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Report From the Denver New Urbanism Congress Part 3

New Urbanism is an elastic concept, and an elastic movement. On one hand it's pragmatic, on the other, it's got a Charter with principles.
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Thursday morning at the 17th Congress of New Urbanism in Denver I heard Andrés Duany, one of the founders of New Urbanism, speak on the principles of New Urbanism. Mr. Duany talked about the methodology of New Urbanism. He said that New Urbanists were not theoretical and they were not scientific. They did not rely on numbers, on "metrics." Indeed he said that metrics permeated "bad New Urbanism." (Mr. Duany admits that there is bad New Urbanism, both bad projects that appropriate the name "New Urbanist" and projects by bona fide New Urbanists trying to do the right thing that go bad.)

Instead of being theoretical or scientific, Mr. Duany said that New Urbanists were observational. The certainty New Urbanists have about the good of what they work for -- a certainty that he admitted was often taken for arrogance -- was based, he said, on the accumulation of observations about what works. He said Jane Jacobs was a hero for New Urbanists not only for the substance of what she wrote, but also because she reached her conclusions by observing, not by measuring or counting. (Although he also admitted -- Mr. Duany is good at admitting -- that Jane Jacobs did not consider herself a New Urbanist.)

The only thing worth measuring, Mr. Duany said, was happiness, but even without measuring it, his observations have convinced him that people are happier in good towns and cities of the type New Urbanists wanted to build and sustain. He spoke, for instance, of recently visiting Seaside, the vacation town he designed 30 years ago, and of being overwhelmed with a scene that to me, as someone who lives near the border between Santa Monica and Venice, California, sounded agreeably like what transpires along the beach between the Santa Monica and Venice piers.

Friday morning at the Congress I went to hear another founder of New Urbanism, Peter Calthorpe, speak in a plenary session called "The Green Dividend," about how cities were sustainable and economically efficient at the same time. Mr. Calthorpe, known for his regional approach to urbanism and land use in general, opened his remarks by saying, "Now more than ever, numbers matter."

Mr. Calthorpe went on with a blizzard of statistics showing, based on work he's doing in connection with the planning of the California high-speed rail project, that the only possible hope for reducing CO2 emissions to acceptable levels while at the same time providing a decent quality of life, would be to channel development into cities to reduce automobile travel.

So -- one founder of New Urbanism wants to observe. Another wants to count. A big split in New Urbanism? A contradiction? A "gotcha" moment?

I don't think so. New Urbanism is an elastic concept, and an elastic movement. On one hand it's pragmatic, on the other, it's got a Charter with principles. As Mr. Duany says, it's both top-down, because of the Charter, and bottom-up, because in practice New Urbanists designers and planners use local workshops, called charrettes, to listen to what the locals have to say about their lives and conditions.

The Duany/Calthorpe disconnect on observe vs. count reflects their markets. Mr. Duany's ultimate customers are people choosing where to live. He wants to persuade them that they will be happier in a denser, less automobile-dominated environment. Mr. Calthorpe's customers are policymakers. He wants to persuade them to spend money not to facilitate a "drive until you qualify" policy for housing people, but rather to build the infrastructure necessary for the places Mr. Duany wants to design. His customers trust numbers, not feelings.

Because of economic and demographic changes, the two approaches have become two sides of the same coin. In another session on Friday, Laurie Volk, of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a firm that performs market analysis for New Urbanist developers, presented data showing that because the largest generation in American history, the Baby Boomers, are beginning to retire, and the second largest, the Millennials, are just starting out in life, there will be much less demand for single-family houses over at least the next two decades. In fact, she said that America is overbuilt on single-family houses by at least one million.

What this means is that there is going to be a huge market for the kind of in-fill urban developments both Mr. Duany and Mr. Calthorpe want to see built, at least in the parts of the country that have population growth. These developments will need the infrastructure Mr. Calthorpe wants to persuade governments to invest in.

But they will also need happiness, or, rather, the expectation of it. In cities that are growing, the people who already live there typically fight development. They don't want more traffic, and they are not persuaded by data that show that in-fill development reduces the overall number of vehicle miles traveled. They know that it increases traffic per square mile.

So the question will be, can they be persuaded that more dense urban development will make them happier?

It looks like the ball is in Mr. Duany's court.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, has just been published by City Image Press.

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