New Urbanist Illusion
Both the smart
growth movement and its especially its new urbanist component frequently talk
about “livable cities,” and imply that, over the past 50 years, America has
developed cities that are not livable. This will come as news to the
unprecedented millions of Americans who live a life style that is the envy of
billions around the world.
the smart growth movement bases its judgment on foggy notions of how things
used to be in the American small town. There was a greater sense of
community. People used to sit on their front porches and spoke to passersby
on the sidewalk. They gathered around the cracker barrel at the corner store,
to which they could walk every day to get their daily provisions. And, most
of all, they had no need to use cars, because virtually everything was within
walking distance. Much of this was true. For example, the older eastern and
midwestern cities had Catholic churches so close that mothers could easily
fulfill a daily obligation without a car, and usually without a streetcar or
bus. Livability congers up visions of the physician living in a large house
in the middle of the block flanked on either side by bungalows rented by the
blacksmith and the custodian.
seeks to re-establish this livability, albeit without the church. But the
“Livability Agenda” misses some crucial points; most notably that things were
never as they seem today.
from the automobile to low cost long distance telephone service, to the
Internet and air conditioning has redefined community. People did not spend
more time with their neighbors than their geographically distance friends or
relatives because they preferred their neighbors; rather technology had not
made longer distance communities feasible. Nowadays, much of community is
more a function of specialized common interest than proximate geography.
Community still exists, but in many respects people operate in multiple
communities, local and remote, the latter made possible by telecommunications
and information technology.
People did not
sit on their front porches and speak to passersby out of a sense of community
--- there was also the matter of getting out of uncomfortable non-air
conditioned houses. People walked by on the sidewalks for the same reason.
Doubtless these activities were more rare in the frozen dead of winter, say
in Cleveland, than during the sweltering summers. A sense of community is not
dependent upon the season.
maximize their leisure time and standard of living by traveling to the
discount department stores, the supermarkets and specialized “big box” stores
that have done so much with their more favorable economies of scale to
improve the affluence of people, especially those with lower incomes.
Changing tastes now have people traveling by car mega-churches in the
suburbs, rather than walking or driving to nearby churches. Or, they are even
more likely to the lake, mountains or other recreational locations. And,
generally, the income based spatial discrimination that places the residences
of the wealthy away from those of the less affluent operated then as now.
Such a pattern persists virtually everywhere that people are allowed to
choose where they live. It is not a well-known fact, for example, that the
core of Paris, with its affluent core so different from the US model houses
its minority poor in suburban ghettos. Minorities make up a large percentage
of the population in Stockholm’s Stalinist apartment blocks.
And then there
is the fact that by no means everyone lived in the mythical small towns that
populate new urbanist minds. Millions lived in large cities. Millions did not
have front porches and many of them were able to fulfill their community
hailing obligations by sitting in upper story windows, where the wind
performed the same function as on the front porch. Many others didn’t even
have windows that faced outside, much less the street.
Perhaps the ultimate
illogic of the livability thesis is the proposition that consumers have been
seduced by automobile advertising and marketing of suburban living to accept
a style of life so diametrically opposed to their own best interests. This
absurd notion, that people buy cars because General Motors or Toyota
advertises them is akin to arguing that without the self serving advertising
of refrigerator companies, people would face daily spoilage of food or that
without advertisements for air conditioning, people would bake ignorantly in
the summer, all the while stashing away the excess income not spent on these
conveniences. Such errant thinking is perhaps best illustrated by the
oft-repeated phrase to the effect that Americans have a “love affair with the
automobile.” By the same standard Americans have a love affair with
refrigerators, air conditioning and adequate public health, a love affair
that seems to have infected virtually every nation not too poor to afford it.
In fact, the American consumer is not duped. Nor are the millions of
suburbanites who have left the cities of Europe to settle in the
auto-oriented suburbs. People tend to do use their resources to purchase the
best life styles they can, General Motors and Toyota to the contrary
notwithstanding. Finally, one wonders why the many millions spent on transit
marketing campaigns in the last 30 years have not found a similar dupable
consumer. The reason is simple (the latest US Census reported that fewer
people used transit to get to work in 2000 than in any of the four previous
censuses that included the survey question). People are not in the market for
transportation that is generally unable to take them where they want to go,
and when it does, much slower than by car.
livability is evidenced by the choices that people make. People buy cars
because they satisfy both their needs and desires, and they buy houses in the
suburbs for virtually the same reason. They make these choices because they
are more livable than the alternatives. It should come as no surprise that
the smart growth movement has, with its definition of livability, turned
semantics on its head, just as it has with “smart growth.” itself. The
so-called livability agenda needs to be exposed for what it is --- urban
planners, architects and other urban elites who are not content to live their
own lives, but must also control how others live. No one should object to
development of a misnamed “livable” community freely chosen and paid for by
its residents. This is consistent with the Lone Mountain Compact statement to
the effect that absent a material threat to other individuals or the
community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.
But such a measure of freedom offends the self-appointed elites who want
to control everyone else. In Marxian terms, they would have a dictatorship of
thesis is based upon a revisionist, doctrinally enhanced misreading of
history. The architects of livability seek to design a “back to the future”
that never was and has even less chance of sustainability than Robert Owen’s
New Harmony or any other of history’s many failed utopias.