Displaced community members were the original developers of the community. Once the community was made sustainable, the pioneers were forced economically out of their established communities where they had chosen to build a legacy for themselves. The evidence supports this as well as in San Francisco. Once the South Beach community was established, the erosion of the pioneers was again begun and today, the original settlers are nowhere to be found.

They were not forced out by overt displacement, but rather they were displaced economically as South Beach was reinvented to serve well-heeled residents looking for nostalgic playgrounds for themselves. And so the cycle repeats itself again, the pioneers, that attempt to build a legacy for themselves are forced out economically only to be replaced by nomadic, temporary settlers looking for another playground to place temporary roots on.

If “new urbanism” created “sustainable communities” then I would be hard-pressed to condemn them. But San Francisco and South Beach have clearly shown me that “new urbanism” and “sustainable communities” are nothing more than a façade designed to mask the reality of its failure. Peel the first layer of the fancy hotels in South Beach and look beneath the surface and the fallacy of “sustainable communities” clearly manifest itself. Dilapidated buildings and homelessness, not to mention health and social ills are clearly a result of concentrating people into denser populations.

Once you look closely at urban renewal projects, the urbanism movement reveals itself as nothing more than a façade covering its failures in post-card ideals of comfortable life. But what the proponents of the movement ignore, possibly purposely, is that new urbanism takes away from the poor and displaces them even further out of the community’s mainstream further disfranchising them from the comfort of membership in the general community.

Those that argue that denser communities brings lower costs due to lowered transportation requirements and somehow creates a sense of community membership for the good of the village ignore the evidence of the communities that have already tried and failed at urban renewal. The evidence is clear, the displacement of the members that built the quaint postcards that so many in the vertical cities lust for are eventually driven out by the locusts taking over their homes.

Both South Beach and San Francisco have proven to me that new urbanism is a failure, but far more egregious, for me, is that it appears to be designed to serve well-healed silent minorities pulling the strings in re-inventing communities for their delight while taking away from the citizens, like Segundo Barrio in El Paso, who strive to make themselves a better home. El Paso is one of the latest battle-grounds and the battle lines are clearly drawn out between the two antagonists, the poor wishing to make a better life and the weasel proponents conveniently serving hidden masters in their agenda to remake a community into yet another playground to play in.  The question is, who will ultimately prevail, or will, yet another economic displacement happen again?