It’s been a couple of years since I spent significant time at the annual Congress for the New Urbanism, so this year I was looking forward to the annual confab in Dallas. It didn’t disappoint. The host committee and staff did a great job with the event and continue in the tradition of the most interesting conference that exists in the world of planning, development, architecture and design. I hope future Congresses continue to get out beyond the walls of the building and use public spaces and multiple venues, as well as engage the locals with legacy charrettes and discussions with elected officials. Well done to all.
For my part, it was fun to engage in the “sprawl retrofit” debate with my debate partner Lee Sobel and our esteemed opponents, Ellen Dunham-Jones and Emily Talen. It was a pleasure to share a stage with all of you and Chuck Marohn, who did a first-rate job organizing and emceeing.
Afterwards, I was cornered by a few people who congratulated me on the debate, complimented our stage presence and sense of humor, and then politely asked, “but you don’t really *believe* that, do you?”
Yeah, I do. It’s why I wanted this topic, and why it was fun to put a little time into preparing for it.
To recap, here was the actual topic:
Sprawl retrofit, while a pleasant concept, is not a viable solution to widespread sprawl.
I took the affirmative along with Lee.
I won’t speak for Lee here, so will confine this to my own statements and thoughts. He delved more into the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues, and I stuck with the political and philosophical. And, because the after-debate voting didn’t go as I’d hoped, clearly I need to make my points better. Here’s some points I made at CNU, which I do believe:
- This argument is foremost about setting priorities
- Trying to retrofit sprawl makes too many political enemies - especially powerful enemies that we make at our own peril.
- If we truly care about the less fortunate in society, we would want them in places of maximum opportunity for access to jobs at a low cost - not scattered about in suburbia.
Want to know more? Sorry, I don’t think it was taped. You’ll just have to argue with me online.
I should say right off the bat that we do need to be careful what we define as sprawl. In my look at the world, I’d classify four types, each with far different conditions and different potential futures. One of those types is worthy of our efforts; the other three are not. That’s the subject of the next blog post.
But to the core issue. Let’s take a step back to look at the big picture.
Our primary struggle as urbanists or new urbanists, is with bigness and our system of mass production. Jane Jacobs described it in cities as cataclysmic money. Too-big projects. Fragile, too-big that do in fact fail. And fail disastrously. Everything that we love about urbanism, virtually everywhere in the world, is about what was built in gradual increments. Generally those cities and towns were built according to some sort of plan. It may be a formal plan, like the Chinese hutongs or American 19th century grids or the Laws of the Indies cities. It may be more informal “organic” plans like those of the French bastides or an English village or early colonial America. But it was a plan nonetheless, and one that was built gradually with many hands. It’s why people adore the left bank in Paris but skip La Defense. It’s why New Urbanists like Kentlands, but not Lakelands; why we still gravitate to Seaside instead of taking pilgrimages to Atlantic Station. It’s not that we can’t do bigness well. it’s just that we don’t.
Suburbia, or sprawl as we tend to interchangeably call it, is all about bigness and mass production. It’s planned in huge increments of land, underwritten by Wall Street, has roads delivered by state DOT’s and built often by regional or national developers & builders. It’s an incredible, wildly successful, efficient system for delivering development on a mass scale. And it’s absolutely, fundamentally at odds with successful, walkable urbanism.
Bigness is not the same thing as planning. Good (or great) planning is fundamental. Savannah, as one example, is a city with an exceptional, formal plan that spent its first 200 years being built by thousands of hands, all at a humane scale. Sure, there are a few big (tall) buildings, but they are very few and fit nicely onto the traditional lots of the Oglethorpe Plan. The forces of bigness (urban renewal) tried to destroy it in the 20th century, and did do some damage. But fortunately for civilization, they couldn’t destroy it all, and it was rediscovered by a thousand more preservation-minded hands. A good plan, guarded jealously, can thwart the downside of too much bigness.
I should note that I’m not saying bigness and mass production are inherently evil and should be banished. We built these systems out of our own good intentions, mostly - in our zeal to build the best new modern world possible. But it’s a whole other system that has noting to do with the kinds of places that people love who prefer walking and biking. If turned in the right direction, that system can produce walkable moments that are pretty darn good, maybe very good. It is possible after all, for a fast food joint to make a pretty good burger if forced into a corner. But we all know in the end - it’s just not the same thing. I don’t have to do a study or produce data to confirm it - we all feel it in our bones; we see it with our own lying eyes.
So what then, does this have to do with sprawl retrofit? Put simply, it’s outside of the DNA of walkable cities. Embracing sprawl retrofit is like saying we can transform fast food culture into healthy food. It’s like saying we can make internet retail giants care about Main Street. Or that giant recording studios can really be made to really care about artists. It’s a fool’s errand, and we should just say no. We’ll be better off for knowing our boundaries.
I understand that everyone has to make a living, and designers tend to work for clients that actually pay them. As someone who ran a consulting practice for a many years, I certainly worked on my fair share of sprawl retrofit projects. We wanted to work with anyone that was trying to move the needle, regardless of location or context. And at the core, that’s the debate - do you try and move the needle with the existing systems, or spend time and energy on creating the new, better system? Now that I’m older and wiser, I strongly believe in the latter.
So yes, I do believe that sprawl retrofit is not a wise approach for new urbanists. I’d say, let’s keep it simple - let urbanism be urbanism and let sprawl be sprawl. Let each rise or fall on its own accord and on its own pocketbook. As urbanists, we stand a far better chance of succeeding if we draw lines around what we really, truly care about - pedestrians first here, no negotiating. If we insist on pedestrians as the priority everywhere, we ruin our chances of success where it matters the most. What our cities and people desperately need are coherent, contiguous neighborhoods in every region where cars aren't necessary - not multiple, tiny pockets of so-called “walkable” developments or half-block wide “corridors” that look great on a map but are mediocre at best in the real world.
If we draw lines around what we really care about, it pays off in so many respects. It’s a better sell to elected officials. It’s easier for the engineers to grasp and deal with. It’s easier to change regulatory systems. And for the public - they’ll get it and see complete, connected urbanism. It’s an impossible task to successfully change the entire spectrum of what created the suburban pattern, so it’s better to focus on what we can change that can be GREAT. Excellence is all ultimately that will change hearts and minds and make people demand more of it in more places. Watered-down, only partially walkable urbanism will only frustrate people and cause a backlash. "What, you mean I can’t REALLY walk anywhere other than a block outside my apartment AND you’ve now made it harder to drive? You planners are idiots."
This is also not meant to be an ode against any greenfield New Urbanism. Not at all - we’ve shown by now that we can in fact do that, and do it very well. Creating entire new towns, built with true urbanism, is not at all a sprawl retrofit tactic - that’s a time-honored way to expand metropolitan regions or growing areas. And, those new towns can accommodate some of the demand for walkable urbanism in areas that are now only car-centered. It simply is a matter of critical mass - if you can amass enough land to truly create a walkable place, go for it. If not, I won't criticize you for caring and making the effort, but I'll implore you to direct your energies and talent elsewhere.
The most important, and most difficult, task in life or business, is making a choice. Choices involve selecting one thing you want to do over something else you might want to do. We desperately want to do it all, and do it all well. Sometimes we really believe we can. For so many of us, myself included, it hits you somewhere in your 40’s that it’s just not possible. You learn that it’s far better to focus on what you can do that can be great, not a thousand things you can do and do somewhat well. We're a movement of ideas, which has tangible physical results. We have to pick our battles or we will lose the war. And make no mistake, this is a war. If we dilute ourselves into battles that aren't winnable, and also don't achieve much, we will lose out on a generational opportunity to achieve greatness. The tides are turning in our direction- let’s not screw it up by picking dumb battles and making unnecessary enemies.
Finally, let us not forget that millions and millions of people knowingly chose sprawl and like it. As Scott Polikov eloquently said at one session - "60% of the market wants sprawl, and New Urbanists just need to get over it". I’d suggest it’s more like 50%, but otherwise couldn’t agree more. I'd suggest it's better to just let sprawl be, and stop suggesting every street, neighborhood or town has to be remade into part of a walkable community. We have more than enough land in existing cities and towns, plus other large-scale sites to accommodate the demand for urbanism. Don't believe me? Listen to Chris Leinberger explain it here.
Like anyone in any field, we should focus on what we do very well, and work to make it great. The viable solution to healthy living is not a grass-fed burger at a fast food drive-through. It's to actually find, cook and eat real food. Sprawl retrofit is the fast-food of new urbanism. It's time to opt-out of the prevailing system, and move on to make the really great alternate system. We revile modernist planning and suburban planning because it’s practitioners tried to apply it everywhere. Let's not do the same thing.