Hey, folks! Nathan P. Origer here, still not talking about federalism (because I really should know what I’m talking about when I embrace the invitation to contribute here!)
I hope that y’all will forgive me for doing this, but I’ve decided to break from the consistency of John’s typical font — and font size; if this troubles anyone (especially you, Mr. Schwenkler), please, inform me, and I shall revert, but, well, I really loathe sans-serif fonts, so, presently, I introduce you to Bookman Old Style. Perhaps my unique appearance will save me from having to annoy y’all with my fauxksy greeting.
Anyhow, as John and I have mentioned, I work presently toward a Master in Community Planning. Specifically, I’m interested in urban design and in design — and architecture; oh, how much I believe aesthetics matter! — affects the intangibles of community (whatever that is!), as well as quantifiable measures of well-being, e.g., car-to-pedestrian ratios and use of fossil fuels; obesity; and the ratio of local and independent business to chains, and how this effects that amount of money that remains in the local economy-community.
I believe that New Urbanism, in theory, presents a good practical solution to many of the problems that plague our cities, suburbs, and even, altered properly, small towns and rural areas. (The transect specifically addresses form and design from the city’s core to the most undeveloped natural areas.) More important, New Urbanism offers a particularly conservative approach to addressing, directly or indirectly, many of the problems in contemporary society (which, I submit, we must address before we can attempt to resolve our cultural problems). All of this, as I’ve promised, I shall address soon. Again, for a primer, start with the conversation, from early this year, at Mirror of Justice. Before you immerse yourself in that amazing(ly erudite) conversation, commence your journey into Catholic/conservative New Urbanism with Professor Phil Bess’s “The Polis and the Natural Law” [PDF]. Supplement this reading with Weyrich and Lind on New Urbanism as part of the Next Conservatism here and here, in The American Conservative. (For a more free-market-oriented defense, see Michael E. Lewyn, in R.E.P’s Green Elephant, summer and fall of 2002.)
Now, I have every intention of expanding on my praise of New Urbanism from a conservative perspective (and incline more each day toward proposing such a task to my Master’s program director as a plan for the one-credit independent study that I’ll need to complete to obtain sufficient credits to graduate); before I can do it, though, I want to address a serious complain that I have with the application of the philosophy. Others offer often-valid complaints about the failure of the New Urbanism to address issues such as sprawl (Wendell Cox, far less cool than the more familiar Wendell about these parts, especially) or the negative “gentrification” effects.
Tailgating before Notre Dame’s rain-soaked near-loss yesterday, I, as is inevitable, found myself discussing urban planning with my friend Nathaniel, who graduated from Notre Dame a year before me, significantly influenced me in my following the urban planning path, and earned his Master in the field from McGill in Montréal; quickly, we realize that such conversation precluded us from Irish car bombs and the like and eschewed it. Before we did, however, he proclaimed, “I hate New Urbanism”; he immediately, at my urging, corrected himself, complaining about the post-modern problem of New Urbanism, something that troubles me greatly, too. By this, he meant, and I mean, that New Urbanist development, at least with respect to architecture, all too frequently forswears context — sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the worst.
Respecting the latter, I refer especially to developments such as this, which, though perhaps site-designed well, presents what, probably wrongly, I’ll call neo-international architecture (compare to 1930s international as exemplified by the Roosevelt Administration-planned Greenbelt, MD): In the modern example, the façades display more depth than in the model, but fenestration placement and proportion show little regard for the public sphere and the recessed, darkened entryways hardly welcome the passing pedestrian. Moreover, the place looks planned; where is the organically grown community here, or at least a realistic replica thereof?
When New Urbanist architecture lacks context not for the worst, but for the worse, we get the oft-praised Kentlands, Gaithersberg, MD. It is important to note that the retail development in and around the Kentlands has not lived up to potential, and a typical shopping plaza borders one edge of the neighborhood, dominating the economy. Returning to my architectural complaint,though, have a look: Main Street; residential. Beautiful, ain’t it?! But where is it? Maryland? Or maybe Celebration, Florida?
For the liberal (contemporary or classical) or the archi-politically indifferent, this genericism may be acceptable — perhaps even welcome. However, if, as I aver, we ought to embrace conservative New Urbanism, this should give us pause. If conservatism is about the patria, or in the United States, the locality, our closest approximation, and we strive to create a sustaining, rich culture — real culture, that is, whatever it may appropriately be in any given place, with its texture of traditions, heritage, and surroundings — then we cannot permit our communities to reflect the selfsame banality
that we seek to escape. Even the most wonderful architecture, when out of place and/or when undeniably planned, with no serious variation, denigrates the public space that we seek to grow and quashes any nascent cultural revival — at least beneath a superficial veneer of seeming vibrance.
The New Urbanism is not without models from within: Notwithstanding the sorts of failures you’d expect from a town foolishly plotted amidst nothing (Another, no less significant sort of context problem!) save prime vacation land, Seaside, FL, offers an important set of lessons: First — and I cannot stress this emphatically enough —, permit no architect to design more than a small percentage of the homes, shops, and civic buildings in the community; even the most like-minded architects do some things differently, and to mix them, and to mix their designs throughout the area, allows more naturally to present a seemingly organic community. Second, rather than rely on strict zoning, following place-sensitive form-based coding: For instance, Seaside requires the use only of materials traditionally employed in coastal homes built in pre-war Florida, including tin roofs. It would be absurd to build Georgian-style homes in the Florida panhandle, just as a faux-cabin looks stupid pretty much anywhere other than in the woods. This is not merely a question of architecture, but of culture and place.
It’s now three o’clock ante meridiem here on the East Coast, so I should probably bring this to an end. I hope that, somewhere amidst the incoherence, I offered a cogent point about the importance of New Urbanism to conservatism, society, and culture, and the troublesome shortcomings that we must address.
(Image via Brand Avenue: Place, Space, & Identity.)