The Next New Urbanism
After nearly a year of writing the New Urbanism column under the Roger Scruton Fellowship, it’s time for a summing-up and a look forward to what the movement offers in the strange times ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic has combined with the end of industrial growth as we’ve known it and the foundering of the energy business model that runs our familiar arrangements. These conditions have very suddenly changed the way we can expect to inhabit the landscape.
The giant metroplex city is one obvious casualty. Hundreds of thousands have fled New York City and hundreds of skyscrapers have become obsolete practically overnight, with grim ramifications for their owners and for municipal tax collectors. Other cities are also bleeding population and corporate office tenants: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Cities are wonderful and synonymous with civilization, but they’re going to have to get smaller in both size and scale.
The suburbs have represented the ultimate American “normal” reality since the Second World War. Now, with shale oil production down, probably permanently, the U.S. becomes a major oil importer again, with little control over the terms; meanwhile, all the great exporters are at, near, or beyond their own production peaks. Don’t expect electric cars to save suburbia. It now enters its long tragic phase of disutility and disintegration.
The New Urbanist movement rose in the early 1990s as an attempt to steer the culture away from continuing the build-out of more suburban sprawl. And indeed, at that moment of history, with oil prices then heading down toward the final 1999-low of $11 a barrel, the development industry was all revved up to build out the furthest exurban McMansion rings outside the cities. But the writing was on the wall of what a tragic fiasco this would represent. So, the New Urbanists undertook to oppose that and, in the process, offered far-superior replacements in the forms of the traditional town and neighborhood, based on timeless models of the human habitat before the automobile changed everything.
Considering the embedded customs and practices of that time among America’s builders and zoning officials, the New Urbanists succeeded splendidly over a quarter-century, starting with Seaside, Florida, which was already underway as an eccentric real estate venture in the 1980s and became the ultimate model for the movement’s principles. They designed scores of new towns and neighborhood projects, and developed ingenious coding systems to replace the dumb single-use zoning rules that had wrecked so much of the nation’s open land. They also led the way in reviving the old centers of virtually every town and city in the country that still had a pulse.
The Great Financial Crash of 2008—tied, as it was, to real estate—took a lot of steam out of the movement. Many projects stopped or failed. Many of the leading New Urbanist design firms had to downsize, some went bust, and afterward there were fewer start-ups of the heroic multi-hundred-acre projects such as Kentlands in Maryland and I’On in South Carolina. Many New Urbs firms have coasted warily since then, refining existing projects or repairing existing city districts and corridors. What has changed most in the year of COVID is the scale issue, in every department of the town planning and architecture world. If we’re to build back better, as the Biden regime now says, it better be at a scale consistent with the zeitgeist, which is telling us that the age of giantism is over.
Based on the conversations I hear these days among the New Urbanists, there is a division now in the movement between those on-board with a techno-utopian vision of an alt-energy economy that allows us to maintain the current standard of living, with all its comforts and conveniences, and another faction who recognize that something quite different and rather ominous is underway—a combination of economic de-growth, vanishing capital resources, political disorder, and environmental crises. The first group tends to get the most attention, because “green optimism” has such palliative appeal, just as the purity of modernism was so appealing after the gigantic mess of World War II. But the second faction, the adaptationists, have a better grip on reality.
I’m for the adaptationists because they are more in tune with the way circumstances actually roll out, that is, emergently. Societies are organisms that respond to the forces that reality brings to bear at a particular time. They self-organize and reorganize as reality compels them to. The signals now say: get smaller, get simpler, get less technocratic, get finer, and get more local. Despite all the portentous chatter about a “great reset” or a coming global government, centralized authority (in the U.S., anyway) only becomes increasingly impotent and ineffectual. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they will “solve” the problems at hand. The real trend is not to greater concentrations of power but dispersed autarky, or local self-reliance. We’re on our own.
The future of the New Urbanism, therefore, is personal, small-scale, and humanistic, not technocratic. Their great achievement was not so much the new town projects of the past 20 years—though many are excellent—but their heroic deed of retrieving the lost principle and practice that everybody associated with place-making that had been tossed in the dumpster of history for much of the last century. The New Urbanists got all that culture back and re-installed it at the popular level among builders, architects, and public officials. The country will eventually build back better, but not the way that the politicians are yapping about it now. Rather, we will build well again because the New Urbanists reconnected us with what was best in our own history.
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.