Challenging New Urbanism

Definition: “New Urbanism – the revival of our lost art of place-making, and promotes the creation and restoration of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities.”

On one of’s posts, I noticed the tag “urban forestry is America’s frontline defense against climate change.” I couldn’t agree more.

So how is this statement reconciled with “new urbanism” and “smart growth” that packs people into cluster homes and super high density suburbs where there isn’t room for trees on any private parcels? (read “California’s Land Use Choices”)

As someone active in urban forestry most of my life, I think “smart growth,” “infill,” and the “urban service boundary” is utterly destroying the urban canopy. Has anyone seen trees in these new communities, where “low density” is now defined as eight homes per acre, and cluster housing now goes as high as 20 homes per acre? These are heat island dead zones, not leafy suburbs. Perhaps it is time for urban forestry advocates to also advocate lower density zoning. There’s plenty of land.

CO2 from cars (if not CO2 in general) has little to do with climate change, and in any case cars are becoming green. You can have an enveloping canopy of trees in a low density suburb, but in a cluster home “smart growth” suburb you have no room for a tree canopy to shade the roads and rooftops. It is also incorrect to suggest low density requires increased infrastructure. Actually it is far more expensive to try to re-engineer and upgrade established infrastructure to accomodate high density infill; this along with much improved septic systems that don’t require utility interties (and rooftop solar energy systems) means the low density decentralized model actually generates less infrastructure requirements.

Greenbelts and urban service boundaries cause exurbs, super-leapfrog developments outside the boundary. Because people want yards and cars, all you do when you create a greenbelt is make them move further away and drive more.

The real issue here is communalism, which environmentalists tend to embrace, a value that causes them to set policy agendas not purely on ecological considerations. Force everyone out of their cars, out of their yards, and into expensive public transportation and public parks. These mandates increase the price of housing, which increases property tax revenues into public entities – the hidden agenda. The logical extension of adhering to smart growth rhetoric is to cram everyone into ultra high density cities and depopulate the rural areas. It has little to do with protecting the environment and must be challenged.

As for farmland, there’s plenty of it. Trends in corporate agriculture and the endangered family farm are phenomena quite independent of suburban and exurban development. If zoning laws weren’t so stringent, small farms could more easily coexist among scattered residential neighborhoods – it would be easier. But by letting government agencies and trial lawyers hired by nonprofit organizations have this level of control over land development, instead of property owners, only the big corporations can play – whether they’re agribusiness or land developers. That is one of the biggest ironies – the smart growth agenda actually helps the biggest corporations that new urbanists, typically, claim are so bad.

Here’s a comment from an arborist who apparently is also a new urbanist: “Green cities have dense housing developments, with services within walking distance or accessible by public transportation. Green space consists of public parks and school campuses, and forests and farms outside the dense urban core.” I disagree with pretty much every word of that. It reflects a disdain for private property, and suggests we should have totally managed, government controlled land use. What about affordable low density housing – without subsidies? No place for them in such a world. Only the super rich will be able to have land in the new urbanist world – another irony.

The new urbanist agenda of infill will destroy every beautiful semi rural suburb in America, and leave only government entities and huge corporations in charge of open space.

8 Responses to “Challenging New Urbanism”
  1. Dan Staley says:

    Here is my reply on urbnrnet to that diatribe:

    Fortunately, the opinion of tragedy is shared by only a few.

    Smart growth is the entire process of returning to built environment patterns found prior to WWII – patterns perfected over thousands of years and found everywhere on this planet except in post-WWII autocentric developments of the industrial nations.

    There’s nothing to revisit, as precious auto-dependent suburbs with cookie-cutter houses hidden behind immense garages, containing gun safes and displaying Dish Network logos (but offering few aesthetic or civic amenities) aren’t being torn out of the ground in vast acreages by a mindless gummint, displacing legions of folk who have dutifully memorized the Second Amendment. No this isn’t happening, despite the ululations from Cato, Heritage, FF, American Dream Coalition and their ilk.

    But compact developments aren’t going away either, as rational utility maximizing agents are Tiebout sorting to them, creating the unassailable: the almighty market demand. Sure, the folks moving to compact developments are seemingly eschewing certain foundations of a particular ideology, but that’s not important in the long run: what’s important is to ensure these demanded developments provide needed room for green infrastructure. Ideologies come and go, but what’s here to stay is the human quest for nearby nature as well as the human contact that well-designed places provide. Environmental psychology tells us these things are wanted by humans.

    ‘Drive ’til you qualify’ isn’t a revealed preference as a reason for maintaining an environmentally-unfriendly autocentric suburbia. We know that VMT is rising faster than population, and that the transportation sector and the (inefficient) building sector is responsible for ~70-80% of human GHG emissions which are contributing to man-made climate change (in addition to land use and other minor factors). The compact development pattern reduces GHG emissions, lessens habitat fragmentation, preserves ag land, contributes to better human physical health, and promotes civic society. Nothing tragic at all about that.

  2. HB3 says:

    This is one of the silliest posts I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the chuckle!

    “The new urbanist agenda of infill will destroy every beautiful semi rural suburb in America, and leave only government entities and huge corporations in charge of open space.”

  3. Ed Ring says:

    When you have 14 “detached single family dwellings” constructed on the 1.0 acre lot by your home, in a neighborhood where the preexisting homes are on .5 acre lots, because your neighborhood was deemed a “special planning area,” you will not chuckle.

    The idea that the USA will add 80 million people to its population in the next 40 years, and they will all live within “urban service boundaries” being implemented nationwide is a horrific thought and must be challenged.

  4. Dan Staley says:

    is a horrific thought and must be challenged.

    The parrotted Cato/Heritage rhetoric on this site has been asked and answered years ago. You’re way late to the game, in addition to not being able to speak to the issue due to lack of understanding land use, green infrastructure, environmental psychology, human societies and self-regarding vs other-regarding actors, municipal finance, I=PAT, HIPPO, urban heat islands & land development patterns and their effect on ecosystems, etc. The Nat’l Ass’n of Realtors, Int’l Transportation Engineers, big city Mayors et al. reject the outdated views presented here.

    You’d better think of some other rhetoric to “challenge” NU, because the decision-makers have heard it already and reject it. The Market is responding to latent demand for the type of development you don’t like because you think everyone should live like you do.

    And, well too bad – few want to live like you do so get over it.

    Best regards,


  5. no_on_L says:

    They tried to do this with our town, making it sound as if more property taxes would save us financially, when actually property taxes that would have resulted from the horrific plan would have gone straight back into the redevelopment agency- their own pockets. Money for cities comes from stores, taxed goods, building high density condos and houses stuck together means more $ for developers, real estate people and contractors.The “new urbanist” lecturers and charrette holders are no more than glorified PR people for developers to try to sell this fantasy about “helping the environment” (when in reality, it is simply bring more cars and people in) and the old “happy days” 50′s fluff about neighborhoods and old America. Please. I hate to bum you out but google “agenda 21,” yep the government is in on it too, and it isn’t because of all this hippie-eco stuff.

  6. Ed Ring says:

    no_on_L: Are you overdoing it to blame all developers? Any libertarian can love the way you see the Emperor has no clothes. “Money for cities comes from stores, taxed goods.” Exactly. We trade free markets for regulated markets, and the key is to find the balance, because one can’t work without the other. But when the government becomes the market, we have vested interests colluding, and regulation turns into cronyism clothed in sanctimony that hides corruption. Markets are the first form of freedom, and government can only regulate markets, not own them.

  7. Jennifer Daigle says:

    I’m a 21 year old female in college. I appreciate New Urbanism. However, I do understand why you might think that New Urbanism is/could be a negative thing.

    If you want to live in the same place your entire life with little or no change in scenery, then yes, New Urbanism is not for you. If you don’t understand EVERY monetary aspect of it then yes, it’s expensive. If you don’t have children or family or the hope for a better future for younger generations, then yes, the cost is not worth it. If you have been able to drive since birth, then yes, it’s not functional. On the other hand I personally have learned about the concept of New Urbanism since I was about 12 years old and understand most, if not all of its principles.

    I like big cities and small towns. I like rural farms and the half an acre lot in a neighborhood of Louisiana I grew up on. I’ve always aspired to living in a loft or apartment in the heart of a city, then later to have children and move to a small house or large townhouse or brownstone. Then I might retire and rent a small townhouse in a quiet neighborhood. I can live out each of these life stages, each with completely different life styles, in a single New Urban community.

    I personally don’t pay for my own living situation and all the expenses that come with it, but I understand it’s a pain in the neck. I still don’t pay for my own car or my college tuition but between the cost of leisure activities and the gas it takes to get there I’m constantly broke. I appreciate the publicly owned parks and greenspace that come with the cost of living in a new urban development because without that little bit of free entertainment I would go crazy. I like that I can go to a movie or out to dinner without the additional cost of using gas to get there. Additionally I like the idea that I can go out at night and make it back even if I’ve had a few drinks. As a child I was very active in sports and extracurriculars. Because unlike you, I couldn’t drive myself around at the tender age of 10, I missed out on a lot of opportunities. If I wanted to play soccer I had to find a ride. Same goes for gymnastics, ballet, basketball, etc.

    Expense-wise, you may not get a fat check in your pocket as soon as a smart growth plan is implemented in your area. However give it 20 years and your child, and every child after that, will get that payback. That’s no exaggeration. If you live in an area that has the opportunity to apply New Urban principles the benefits in the long run plainly and extensively outweigh the costs. Additionally, every generation thereafter will benefit from it. New Urbanism has been a proven working model around the world: Paris, London, New York, Philadelphia…should I go on, or do you get the point?

    It seems to me that the aspect of New Urbanism most strongly opposed is that of the freedom to live in suburbia. Now I’m not going to explain to you why the words “freedom” and “suburbia” are contradictory (I feel I’ve already done that). I’m also not going to refute your need/want to live there because in all honesty, many aspects of it are desirable. What I am going to explain is that within a New Urban community you can still have your big house with a big yard and your 2.4 cars per household. No New Urbanist will take that away from you.

    You don’t have to live in an apartment or townhouse. However, New Urbanism gives you the option to either drive or live within walking distance of a grocery store, a movie theater, a school, a restaurant and other amenities of the like. Although some people LIKE the idea of having the freedom to have access to these things, you may be the small minority who isn’t striving for excellence.

  8. Ed Ring says:

    Jennifer: You make a strong case for new urbanism. The problem perhaps is not new urbanism, but new urbanism misconstrued into license – if not a “moral obligation” – to put walls around our metropolitan areas called “urban service boundaries,” and then approve infill in areas distant from any commercial districts, at a density 4x or more than the homes already there. This busting up of beautiful semi-rural neighborhoods is deplorable. Of course new urbanism works in the core of cities, or along major transportation arteries – sometimes spectacularly. No argument there.


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