A Critique of New Urbanism
Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson
University of Southern California
Presented at the November, 1998 Meeting of the American Collegiate Schools
of Planning (Pasadena, CA).
Table of Contents
Top Part I: The
Failings of New Urbanism
This paper deals with New Urbanism in the broad
sense of prescribing public policies for the built
environment as a whole rather than solely in the narrowest
sense of examining the pros and cons of New Urbanist
communities (although the latter interpretation is
also considered). From this perspective, a useful starting
point is some elements of the charter of the Congress
for the New Urbanism (we admit that we are being selective
here to highlight some of the issues that we would
like to discuss; readers might like to consult the
whole document). The second part of the paper discusses
a much broader issue, agglomeration economies, that
we believe sheds a much sharper light on the suburbanization
(equals sprawl?) issue.
First, the diagnosis of problems provides the impetus for the Congress's actions
and prescriptions. Its membership "views disinvestment in central cities,
the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental
deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of
society's built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge." Regardless
of the importance and legitimacy of these issues, our reaction is that it is
simplistic to expect a dissolution of these problems by physical planning interventions.
The CNU is somewhat ambivalent on this point by recognizing "that physical
solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems but neither
can economic vitality, community stability, and economic wealth be sustained
without a coherent and supportive physical framework," although their
actions appear to go far beyond this point. David Harvey denounces this position
as "spatial determinism" (Harvey, 1997).
Among the key principles of public policy espoused by the New Urbanists are
the following: the promotion of neighborhoods that are diverse in terms of
use (e.g. mixed use developments) and populations (mixed in terms of age, race
and income); designing communities with transportation alternatives (especially
walking, cycling and public transit) to reduce automobile dependence, implying
a strong emphasis on compactness; a strong preference for infill development
rather than peripheral expansion; some priority to accessible public spaces,
community institutions and a variety of parks and other open spaces to foster
communitarian behavior; the provision of affordable housing distributed throughout
the metropolitan region as part of a jobs-housing balance strategy; stressing
the importance of farmland preservation and environmental conservation, combined
with architectural and landscape design principles that pay attention to local
history and cultural heritage, climate and ecology; and the recognition of
the metropolitan region as the functional economic region coupled with revenue
sharing among its municipalities to finance the alleviation of region-wide
Problems What is wrong with this approach? Most important of all, it embraces
pie-in-the-sky social engineering based on a false diagnosis of society's urban
problems, an excessive faith in the ability to change the world, and the prescription
of policies that are implementable only under very special circumstances. We
will illustrate this claim with some examples.
Top i. Durability of Capital.
Even if the New Urbanists could capture both political and popular support
for their physical planning prescriptions, the results would do little to change
the metropolitan landscape (Downs, 1994). The reason is that the urban capital
stock is already largely in place and changes very slowly. As for the residential
capital stock, much of it has been built in the last forty years and the time
of its physical obsolescence is far off. Hence, the practical consequences
of New Urbanism continue to be a small number of relatively small communities
accommodating a miniscule proportion of metropolitan population growth. Demonstration
projects, the object of international study tours, a pleasant living environment
for a few thousand households, well-paid lecture tours for a small clutch of
somewhat immodest architects, the New Urbanist communities amount to little
Top ii. Residential Preferences.
Fannie Mae has been conducting surveys about housing preferences for years.
The findings have changed little. Regardless of income, race or current tenure
status, 75-80 percent of households would prefer to live in a single family
home with a private yard. Whereas it may be possible via creative architectural
and landscape design to produce high-density single family home developments
in the suburbs that are compatible with these preferences, it is probably impossible
at the close-in infill sites promoted by the New Urbanists. Developers are
not stupid, large ones have extensive marketing expertise, and in general they
produce the housing that buyers want that guarantees their profitability. If
New Urbanist-type developments were in demand by consumers, they would be built.
Obviously, we have no objection in principle to the idea that producers should
offer consumers what they want, and we favor experiments by builders that provide
a market test to see whether households are open to a change in residential
lifestyles. An interesting question, especially with regard to infill projects,
is whether these alternatives are acceptable to the community at large, as
opposed to the prospective purchasers. There are many examples of broader community
objections to high-density projects, usually on traffic generation grounds.
Top iii. Farmland Preservation.
A favorite argument of the New Urbanists and other anti-sprawl protagonists
is that low-density suburban residential development is eating up prime agricultural
land. We have addressed this question elsewhere (Gordon and Richardson, 1998).
Agricultural land use in the United States peaked in the 1930s; nevertheless,
agricultural productivity has risen sharply because of a shift to profitable
land-intensive crops. Urban development still absorbs less than five percent
of the landmass. Much hand wringing is associated with the gobbling-up of agricultural
land contiguous to urban development without due consideration for the overall
land-use allocation picture; the "highest and best use" argument
has been too easily discarded because of the rejection of market principles
in New Urbanist thinking. Two other points deserve a mention. First, the argument
that U.S. urban development is adversely affecting the world food supply is
nonsense. Starvation is a problem of distribution and inefficient food policies
not of aggregate supply. Second, the environmental argument for preserving
agricultural land is undercut by the fact that agriculture is, by far, the
country's largest polluting sector, generating $173 billion of pollution damages
in water pollution alone.
Top iv. Mixed Land Uses.
As implied by the CNU documents, New Urbanist communities are intended
to be more than residential subdivisions. The plans are to have shops, a wide
array of personal and consumer services, and workplace sites. Only by developing
a broad mix of land uses can the goals, perhaps a dream, of walking to work
and walking to shop be met. This is one of the plans for Kentlands, perhaps
the most successful of the NU communities, yet commercial development there
lags far behind. Apart from the pedestrian opportunities objective, however,
there is no particular reason why these communities need to create an employment
base. The idea of "selfcontainment" was one of the principles behind
the creation of the British New Towns. Certainly, with the freestanding New
Towns on green field sites (less clearly with the modified Expanding Town concept),
it never worked well. Employment centers did emerge, but they did not cater
to the local population. For skill mismatch and other reasons, the overwhelming
tendency was for New Town residents to work elsewhere while the jobs in the
New Towns were filled by commuters from outside. As a result, the strategy
probably resulted in more commuting rather than less. This would be more true
today than it was then because of ubiquitous accessibility by automobile. There
is a stronger argument for having retail and other consumer services provided
locally, but even in this case facilities have developed slowly as shoppers
are attracted to major malls and other large-scale clusters.
Top v. Social Equity Issues.
CNU rhetoric gives substantial attention to promoting equity, fostering
residential mixing, affordable housing provision, and reducing central city-suburb
income differentials via middle-class infill development. Yet there is little
evidence that NU communities have achieved these goals. Instead, they are turning
out to be rather elistist settlements with average income levels much higher
than in the surrounding areas. The Laguna West area, for example, has a household
income two-thirds higher than Sacramento County, where it is located. At Seaside,
the 1996 average sales price reached $503,500 (Garvin, 1998, p. 18). Offering
variety in the housing stock does result some income mixing, but there are
few signs of racial mixing, and supplying a range of housing products is typical
of many standard residential subdivisions and is not restricted to NU communities.
As for the idea that somehow New Urbanism can contribute to the stability,
if not revival, of the central city, it remains just that - an idea. There
is very little to show for it in practice. Despite the call for an integrated
metropolitan unity, most NU communities are being built on greenfield sites
some distance away from the central city, and infill development has been limited
-- probably of necessity because of land scarcity - to tiny pockets. Hence,
there is no identifiable relationship between NU communities and the fate of
central cities and those who live there. If there is some consensus for tackling
the social problems found in the central cities (and it is by no means clear
that this consensus exists), it would be far better to deal with these problems
via direct, tightly targetted measures rather than via land use controls and
social experiments on the metropolitan fringe. As Harvey states: New Urbanism "builds
an image of community and a rhetoric of place-based civic pride and consciousness
for those who do not need it, while abandoning those that do to their 'underclass'
fate" (Harvey, 1997, p. 69).
Top vi. Communitarianism.
Although the New Urbanists are regarded as very conservative, reactionary,
and even stodgy, from an architectural point of view, they take a very old
architectural tradition, that design affects social behavior, and radicalize
it to the extent that they argue that incorporating specific design elements
not only in buildings but in street layouts and neighborhood patterns can generate
a communitarian spirit and dramatically increase social interaction. Although
there are precedents for this view (in the writings of Jane Jacobs ,
for example), and most people would accept that our behavior is sensitive to,
and affected by, the surrounding physical environment, the New Urbanists take
the argument to extremes. A major problem with their argument is that on the
ground rather than in their polemics NU communities look little different than
standard suburban areas, so that even if you accepted the communitarian argument
it is difficult to believe that such subtle changes in the built environment
could have more than miniscule social interaction effects. A more fundamental
problem is that many New Urbanist projects are so influenced by the nostalgic
longing for the archtypical small town of the past that they fall into the
trap of believing that recreating its physical structure (at least to some
degree) can simultaneously recreate its social and civic behavior. But society,
culture and behavior have changed so much that this is a false dream. Harvey
makes the point very well: "The New Urbanism assembles much of its rhetorical
and political power through a nostalgic appeal to 'community' as a panacea
for our social and economic as well as urban ills. . . . (H)arking back to
a mythological past carries its own dangerous freight" (Harvey, 1997,
68-9). Duany himself argues that NU communities make American society and human
behavior better in three ways: i. making life richer for children; ii. allowing
one to age in place (not so much by creating nearby housing opportunities for
empty nesters but by making pedestrian mobility possible); and iii. eliminating
the need for more than one car (Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 1997,
53, 55). But the first two are attainable in a wide variety of urban and suburban
residential environments, while the third has not been achieved in the sense
that NU community residents have similar automobiles per household ratios to
households elsewhere. The explanation of this last point is obvious: the accessibility
and mobility needs of individuals cannot be satisfied by constraining them
to inside the community, at least within walking distance.
Top vii. Tripmaking.
This brings us to a major claim of the New Urbanists is that their proposals
will lead to major changes in travel behavior: reduced automobile dependence,
more transit use, increased cycling, and pedestrian-friendly development. Unfortunately
for them, there is little justification for these claims. A high proportion
of trips is external to the community (for instance, almost all jobs are outside),
and cars remain vitally necessary for mobility. No significant transit services
have been developed to link NU communities with nearby centers, for example,
the plans for a transit system to link Laguna West with Sacramento (less than
10 miles away) never materialized. The majority opinion is that the NU communities
will never be dense enough or large enough to justify significant (i.e. frequent)
transit service (see Downs'  critique of Calthorpe ). Duany himself
admits that market preferences, heterogeneous housing demands and the open
space provisions that drastically reduce gross compared with net residential
densities result in relatively low densities compared with transit-oriented
neighborhoods. Careful analysis of the tripmaking impacts (Crane, 1996) suggest
that it is unclear whether higher density communities will result in more auto
trips or less. The limited scope of retail and other consumer services in NU
communities (typically, one shopping center at best) means that even within
these communities most services are beyond the average American's tolerance
for service-oriented walking, i.e. between one-quarter and one-half mile. The
NU communities often lend themselves to comfortable cycling, but bicycles remain
a niche travel mode, at least for Americans.
Top Visiting Laguna West
One of the authors recently visited Laguna West, the New Urbanist community
designed by Peter Calthorpe a few miles south of Sacramento, California. It
was not a research visit per se, but an opportunity to look at the physical
characteristics of the site and to chat informally with some of the residents.
The community is a poor reflection of New Urbanist principles. It contains
many large houses on sizeable lots (perhaps a half acre), it is riddled with
cul-de-sacs (a New Urbanist no-no), there are negligible traffic-calming measures
except for tree planters on some of the side roads, and the main road through
the community (Babson) is a race track. The main park (an approximation to
a medieval village green) was deserted at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, although
30 minutes later the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) teams began
to turn up. The commercial center is pitiful with a small market, a couple
of coffee shops, and a few other services (e.g. a dentist, a health store,
a restaurant, a market, etc ). The office/industrial complex is very small,
largely consisting of an Apple facility. There are a few bus shelters scattered
through the community, but while we were there no bus was in sight. With respect
to the vaunted social interaction and communitarian goals of New Urbanism,
the residents we spoke to knew few people beyond their immediate neighbors,
although there were some relatively well attended concerts in the park. On
the positive side, some of the houses incorporate New Urbanist design elements,
such as front porches and garages at the back. Even more important, Laguna
West includes a variety of housing styles, including moderately priced duplex-type
attached for-sale units (in the $120,000 range) and a senior rental complex
(in the final stages of completion). In general, however, Laguna West loooks
little different from the standard residential community, especially with respect
to automobile ownership and use; five cars in the driveway (not on a party
night) is a case in point.
Top Part II: The Role of Agglomeration
Economies: Beyond the New Urbanists' Focus
Rather than tampering at the margins of urban problems (as we believe New Urbanists
do), we prefer to focus our attention on a more significant issue from the
perspective of future urban form: what is happening to agglomeration economies.
A major rationale for this is that many of the benefits of urban settlement
patterns such as pecuniary economies (higher wages and land values) or consumption
externalities (e.g. more choice of restaurants, major ball clubs, concert halls,
teaching hospitals) reflect agglomeration economies. The anti-sprawl advocates,
among whom the New Urbanists are a vocal subgroup, have paid excessive attention
to the costs side of alternative settlement patterns, a picture - by the way
- that remains very blurred.
Agglomeration economies distinguish urban economics from the rest of economics.
Even models of residential location begin by assuming an employment center.
Yet, why are there such centers? The answer usually has to do with agglomeration
economies. Vernon (1960) suggested that these economies are especially important
for small start-up firms that are unable to benefit from scale economies. Such
firms would, therefore, most likely locate in the cores of urbanized areas,
trading off high land costs for external agglomeration economies. Such firms
would, therefore, most likely locate in the cores of urbanized areas, trading
off high land costs for external agglomeration benefits.
More recently, "mainstream" economists have discovered spatial economics.
The Journal of Economic Perspectives (Spring, 1998) included a Symposium on
urban agglomeration. In it, Krugman elaborated on the agglomeration idea, noting
that now that theorists find increasing returns tractable, they are better
able to apply their modeling skills to spatial questions. In the same Symposium,
Quigley (1998) argues that the current interest in agglomeration matches the
New Growth Theory's interest in the external economies provided by new ideas.
Cities' "internal heteorgeneity and diversity" obviously play a role.
The Symposium's third author, Glaeser, pays attention to the external costs
as well as the external benefits to be found in cities but, we believe, would
have developed a more powerful argument had he differentiated between what
transpires in city centers vs their suburbs (see Correspondence by Gordon and
Richardson, Journal of Economic Perspectives, forthcoming). In another Symposium,
Bollinger et al (1998) report on a case study which demonstrates that access
that allows face-to-face contacts is a significant determinant of office rents,
suggesting that electronic access is not (yet) a good enough substitute (for
Models of city size emphasize the trade-off between the benefits of agglomeration
(increasing with city size but at a decreasing rate) and congestion costs (also
increasing with city size but at an increasing rate). This approach suggests
an "optimal" city size, where marginal benefits of city size are
equated with marginal costs. City size could be defined in many ways, e.g.
area and population, but as long as the variables are highly correlated it
does not matter much.
Dynamic treatments emphasize how both curves shift over time. Falling transportation
costs shift the congestion curve outward, making it flatter and making the
city larger. Falling communications costs may cause some of the benefits of
face-to-face contact to become available to individuals that have electronic
access to each other. Then this curve too becomes flatter. Both changes suggest
a larger metropolis.
Dispersed employment and other opportunities flatten most price gradients.
Growth, then, may not raise housing prices. Greater affluence prompts more
consumption of space which suggests that spatial growth exceeds population
or employment growth. This is part of the explanation of the accelerating spread
of metropolitan areas.
Easterlin (1998) has discussed the importance of increasingly "footloose" industries.
Whereas workers were once compelled to locate in the vicinity of industries
that sought mineral-rich sites or places offering peculiar transportation advantages
(ports, rail sidings, crossroads, etc.), footloose locators are now able to
follow the labor force. With this new freedom, workers and their families choose
suburban high-amenity low-rent sites. The historic pattern has been reversed.
If so, does this mean that agglomeration economies are more ubiquitous or that
they are less important? Of course, if they ever really become ubiquitous,
they would no longer be important.
Aside from the obvious ("what are we measuring?"), the discussion
of agglomeration economies prompts two questions:
In a recent paper (Gordon, Richardson and Yu, 1998), we
approached these questions by utilizing BEA county-level
employment data (REIS file) for the period 1969-1994. Rather
than patterns of "rural renaissance" (some writers'
allusion to a seeming reversal of urbanization in the 1970s)
vs. "urban revival" (one writer's demonstration
that the 1970s reversal had itself reversed), we found
that private sector job growth swings were really between
exurban and rural dominance (1969-77 and 1988-94) and suburban
dominance (1977-88). It is now possible to extend the discussion
because two more years of REIS data are available. Non-metropolitan
job growth was dominant through 1995 whereas metropolitan
growth was greater for 1995-96 (Figures 1a, 1b and 2).
Tables 1a and 1b show these trends for the (roughly defined) "sunbelt" and "frostbelt" regions.
The patterns across the two regions are similar. Among metropolitan counties,
most growth occurred in the suburbs of the large metropolitan areas in the
years 1977-89. In more recent years, there was high sunbelt growth in these
counties as well as in exurban adjacent counties; the highest frostbelt growth
took place in the non-adjacent exurban counties.
Can these findings elaborate Vernon's idea? Can the changing location of rapid
job growth suggest anything about the location of agglomeration benefits? One
way to approach these questions is to ask where growth takes place during periods
of economic expansion when there are more business starts. Our previous results
suggest that in the most recent years, these economies exist in the outer suburbs
because, roughly speaking, periods of high employment growth are associated
with growth in the outer suburbs whereas periods of lower employment growth
are associated with faster rural and exurban growth. If these findings hold
up, they support our doubts about the assault on suburbanization ("sprawl")
by the New Urbanists and others, on the ground that it undermines the dominant
characteristics of economic growth (by the way, many New Urbanists would regard
this as a good thing).
Direct tests of the Vernon hypothesis would require the availability of data
on business starts by location. The only business starts data known to us are
by Dun & Bradstreet for the U.S. as a whole. These only cover the years
1985-1996 because the D&B pre-1985 data are not compatible with the newer
series. Over the 1985-96 period, business starts per total number of businesses
(corporations plus partnerships plus nonfarm proprietorships) peaked in 1985,
reached a low in 1991, and rose again into the mid-1990s. Yet, recent business
starts do not match the levels of the mid-1980s (Table 2). While these observations
are from a series that is too short to generate robust conclusions, they do
corroborate the hypothesis. Metropolitan-area private sector employment growth
dominated when business formations were strong. And this metropolitan-area
growth was strongest in the suburbs. These occurrences and the Vernon hypothesis
lead us to conjecture that agglomeration economies were most attractive in
the suburbs. If cities want to prosper then employment growth in their suburbs
is to be welcomed. If suburban expansion is inevitably linked with sprawl,
there are clearly serious risks in anti-sprawl actions.
Top Part III: Conclusions
What has this discussion of agglomeration economies to do with New Urbanism?
First, the insignifance of NU or even quasi-NU communities in terms of population
absorption implies that if they are regarded as a solution to metropolitan
problems, all the cliches (shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, fiddling
while Rome burns, etc.) come to mind. We can disagree about the scale and type
of interventions needed to address central city economic and social problems,
but certainly New Urbanism as judged by its implementation hitherto is irrelevant.
Second, the real problem for the central cities and the stability of its economic
base is how to counter or accommodate the obvious decentralization of agglomeration
economies to the suburbs and to edge cities (Garreau, 1991), or even the possibility
that such economies are disappearing (Gordon and Richardson, 1996). New Urbanism
has nothing to contribute to this discussion, in part because it believes,
at least implicitly, that social problems are remediable by architectural and
design prescriptions rather than by economic development. Third, while accepting
the CNU argument that the metropolitan region is the appropriate unit for analysis,
it is difficult to find any concrete details in the New Urbanist discussions
as how they will influence the future metropolitan region. Agglomeration economies
have much to contribute to such a discussion because what happens to them could
affect the survival of the central city, the role of the suburbs, and the potential
of exurban and rural locations. As Robert Campbell ponted out in the Harvard
Design Magazine symposium, with some exaggeration, that we are "entering
an era during which half the population will move to Montana and the other
half will move downtown, because those are the two best places to live, and
new communications technology lets you live anywhere. So what happens to the
suburbs? Given this larger framework of settlement patterns, what happens to
Kentlands?" (Harvard Design Magazine, 1997, 50). Duany's reply: "Kentlands
will be resilient" (Ibid., 50). Yet what happens to metropolitan regions,
and whether Campbell's prediction makes sense, depends on how the role of agglomeration
economies is transformed by information technology and other developments.
On these issues New Urbanism is silent.
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