Posted on 23 November 2008.
The essense of New Suburbanism is to support a clean, but wider human footprint – which is anathema to much of conventional environmentalist wisdom. In many parts of the world, such as within the state of California, there is abundant open space. California, especially within its vast interior, has hundreds upon thousands of virtually vacant square miles of rolling foothills, rangeland, forests, farms and fields. The Golden State is a whopping 158,000 square miles in size, with only 36 million people, most of them already crammed quite amicably within reasonably dense urban areas. California will always have plenty of available land, and the mantra that the personal residences of humans must be consigned to ever higher densities is not natural law or indisputably moral. A wider human footprint is not necessarily anathema to the health of the environment.
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|Low density communities can spread along roads and highways, with
small scale commercial agriculture and wildlife corridors, independent
of expensive utility scale energy, water, or information infrastructure.
New Suburbanism, despite this emphasis on treating land as abundant, does not have to be in conflict with the ideals of New Urbanism. The roots of New Urbanism are to promote architectural and urban designs that create a sense of place in new communities; its roots are are not in environmentalism or open space movements – New Urbanism is a movement of architects and urban planners with an aesthetic focus.
For this reason, New Urbanism, at least in terms of its origins, does not necessarily require a focus on high-density development. But today, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) promotes themselves as “the leading organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl.” Another group, NewUrbanism.org, has adopted the following eight fundamental principles:
“Principles of New Urbanism“:
1 – Walkability,
2 – Connectivity,
3 – Mixed-Use & Diversity,
4 – Mixed Housing,
5 – Quality Architecture & Urban Design,
6 – Traditional Neighborhood Structure,
7 – Increased Density, and
8 – Smart Transportation.
New Urbanism today promotes ultra high density human habitation as an accepted priority. As New Suburbanists, we would claim this bias is often counterproductively applied. We believe NewUrbanism.org’s, principle #6, increased density, is being given excessive weight by New Urbanists. Their principle #7, smart transportation, in practice means mandating light rail and/or streetcars, and ultra high-density housing concentrated along these corridors. These principles, and others courtesy of New Urbanism, such as “mixed housing,” and “mixed use and diversity” now inform civic subsidies and other zoning policies. But are they always cost effective – and equally important – is this really where the New Urbanists wanted to go, when they began promoting a return to aesthetically conscious civic architecture and design?
Also coopted by high-density ideology is the U.S. Green Building Council, who define the the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) building and urban development standards. But leadership in energy efficiency and design has no intrinsic connection with high density. Instead of developing LEED criteria focused on promoting optimal resource efficiency and zero pollution or toxicity – current LEED standards inordinately emphasize ultra dense housing within a maze of other earth friendly and sustainable criteria, some of them obviously great ideas, and others that appear more ideologically derived.
For example, according to local sources, in California, to get basic LEED certification for a home, you have to earn 45 points. There are plentiful ways to earn points, since the LEED “Platinum” certification requires 90 points. But nothing earns LEED points like high density. A builder can get 4 points by building “high density” housing, and another 10 points are available simply by building a home within a LEED certified neighborhood. The high-density points from just these two criteria earn up to 14 out of the 45 points required for LEED certification for homes, with numerous other criteria driving additional point incentives towards high density. If you refer to the USGBC’s LEED certification for buildings version 2.2 “LEED for New Construction,” you will see their criteria awards points for measures such as not building on farmland, wildlife habitat, or near water. Additional points are earned if developers build near light rail stations, construct plentiful public bike racks, and never build in excess of the mandated minimum parking spaces for automobiles. And of course, the minimum average density of a LEED certified community of residences must be ten homes per acre.
Along with LEED for homes and buildings, as described above, we now have LEED for Neighborhoods, or LEED ND, also emphasizing high density as a fundamental criteria for certification. Review USGBC’s May 2008 draft of LEED ND standards “LEED ND Draft Project Checklist” to see where the big points are scored. Basic LEED ND certification as it is currently proposed requires 40 points, with a “platinum” certification requiring 80 points. There are some good ideas reflected in the LEED ND criteria, such as 5 points for storm water management, or up to 3 points for energy efficiency in buildings. But most of the big point earners in LEED ND simply scream high density: 10 points for “preferred location,” based on proximity to mass transit, 8 points for “reduced automobile dependence,” and 7 points for “compact development” (to get 7 points here you must develop seventy units per acre); if you build an ultra high density development, you have already earned 25 of the 40 necessary points for LEED ND.
About one year ago, we published one of many critiques of the high density bias of conventional environmentalist wisdom, in particular, a critique of new urbanism, making eight claims challenging the principles of new urbanism. The only amendment to these criticisms is that they are leveled more generally against the entire “smart growth” ideology, variously advocated by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), NewUrbanism.org, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBG), friends of smart growth at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), and every analyst, activist, academic or policymaker who is convinced that higher density is always better.
Eight Criticisms of Smart Growth Policies:
1 – Artificially and selectively inflate land values, making housing less affordable,
2 – Emphasize public space over private space,
3 – Make war on the car,
4 – Promote high-density infill in low density neighborhoods,
5 – Prefer open space to homes, but not to biofuel crops, solar fields, or wind farms,
6 – Presume that social problems will be alleviated through forcing everyone to live in ultra high density, mixed neighborhoods,
7 – Incorrectly claim there is a shortage of open space and farmland,
8 – Pretend they have the final answer; that their precepts are beyond debate.
Rather than expand yet again upon these criticisms, our intention here is to present an alternative ideology – one that embraces much of new urbanism and LEED concepts, but from an entirely different perspective, one that believes a diversity of privately held, lower density human habitation over wider areas can manage ecosystems as well or better than the tightly managed manifestations of high-density ideology, while furthering property rights, innovation, initiative, and economic pluralism with respect to land development.
So herewith we offer “Principles of New Suburbanism,” not to refute the virtues of high density, which we believe always have and always will effectively emerge, but to extol the virtues of low density. In this philosophy we believe human stewardship and pluralistic private land ownership, combined with 21st century clean technologies, can enable a suburban and exurban landscape that would spread bucolic and utterly clean low density communities across thousands of square miles. And wildlife would flourish, farms would flourish, and homes would tuck into the folds and fissures of the land like the farmhouses of Provence.
PRINCIPLES OF NEW SUBURBANISM
(1) Compatible with New Urbanism: Both of these architectural and urban/exurban planning ideologies place the central emphasis on aesthetic imperatives – both are equally committed to creating a sense of place in new communities. New Suburbanists support high density zoning preferences in the urban core of large cities. New Suburbanists enthusiastically support building 21st century cities, with high-rises and plentiful car-independent transit options and everything else inimical to the central cores of megacities.
(2) Land is Abundant: There is abundant available land for low density suburban and exurban development. New Suburbanists encourage zoning that recognizes the importance of progressively lower density zoning from urban cores, instead of draconican “urban service boundaries” that arbitrarily restrict development, especially low density development.
(3) Car Friendly: Personal transportation devices are tantalizingly close to becoming ultra safe conveyances that can drive on full autopilot and have zero environmental footprint, and we are within a few decades at most of having abundant clean energy. The age of the personal driving machine has just begun.
(4) Road Friendly: Roads are the most versatile of all mass transit corridors since people, bicycles, cars, busses, trolleys, and trucks can all travel on or alongside roads. Commercial areas should be car-friendly as well as bike and pedestrian friendly – fortunately since land is abundant, this is not all that difficult.
(5) Decentralized & Off-Grid Friendly: New communities can have neighborhood-scale groundwater extraction and distribution systems, as well as water treatment and irrigation systems, or complete and independent systems for single homes. Using new off-grid technologies, clean and cost-effective water & energy autarky can be achieved at a household or neighborhood basis, often allowing lower taxes through avoiding more expensive public facilities.
(6) Farm & EcoSystem Friendly: Via the economic pluralism fostered by implementing new suburbanist inspired highly flexible and low density residential zoning, i.e., small independently owned, often independently constructed homes on large lots of .5 to 20 acres, with frequently modest interior square footage, you create the potential for a vibrant market in small property leases for specialty farming. Through zoning (or protecting) vast tracts of outer suburb and exurban lands according to new suburbanist precepts where low density home building and road building is encouraged or enforced instead of squelched or abandoned, you create a market for relatively cheap abundant land, making more affordable acquistion of land set-asides for agriculture or nature conservancies.
(7) Aesthetically Committed: By adopting new suburbanist zoning, permitting more diverse, progressively lower density developments based on the distance from existing urban concentrations, many of the excesses of over-regulated, artificially dense, supposedly “green” contemporary suburban developments could be avoided. There is a beauty to simply letting development take its natural course, yielding penumbras of habitation following the roads and the landscape like a life affirming circulation system, instead of something that is malevolent and must be contained.
All the essence of New Urbanism, all of its inspiring call to create the 21st century’s version of cities and buildings that are welcoming spaces are still within New Suburbanism, with none of the stridency and coercion or pork of the powerful high density coalition, without the need to make of us nothing more than punitively taxed, eco-pentinent sardines.
At its heart, New Suburbanism is the necessary counterpart to New Urbanism as it has become, constrained as it is by an imbalanced, unnecessary bias towards high density. New Suburbanism gives back to our cities and towns their freedom; gives us abundant land; gives us affordable homes; gives our cities turned suburbs turned exurbs the unforced, organic, natural and easy transition from dense to sparse. If New Urbanism defines the aesthetic of our new and renewed cities, than New Suburbanism helps define the aesthetic interface between city and country; it gives us back the smooth transition from urban chic to country soul.