The economics of New Urbanism often create more traffic than they solve. (More)

Last week we looked at the ideas behind the urban planning concept called New Urbanism, and began to see why its promises may be too good to be true. This week we look deeper into the economic issues beneath New Urbanism.

Three functions of a city:

A city needs to supply three basic things to its residents: safety, places for spiritual and community involvement, and economic opportunities. The lack of the latter in most New Urbanist designs has many questioning the future of New Urbanist developments, especially when it comes to environmental preservation and walkability.

Developments such as Seaside, Celebration, and Baldwin Park, Florida, have met with “limited success” because residents do not have access to nearby employment and must get in their cars to get to and from work. The New Urbanists’ attempt to return development to the days of the early 20th Century when the automobile was not widely available is not a necessarily realistic goal given the amount of automobile dependence that has developed in the United States. New Urbanists may want to reconsider their goal to eliminate the need for automobiles in their development projects because he does not believe it is possible to do. In addition, most New Urbanist developments do not provide sufficient economic opportunities that would effectively reduce automobile use by residents of their communities.

New Urbanist developments tend to have businesses such as coffee shops, retail shops, and markets of the type that appeal to those who tend to make a decent amount of income. However, these jobs do not provide employment for the residents, who usually work at places that pay much more, nor do these jobs pay their employees wages high enough so that they could afford to live within walking distance of work. The end result is that the retail workers create added traffic as they commute to and from jobs in a upper-class New Urbanist development to their own homes on the other side of town. The community residents also create traffic as they commute to and from their jobs, which are often at least several miles from their homes.

Mixed Use: More Than a Phrase

In short, too often New Urbanist communities replace Suburban Sprawl with New Urban Sprawl, offering pricey bedroom-and-boutique communities under the catchphrase of “mixed-use.” New Urbanists should be less enthralled with the form of their communities and more interested in their function by considering the use of mixed-use development as a solution to not only the walkability concerns, but also economic concerns.

Many communities throughout the United States are flourishing providing mixed housing, sacred  and community spaces, and economic opportunities, the essential elements of a city, town, or community. Doing this requires a willingness to build a truly mixed community in which people can live, work, and play. We need more truly mixed-use developments that provide a variety of housing and job opportunities – apartments and townhouses as well as single-family homes; offices, industry, and agriculture as well as retail – creating more socioeconomically diverse and self-sufficient communities.

Transit-Oriented Development

The Transit-oriented agenda can be summarized by the following principles:

  1. Commercial, housing, jobs, parks, and civic uses located within walking distance of transit stops
  2. Pedestrian-friendly street networks that are connected.
  3. Mixed-density housing to vary costs.
  4. Open spaces and habitat preservation.
  5. Focus on public spaces.
  6. Infill and redevelopment along transportation corridors.

New Urbanism embraces these principles and in many cases, the two go hand in hand. The New Urbanism design is known for being something of a “throwback” to the old days when people did not rely on automobiles for transportation and cities and towns were built with high density, mixed use. Indeed, such New Urbanist projects tend to have high density and mixed use, but these projects have not, perhaps, been as successful at reducing reliance on the automobile as New Urbanist developers would like the general public to believe.

Residents of Seaside, Florida enjoy walkability when it comes to going to local shops or to the beach. However, most of those residents work miles away from their homes in Seaside and therefore continue to rely on the automobile. They also may have to use their cars to shop at larger retailers and the like, which are not found in Seaside proper. In fact, the nearest large grocery store is several miles away from Seaside. Meanwhile, those who work in Seaside’s cafes, restaurants, and shops have to commute because few can afford to live in the community. Therefore, it is difficult to say with any certainty that the New Urbanist Design has helped reduce any traffic on local roads. It may even have increased it.

Mass transit is the obvious solution to this problem, but implementing a successful mass transit plan has proven to be more of a challenge for governments and planners than expected. For many reasons, people in most cities are resistant to use mass transit, and governments hesitate to invest the money into effective transportation systems. Some urban planners argue that a democratic system of community ownership and decision-making is the only effective way to find a method of mass transit best-suited for a particular community. Community ownership gives the community members full input into the decision-making process.

A well-designed community can foster mast transit and the people in that community will use it if it is available. Policy also plays a major role in the use and support of mass transit and whether people are willing to use it. In the United States, tougher laws regulating automobile emissions and road-building practices coupled with funding and incentives will likely be necessary to encourage local governments to consider the mass transit option.