New Urbanists claim their designs manage growth and protect the environment. How well does that work in reality? (More)

New Urbanists have long argued that their design is one that can accomplish growth management, reduce traffic problems, protect undeveloped land, and preserve the environment. But there are some who argue the New Urbanist design is more carrot dangled by developers interested in making money rather than a design with an environmental conscience.

Author Randall Holcombe said it best. New Urbanists “are concerned about the destruction of environmental amenities, such as wildlife habitats, forest areas, lakes, and so forth. There is no debate about the value of these amenities; the debate is about the effects of urban sprawl on them.”

The author says Urban Sprawl is “irrelevant to the debate” of how best to preserve and protect such environmentally-sensitive lands. He believes that there is enough undeveloped land available in the United States that it could be set aside, either by the government or privately, for protection without consideration of how growth and development and their impacts factor into the equation.

Too Soon to Tell?

Indeed, New Urbanism may be too new an idea and therefore its true effectiveness and reducing environmental impacts cannot yet be judged. While Holcombe’s argument seems counterintuitive to sustainable development and the reduction of urban sprawl, the author makes a valid point that it remains to be seen whether high-density development such as that seen in New Urbanism is a viable solution to environmental concerns or if it is even something that is needed.

Holcombe further argues against a correlation between the decline in the amount of farmland in the United States and the rise of urban sprawl. The author states that from 1950 to 1992 total cropland in the United States declined by five percent while total developed land during that time was also five percent. He concludes then that, “Farmland is disappearing faster than land is being developed, so urban sprawl could not be responsible for this farmland loss.”

However, the importance of environmentalism has been emphasized by developers since all the way back to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities movement of the early 1900s and the idea of protecting sensitive lands has only grown in popularity since the end of the Second World War. That emphasis is equal in importance to the emphasis on mass transit in the New Urbanist ideology. The key consideration is perhaps not how much land is available, but how what available land there is used to promote sustainability, an argument used in the writings of many planners and environmentalists including Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. These considerations cannot be dismissed as Holcombe has done in his work. While his points must be considered and taken into account, there is enough research available on the environmental impacts of urban sprawl to warrant the type of concern that can be seen in the planning field today.

Florida also has an edge on most states in terms of its government oversight of development. The state Department of Community Affairs is tasked with finding new ways of growth management and with assisting local governments with their own growth management including comprehensive plans and land development codes, which are updated and reviewed by the DCA annually. The DCA also connects other agencies such as water management, with development agencies and the Department of Environmental Protection in an attempt to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to development. Florida could be a model for other states struggling with growth management while trying to provide for their growing populations and not deter development.

Conclusion

New Urbanist developments are touted as ones that will reduce reliance on the automobile and promote sustainability and environmental protection. These developments are characterized by high-density, mixed-use with an emphasis on pedestrian-friendly design. The concept of New Urbanism has been around since the 1980s at least, but has only recently gained popularity among developers and local governments as a solution to traffic congestion and high energy consumption is sought in the United States.

While the general consensus among planners is that New Urbanism is taking the country in the right direction in terms of growth management and sustainability, criticisms of the method should not necessarily be dismissed entirely. It is true that many New Urbanist developments, such as Seaside, appeal mainly to the wealthy, as developers tend to build such projects on land where they can make a larger profit from the sale of condominiums and such. There are traffic issues created by commuters who live in the high-end New Urbanist communities by residents who have to commute to their jobs. In addition, New Urbanism does not address well enough the concerns of the average working person in terms of the availability of mass transit, employment, and affordable housing. It also remains difficult to persuade developers to invest in mixed-use communities inside city limits rather than outside where they can make more profit from their projects. This means that many New Urbanist developments are contributing to urban sprawl rather than lessening it.

The principles of New Urbanism are definitely attractive from the planning perspective, but care has to be taken to ensure such developments are meeting the needs of the city or town where they are built. No planning concept or design is perfect, and New Urbanism is an indeed appealing. But the concept probably could use some fine-tuning in the long run. Planners should exercise caution when considering such developments so as not to get too distracted by the idea that they miss the practical application of it.

In particular the issue of mass-transit needs to be better emphasized during the planning process. Local governments should carefully weight not just the economic gains of a new project, but also what the developer is willing to bring to the table in terms of helping the city or town create a system of mass transit if one does not exist. The onus could be placed more on developers to come up with solutions for the transportation dilemma that is developing in the United States. Instead of making road improvements, developers could be asked to pay impact fees earmarked for future bus or train stops for example. It is likely that New Urbanism cannot be a true success without improvements to the mass transit component of the ideology.

That aside, New Urbanism is an attractive concept when it comes to growth management. These denser, mixed use communities can help reduce urban sprawl if for no other reason than because they take up less land than a “traditional” development. In addition, the attempts of New Urbanists to preserve land and create green spaces is a positive step in the right direction, as these could be considered key elements in the future of growth management. So, while New Urbanism has its flaws, it is likely the best concept that planners have at their disposal for improving growth management, protecting the environment, and cutting back on the use of the automobile overall.

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Part 1 – Too Good to Be True?
Part 2 – Economics