Deconstructing Duany

Andres Duany. Photo credit: Miami Herald
Andres Duany. Photo credit: Miami Herald

by James A. Bacon

Never in all the times over the years that I have heard Andres Duany speak, nor in those occasions in which I interviewed him, have I heard him utter a scintilla of partisan political sentiment. If I had to guess, I would say that he disdains both political parties. As he said yesterday of the New Urbanism movement, “We’re non-ideological. I can’t emphasize that enough.” New Urbanists are interested, he said, in “what works over the long run.”

But to say that Duany, the godfather of the New Urbanism movement, is non-partisan and non-ideological is not to say that there is no ethical basis for his thinking. Indeed, when he was providing an overview of New Urbanism basics to newby attendees of the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism conference, he commenced with a discourse on the movement’s ethics.

Environmentalism is an ethical imperative that gives primacy to nature, nature’s creatures and the natural habitat. By contrast, New Urbanism puts people at the center. “The New Urbanism cares about the human habitat — not about the polar bears. How’s our species doing?”

Duany describes his way of thinking as old-fashioned “American pragmatism.” He asks how the built environment affects people. He wants to know what works. To use philosophical jargon, he is an empiricist. While he offers detailed prescriptions about the best way to build communities, he is ever-ready to revisit old assumptions on the basis of new evidence. One of the most fascinating things about listening to him year after year is to hear how his thinking changes based upon the experience of New Urbanism projects in the real world.

Duany is best known for his critique of suburban sprawl, the low-density auto-centric pattern of development that has prevailed in North America since World War II. Sprawl communities were built for the care and feeding of automobiles, not people. He is no fan either of spectacular “starchitect”-designed buildings that lavish attention on the buildings while sacrificing the public realm where people actually interact. Likewise, while he is ever receptive to new techniques, he is skeptical of those who tout technology or other silver bullets as magical solutions to incredibly complex problems.

There is a strong libertarian streak in Duany’s thinking. Perverse government regulations — zoning codes that segregate land uses, Department of Transportation specifications that mandate crazy-wide streets, fire marshal regulations that make it impractical to build alleyways through city blocks — are the frequent target of his ire. Government rules are full of unintended consequences. (He has deepened his critique of over-regulation in his recent emphasis on Lean Urbanism.) How is it possible, he asked yesterday, that in the 19th century the United States managed to house 30 million penniless immigrants with no government assistance while today, with massive government involvement, the country is completely incapable of housing poor people properly?

Duany respects market forces. He is acutely aware that development projects must make money for developers (his clients) and be affordable to buyers. Accordingly, he is always alert to materials, building techniques, regulatory work-arounds and other strategies to drive costs out of building New Urbanist communities without compromising core principles.

That libertarianism is leavened, however, by a Burkean conservatism that respects the classical patterns that evolved over millennia of trial and error. The English thinker Edmund Burke found value in the wisdom accumulated over generations and argued that old habits and practices should not be lightly discarded.  Likewise, Duany finds value in the old, human-scale patterns of architecture and city design handed down over the ages until tossed aside by the radical disruption of the automobile culture.

Finally, Duany maintains a healthy skepticism toward the social engineers and visionaries who put ideology first. “We don’t experiment on people,” he said. Too many experiments in urban development — Pruitt Igoe-style public housing, anyone? — have proven disastrous. Given the slow turnover in the built environment, the effect of bad ideas lasts for decades.

Currently, that skepticism manifests itself in his awkward relationship with environmentalists. One of the best things that happened to the New Urbanism movement is when the environmentalists discovered that it offered a fully blown critique and alternative to auto-centric sprawl. “We’re now riding the ecological movement,” he said: “Fewer cars, less pavement.” But environmentalists can get carried away, whether they’re protecting snail darters or polar bears or they’re advocating expensive LEED certification that drives up the cost of new buildings. He decried the consultants — “a whole profession of sucker fish” — who have arisen around implementing the standards. Too many experts insist upon expensive, high-tech solutions while low-tech solutions, many of them found in vernacular architecture that uses passive techniques to heat and cool, will conserve energy far more cost effectively.

With a curious, wide-ranging mind, Duany is prone to digressions. At the moment, he is fascinated by the city plans adopted by 19th-century Mormons, and he’s updating the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, the 19th-century English author of “Garden Cities of Tomorrow,” the forerunner of modern suburbia, to create a yardstick for measuring modern garden-city revival projects. Pretty esoteric stuff. But in the end, he always comes back to what works, what kinds of communities best meet human needs.

Duany’s refusal to be pigeon-holed ideologically is one of the reasons for New Urbanism’s success. An appreciation of walkable, human-scale communities is penetrating all levels of government and society. That’s happening because, as a non-partisan movement, New Urbanism does not alienate partisan elected officials. It probably doesn’t hurt that Duany’s approach also appeals to a populace that is increasingly disenchanted with technocrats and ideologues.

He does not cast New Urbanists as heroes who swoop in and save the world. Rather, New Urbanists help define the rules that enable ordinary people to improve their lives and communities. “Patient, long-term investment is what works,” he said. “We set things up so communities can heal themselves.”


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16 responses to “Deconstructing Duany”

  1. larryg Avatar

    You’ve done a good job with your narrative but there are obvious contradictory hole in his views – and your approval of them – in my view.

    ” Never in all the times over the years that I have heard Andres Duany speak, nor in those occasions in which I interviewed him, have I heard him utter a scintilla of partisan political sentiment. If I had to guess, I would say that he disdains both political parties. As he said yesterday of the New Urbanism movement, “We’re non-ideological. I can’t emphasize that enough.” New Urbanists are interested, he said, in “what works over the long ”

    If you as an individual support the government being involved in determining regulations – and master planning … you are aligning yourself with partisan views.

    ” Duany describes his way of thinking as old-fashioned “American pragmatism.” He asks how the built environment affects people. He wants to know what works. To use philosophical jargon, he is an empiricist. While he offers detailed prescriptions about the best way to build communities, he is ever-ready to revisit old assumptions on the basis of new evidence. ”

    how does Duany know what is best for Humans? How does he then advocate for specific things to be imposed on people because he thinks it’s best for people? Duany knows what is best for humans? How is he so sure?

    How is it that every city from Buffalo to Richmond started out without zoning and fire codes – every one of them ended up with them? How do you explain that every modern city on the planet has such regulations and the cities that don’t are 3rd world?

    But Duany wants regulation – just not the kind he disagrees with. He thinks he knows what regulations are “good” for people.. and all these cities around the globe that institute health and safety regs – are wrong?

    really?

    come on Jim – you of all people should not be sucked in to one man’s subjective view of how the world should work.

  2. DJRippert Avatar
    DJRippert

    Just once I’d like to see one of these New Urbanists write a book that describes the so-called subsidies that contribute to sprawl and then describe (realistically) what would happen if all the subsidies were canceled overnight.

    Suburban communities were not created for the care and feeding of automobiles. They were created because newly-mobile people using a technological advance called the car wanted to live in those suburban communities. In response to that demand the suburbs were built.

    Any contrary theory would first have to explain why developers and builders cared whether people lived in the suburbs or the cities. Construction is construction. Why mount a conspiracy to cause people who would have created demand for urban dwellings to create demand for suburban dwellings? What would be the point? Some might say that the cheaper land in the suburbs allowed people to buy larger dwellings which, in turn, made developers more money than smaller dwellings in the cities would have generated. Perhaps. However, as Jim Bacon is fond of repeating, the mass transit systems which move city-dwellers around are subsidized just like the roads which move suburbanites.

    I’ll concede that subsidies are opaque and frustrating but if everybody is subsidized are they unfair?

    1. larryg Avatar

      the only real subsidy for sprawl is the transportation infrastructure – which is easily fixed with tolls.

      beyond that – this is about what one person thinks is right for other humans and ways for govt to impose it on them.

      he talks about the immigrants and housing.. does he remember the tenements that those folks lived in – and burned to death in… etc?

    2. larryg Avatar

      re: ” Suburban communities were not created for the care and feeding of automobiles. They were created because newly-mobile people using a technological advance called the car wanted to live in those suburban communities. In response to that demand the suburbs were built.”

      It’s also important to understand the history of how suburbs came to be – which was long before the advent of the automobile. It was, in fact, the train, and the train companies saw the potential of cheap land for housing for urban workers.

      The New Urban folks tend to blame the automobile but let’s pretend there is no auto – how would existing cities be connected and supplied from ports?

      Trains. and people saw that cheap land was available outside of cities and accessible by train.

      there has pretty much ALWAYS been a free-market demand for land outside of urban areas… around the world.

      and that reality makes the New Urban folks look as if they don’t understand how suburbs came to be originally because now the storyline seems to be that cars are the root of it and they’re really not – they’re second generation mobility to the burbs.

      but more than that – there is an implied value judgement as to what is best for people and what is best for society and a accompanying blame game as to why cities can’t return to their urban roots.

      it’s a really simple, basic thing for many people. They do not like living one wall away from others. they want separation – if it is available and they can afford it.

      and it’s not like many don’t start out in urban areas as young singles who live in apartments – but at some point choose a less dense housing option.

      Some people love urban – their whole lives. Some people do not.

      I would posit that what is best for people – is choice and the ability to exercise freely where you want to live and how you want to live and to not have central authority planners who think they know better, dictate it even if they like to call themselves libertarians and conservatives (sic)!

    3. When everyone subsidizes everyone else, that’s socialism. Can socialism be unfair?

      1. larryg Avatar

        yes.

      2. larryg Avatar

        I think it might also mean how you define subsidize.

        for instance, do you consider “insurance” to be cross-subsidies?

        but if I were going to make up a list of how urban areas receive subsidies, I bet that list would be as long as your list of suburban subsidies.

        urban areas – export pollution – from electricity plants to sewage sludge to solid-waste and food production – not to mention taxes to pay for transit systems that are not self-supporting.

        does that kind of back and forth really get you anywhere – anyhow?

        if you want to go forward – in a pragmatic way as Duany advocates – what is a constructive way forward?

        I prefer the DC lady’s approach.

  3. larryg Avatar

    ” By the mid-19th century, the first major suburban areas were springing up around London as the city (then the largest in the world) became more overcrowded and unsanitary. A major catalyst in suburban growth came from the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in the 1860s. The line joined the capital’s financial heart in the City to what were to become the suburbs of Middlesex.[4] Harrow was reached in 1880, and the line eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles (80 kilometres) from Baker Street and the centre of London.”

    In England and the US – the rail companies were given land by the govt in exchange for building the rails… and that land was given for four principle reasons. 1. for right of way/footprint for the rail 2 – as collateral for investors and 3. – as an asset that would increase in value because of access via rail …4. the development of land for farming.. because with rail – there are markets available.

    I think there is a huge misunderstanding as to how the country evolved with transport infrastructure – what I call Commerce Infrastructure.

    The New Urban folks seem to have an introspective view that casts urban areas as stand-alone places that have been degraded by roads as if only trains are really needed to supply cities and roads are, at best, necessary evils in moderation only.

    I’m continually amazed at how many people see 18-wheelers as unwanted pests travelling on their roads – to somewhere else – instead of the reality that virtually everything every one of us consumes – from food to furniture comes to us – on an 18-wheeler. When you go buy food – whether it is at WalMart or Whole Foods or a local grocery – 99% of what are on the shelves got there on an 18-wheeler – not matter whether you are in an Urban core or the worst example of sprawl known to man.. both exist because of 18-wheelers.

    they talk about “stroads” as if it’s the roads fault that localities leveraged land-uses deemed inappropriate and their “solution” is the urban equivalent of cul-de-sacs – stub the roads and turn them into bike/ped facilities that no longer functions for it’s original purpose. All because the locality took a basic road and converted it to a “stroad” -you then fix it by getting rid of the road (it’s original purpose).

    the purpose of US 50 – a coast-to-coast “interstate” highway that also is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is not deemed an impediment to “correct” settlement patterns. Today – US 50 is how 18-wheelers get off the modern interstates and carry their goods the last distance to the stores that provide food and goods to people who live there.

    How can someone be about “planning” urban or otherwise, and not truly understand the history of our transport infrastructure and it’s role in providing goods and services to people – especially in urban areas that are totally dependent on such things being brought into the city rather than produced within it’s boundaries?

    Ikea furniture and Starbucks Coffee and laptop computers are not teleported in on a beam. they come on trucks on roads.

    I just think the New Urban folks are either ignorant of history or in denial about how roads (and rail) came to be in the first place and the role the now play in making urban life even possible.

    the act of creating a nationwide/regional network of roads and rail – was not inherently an exercise in subsidization to start with. Those things were created to enhance commerce – to enable and empower a stronger economy – to bring goods from ports and farms into urban areas…

    one could argue that such roads have been co-opted for other uses – like commuting but one could also argue that roads like US 50 were also co-opted for land-uses that were not the purpose of the original road -either.

    I do not think one can engage in “new urban” planning successfully if they fail to understand the history and inherent purpose of the transportation infrastructure.

    we forget – urban areas formed initially without regulations and without much of a transport infrastructure. Food was grown locally – and cities were connected via trails and paths..

    as cities grew – so did regulation and so did the transport infrastructure.

    the whole idea of rolling back both – to “fix” the urban areas – and calling it “planning” seems not cogent.

    1. onelasttime Avatar
      onelasttime

      If our suburbs today started looking like the ones from the 19th or 18th century I think Duany would be thrilled. Much of suburban London or old American streetcar suburbs are urban by modern American standards. Even Richmond’s Fan District was developed and marketed as a suburban area.

    2. Isn’t that how the suburbs of Philly and NYC grew? People moved near train stations and when the auto and roads appeared, people were able to move further to houses they could afford. I have a repro of a Rand-McNally road atlas from the 20s. It’s fascinating to see where development was back then.

  4. JohnS Avatar

    Well said. Although the new urbanists claims to be a politically agnostic group their narrative about urban development sure sounds a lot like the justifications liberals use for more government planning controls and direct federal subsidies of cities through HUD and other programs. This new focus on blaming the regulators is somewhat of a “reap what you sow” scenario.

    1. larryg Avatar

      that’s what is so odd about them characterizing themselves as “conservatives” or “libertarians”!

      the urban advocates should focus on what it takes to attract more people to those areas and address the things that dissuade them from living urban.

      the quick and easy bailout – for both sides of the political spectrum seems to be to get govt to “force” people to do things that the govt thinks is “best” for them.

      In the world I inhabit , there are a crapload of self-proclaimed conservatives and libertarians, and – no self-respecting Conservative or Libertarian would be caught dead talking that way!

  5. larryg Avatar

    well… ” ”…..Harrow was reached in 1880, and the line eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles (80 kilometres) from Baker Street and the centre of London.”

    I mean.. GEEZE – 50 miles out from the Urban core – in 1880 via rail not auto?

    What I favor is that we have an honest view of history… not what we’d like it to be.

    1. Well stated. How far does NJ Transit, the Long Island Railroad and other trains go from Manhattan?

      Why can’t housing be a choice? If you live way out, you have a hellacious commute. If you live in a nearby suburb, you pay huge taxes and suffer commuter traffic from beyond. If you live in the city, the schools and services are crap because the government body is likely corrupt. There are tradeoffs in life. I’m encouraging my daughter who just got her BS in marketing from NCSU to look for work in NC as the cost of living is so much lower than here.

      1. larryg Avatar

        I think the New Urbanists hearts are in the right place but their minds can’t deal with how we have evolved in our settlement patterns since the advent of personal mobility.

        I carpooled for more than 30 years – commuting 40 miles to work but I used no more fuel than if I commuted a much shorter distance – 10 miles.

        there actually are hundreds/thousands of towns throughout the US that function the way New Urbanists advocate. A lot of them are communities surrounded by farms or railroad towns or small manufacturing/assembly company towns.

        but the bigger Urban areas in our country have been transformed by beltways …and major interstates radiating out from the beltways.

        and I don’t think the settlement pattern genie can be put back in the bottle.

        and there is a little bit of irony – if you compare suburban subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and the urban advocates who want roads to supply their needs but stop at the urban area -much like cul-de-sacs.

        😉

        1. Well stated!

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