duanyby James A. Bacon

Andres Duany, a prime force behind the New Urbanism movement, dresses impeccably, exudes Old World sophistication and speaks eloquently in a restrained and understated manner. Jason Roberts, founder of The Better Block organization, wears dorky clothes, laughs like the goofy but affable guy next door and gesticulates excitedly when he speaks. Their styles couldn’t be more different but their substance is very similar: They have lost patience with the bramble patch of local government regulation that hampers neighborhood and community revitalization. And they get things done.

Duany’s new crusade is “lean urbanism.” By lean, he envisions an alternative to the red tape that that strangles the bottom-up, entrepreneurial revitalization of American communities. “Common sense has been almost completely lost in my profession. There are too many protocols in the way,” Duany told Anthony Flint with Atlantic Cities.

The lean urbanism concept, he says, is like a software patch, or a workaround – ultimately a guide or a tip sheet to navigate the complicated, and often very expensive, maze of working in the built environment in the U.S. “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

Roberts is a master of what is often referred to as Tactical Urbanism — grassroots, impromptu takeovers of public space — to drive change at the block level. In the Ted talk below, he describes how his “just do it” approach — civil disobedience against arbitrary zoning rules that, say, prohibit awnings or ban congregations of people on sidewalks. His sidewalk sit-ins have have sparked revitalization along a former Dallas street car line…. which he also hopes to revive. Redevelopment, he says, is “hamstrung by a series of rules that were put into place years ago that we don’t even know why we’re doing it, we just keep doing it.”

Philosophically, conservatives should sympathize with this impulse within the Smart Growth movement. It’s a core conviction of conservatives that federal government regulation, while sometimes necessary, tends to grow to excess and choke off private initiative. Periodically, that regulation needs to be revisited, pruned back and adapted to contemporary conditions. Conservatives should apply that same insight to state and local regulation, especially the welter of rules regulating land use and development.

A Better Block movement is emerging in the City of Richmond: Better Block RVA. Maybe we can start a similar Better Subdivision movement here in the ‘burbs of Henrico County. Either way, the key is to stop slavishly accepting the rules just because they’re the rules. If the rules don’t work, get them changed.

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21 responses to “Lean Urbanism, Better Blocks”

  1. re: ” It’s a core conviction of conservatives that federal government regulation, while sometimes necessary, tends to grow to excess and choke off private initiative. ”

    in most cities – it’s not the Feds that are writing the regs that they are complaining about that “choke off” ..for want of a better phrase – “good ideas”.

    it’s things like universal Building Codes and other support and safety things that are needed when people are living together in dense circumstances.

    an no.. just because most cities have similar type approaches to building codes – like adopting a universal one – does not make it a Federal issue .

    “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

    again – if you have a problem with these kinds of issues – they can be directly addressed by voting out the folks currently in charge in the city – a far easier task than trying to change Congress. And if you really want to gut building codes – run for office on that basis.

    these things seems to continue to be generalized anti-govt rants in my view and they don’t even bother to be specific about what regulations are administered by which level of govt – just whine about “bad” govt, in general.. for all things that annoy you.

    messing with building codes especially in areas where hundreds or thousands of people live – is serious stuff and we don’t have to go far too
    see where shortsighted actions result in 3rd world type living conditions and catastrophes.

    elderly and handicapped people need elevators …. just like they need access infrastructure to public places…

    if a building is next to another building that has no sprinklers and a fire starts, even the building with sprinklers is liable to burn down and with it those elderly and handicapped ….

    why make patently foolish statements like this to start with?

    I don’t know what the answer is but I suspect gutting building codes is not a good one…. and as soon as I see that kind of thinking from someone, I kind of discount the rest of their “message” because obviously they’re not even tuned in to the fact that insurance often drives these things as much or more so than government.

    It makes me believe that Conservatives either don’t know or care the role of insurance or consider it to be more like government regulation!

    there is one potentially good thing that can come out of discussions that connect Conservative thinking with Smart Growth – and that is to see if Conservatives actually truly support collective approaches to settlement patterns which I think is required… in urban areas.

    Conservatives like to think of personal responsibility – and I do too but when you put yourself in places where there are a lot of people – individual responsibility cannot fix the problems that arise … only a centralized, collective approach can.

  2. So Jim, if new urbanism is fiscally conservative, why are the residents of Tysons Corner paying higher real estate taxes than other residents of Fairfax County because of the added tax district necessary to pay for a small part of the additional roads needed in an urban Tysons. Keep in mind I am not talking about higher assessments. I’m talking about a higher tax rate.

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      Because people like yourself included continue to say that all hell will break loose on our roads that somehow if we build around existing infrastructure and mixing the use so that we can depeak the land use, that congestion will escalate linearly when all studies actually show the exact opposite.

      It is only when transportation engineers start playing in socioeconomics that the story is flipped and THAT is why my taxes (not yours by the way) have been increased.

      Tysons generates, as is, over 150 million in real estate taxes alone and with future growth will increase to nearly 500 million in today dollars. Considering the infrastructure for 35 years is only 3.1 billion, it raises some very good questions as to WHY the communities around Tysons feel they must burden us in Tysons with more taxes in some perceived obstacle to the traffic boogie man.

  3. Agree with TMT. Mixed-use, urban-scaled infrastructure is expensive and difficult to obtain financing for. New Urbanist projects like Tyson’s depend on massive government subsidies and wealth transfer schemes for their very existence. There is no reason why conservatives should be sympathetic to this.

    1. jim bacon insists there is a Conservative approach to it… but there are some “skeptics”…

      I personally don’t think any conservative worth their salt in today’s idea of “conservatism” would stand a chance of a snowball in hades… of supporting urbanized planning … they’d be several notches down from RINO!

      you’ve got most of the GOP running around these days playing “starve the beast” and wielding “govt-is-the-problem” swords… so I’m all ears to hear about GOP-operated cities and GOP-sponsored smart growth!

    2. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      You’ve got to be kidding me, look at the numbers instead of citing without proof. Tysons subsidizes the rest of Fairfax, not the other way around.

      1. If you want to talk about numbers, then what of the 7 billion or so being lavished on the Silver Line? Is that not a subsidy to Tyson’s?

        1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
          Tysons Engineer

          Yes lets talk numbers,

          Like how you are lumping two completely separate projects together.

          Rail to Tysons and rail to Dulles are not the same thing, they are two separate phases for a reason.

          Rail to Tysons/eastern Reston cost 3 billion, of which some came from developers via a special tax, albeit most of it came from toll road and federal/state funds.

          So lump up the public cost (evidently the toll road is public) and it is 2.2 billion one time cost. 2.2 billion I would add which has in many ways been paid down by the 20+ years of over 100 million dollars in revenue coming from Tysons.

          None the less

          2.2 billion + the supposedly 3 billion for infrastructure over the course of the next 35 years means 5.2 billion for 35 years.

          Dividing that out, it comes out to 150 million per year, which is what is ALREADY being generated out of Tysons not even including sales tax, taxes on the businesses, etc. When that number rises (which is the only reason 3 billion would be necessary) then that will more than cover expenses.

          So please explain to me how its “lavished on Tysons”. What a joke.

          Without Tysons, your taxes would be higher, deal with that reality.

  4. TMT and JohnS raise an interesting question regarding the implementation of Smart Growth principles in Tysons — can they be considered fiscally conservative. I don’t have time to answer that today. It’s a complex issue and I need time to think it through. But I’ll try to address it tomorrow, perhaps as its own blog post.

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      They don’t raise interesting questions, they are citing fact that is on its head in reality. Costs for Tysons itself are far outweighed by the real estate revenue paid by Tysons itself, let alone the sales taxes, and of course the value of the jobs that are made possible because of Tysons and its relatively low rental rates (due to the high density many against new urbanism oppose).

      1. the Fredericksburg Area would go ape-crap over the idea of creating a Tysons-like employment center…

        I guess when you’re “too” successful the NIMBY’s have to even complain about prosperity!

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Nice to see you take the leap from federal to state and local. Many of the rules are written by zoning or homeowners association lawyers with the “free market” supposedly in mind.

    My HOA’s rules were written maybe in the 1980s and won’t allow large satellite dishes that used to be maybe 10 feet in diameter. A few years ago there was a dust-up when a neighbor wanted to put a tiny satellite dish on his roof.

    It’s all part of the lawyer-HOA-support staff-real estate agent thinking: keep the rules because they are too hard and expensive to change, as outdated as they may be.

    In any event, knowing that it is important for you to keep your “conservative” stripes and you have to make dogmatic points, that at least you are spreading the blame around ALL government. Why not try some non-government and privatized governments, too, like HOAs?

    1. May I remind you of this article I wrote a month ago?

      The Virginia HOA Power Grab.

    2. Peter, Congress preempted local zoning and HOA covenants that prohibit the installation of small satellite dishes on a the private property of a landowner. So long as they aren’t on common property, exceed the size limits (which are bigger in Alaska), and properly installed according to electric and safety codes, put the dish up my friend and watch March Madness.

  6. Congress preempted local zoning?

    as far as I know – the State and the locality deal with zoning not the Feds.

    are there Federal land-use zoning regulations?

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Sorry, Jim, I need a separate brain server to keep up with your posts.

    TMT, that’s exactly what my neighbor argued, put up his dish and invited the HOA to fine him. I don’t think they bit.

    1. isn’t this an example of the Federal Government protecting people’s rights rather than restricting them?

      I thought the premise was that the Feds were specifying restrictions on the use of land… instead of local jurisdictions and other entities.

      are we now also blaming the govt for protecting people’s rights to erect antenna?

      sometimes it’s hard to tell if there is a unanimously agreed-to role for govt.

      everyone has complaints.. but different complaints.. and sometimes complaints in opposition to each other. One side wants the govt to do one thing and the other side wants the govt to do the opposite.

      As a country – we seem to be at a point where we do not agree on what the purpose of govt is nor do we recognize the distinctions between Federal, State and Local govt – they represent “THE” collective government and all ills and perceived harm that accrue from it.

      one of the things that distinguishes us from 3rd world countries that even hard-core Conservatives and Libertarian types will tell you – is “the rule of law” — but then it sort of gets lost as to what it is or is not or what it should be or should not.

      1. Some people complained that they could not install a dish antenna. So did DirecTV and Dish Network. Congress gave the FCC authority to preempt local zoning in certain situations. I’ve advised a number of HOAs on compliance issues. Bott0m Line, an HOA cannot prevent installation of a complying dish just cuz Henry and Mabel don’t like them in the neighborhood.

        Also, Congress restricted local zoning for cell phone towers under certain circumstances. It also ruled state or local government could not consider health issues related to RF emissions so long as the emitter complies with all FCC rules. What I get a charge from is when a group of parents will whine about the health risks of a cell phone tower in their neighborhood or at the local middle schools, while subscribing to cell phone service for their kids. They see no contradiction.

        1. Not disputing that – but pointing out the usual narrative casts the Feds as bad guys in all matters including restrictive local ordinances like fire and safety codes and it’s usually the local or State govt or an HOA that is being restrictive.

          we have folks down our way who want cell phone coverage but don’t want the pole where they can see it?

          we take sludge from Blue Plains and put it on our local fields despite complaints that Blue Plains should take care of it’s own sludge..

          we have people who want to have chickens in their back yard and others who don’t want the yard next to them to have chickens in it.

          we have folks who buy attack dogs then act like they don’t understand why others want their hide when their dog “accidently” kills one of the neighbors dogs.

          where am I going?

          it’s become popular to blame government and people don’t even care which part of govt they want to blame.. just “govt” …. and much of “govt” involves trying to protect the “rights” of people on opposite sides of an issue.

          so no matter what govt does – it’s gets blamed.

          don’t want elevators or sprinklers in buildings that may have elderly or handicapped inhabitants… would save money and make housing more “affordable” … what’s the right answer?

          if govt makes a decision to side with the elderly it riles up those who want more affordable housing…

          no matter what is decided – government gets blamed for it’s “wrong” decision.

          and right now, in our political world – it’s rampant… especially on the right.

  8. ” If the rules don’t work, get them changed.”

    one would think – that citizens have no better opportunity to do this – that at the local level where a locally-elected BOS might be there by a few hundred votes….but all across the country we have folks complaining about government rules – like taxi rules or building or zoning codes, or favoring roads over ped or bike, etc, etc.

    but what happens? usually nothing. no one runs for office promising to get rid or change the offending rules and once elected… it’s not something they support.

    and people get frustrated but then they start blaming government in general.. totally ignoring the fact that they had a chance at the local level to have an impact – and squandered the opportunity.

    Look at Fairfax and Tysons – or towns and cities with perceived anti-free market rules for taxi’s or restrictive land-use zoning…etc (without me commenting on the merits.. I would accept the vote of the majority even if it makes me a minority).

    but for the most part – we seldom see citizens truly assert themselves – at the easiest level to evoke change – the local level.

    what exactly does this mean? does it mean that people are passionate about issues but incompetent or too lazy to really go after change?

    It’s kind of hard to complain about local government but never change it and worse – to blame the disliked “rules” on higher level government that really has little to do with local rules.

    we’re pretty messed up as citizens these days when it comes to governance.

    we don’t like the way government works but we seem incapable of changing it.

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