The Narrow Base of the New Urbanists

By Michael Pyatok

New urbanism has been aggressively marketed within the last decade by “boomers” who came of age professionally in the 1990s, disenchanted with the negative physical and social consequences of the sprawl and urban renewal they had witnessed as young professionals educated in the 1960s. Much credit should be bestowed upon them for their ability to rally many architects, reared in a sub-culture of radical individualism, to join a social and environmental cause that transcended the profession’s usual pursuit of frivolous fashions.

Unfortunately, this effort emerged from political and social origins that made its members unable to assess the class biases of their own assumptions and prescriptions. While some of their works demonstrate alternative models that hint at possible larger solutions, members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) more often choose to serve private developers who co-opt their mission by simply repackaging suburban sprawl in more seductive “urbane” clothing, or public developers who too often trample on the lives of disadvantaged inner city communities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) HOPE VI program exemplifies this latter approach.

It is interesting to note that CNU’s founders (who remain its leaders today) share certain characteristics–their ages narrowly range between forty-five and fifty-five, all are white and nearly all are men except for two women architects related by marriage to two of the men. Also, nearly all are architects. For a movement that has proclaimed itself to be the savior of all things wrong with North American suburban and urban living, this is certainly a narrow base from which to launch such a crusade. This narrow cultural perspective has limited the organization’s ability, almost from its inception, to frame issues about and propose solutions for North American development patterns.

The CNU Charter–Whose Principles?

This narrow worldview led to the first major error in judgment of the CNU when a “charter” was prepared without the painstaking and time-consuming process of building a broad-based and diverse coalition that could engage in the messy process of defining first principles. They reached out mostly to other architects, similar in age and race, and to friends of like mind. Had a broad coalition been formed, perhaps such a pretentious charter would not have been concocted in the first place. Perhaps they would have realized that seeking allies in elected positions should not have been their first priority. Perhaps they would have also realized that finding allies in other progressive organizations and from among those engaged in grassroots efforts would have given them not just numbers, but a more sensitive understanding of issues of equity. Instead, they first sought media coverage and access to power–in politics and real estate–using aggressive publicists like Peter Katz (author of The New Urbanists) or planners like Mark Weiss of Henry Cisneros’ HUD staff.

As late as 1999, the Association for Community Design (ACD) held its conference simultaneously with the CNU in Portland and reached out to collaborate on some workshops. The CNU ignored ACD, even though ACD is an organization with three times as many years of experience as the CNU in dealing with inner city problems. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Coalition for the Homeless and Planners Network, to name a few, are organizations that have sophisticated political perspectives based on in-the-trenches experience and critical thinking about the shortcomings of capitalism. They understand some of the unseemly implications these shortcomings have on the management and development of our natural and built environments. Yet to this day, efforts to reach out to the CNU are stymied either by the founders’ lack of connections to these groups or suspicions on the part of such groups, when asked to affiliate with the CNU, about its starting points.

Given their class origins and the limits of their professional training, CNU founders did not congeal around a well-formed critical view of how North America’s political, economic and social systems create and foster physical problems. They sought, understandably, an analysis using the lenses of architecture and physical planning. They focused on the symptoms of these deeper problems as they manifest themselves in the physical environment, and on the immediate policies that shape it, like zoning, fire and building regulations. As a consequence, their charter’s principles of environmental justice ring hollow when compared to their actions in practice. This is not to say that moving quickly to demonstrate built alternatives is not an intelligent strategy to titillate the imaginations of those who may affect policy among the general populace–politicians and entrepreneurs. But had there been a more thorough understanding of just how deeply our cultural values, assumptions and government regulations are nourished by a corporate-dominated market economy, then perhaps the projects for demonstrating principles would have been selected more carefully.

While giving some vague lip service to other more complicated sources of our malaise, as architects the founders truly believe that many of the nation’s intractable problems are predominantly physical in nature and that physical fixes can substantially improve our futures. Examination of the contents of New Urban News, CNU’s newsletter, clearly shows this bias: attention is given solely to physical design, and in particular to larger projects.

Small, community-driven infill projects that may contribute significantly to a community’s political and economic self-development are ignored because they are not at a physical scale that requires the new street layouts and streetscapes that illustrate the CNU’s tenets for the good life. To them, the larger the physical interventions, the greater the positive impacts. Even if their plans do not contribute to building the local job base, and even if the resulting mix of incomes requires the displacement of hundreds of lower-income households, these developments are praised by the CNU because they have employed neighborhood layout designs which their founders, through acts of religious faith, truly believe will improve the lives of residents.

As an architect I can sympathize with the professional tendency of the CNU to try to solve our society’s problems within the framework of our architectural and urban design disciplines. However, it is clear that the CNU leadership needs to significantly broaden its membership so it can recognize that the creation of physical interventions is not the end, but rather the means, for building jobs, community self-sufficiency and political empowerment. Until then, we will continue to see from CNU the “sticks and bricks” interventions that merely raise property values and displace the very people we should be trying to help.

Mike Pyatok, FAIA, is the principal of Pyatok Architects in Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA. He is also a professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington.

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