It is conventional wisdom in enviro circles that a big part of a green future is green cities, and a big part of green cities is dense, mixed-use development, wherein people interact with their neighbors, walk or bike to amenities, and generally have a much smaller environmental footprint than suburbanites. In other words: new urbanism.
Supporters of new urbanism face a daunting challenge, though: namely, the apparently overwhelming preference of Americans for sprawling, single-use suburbs. If dense, mixed-use urban communities are so great, how come there just aren’t that many? How come nobody seems to want to live in them?
There are two basic schools of thought on this question.
One is that people prefer privacy and space. They prefer big-box stores with huge selection and low prices. They prefer wealthy schools. They’re willing to accept long commutes, lots of driving, a lack of street life, and a lack of diversity in exchange. Perhaps young people enjoy the hustle-and-bustle of dense urban areas, but once they have kids they will prefer the yards, space, safety, privacy, and good schools of suburban life.
Another school of thought is handily summarized by Alex Steffen in a recent comment on WC (which I happened to read while writing this post, fortuitously):
… much of the best work on regional planning over the last ten years has shown just how political suburban sprawl is: there is almost not a single element of the creation of suburbs (as we think of them in N.America) that isn’t massively influenced by political choices made in large part to benefit the people who build and live in them — cheap gas; mortgage deductions; state subsidies for new schools, emergency services and infrastructure; the absorption of environmental externalities by the public; the practice of exclusionary zoning to keep the less wealthy out (and thus disproportionately shirk social obligations); the list goes on and on. As someone said, suburbs are less designed than legislated.
I honestly don’t know the answer. And neither does Stuart Buck, who asked the pointed question last year: "Why isn’t there more new urbanism?" He points out that housing prices in existing new urban communities tend to be sky-high, which would indicate considerable unmet demand. Is the market failing to meet a demand? If so, why? There’s some great discussion in comments too, before the comment spambots take over.
I found Buck’s post via the Crunchy Con blog on National Review Online. The blog takes off from Rod Dreher’s profligately titled new book Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). I recently finished the book and will be writing a review soon. The capsule review: It’s chock full of interesting, engaging, provocative ideas — many of which I think Gristmill readers will find resonant in their own lives. However, it remains frustratingly shallow; it doesn’t follow those ideas to their logical conclusions, or explore any of the contradictions that hover around the margins. It’s a snack, but not much of a meal. Recommended, though.
Oh, but to get back to the point: Why do you think there isn’t more new urbanism?