Examining the Ideology and Politics of New Urbanism

by Maanvi Dhillon for ARTSSCI 3CU3: Alumni Experience Inquiry


New Urbanism (NU) is an urban planning movement that emerged in the 1980s in response to American suburban sprawl. It originated amongst architects and planners that agreed upon common values in city design and it was formalized in 1993 with the founding of a non-profit organization called the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) (Poticha, “Foreword” xiii). The CNU poses its principles in a twenty-seven rule charter that aims to make cities “walkable, mixed in use, socially diverse, and transit-served” (Talen, “Why” 1). Urban planners face a dilemma that has become particularly evident with NU––given both the clear link between physical design and social outcomes, and the inevitable limit of physical design in advancing social goals, to what extent should planners aim to create social change in their work (Lee 109)? New Urbanists acknowledge that “physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems” (Talen, “Social Goals'' 166). Nonetheless, they interweave social objectives and values into their design principles and thus affirm their awareness of the multidimensional influence of physical environments. For example, diversity is meant to be a key characteristic of NU communities that is supported by features benefitting underprivileged populations like well-connected transit systems and mixed housing options.

NU’s social awareness and proactivity are its primary appeal. The Congress’s interdisciplinary membership demonstrates how the movement has expanded beyond physical design; it has grown from architects and planners to an array of professionals, ranging from academics to sociologists to economists (Poticha, “Foreword” xiv). While there is no official NU certification, its guidelines have shaped hundreds of neighbourhoods, cities, and public housing projects since its inception two decades ago (Trudeau, “Typology” 114). Many scholars have evaluated the neighbourhoods shaped by NU and the literature indicates some consistent issues in these communities. New Urbanist principles can have negative impacts on social conditions: when these principles lack complements like political regulations or social programs, the produced outcomes may be out of line with NU’s normative vision of just, equitable, and diverse communities. Despite this, New Urbanists and the CNU are unwilling to expand their principles beyond design prescriptions or pursue political changes that would ensure the social goals they claim to address become more attainable. In this essay, I will argue that NU’s tendency to frame itself as a neutral design movement and avoid pursuing social justice through public advocacy is the root of systemic issues in New Urbanist neighbourhoods and stems from an underlying, pernicious ideal of “community”. Their current approach to ideology and politics precludes the possibility of achieving diverse and socially just cities and must be reoriented in order to realize their vision of widespread good urbanism.

To begin, I will outline two persistent issues that scholars have identified in NU developments, the first being affordability. NU calls for evenly distributed affordable housing to avoid concentrations of poverty (Congress for the New Urbanism). For low-income households, housing that integrates households of varying income levels improves access to high-quality services, employment, and school opportunities that are often exclusively available in wealthy neighbourhoods. Improved access reduces exposure to crime, poverty, environmental hazards, and other challenges faced in concentrated low-income areas (“Seven” 74-5; Talen, “Design” 77). NU principles rely on design strategies to create affordability, such as providing small, dense housing options and amenities within walking distance to reduce the need for a car (Talen, “Affordability” 491). However, research has shown the insufficiency of design as a tool to regulate housing prices in NU communities. A survey of private NU developments found that, when measured by the median income in an area, only 15% of private NU developments were affordable: “the vast majority … are not within reach of middle and low-income families” (Talen, “Affordability” 495). The study also reinforced arguments that NU developments tend to be more expensive than conventional neighbourhoods––coveted features like walkability and transit access drive up prices, especially given the scarcity of well-designed urban environments (Talen, “Culture of Criticism” 329); essentially “affordable housing in desirable locations … goes against the basic principles of land economics in the United States” (Talen, “Affordability” 493; Tu and Eppli 498). As a result, even if living costs are reduced by transit access and nearby amenities, low-income families who would benefit most from these features cannot afford the entry costs of the neighbourhoods (Markley 1128). The consequence is that public intervention such as government subsidies and regulations is necessary to achieve mixed-income housing; as Ethan Goffman writes, “If one cares about the plight of low-income people, there is no solution that relies entirely on the free market” (135). Indeed, studies that find income diversity across NU communities at an aggregate level consistently attribute it to concentrated, publicly supported housing developments (Trudeau, “Tracing” 28; Johnson and Talen 597; Trudeau and Kaplan 470). Case studies show the same link: in Florida, a publicly-assisted neighbourhood had a high proportion of low-income housing, while a comparable privately-developed one was completely inaccessible to low-income households (Kim and Larsen 3856). Overall, the NU strategy of designing affordability into a neighbourhood falls short––and may even work against the goal of affordability––without government intervention.

Another persistent problem relates to social diversity. New Urbanists argue that their design principles will create diverse communities and facilitate social interaction across divisions like race and class. This expectation is clear in several principles, most explicitly in number thirteen:

“Within neighbourhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community” (Congress for the New Urbanism)

However, given the historic discrimination against minority communities, the high expense of NU developments hinders racial diversity. For example: the development of NU projects in Atlanta’s suburbs caused the displacement of Hispanic residents by White residents, supporting “a relationship between new urbanism in practice and the whitening of space” (Markley 1128). Furthermore, even when racial and income diversity are achieved, interaction and cooperation across group divisions do not naturally occur––a finding contrary to NU thought. For example, Arizona residents of diverse NU communities seldom interacted with one another (Cabrera and Najarian 438). In Minneapolis and St. Paul, some homeowners in NU communities felt “an acute sense of unease and discomfort with social diversity present in their neighbourhoods” and communities with more income diversity had less social interaction (Trudeau, “Tracing” 35). In Chicago, mixed-income projects exacerbated race conflicts, which further marginalized low-income Black renters (Khare et al. 496). These cases commonly suggest that explicit attention to inter-group relations––perhaps through community programming or mediation services––is essential to the possibility of positive interaction in diverse neighbourhoods (Trudeau, “Tracing” 35; Cabrera and Najarian 438).

New Urbanists may have overlooked this need because in the early stages of NU, the principles were largely applied to newly built communities, such as resort-style suburban developments and public housing projects (Day 84). As NU guidelines are increasingly used to reform neighbourhoods like inner city areas and declining suburbs, the need for targeted programming and attention to social difference has grown stronger, including before new designs are implemented. Designs and consultation processes must accommodate people who vary in their wants and needs according to race, income, age, and other demographic and social factors. This was illustrated in Kristen Day’s study of neighbourhood revitalization in Costa Mesa, California, where the proposed design and consultation methods of NU standards benefitted white residents while neglecting Latino residents, who required separate programming and outreach to be included (89, 91). Similar results occurred with the redevelopment of a public housing site in Seattle, where assistance from non-profit organizations and community building services were crucial to meet the needs of an ethnically diverse population (Jackson 96). Some researchers directly investigated the idea that intentional, socially-conscious planning is important for NU communities using a comparative study. A Texas NU community was found to use targeted policies and programs, like neighbourhood support groups, to develop and sustain diversity in race and income. In contrast, an Indiana community lacked diversity support and made ignorant decisions––including subsidizing homeowners rather than renters and providing amenities catering to wealthy tastes––that led to the displacement of Black residents and the preferential treatment of white residents (Trudeau and Kaplan, 473-476). Thus, in a similar fashion to the issue of affordability, creating and sustaining social diversity in NU developments requires more than a well-designed environment.

The lack of affordability and social diversity suggest that New Urbanism needs to go further than design recommendations. When NU principles are implemented without further guidelines or more substantive action, they backfire by pricing out low-income people, causing discomfort amongst diverse populations, and inequitably serving different communities. New Urbanists often clarify that their principles cannot solve social problems, but instead consciously address social goals. This clarification is used to distinguish NU from historical urban planning theories, which failed by ignoring the social effects of physical planning (Talen, “Social Goals” 166-7). However, these enduring issues suggest that there are cases where awareness does not make a difference––in fact, exclusively operating through physical design may harm social goals. Further, proponents of NU may have made themselves vulnerable to dismissing genuine critique and ongoing reflection because of NU’s overtly normative approach to planning: if the normative principles are agreed upon as good and just, it may seem unlikely that they cause issues in the same way that more traditionally non-normative theories of city design have throughout history. Talen has emphasized that, in evaluating NU theory, critics “must be careful to assess whether the impact is the result of the ideal itself or a flawed application of that ideal”, rather than shooting down a good theory for idiosyncratic shortcomings (“Culture of Criticism” 321). But if the ideal is sound, yet flawed applications are inevitable given the conditions of the practical environment, should not New Urbanists then respond by pursuing changes in those conditions?

NU is a normative theory that makes claims about how the world ought to be in terms of city development. This was a consistent point of criticism in NU’s early phases, as opponents argued that normative idealizing had no place in urban theory; planning ideals could not be evaluated apart from their implementation; and no fixed set of planning ideals could work for all people (Talen, “Culture of Criticism 321). New Urbanists stood firm and repeatedly defended their movement, arguing that urban planning is strengthened with a concrete theory of good urban form rather than relativistic attitudes to ideals, as urban planners need strong guidance to make critical decisions and ward off the assertive and unjust interests of less publicly-minded actors (Talen and Ellis 39). Emily Talen makes the cogent point that rejection of normative theory by planners “boils down to a trivializing of local urban experiences” (“Culture of Criticism” 322). Because so many of their aspirational design goals were incompatible with the policy environment of the 90s (and continue to be today), New Urbanists have pushed hard for reforms in federal guidelines, municipal codes, zoning regulations, and other institutional hurdles. In an article on the movement’s transportation achievements, Wes Marshall explains how the CNU partnered with multiple federal agencies to produce design manuals like the Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities; partnered with councils to create a neighbourhood certification system based on NU transportation features; and fought a long battle with local Fire Marshals before managing to amend local fire codes through the International Code Council (Marshall 51-52). Another advocacy achievement has been popularizing form-based codes. Municipal zoning is typically organized around types of land use, such as industrial or residential areas, which encourages the segregated design of suburbs and prohibits the mixed-use design advocated by NU. However, New Urbanists have persuaded many cities to adopt form-based codes instead, which focus more on the physical aspects like the distance between buildings and streets or architectural styles (Steuteville, “Great Idea: Form-based codes”). As of 2016, 600 of these codes had been prepared for American cities––362 were adopted (Perez, “Top 10 misconceptions”). Thus, New Urbanists have been willing to form partnerships with a variety of organizations, lobby decision-makers, and engage politically to procure changes in the status quo that prevented the realization of the design aspects of their vision.

This kind of rigorous advocacy, especially by the CNU, has not been employed to improve the social and political conditions for achieving NU’s social ideals. The issue is not a lack of strategies––academics have made valuable, concrete suggestions to the CNU about the kinds of changes required to better address social goals. There are many potential techniques for improving housing affordability in NU developments. For example, advocates could push for more regions to adopt progressive policies like in Montgomery County, Maryland, where 12% of all newly developed housing units must be moderately priced (Goffman 134). Emily Talen proposed that the CNU partner with the Community Land Trust Network, a national organization composed of “private, non-profit organization[s] that own[] land for the purpose of providing affordable housing” (Talen, “The Community Land Trust” 78). Since much of the added expense of NU developments comes from their desirable location, removing the land cost significantly improves affordability. The CLTN seems like a welcoming alternative to more restrictive, top-down government subsidy programs, yet the CNU has no relationship with their organization (Talen, “The Community Land Trust” 80). Clear options have also been offered to improve accommodation for social diversity: April Jackson suggests that the CNU provide cultural competence training to planners and create accountability systems such as regulations to ensure developments claiming to be New Urbanist provide a range of housing options and support for diverse social groups (102). The CNU has been offered a menu of advocacy options pertaining to its social goals, but has not shown interest in this kind of political work––their action does not seem to extend beyond featuring speakers and articles focussed on affordable housing and anti-racism on their platforms. The lack of substantive action has cast doubt on the authenticity of NU’s social awareness, and, as Talen has observed, led the movement to a position where it “strains credibility to continue pushing design-only strategies” (508).

The New Urbanists have a well-known example of urban theory that takes up social justice. Jane Jacobs, the iconic theorist whose writing is widely credited and referenced in NU texts, did not skirt around social issues in her work. For example, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs took a strong stance against inadequate government-run public housing. Instead, Jacobs proposed a scheme called a guaranteed-rent method where low-income tenants live in privately-developed mixed-income buildings and a government agency pays the proportion of the rent that the tenant cannot afford (326). She outlined value-laden guidelines like ensuring the privacy and dignity of tenants, and making buildings attractive and livable such that, even if households start earning a higher income, they may choose to stay for the sake of preserving their social ties and community (Jacobs 332). While Jacobs was also critical of attempts to solve social problems with good design, she was not afraid to explore the necessary political and programmatic complements to her design proposals (113). A fundamental difference in Jacobs’ and the New Urbanists’ approach seems to be their ideology. Jacobs took overt ideological stances––even when they strayed from strictly ‘planning’ objectives, such as condemning racial discrimination or supporting private sector and market-oriented solutions––, but the NU movement is intent on being ideologically neutral. Cliff Ellis questions whether this is an honest characterization:

Is New Urbanism … a progressive movement with a commitment to social justice, strong democracy, and the renewal of civic culture? Or does New Urbanism have more profound connections with traditional conservatism and its appreciation of tradition, incremental change, and timeless values? … Some have argued that New Urbanism has no strong connections with political philosophy at all, and is essentially a pragmatic design theory available for adoption by individuals from all points of the political compass. Is this, in fact, possible? (Ellis 9)

Prominent New Urbanists boast about their neutrality, as demonstrated in the Charter where founder and figurehead Andrés Duany writes, “We have no ideological prerequisites” (13). Some observers have chalked up the CNU’s reluctance for ideological stances to a compromise for the sake of productivity and results, as they intend to see their principles applied “no matter what” and need to minimize conflict with collaborators (Pyatok 807). However, it is misleading to present planning decisions as ideologically neutral: planners influence our social and political lives in innumerable ways, including, “social and political forms of organization through the design of public spaces, social equity through the spatial arrangement of public facilities, and social encounters through the design of sidewalks” (Talen, “Social Goals” 165). A movement that intends to create good urban form undeniably makes decisions about which ideals and formations are desirable, regardless of how technical and objective those decisions and resulting principles may appear. David Brain emphasizes this point: “In the context of the urban landscape, every design and planning decision is a value proposition, and a proposition that has to do with social and political relationships” (233). So, rather than accept the claim that NU can and should avoid ideological commitments, we should critically examine the ideology inevitably implicit in their behaviour and prescriptions.

The New Urbanists’ ideology could perhaps be judged from their aspiration to foster a sense of community through their designs. NU rhetoric is littered with descriptions of bringing people together, strengthening bonds amongst neighbours, and cultivating shared feelings of appreciation for their neighbourhood amongst residents. Referencing ‘community’ in this way is the closest the New Urbanists get to describing an ideology, as it might imply a set of values like equality, civic engagement, and interest in the common good. However, it is crucial to consider how the community ideal is actually perceived by people external to the movement, like residents in an NU community or planners using the principles. When described in general terms, the ideal of community can be quite ambiguous: it can be interpreted in many different ways, from social interactions and relationships to a more affective, psychological sense of belonging or group identity (Talen, “Social Goals” 168). The vagueness of the ideal is apparent in the NU Charter principles: none provide substantive measures for achieving community, but instead draw on the language of community as descriptive material surrounding more tangible, design-based aims (Talen, “Social Goals” 178). Those descriptions of community often appear alongside references to social goals of NU, such as in principle thirteen where mixed housing and social diversity are linked with strengthening personal and civil bonds (Congress for the New Urbanism). The consequence of the ambiguity of community as an ideal, and its subsequent link with the social goals of NU, is that the associated social objectives of the movement are undermined. For example, if community is interpreted to refer to high sociability and a sense of belonging, those can be achieved––and are in fact easier to achieve––without social diversity. So, the linkage may make the social goals appear less necessary, since community values can be achieved without them, or more inconvenient or limiting, if the achievement of goals like mixed-income housing does not produce the implied community values. Either way, the ambiguity of the community ideal in the NU principles weakens the social ideals of the movement for those trying to use the NU standards to develop or evaluate their neighbourhood.

Furthermore, while the community ideal is ambiguous to those external to the NU movement, the attitude of the CNU and core movement organizers described above may reveal their specific interpretation of the ideal and its underlying implications. To understand how NU members interpret community, it helps to review scholarly critiques of the term. Community based on shared location has become a dubious concept in social science literature; social demographic traits such as race, age, and class seem to be more influential for community formation (Talen, “The Problem” 175; Brain 222). This may explain past cases where the ideal of community was used for exclusive and elitist ends, like promoting socially homogenous neighbourhoods or NIMBYism, a phenomenon where residents oppose new developments that change the character of their neighbourhoods (Talen, “The Problem” 178). Historical examples of the pernicious use of the community ideal justify the connection Kristen Day makes between NU and the “myth of community” as proposed by the American theorist Iris Marion Young. Young argues that community is a political ideal that necessitates features like shared interests, heritage, culture, and values for membership––community thus “expresses a desire for the fusion of subjects with one another that, in practise, operates to exclude those with whom the group does not identify” (Day 87). By predicating mutual respect on common traits, the ideal of community does the opposite of encouraging civility and public-mindedness: it instead encourages conditional respect for people we are similar to and connected with (Brain 222). As such, NU’s weak commitment to its social goals may be explained by the members’ subscription to the ideology of community described in Young’s theory, as valuing social justice and diversity requires a compassion and interest in people different from oneself.

Besides a disinterest in social justice, the ideal of community also dissuades political action and public advocacy. Jane Jacobs foreshadowed this possibility when denouncing a similar value she termed “togetherness”. She described a middle-class neighbourhood where design relied on community ties, personal contact, and shared resources; these conditions created a homogenous population that was hostile to people of different races and classes (63). Children from this area had trouble in middle school because they had to interact with new people from different neighbourhoods and backgrounds––they lacked the skills and trust needed for engagement with strangers in public (Jacobs 64). Jacobs diagnosed the problem as a lack of public life, replaced by “differing degrees of extended private life” (64). She was on to something: when meaningful public engagement is replaced by the friendly, familiar interactions of community life, people fail to develop valuable skills and qualities that are essential for public-minded thinking. Other scholars have made similar observations in regard to NU and its focus on community. Michael Brill distinguishes public life as sociability with strangers, and community life as sociability with known people, and notes that NU’s objectives match community life (48, 50). Brill speculates that most people find public life unappealing: “It’s too troublesome, too fractious, not always safe or comfortable … too possible to have in-your-face difference to make everybody happy” (52), and he mourns consequences like the loss of learning tolerance and civility toward diversity (54). In connecting sociological theory to NU, Brain makes parallel arguments with the terms “community” and “civility”: while community breeds an inward-looking, narrow self-interest and distrust of strangers that result in “a kind of trained incapacity for public life” (224), civility fosters respect for social difference, trust in impersonal relationships, and alignment with democratic politics (223). A common theme amongst these conceptions is that the community ideal fails to develop the capacities needed for meaningful engagement in the public realm and the empathy for strangers that is crucial to politics. Thus, rather than viewing NU’s reluctance to fiercely pursue social goals as a disinterest in the goals themselves, their evasiveness may signal a fundamental disinterest in politics and the public realm.

The pitfalls of the community ideal are not devastating for NU, as the principles themselves are still positive and socially conscious. Instead, what needs to change is the New Urbanist approach to advocacy and politics in pursuit of social goals, which has been stifled by their interest in community as proven by the enduring issues with affordability and social diversity in NU developments. Admitting the necessity of an ideological agenda is crucial; New Urbanists’ claims of neutrality only serve to prevent recognition of the problematic ideology of community that currently underlies their actions. As Emily Talen has suggested, a more tangible and firm value––like increased accessibility of public services and spaces––would better serve the social objectives tied up in NU theory (Talen, “The Problem” 180). NU can also draw from theories of urban resilience to develop values informed by political and social conditions; resilience scholars have argued that social equity is an essential feature for contemporary cities given the shocks and crises common to economies structured by neoliberal policy (Eraydin and Taşan-Kok, 4). Minority and low-income communities lack the resources and privilege to overcome these disruptions, and market-friendly municipal planning serves to exacerbate those inequalities––cities should instead prioritize equity in their policymaking to create more sustainable and resilient communities (Meerow et al, 794). Committing to accessibility or social equity would bring NU closer to progressive politics, but this is not something to fear, because the act of planning human spaces is inevitably political. Rather than deny this fact, NU should embrace the fight for political and regulatory changes needed to achieve their social objectives and celebrate the possibility to turn their idealistic vision of a just city into a widespread reality.




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