The Week New Urbanism Died?

It has been a bad media week for New Urbanism.

The day that New Urbanism Died?” was the headline of the St. Louis Urban Workshop blog that detailed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Whittaker Builders, developer of the “New Town at St. Charles,” a premier New Urbanist community located in the St. Louis exurbs (beyond the suburbs).

The author notes that “New Town will not disappear, plenty of people are happy to live there, but its promise is gone. It's become just another suburban enclave and will face the same challenges as other suburban developments; lack of retail, long commutes, etc.” The blog’s headline is a play on a characterization by postmodern architect Charles Jenks, who referred to the demolition of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project as “The Day Modern Architecture Died.”

The Northwest Indiana Times detailed the failure of a new urbanist community (Coffee Creek) in an October 23 article. The article noted that the planned 2,000 home mixed use development, located in the exurbs 45 miles from Chicago’s Loop had attracted only 12 homes and an apartment building. Much of the empty land has been purchased by another developer, who indicated an affection for the new urbanism concept, noting however that it probably would not work here. The article notes that a more modest New Urbanist development is doing better, in nearby Burns Harbor, with 75 homes occupied out of a planned 300.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was a survey, reported by the Oregonian, to the effect that residents of Orenco Station travel by car to work nearly as much as people who live in the unremarkably conventional and sprawling suburbs of Portland.

Despite these unhappy stories, the death of New Urbanism is not imminent. True, to the extent that New Urbanism requires subsidies it is likely to prove unsustainable in the longer term, like its Pruitt-Igoe type predecessors. On the other hand, to the extent that New Urbanism represents a genuine response of architects, builders and developers to actual, rather than imagined demand, New Urbanism could be with us for some time to come.

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Misrepresentation of facts

    "Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was a survey, reported by the Oregonian, to the effect that residents of Orenco Station travel by car to work nearly as much as people who live in the unremarkably conventional and sprawling suburbs of Portland."

If one actually took time to read the survey, the suburban example with higher transit use for work commute was equally close to the same light rail line as Orenco Station. Orenco had a work commute for transit 15% and the Beaverton "typical" subdivision had 20% transit work commute.

The average transit use in Beaverton is about 10% based off of recent Census surveys. So clearly this just means a) people who are near effective transit use the system and b) the neigborhood sampled is not a run of the mill suburban neighborhood.

This is not a flaw in the survey, the flaw is in how the article was written and how people are interpreting the survey.

Based on the numbers, Orenco as about 35% modal-split of walking, biking, transit, and carpooling to for work commute which is way above any average for the suburbs. That sounds like a success story to me. Not to mention, 93% of residents in Orenco walk at least once to a store in a week, with more than 50% of people making more than 5 trips a week by foot.

Link to the survey so people can make their own minds up:

Yes indeed...

...because beyond one apparently not taking the time to read the actual survey? It appears that he only read the first two paragraphs of the Oregonian article he cited; and if he delved further he would have learned that:

"Work trips are only 20 percent of all trips per person...So if you can reduce auto use for nonwork trips, that could boost quality of life and cut car-emissions...Those nonwork trips are where Orenco really stands out. Orenco residents are five times as likely as Aloha residents to walk to shops and stores more than five times a week. About half said they use mass transit once or twice a week – double the rate in Aloha, in Podobnik's survey. And two out of three Orenco residents said they use mass transit more than they did before they moved to the neighborhood"

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute

Treve de betises!

After reading this I can only say I’m confused. (This usually happens to me when any “?-ism” is being critiqued in such a wholesale Manichean manner.) What point, exactly, is Wendell Cox trying to make? So I did some research and, instead of using a blog as my source, I’ll use an actual newspaper1, which states:

• Despite Whittaker's financial setback, real estate experts predict that new urbanist communities will continue to have long-term appeal for a niche of home buyers. Local analysts say they don't believe Whittaker ran into trouble because of New Town's new urbanism slant, citing the recession's drag on the U.S. housing market.
• In fact, analysts say, new urbanism developments will likely be well-positioned as the real estate market gradually improves. "There is still a trend that's going to be reasonably strong," said Pat Sullivan, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri. "I think it's here to stay and probably will grow."
• Nationally, industry observers offer mixed reviews about how new urbanism developments are performing. Some say such projects on the outer portions of metro areas haven't done as well in the recession as those built closer to core cities. "The developments on greenfield sites away from (mass) transit are probably struggling the most," said Robert Steuteville, editor of the New Urban News, a newsletter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Furthermore, according to the referenced Saint Louis Urban Workshop blog itself, New Town in St. Charles is “a new stand-alone town in the middle of a field, several miles from any established retail or other amenities and more than 30 minutes from the region's largest job center.2” Nor is it located anywhere near mass transit.

Okay, well, that doesn’t really sound like anything either particularly “new” or “urban” to me but more like the ingredients for standardized suburban sprawl (albeit with smaller lot sizes and a mix of housing styles and prices). Instigating me to assert that, throughout America, the term “New Urbanism” is being increasingly used as a shameless marketing tactic by status-quo developers who are merely jumping on a bandwagon and tossing the phrase around willy-nilly solely in order to sell houses. An exurban development, per se, cannot be labeled New Urbanist; doing so essentially bastardizes the whole premise3. For exurban developments are nothing but manifestations of sprawl while true New Urbanist communities serve to mitigate sprawl’s adverse affects on society. Just because Whittaker, in this instance, is employing the descriptor doesn’t mean that that description is apt, and for an author to denigrate a whole concept based upon transparently false descriptors is, at best, specious and, at worst, poor journalism.

The author of “The Day New Urbanism Died?” himself notes that he “would not presume that the bankruptcy filing by Whittaker Homes of St. Charles spells the end of New Urbanism. But the particular type of New Urbanism celebrated by Whittaker is very likely a thing of the past.” Exactement! “The particular type of New Urbanism celebrated by Whittaker” – And now Whittaker finds itself seeking bankruptcy protection, wracked with the money woes that are gripping most every other traditional builder across the nation. However and in any case, for arguments sake let’s just say that it has indeed been a bad media week for New Urbanism; let’s also just say that it has been a very, very bad two or so years for auto-centric sprawl development, too. Here’s what’s been occurring with many developments throughout the country that are most decidedly not New Urbanist:

And now, let’s move onwards and take a gander at Wendell Cox’s claim that “to the extent that New Urbanism requires subsidies it is likely to prove unsustainable in the longer term.” Switch “New Urbanism” with “Suburban Sprawl” and the truth shall finally be told. For suburban sprawl is, in and of itself, one of if not the largest unsustainable subsidized boondoggles (in the form of new roads, water and sewer and electric lines, schools, emergency service provisions, industrial revenue bonds, enterprise zones, and tax increment financing as well as shameless governmental corporate handouts in the form of tax abatements4 [all of which has been paid for by the American taxpayer]) this country has ever experienced. So, would you like a case in point?

A new survey has analyzed the $1.2 billion in Chicago-area state subsidies between 1990 and 2004, ranging from industrial revenue bonds to targeted road extensions. “The not-surprising results: Chicago, with 38 percent of the region's population, got only 15 percent of the subsidies. The suburban "collar counties" all made out handsomely, up to six times as much per capita as Chicago. Transit-accessible sites lost out; totally automobile dependent locations won. A highly disproportionate share of the subsidies went to the area of "sizzling" economic growth around O'Hare Airport, already favored by heavy government infrastructure spending…Governors across the country…have begun to talk "smart growth," urging that land-use policies undergird existing communities. But their development programs keep promoting sprawl.5”

If the prices of suburban houses reflected the actual costs of providing these public services then suburban houses would no longer be competitive or even affordable:
• which means that the logic of suburban development is actually what is called a false economy;
• which means that subsidizing sprawl produces a net drain on society as a whole.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute



3 I will also assert that a development cannot fully achieve New Urbanist stature until it nears reaching build-out; thus any reputable marketing campaign should say it aspires to New Urbanism.

4 “We give away hundreds of millions dollars in tax revenues to attract low-wage employers, sometimes with a price tag of $100,000 per job. This is Seriously Stupid -- especially when you consider that studies of why companies move from one place to another. The top factors are quality of life and the schools, both of which are harmed by the very tax abatements supposedly drawing the companies.”


Pertaining to New Town St.

Pertaining to New Town St. Charles, there are many people that preclaim themselves Urbanists that hate and despise New Town and were very happy to see the Chapter 11 filing. Unfortunately for the St Louis Urban Workshop, the RFT, and other publications that gleefully pointed out the Chapter 11 filing, the truth is that New Town, while the builder may face some hardships this year, is not dead or ending. As we found out from the residents meeting last week, there has been at least one closing that happened after the filing. There is still a good chance that it is going to be able to be completed, but is going to take quite a bit longer than when we first came out here.