[ Brown provides a nice little introduction to the “New Urbanists” here. –BL ]
by Ben Brown
FRANKLIN, N.C. — What we all need is a big idea that works.
We’re up to our ears in the other kind, whether it’s an attempt to purchase with blood and money stable democracy in the Middle East, or to grow an economy that ensures profits and meaningful employment at the same time.
In my rural county in the mountains of North Carolina, we’re embroiled in one of those struggles that’s a miniature version of a national debate. It’s about an apparent clash between two good ideas: the idea of freedom and the idea of community. And I think the way to a workable solution has crucial implications for our mountains and for the larger culture.
The dilemma stems from the appeal of our remote area to an increasing number of second-home buyers and retirees. Rapid, unmanaged growth threatens the very quality of life that makes the region so attractive. Planning advocates want to channel growth and preserve what newcomers and natives love about the mountains and valleys. They talk a lot about community.
But the mere hint of a process that could lead to restrictions on development riles advocates of private-property rights. Their position: Nobody should tell a person what to do with his or her own land. For them, it’s all about individual freedom.
If we can’t cobble together a coalition for planning, growth will continue pretty much the way it has, both in our region and in most places throughout the country. We’ll get more sprawl, a pattern of disconnected subdivisions and strip malls that clogs roads and turns unique landscapes into annexes of Anywhere, USA. It’s the unintended, but inevitable, consequence of unlimited individual freedom.
‘Walkability,’ for starters
The workable idea that counters this unworkable one is New Urbanism. New Urbanism holds that there is an appropriate human habitat, just as there is an appropriate habitat for all other life forms. And sprawl is not it.
Starting a couple of decades back, New Urbanists studied human-built environments that seemed to have intrinsic appeal — country villages, historic neighborhoods in towns such as Charleston, S.C., and Nantucket, Mass., and streets and plazas that are magnets for visitors. They came up with some rules for place-making. Among them: “walkability.” Residents should be able to satisfy basic retail, food and entertainment needs within a few minutes’ walk from their homes.
That goal alone requires a reversal of the dominant pattern of car-dependent, suburban development since World War II. Instead of enclaves of housing segregated by residents’ incomes and physically separated by a car commute from workplace and shopping, New Urbanist communities have town centers with offices, condos or rental studios above first-floor shops. Apartment buildings mix comfortably with single-family homes of all sizes. Instead of being stranded in spots apart from places where people live, work and play, public buildings and public spaces are given prominent roles to encourage civic life.
Think of a small-town Main Street before the needs of cars began trumping those of humans. “People love Main Street,” says John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the non-profit entity created to refine and promote the movement’s principles. “That’s why the Disneyland theme park is organized around a glorified Main Street. If people loved strip malls, Disney would have done that.”
Disney, in fact, applied New Urbanist ideas in the creation of its Orlando-area town called Celebration. So did developers of I’On in South Carolina; Kentlands in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.; and Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. In fact, according to the latest survey by the industry newsletter, New Urban News, an estimated 648 New Urbanist projects of 15 or more acres were already completed or in some stage of planning and development in 2003. That’s 176 more than the year before.
Freedom, with a twist
Though that growth is a small percentage of neighborhood construction, it confirms a trend. And people will vote with their money and feet if given the choice of connected community vs. isolated subdivision. In a University of Southern California study, researchers predict that during the next decade, New Urbanist-style development might account for 30%-55% of new housing demand.
If that’s true, we should find more takers in the mountains for our community-building argument. But the trend implies a broader point. Maybe lots of folks have been wrong about freedom being the central organizing principle of civilization. Maybe the world we yearn to build and the one that will survive the test of the marketplace will not be the product of each of us individually pursuing and jealously guarding our private rights. Perhaps what we need, just as surely as we need time on Main Street, is a collaboration between the private and the public, between self and society. It’s a big idea. And it works.
Ben Brown writes for Southern Living and its sister magazines and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.