Cargo Cult Urbanism

One of the problems with urbanism today is that, even though the thinking has changed — planners with vast amounts of federal money don’t normally come knocking down entire neighborhoods to put up a convention center, a cultural district or some other grandiose, Courbusier-esque monstrosity. Instead of the “hard planning” of Robert Moses, we have the “soft planning” of ordinances, building codes, tax incentives, subsidies and community councils.

But the plans still get made.

Planning for other people is always problematic, at every level. People are simply too complex and too different, in ways that statistics cannot even begin to reveal. The economist Friederich Hayek showed that knowledge is dispersed, that the individual can only know a small fraction of what is known collectively — and that’s true regardless of weather the collectivity is a neighborhood or a nation. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described how New Yorkers learned who they could trust and how far they could trust them — something that’s not measured by statistics and is probably unconscious, anyways.

So even though the modernist, brutalist, Bauhaus housing projects and cultural centers are no longer being built, many attempts to correct the Robert Moses-type mistakes are equal failures in and of themselves. Cities have to develop organically and gradually in order to live. People plan best planning for themselves.

The result of not learning that lesson has been “cargo cult urbanism.”

The New Urbanists seem to believe that as long as they get the look of the buildings right, everything else will follow. More disturbingly, although they claim to follow Jane Jacobs, their work often has more to do with contemporary ideas about what small towns were like, rarely addressing the problem of single-use zoning beyond including residential space downtown. (Some of them strangely believe that what Jacobs said was that the world should be like Greenwich Village.) The New Urbanist “Smart Code,” for example, is described in its introduction as a “Unified development ordinance, addressing development at all scales of design, from regional planning on down to the building signage.”

Notice that it’s an ordinance — a city adopting such a plan would also therefore be sanctioning the use of coercion against non-compliant property and business owners. “Plan” is actually a euphemism for “My way or the highway” — because it would ruin everything if the restaurant is too close to the stationary store, or a building is too close or too far from the street.

It’s a strange thing, to rigidly zone and regulate everything as thoroughly as any suburb or Communist politiburo and call it “urbanism.” New Urbanism ought to be renamed New Sterility. Charlie Gardner, blogging at Old Urbanist, already noticed that New Urbanist rhetoric doesn’t match their recommendations, quoting Andres Duany on how wonderful narrow streets are and pointing out how the narrowest of streets permitted in the Smart Code is eight feet wider than the widest traditional street.

And that’s only an obvious flaw with planning an entire district!

The desire to regulate form down to the level of signage, combined with this utter lack of understanding of their own ideas has led to what I call cargo cult urbanism — the belief that if they get the buildings right, everything else will follow. Like old planners who believed everything came down to highways and parking, the New Urbanists believe that everything comes down to building form. The best example of this is Poundbury.

Poundbury is an extension of the Dorset town of Dorchester, built on land owned by the Dutchy of Cornwall accotrding to a plan developed by Prince Charles and the New Urbanist Leon Krier. It’s supposed to be a traditional English village, but with modern conveniences. It’s also supposed to be sustainable and less car-dependent.

His Royal Highness has good taste in architecture, but that’s the only positive for Poundbury.

A terrace in Poundbury

While the architecture is traditional — in this part it resembles the Colonial townhouses on Beacon Hill in Boston — one soon gets the impression that everything is as quiet as this street.

Another view of Poundbury


There are no signs of life anywhere. There are no signs. There are very few pictures of people in Poundbury at all. There do not appear to be any stores, pubs, inns, nor ruddy shopkeepers, rolling English drunks or ploughmen at lunch as one might expect in a rural English village. If you look at it on Google Maps, you see that it’s divided from Dorchester by a wide highway, contains more parking lots than the allegedly untraditional town and has wider streets — including sidewalks which are elevated next to the roadway and prevent the pedestrians for whom the village was supposedly designed from actually crossing the street.

In real English villages, on the other hand, there are shops and pubs, with signs. There are individual touches like windowboxes and paint schemes decided by homeowners over the decades and not because of some plan. Some of the houses are older and some younger, some are in better repair and some worse. It wasn’t according to some grand plan, weather of a committee of architects or a prince, it was done by people living their lives and so it reflects and intensifies life.

People and signs of life, Robin Hood’s Bay.

Good urbanism is urbanism that allows life to be lived in all its messiness, instead of trying to require that people behave the ways experts think they should and the way they appear in architectural renderings. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for zoning boards and model ordinances, though.



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