New Urbanism vs. Dispersionism


The Florida real estate developer, unburdened of state regulatory agencies, may now focus his efforts on pleasing the investment community and the local market.  I recently played the role of real estate developer interviewing two consultant teams vying to help me create a new fictional community.  Fortified with readings in both the New Urbanist camp and the Dispersionist camp, each team of students pitched their method of community building to me. 

The actual debate was very lively, with many rebuttals and some serious emotional engagement.  The premise:  I have a multi-acre greenfield property.   I have shortlisted my planning candidates down to two:  a New Urbanist team, and a Dispersionist team.  Each team must pitch their philosophy, and I will select one team to design it.

Question 1:  Since I am only able to afford Phase 1, future phases will be left to future developers.  In your approach, can future generations be trusted to keep focus on high-quality development?  How would you guarantee that the property rises in value?  I asked the New Urbanists to go first.

The New Urbanist team was ready:  As Master Planners, they will create the entire form-based vision for the property and design it around a smart code so that the future developers will obey a plan to keep property values rising.  No future developer will get to ‘cheap out’.  For this team, the Master Plan will guarantee a quality of life for all residents.

The Dispersionists will plan Phase 1, not as a rigid image of a town, but rather as a response to the natural landscape.  This team said the community would grow organically, from its functional needs, guaranteeing  the freedom of future generations to plan their own destiny. They  scoffed at a Master Plan that determined the urban form.  What good is a guarantee of a quality of life, they asked, if future generations want something different than the Master Planner intended?

This round, in my mind, went to the Dispersionists.  Their argument that future generations should have the freedom to plan based on their functional needs outweighed the seductive beauty of a Master Plan.  Too many Master Plans are implemented poorly, or abandoned due to their disutility based on changing needs and markets.

Question 2:  How does your viewpoint deal with the car?  How will residents and visitors get around your community?  I asked the Dispersionists to go first this time.

“Well,” replied the Dispersionists, “Americans love their cars, and we love the car too.  We’ll plan for sidewalks and bikes, but we know that the car is a necessity.  We know that a 5-minute walk isn’t so realistic in Florida’s hot, humid climate.”  The Dispersionists have a hearty regard for cars, and they spoke of long, sweeping curves and scenic drives.  They pointed out that most residents will need to drive to other parts of the city as well.

The New Urbanists shuddered.  “We will plan for car-free living,” they stated.  With very clever planning, they intended to keep driving to a minimum, and will design walking trails.  One New Urbanist ventured 4-story parking garages, crowing that their proposal would not be littered with gas stations.  The New Urbanists pointed out the ugly commercial strips dominating our current city, and how little they want that to intrude into the new development.

I liked this, and challenged the Dispersionists.  Isn’t it better health, and less use of oil, to reduce vehicle dependency?  The Dispersionists asked me why, in this ten-acre community, I thought I could attract residents with 4-story parking garages?  Good point, I thought.

Both sides had good answers, and the question did not fully go to one side or the other.  Cars do tend to  generate a lot of aesthetic horror.  On the other hand, they are not going away anytime soon, so learning how to deal with them seems like an important task for a developer looking to the future.

Question 3:  How would you distribute density in your development?  One center, multiple centers, and centered around what?  This time the New Urbanists went first.

The core, they stated, will be in the center of town, and could go to 8-10 stories, leaving the perimeter a green zone.  In the center will be the government and institutional buildings, carefully matched with proper style.  The point, they said, is predictability. They pledged to learn from the failures of the past, and their Master Plan will account for the full scope of development.

The Dispersionists suggested multiple centers.  “Phase 1 will be our first density cluster,” they said, “and we’ll see how it goes.”  Unlike the New Urbanists, they didn’t want to introduce all their product at once, in case the market changes.  “We believe in New England-style green space,” they said, and wanted to evolve the community around these.  They saw the vitality of the community coming from diversity.

I asked the New Urbanists what they would do if the market changes .  When pressed, they insisted their Master Plan had plenty of contingency plans in case the original plan wasn’t workable, but it sounded like they were winging it.

This is what  the Dispersionists saw as their own strong suit.  “We don’t have all the answers,” they said.  Their first phase would gently nudge the community in a certain direction, but it would leave future developers the choice whether to reinforce the first phase, or strike out and build another phase better suited to a unique need.

I felt that this round went to the Dispersionists. 

Question 4:  Do you think your development scheme can promote or discourage social values?  Why or why not?  This time the Dispersionists went first.

The Dispersionists believed that one cannot engineer social values through urban design.  However, they can be influenced.  Conservation, for example, is a value that they would promote in their plan to conserve open space and not overtake the land with development.  A sense of community, they said, was another, giving people a loyalty to their community out of good design.  These, they felt, led to a sustainable plan.

The New Urbanists guaranteed that conservation land would always be there, and pointed out the Dispersionists’ flexibility as a negative . The New Urbanists insisted that their sense of place would be stronger, because it would be designed.  People want predictability.  New Urbanists would engage people by walking and having front porches.

The Dispersionists speculated that neighbors will get to know one another in a cul-de-sac just as well as they would if they all had front porches.  They also felt that the shared experiences of a community would transcend the particular style or form that community took.

Although I gave this one to the New Urbanists, I was skeptical about  the New Urbanists’ implication that well-behaved buildings produce well-behaved people.  The Dispersionists’ view that a cul-de-sac breeds any neighborly closeness also seemed a bit disingenuous.  It was near the end of class.

Question 5:  Give me your arguments why your strategy is sustainable.  I let the New Urbanists go first.

For one thing, they said, they will have more efficient transportation. Vertical buildings save land, they argued, and people who choose this community will value open space more highly and be willing to live densely.  They believed that they will have less gridlock by de-emphasizing the car and will be more stable and socially cohesive.  All this will come from a well-designed Master Plan.

The Dispersionists said  their community would start small and then grow.  Failures won’t cause dead zones, they claimed, because they are not sentimental about form and want a community that works.  So if a building in their development begets a failed business, the building will need to be reinvented to make it successful.

“Yes, but,” countered the New Urbanists, “for every successful community like yours, there are 10 that have failed and ultimately decline in value.  What guarantee do you give that you will be the one out of ten?”  They went on to cite their successes – Seaside, Celebration, and so on.

The Dispersionists noted that Seaside was a resort town and Celebration was heavily subsidized by a local employer, so those weren’t exactly good models.  In any case, they said, their community will appeal to a much broader segment of the population than the New Urbanists, and therefore more likely to sustain growth in the future.

With that, the debate was concluded.  What lingers, however, are some truths that show both sides need to do some more work.

The New Urbanists, fresh on the scene, seem overly evangelical in their approach, and demand a great deal of faith in the Master (Planner).  The slow, organically grown towns of which they are so fond were largely planned before the car.  While many of these towns, like Charleston, South Carolina, are sentimental favorites, their practical replication in today’s transportation-intensive, constantly changing real estate market is questionable.

The Dispersionists, on the other hand, have been around for quite a long time, and are the modus operandi for much of the earth’s population.  They seem uninvolved in the aesthetics of the built environment, preferring to leave this up to individual taste, and the result is a rather shabby, cluttered contemporary American scene.  Some cleaning up is certainly in order.

While the New Urbanists have a hopeful approach in this regard, they are overreacting to the vast consumer-oriented real estate development world that operated up until 2007, and are missing the fundamentals of how a real community works.  None are built around employers or economic producers in any significant way. None admit the lowest socioeconomic groups.  Content, perhaps, to dabble with shopping districts and farmer’s markets, New Urbanists have yet to offer what contemporary employers need – space, flexibility, and room to grow.  They therefore seem doomed to create peripheral urban designs rather than communities integrated with 21st century employers.

Dispersionists would do well to pay a bit more attention to the natural environment, for the general public is quite aware of the toll that this strategy has taken.  Developers, having overbuilt in so many markets recently, will face tough opposition to bulldozing another woodland, given the empty real estate that exists in our cities today.

It seems inevitable that dispersionist strategies will continue; they largely dominate our real estate development world and will continue to do so.  They make the most economic sense, they leave the future choices to the future generations, and they respond to people’s natural density tendencies.  One hopes that the New Urbanists will nudge the market a bit more towards aesthetic continuity and environmental stewardship as the next wave of growth inevitably begins again, and that the debate remains healthy, productive, and positive as citizens get re-engaged about the future of their cities.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

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Class Dismissed

I merely want to comment on what a strong article this was and the approach that you used in a classroom setting was excellent. I am sure that both sides of the debate learned a lot from the exercise.

Now if only our political dialogue could be handled as effectively.

Well done