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New Suburbanism


Town planners are in the vanguard of the continued attack on our prosperous lifestyle. We are told our detached houses on large lots that extend ever-farther from the urban core are unsustainable. The auto dependency of such arrangements is killing both the planet and our underlying human social network.

Planners would have us in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TND), built on a walkable scale with abundant shared spaces. We would use personal vehicles sparingly, with any need to move farther than our feet can take us fulfilled by an expansive communal transport network. Think of rowhouses, three-story apartments and a bus stop on every corner. This is the vision of New Urbanism.

I see it as a repackaging of 1920s America. If we lived like we were poor, we would have a smaller envirnmental footprint. We would be huddled masses, accruing whatever the alleged benefits of being unable to find space and separation from our fellow proles. And it is true, some folks want to step backward into such a lifestyle. TNDs are all the rage, and I think most are successful.

Their success leads planners to overstep. That some folks desire a dense urban arrangement is taken as validation for a crusade that all must adopt it. Like every good crusade, there is a god to be served. The planners are kneeling before Gaia, and we are all expected to sacrifice to the Great Green Goddess.

Trouble is, most folks would rather live better. There may be unmet demand for life-scale versions of the kind of town one sees on a model railroad layout. But the greater unmet demand is for more space, more convenience and more freedom:

"The English concept of a man's home is his castle is true in most parts of Asia, the Mideast and Eastern Europe," said Jeff Rossely, a Bahrain-based developer of shopping malls, resorts and residential communities in the Middle East. "If you look at how countries are moving up the socio-economic ladder, some of the things they all want is a car, a house, a nice view and air conditioning."

That’s what they want, they can pay for it, and that’s what is being built. While the planning cabal is telling us to scrunch together and make do with less, Asia and the old Soviet Bloc are suburbanizing.

Will Gaia survive the sprawl? I think so. Nobody wants to crap all over the environment. The greater Green movement, of which planners are a minor sect, has set up a false choice. It is not man vs. planet. Both can survive and be sustained:

Many advances in green home design that were developed in the U.S. are being introduced overseas, including better insulation or ventilation to rely less on fossil fuels for heating and air conditioning.

And this huge market for dwelling technology will lead to lower costs and increased efficiencies. The more we build, the better we build. Any ecological advantage of TNDs and New Urbanist patterns is ever diminishing and headed toward zero. Planners will have to find a new faith upon which to base their crusades.