Posted: March 28, 2022 by Kelly Murphy-Redd
Many of you have heard the term New Urbanism. Even if you haven’t heard the term, you’ve seen it in action. Look at Andres Duany’s Seaside for example – the first New Urbanist town in the United States. In articles about Seaside, you will find terms like “internationally famous,” and “iconic.”

The Congress of the New Urbanism defines the term as follows: “New Urbanism is a planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been built for the last several centuries: walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces. In other words: New Urbanism focuses on human-scaled urban design.”

It all sounds great doesn’t it?

Quality of place is promoted by New Urbanists and is a term used by planners and economic developers alike. It is an important part of any community. Attracting talent relies heavily on quality of place.

Having worked with some New Urbanist planners for a few years, I developed a perspective not heard much through the din of the New Urbanist propaganda.

It’s expensive. I mean, very expensive. I used to say these planners didn’t have to pay for it, build it or try to sell it. But, they make a lot of money designing it.

Let’s look at Seaside again. It’s primarily a vacation community, not permanent homes. The houses are too expensive for the majority of people. It’s a fantasy world. It’s privately owned.

Planners say these kinds of developments are based on how towns and villages developed over centuries in Europe. OK, but they developed over centuries, that’s the point. It is forced and artificial to plunk down a supposed fully-developed town in the middle of a field. The more successful ones are built outside of cities with big populations. The potential customer base is much bigger than many rural areas where they try this concept.

They also say these communities promote diversity, but most of the residents in their developments are relatively wealthy. The New Urbanist communities of today are not affordable for everyone unless maybe you live in a “tiny house” that costs as much as a house you are used to.

In the old days, rich and poor made their homes in and around the villages. Shop keepers lived over shops in town and others far out of town and on farms. Many people built their own homes. But, those people who lived outside of town had to take horse and cart into town. The car seems to have taken the place of the horse and cart.

I asked one of the planners I worked with how the walkable grocery store could stay in business when it takes time to sell lots, build the homes and have potential customers move into those homes. I had to ask the question multiple times, multiple ways. I finally got the answer. The developer subsidized the store. Aha! Well, if the developer has the money and the inclination to do that, then I guess that’s fine. But, the developer has to build in a way to get that money back.

This same planner wrote a book where he discussed the need for more people to have professions like furniture refinishers and small engine repair. We needed to all grow potatoes.  He said it would “necessarily” cause a recession. Recession, nine times out of ten, is not helpful to economic development. I wonder how many furniture refinishers can afford Seaside?

He also drives a little, tiny car only when he has to. Cars are not very welcome in New Urbanist communities. Planners think you can work in the New Urbanist community and walk to work or use golf carts. I asked about hurricane evacuation, but my questions weren’t always addressed.

This particular planner shared the story of the time he jetted off to England to eat macaroni and cheese with Prince Charles. Again, the furniture refinisher doesn’t really have those kind of opportunities. The planner built a house without air conditioning (because that’s bad and makes noise). It didn’t appraise. Weird.

Privacy is a huge problem in these communities. The lots are small and the houses are close together. The planners will tell developers they can make more money because they have more lots to sell. You had better have a lot of insulation and thick walls because you can hear your neighbors vacuum or argue with houses so close together. Many of us want a little elbow room.

New Urbanist planners often say they are environmentalists.  Yet, they don’t seem to have any trouble with very small lots where you have to cut down all the trees to fit a house on it. They are really against what they consider large houses no matter the size of the family or the desires of the homeowner. They often penalize people by setting higher HOA fees based on house size. They suggest that you have family or friends stay in hotels so you don’t have to have a guestroom.

Economic developers spend a lot of energy and time facilitating, whether it be high-wage job creation or talent attraction. As I said, quality of place is important in these endeavors. But reality is also important. Practicality often dictates whether a project is successful.

Creating really expensive housing developments that have to be subsidized, suggesting everyone grow potatoes and change their profession to furniture refinishing and promoting the elimination of the car are a few of the impractical and unrealistic components of New Urbanism and not conducive to successful communities or economic development.