Perfect, meet good.

Posted as a response to: New Urbanism is great, if you’re rich by Adam Gordon at Planetizen:

Let’s put this into perspective. The median asking price for houses now on the market in Warwick is $495,000; for new houses in Plainsboro, $458,657. The asking prices, although certainly high, are not out of line.

These developers have already spent many long, grueling years to get their “ten times better than what’s being developed around them” projects out of the ground, and our thanks to them? “Good, but not perfect enough. You should have spent an extra five years of your life trying to convince the evil NIMBYs who run suburbia to accept even higher densities and poor folks.” Do we really expect New Urbanist developers to be not just idealists, but masochists as well — even while we give their competitors, the sprawl-builders, a pass?

Meanwhile, let’s also congratulate the many New Urbanists who have made a commitment to unsubsidized affordable housing: from Del Mar Station in Pasadena [an infill TOD, I might add], which voluntarily set aside affordable units even before the city adopted inclusionary zoning, to New Town at St. Charles, which brought sub-1,000 sq. ft. (Lilliputian by Middle American standards) cottages and rental apartments to suburban St. Louis, to the valiant efforts that resulted in the Katrina Cottage (a whole house for $30K!) being the first handsome affordable housing sold “ready to wear” by a national retailer since 1940, to the city planners nationwide who are attempting to craft ways to subtly add density to existing neighborhoods without raising NIMBY ire.

Affordable housing is a dilemma that we as a nation cannot hope to solve through good intentions alone — and unaffordable housing (aka “rising property values”) is something most Americans will readily vote for. The sad reality is that it’s neither cheap nor easy to build houses in most of the country, and that “market” prices will reflect that reality.

That said, CNU will shortly publish a report on a meeting held to discuss unsubsidized ways of producing affordable housing and has formed a committee to continue to advocate for innovative solutions. Stay tuned.

PS. It seems that there are misconceptions about what New Urbanism is. May I suggest a short refresher?

One thought on “Perfect, meet good.

  1. A “follow-on”:

    Adam raises a good point: the Charter of the New Urbanism contains dozens of principles, all given equal importance and not sorted into greater and lesser. However, the Charter does distinguish the responsibilities of urbanists at three broad scales: the region, the neighborhood, and the block/building. It’s not a question of whether a principle is core to New Urbanism, but rather whether it’s appropriate for that scale of New Urbanism. A single neighborhood cannot hope, in the absence of a citywide (and hopefully region-wide) policy, to solve an area’s inequity problem.

    Similarly, a single neighborhood cannot compensate for a region or city’s lack of adequate transit service — even though New Urbanists coined the term “transit oriented development,” a quality regional transit network is a created at the regional, rather than the neighborhood, scale. Just as a governor can only clumsily address the proper proportions of streets and squares, an individual builder can only hope to address in some small way the broad issue of farmland preservation (yet another regional issue addressed by the charter).

    New Urbanists also differ substantially in their own priorities. NU is a forum, not a formula, and what are key values for some may not be so for others. I personally think that a place like Windsor, Florida (with perfectly proportioned classical architecture in an isolated exurban resort environment) a failure of New Urbanism due to its lack of transit connectivity and, yes, diversity of uses, types, and people. Yet others evidently feel otherwise.

    I suppose that one could then argue that New Urbanism has failed at the regional scale, but unlike individual buildings or neighborhoods, a successful regional policy can take generations to fully manifest itself. Furthermore, since few American cities have existing formal regional governments (all regions, of course, have informal power structures that set policy even if only inadvertently), affecting change at the regional level requires inventing entirely new systems — not an easy task, and one which other schools of thought in the professions haven’t even bothered with.

    Moreover, given our capitalist economy and very strong built-in policy bias towards higher home prices, affordable housing is a particularly thorny, difficult, and expensive issue to resolve. Building a development requires achieving consensus across a great number of players: the developer’s team, obviously, but also its buyers, neighbors, lenders, and elected officials. Right now, it’s tremendously difficult for all those players (particularly the financial players, a role that government participated in for much of the later 20th century but has retreated from) to agree that affordable housing is a high priority — and in a capitalist system, those with money determine the priorities. Buyers, on the other hand, do seem to highly value the “frou frou” touches that many associate with New Urbanism, like picket fences and front porches.

    Just saw the new issue of TNAC; good work, Adam.

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