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Past Success, Present Delusions: The Future of New Urbanism

The New Urbanists never quite grokked the transitional nature of their movement, but as we adapt to localism, we'll be grateful for what they rediscovered.

Those of us deeply interested in the physical arrangement of human life on the American landscape may wonder where the New Urbanism movement is going with the onset of a long emergency—that is, a period of severe turbulence in the economic and political terms of existence. We’re well into that now, and it manifests as falling standards of living, a vanishing middle-class, institutional dysfunction, political distress, and perilous uncertainty about livelihoods, liberties, laws, and even civil order.

Until this last week, the Covid-19 rent moratorium was still in effect after more than a year, negating any logic for investment in commercial real estate. The losses incurred by property owners and developers may never be recouped, and a dangerous precedent has been set for what amounts to future unconstitutional breaches of basic contract law and property rights. It also means many property owners will lose incentive for maintaining buildings. Nothing besides kinetic war could be unhealthier for our towns and cities.

The business-model of the giant urban metroplex is broken. Office skyscrapers can’t cover their costs of operation at 25 percent occupancy; condo associations can’t cover their taxes and repairs if even a small percentage of their members default. The city’s tax base shrinks, services degenerate, public space is lost to crime, and people bug out. This is already underway in former hot-spots such as New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. In Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore, the process of disintegration started decades ago when industry bailed and the process is just about complete now.

The Covid-19 rush to suburbia surely seemed like a good idea at the time to people who could, all of a sudden, work from home, but of all the modes for occupying the terrain, suburbia really has the poorest prospects as the sun sets on the Happy Motoring paradigm and the oil bonanza that made it possible.

In fact, it was the fiasco of suburbia that prompted the New Urbanism movement to get going in the early 1990s. The coming online of the last giant oil discoveries in the 1980s—Alaska, the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico—revived the suburban expansion that had faltered with the oil crises of the 1970s. In the meantime, a generation of architects and builders had matured, and charged in to transform all that toxic schlock. It was clear by the late 20th century that the common suburban template had produced a universal dystopia of places not worth caring about, and it was perfectly obvious that it was possible to do better by employing the lost principles of traditional town-making that had been cast aside by the traffic engineers, production home-builders, zoning officials, and other super-specialists who made the rules.

The New Urbanists succeeded spectacularly and rapidly by building dozens of new neighborhoods and whole new towns that were clearly more appealing than the usual soulless subdivisions, with their ghastly strip-mall accessories. The real estate prices in places like Seaside, Florida, and the Kentlands project in Maryland reflected the verdict of the market.

The New Urbanists also turned their energies on rehabilitating run-down, existing town centers and learned to expertly fix the nuts-and-bolts of the legal codes that had ruinously mandated a suburban outcome anywhere someone tried to build anything. Considering all the problems America faced in the new millennium, the New Urbanists went furthest in finding practical solutions to a range of ills connected to how we live: from extreme car-dependency, the runaway costs of infrastructure, the eroding family structure, and the sheer horrifying and demoralizing ugliness that had accreted over the land like a chronic disease and just plain made people feel bad about themselves and their country.

Yet, the New Urbanists never quite grokked the transitional nature of their movement. It was keyed to the continual expansion of the techno-industrial economy and the belief that the unbuilt property in all the seemingly endless rings of exurbia would continue to be developed. Conditions are now changing drastically and rapidly. Suddenly we face contraction, not ever more expansion, including very probably population decline. The orgy of near-zero capital lending is reaching a climax in history’s greatest debt implosion, and the upshot of that will be very scarce capital to finance any sort of project. That includes the ability to finance government, and one implication of that will be the end of rigorous code enforcement.

For the moment, and judging by the chatter among various online New Urbanist discussion groups, some mission themes rampant in this movement right now are pretty delusional. The main one is an obsession with climate change that plays out in furious efforts to mitigate it with technology, especially “green” this’n’that, mostly based on the fantasy that alternative energy will replace fossil fuels. That just ain’t gonna happen. There is no reality-based business model that actually works for that. Anyway, globalism is now imploding. Geopolitical animosities are rising. Supply lines for all kinds of raw materials and manufactured products are faltering, and all of that is going to get worse.

Now, there is an answer for climate change problems, but it lacks the dazzle and glitz of Greentopia, namely, adaptation, not mitigation. If your corner of the country isn’t working out, you might consider moving. A lot of the problems attributed to climate change are not quite what they seem to be. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that every scrap of sand dune along the Atlantic coast got packed with beach houses, or that the northern California forests got filled with single-family houses. Now, the ocean is periodically encroaching and the woods are catching fire. There is a huge dollar-amount of property at risk, which prompts ever more complex attempts to protect all that high-value real estate. Most of all, it’s become an insurance problem. We’ve simply built ourselves into a situation of hyper-fragility.

Some climate issues are not even so much about change. The southern half of North America has been hot since before Europeans arrived. It was mostly an agricultural backwater or empty desert before the Second World War. The region entered a period of hypertrophic growth around 1960 with the introduction of air conditioning. We’ve taken a reliable electric grid for granted since then, but that may well turn out to have been a transient luxury. The grid is decrepit and the cost of producing electricity is going up fast. Daily life without air conditioning on-demand will change daily life pretty drastically in Arizona and Alabama, though the climate will be about the same as when Hernan DeSoto tromped through there. We will be compelled to find other ways to deal with it—to adapt or move.

Another delusional mission among the New Urbanists these days is a condition that’s observable throughout American culture: The belief that if you can measure enough things, you can control them. Hand-wringing over climate statistics is not going to fix any of that. Consider, by the way, that it wasn’t even until the late 19th century that we began to measure weather rigorously and keep meticulous records. So, to some degree we are just responding hyperbolically to our very recent and limited record-keeping. Hence, we live now in an endless gale of statistical noise, prompting endless committee meetings that lead nowhere. This form of hubris I like to call organizational narcissism, the stepsister of techno-narcissism, which posits that every problem we face has a technological solution.

New Urbanists have played a very important role in the period of history that we are suddenly leaving behind. They retrieved a lot of very important, nearly lost principle about how to build places that are soulfully pleasing, functionally adaptable over time, and economically suited to the coming more localized disposition of things. These should be the concerns of all people in the design and building vocations going forward.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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