Dense Feedback

Readers respond to Randal O'Toole dissection of the New Urbanism.


Randal O'Toole's "Dense Thinkers" (January) prompted more reader commentary than usual, so we decided to devote a special section to it. Here are some of the letters, along with O'Toole's response.

"Dense Thinkers" hit the nail on the head. It thoroughly exposed the flawed "New Urbanism" that is being foisted on the Portland, Oregon, metro area. It also sends a powerful warning to other areas where residents have been gulled into thinking Portland is a model to emulate.

Thanks to the efforts of Randal O'Toole, along with John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, Mel Zucker of the Oregon Transportation Institute, Ted Piccolo of Atlas Oregon, Larry George of Oregonians In Action, and others, more and more people in the Portland area are opposing high densities, rigid urban growth boundaries, ineffective and costly light rail, get-out-of-your-car policies, and loss of quality of life.

Urban residents are now getting a taste of the state-dominated land use planning system that has been victimizing rural Oregonians the last 25 years. The state mandated that 97 percent of all private rural land be zoned for farms and forests, with little or no regard for the suitability of the land for farming or forestry and with no compensation to the landowners who were downzoned.

Bill Moshofsky
Portland, OR

Thank you so much for the excellent article on Portland, Oregon. I personally am sick of seeing Portland viewed as a model when it is nothing to take pride in.

I am the attorney for the Dane County Towns Association in Dane County, Wisconsin. We have been fighting the same kind of radical, coercive collectivism for years. Recently, we mounted an all-out effort to defeat a new land use and transportation plan proposed by the Dane County Regional Planning Commission which expressly followed the New Urbanism line. We lost, but we succeeded in raising awareness among the small communities in our county. This year, we converted that awareness into action and mobilized these communities to support dissolving the Regional Planning Commission.

Mark Hazelbaker
Dane County, WI

Randal O'Toole says land use planners who favor high-density cities over suburban sprawl are "Dense Thinkers." He rightly notes that the automobile is central to the post-1945 population shift from cities to suburbs and, more recently, exurbs.

O'Toole implies that the car's ascendancy over other forms of transportation is the natural result of private choices in the market. But the use of cars is heavily subsidized by government. The construction and maintenance of roads is the largest and most obvious way government favors cars. These dollars far exceed those the government spends subsidizing rail, air, and foot transportation.

Also, the costs of cars' pollution are not fully borne by those who do the polluting. This negative externality is another government subsidy for cars over those forms of transportation that pollute less.

The exodus from cities to suburbs is, to a large extent, just another product of the government's social engineering. Why, then, would REASON celebrate it?

Stephen J. Ware
Professor of Law
Cumberland School of Law
Samford University
Birmingham, AL

Randal O'Toole is right: New Urbanism is as shallow a planning fad as garden suburbs and slum clearance. But it's not entirely wrongheaded. The New Urbanists acknowledge that some of the most pleasant communities we have in our cities were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries without building codes, land use zoning, property setbacks, and all the current paraphernalia of local government controls. I'm thinking of Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia; Georgetown, now probably the highest-value area in the D.C. metro area; Nob Hill in San Francisco; and Greenwich Village in New York City. Government controls have made it impossible for developers today to build on lots as small as those typical in such neighborhoods. The New Urbanists are at least aware of the damage done by current land use and occupancy controls, which prevent the diversity, spontaneity, and flexibility that many people find attractive in these old areas.

Also, our cities' low densities–or "sprawl," as the New Urbanists vilify it–are not entirely the product of people's desires about how they wish to live. Most planning controls specify minimum lot sizes and minimum requirements of other kinds and effectively dictate maximum density levels. Moreover, the politics of local government gives considerable muscle to people protesting townhouses, apartments, and indeed almost any development.

There's another group of little design dictators in most American communities: the local fire and rescue brigades. If the city approves a development with tighter intersections, narrower local streets, or other traffic calming measures, these interests invariably evoke images of little old ladies being burnt to death in second-floor rooms while the fire truck crawls around a traffic circle or tight street turn. And the local police will warn against permitting alleyways–a wonderful invention now too seldom used–because they might be useful getaway routes for burglars.

I guess it is just a personal prejudice, but here's one libertarian who agrees with the New Urbanists on another point: There's a lot to be said for having more "walkable" communities. It can be healthy, enjoyable, and efficient to walk to do one's small-item shopping and banking. And there is some truth to the claim that people who walk the streets and have the opportunity for casual interaction with neighbors may form a better-integrated community than people who drive everywhere.

Nonetheless, O'Toole's central criticism of New Urbanism is valid. Insofar as it wants to mandate that all new development conform to its high-density preference, it is simply authoritarian. As O'Toole says, the New Urbanists make a fraudulent promise when they claim denser development will be more economical development. (A bit of extra plastic pipe is far cheaper than the extra time of engineers and surveyors and ditchdiggers needed to crowd utilities together.) Denser development makes it more difficult, not less, to meet clean air standards. And the New Urbanist assault on "big box" stores is nostalgic and elitist, irresponsibly ignoring the tradeoff of small-store prettiness with efficiency, lower prices, and greater choice.

To the extent that the New Urbanism blames highways for sprawl, it is simplistic. Any underpriced form of commuter transportation, whether it is road or rail, will tend to stack the urban deck in favor of excessively spread development. But again, New Urbanists have a point. Many appurtenances of the mass ownership of automobiles–commercial strips in new areas, vast parking lots at new shopping malls–are unlovely. And there is something in the scale of freeways, especially in the newer cities of the south and the west, that even a hard-boiled libertarian can find disturbing. We'd be better off with a lot more, but smaller-section, highways–a denser net of parkway-like roads, like those found in Westchester or Minneapolis, rather than the eight- and 10-lane freeways of Los Angeles.

By preventing the construction of highways on new alignments, the stop-the-freeways crowd has inadvertently encouraged the steady widening of freeways into the superhighways we have today. The politicians and planners take the path of least political resistance and keep adding lanes to an existing road, rather than building an additional one between two existing freeways. A more market-oriented approach might be helpful.

In short, the New Urbanists make good points and bad. We don't compromise the battle against their bad ideas by acknowledging that some are good.

Peter Samuel
Toll Roads Newsletter
Frederick, MD

Randal O'Toole's article was well-written, intelligently organized, and researched in depth, but unfortunately it seemed narrow in focus and limited in perspective.

Every country in Europe has a multiplicity of transportation options, whether for moving freight or moving passengers. In America, we are dominated by one: the highway. Cars are not bad in themselves, but when they are the only option they become a severe problem.

For rail and other transportation options to be viable, people need to live in higher-density neighborhoods. Only with higher density can a sense of community develop and grow.

Since the end of Word War II, America has been zoned and developed so that the functions of life are separate and distinct, making it impossible for communities to develop. Living in an urban area that requires walking to the store, theater, coffee shop, or supermarket or to visit friends and family, people are able to get to know each other, and that creates healthy, vibrant communities. Forced to isolate themselves in their suburban homes and get everywhere in their automobiles, three generations of Americans have not had the opportunity to know the pleasures of community living.

If Americans had had the opportunity to grow up in vibrant, healthy, safe, exciting cities like Rome, London, and Copenhagen, a large percentage would opt to live downtown in healthy, higher-density communities. For three generations Americans have not known what real cities and communities are like. New Urbanism is America's first real attempt to remedy that situation.

Douglas E. Morris
4D Publications Inc.
Washington, DC

Randal O'Toole erroneously identifies New Urbanism as a movement intent on tyrannical bureaucracies and Draconian development controls. New Urbanism is a design philosophy whose aim is to blend the civic and convivial qualities of pre-World War II neighborhoods with the convenience and market viability of modern car culture. It is quite possible for high-density development to utterly fail the precepts of New Urbanism (Crystal City near the Pentagon, for example).

Less than 0.1 percent of new developments are New Urbanist. The low percentage is not for lack of customers but rather the result of institutional inertia and restrictive zoning ordinances. In most parts of the country, it is illegal to build according to New Urbanist guidelines. Architects, developers, and activists often contend with intransigent regulators, notwithstanding Portland, Oregon.

Many New Urbanists believe their aesthetic can succeed on a playing field free of distorting subsidies and obstructive ordinances, since one-third of marketing survey respondents prefer New Urbanist developments to conventional suburbia. The design standards promoted by the Congress for the New Urbanism result in neighborhoods that enjoy strong consumer demand. Even in Cleveland, O'Toole's favored example of urban renewal, architectural design standards were employed. And the private organization responsible for much of Cleveland's comeback–MidTown Cleveland–is now planning transit-oriented developments.

Laurence Aurbach Jr.
Member, Congress for the New Urbanism
Adelphi, MD

As Randal O'Toole points out, New Urbanism has become an environmental fad, and cities too often plan based on the latest craze rather than on accumulated wisdom.

But there is nothing per se objectionable about smaller-lot, more walkable suburban development, so long as that is what at least some people want. Pre-war suburbs were built this way, and many are still highly livable and popular. Driving to a superstore each week in search of better selections or lower prices is sensible, but having to fire up the SUV just to pick up a loaf of bread is ridiculous.

The objectionable aspect of some governmental applications of New Urbanism is compulsion. Government should let people freely choose city, suburban, or rural living and high densities or low, but also see that they pay the full cost of their choice.

New Urbanism works better as a developer's business decision than as a political mandate. Government's role should be to remove regulatory obstacles, such as inflexible zoning, that stifle such innovations. If a builder foresees local demand for a denser style of subdivision, let him build Phase 1. If he's right, he'll build more and he'll be copied. Planners and environmentalists will be happy.

John L. Gann Jr.
Glen Ellyn, IL

Randal O'Toole's piece on the New Urbanism drew my ire. Some folks like the suburbs, with their look-alike housing developments, cookie-cutter strip malls, office parks, and endless rows of drive-ins. I like Main Street, the old neighborhood, and living within walking distance of the train station. To the extent (and only to the extent) that the state is encouraging suburban sprawl, it should be doing the same for older, inner-city areas. And if the final deal is $0 in subsidies for suburban sprawl, then $0 for New Urbanism is just fine with me too.

Some folks appreciate the independence that the private automobile affords them and feel particularly Jeffersonian while crawling along I-95 in rush hour traffic. Me, I prefer the train. But the issue is one of choice. When I have to decide the best way for me to get from point A to point B, I want to have alternatives. To the extent that the state is in the highway business, let the state be in the mass transit business.

O'Toole also fails to mention the plight of those who cannot drive: the young, the handicapped, and the elderly. Dare I be politically incorrect and mention the fact that in many communities where there is no public transportation, we have elderly people driving around who cannot see the road or control the autos they are driving? In the near future, the baby boomers will be of retirement age, and I-95 will become a thousand-mile stretch of bumper cars. Are those who cannot or should not drive going to be taxed to pay for highways they cannot use?

O'Toole mentions the tax breaks for those who build high-density housing near trolley stations. This is where we agree; such tax breaks are absolute folly. Ironically, they just may be the very reason that such a small percentage of the residents use the trolley. The tax breaks enable the developer to offer below-market rents. This, in turn, becomes a subsidy to the renter, lowering his rent so he can have the convenience of the trolley and his private automobile. It can be argued that the tax break effectively causes the rather low percentage of residents in these apartments who commute by trolley.

Conversely, Manhattan residents can afford to spend a greater percentage of their income on rent since they don't need an automobile, gas, oil, parking, tolls, and insurance. They pay a premium for not having to incur the cost of an automobile. The ludicrous tax break simply subsidizes the premium so one has, at the public's expense, a choice of taking the trolley or driving to work.

The issues are complicated, and we cannot investigate the entire urban transportation/intensity-of-development problem in a single issue of REASON. However, I'd like something a tad more sophisticated than a simple "suburban sprawl, yes; new urbanism, no!"

Fred Bluestone
Lauderdale Lakes, FL

Randal O'Toole replies: Somehow Fred Bluestone thinks that because I oppose mandates for high-density development, I support mandates for low-density development. Meanwhile, Laurence Aurbach Jr. portrays New Urbanism as a voluntary response to today's restrictive zoning codes. If I didn't make it clear in my article, let me say (in agreement with John L. Gann Jr.): I have nothing against New Urbanism so long as it is voluntary. That means eliminating today's zoning codes that may require undesirable developments. But it does not mean replacing those codes with even more restrictive ones. The Congress for the New Urbanism's charter (www.cnu.org/charter.html) calls for many prescriptive and restrictive practices that will increase congestion, pollution, housing costs, and taxes.

Douglas Morris seems to think that "community" follows from "density." That may have been true 100 years ago, but today community follows from mobility. Thanks to the automobile, the telephone, and the Internet, I belong to many communities, almost none of which is strictly geographical. I ask New Urbanists to stop trying to force their limited vision of "community" on me and my neighbors.

Like Prof. Stephen J. Ware, I once believed the myth that autos and highways are subsidized. It turns out that the subsidies are negligible. While gas taxes and other highway user fees are not the best way to run a market, they have paid the vast majority of highway costs in this country.

In the past decade, the average subsidy to auto users works out to less than a tenth of a cent per passenger mile, while the average subsidy to transit is around 40 cents per passenger mile. Air pollution is a problem, but less so every day, as today's ultra-clean cars pollute less in operation than a pre-1970 car polluted when standing still with the ignition turned off.

Peter Samuel's excellent Toll Roads Newsletter was the source of some of the most interesting information in my article. But he treads on dangerous ground when he endorses New Urbanist arguments about zoning, emergency services, and walkable communities. New Urbanists don't want to eliminate zoning; they want to make it more restrictive than ever–even at the cost of increased crime and lower emergency response times. As someone who has always walked, bicycled, or taken transit to work, I welcome pedestrian-friendly design, but the true New Urbanist goal is to mandate automobile-hostile design.