by Kevin Charles Redmon
This year marks the 30th anniversary of New Urbanism, the school of town planning and architectural design that highlights walkability, self-contained communities, and dense neighborhoods. Hailed as the antithesis of–and answer to–suburban sprawl, car culture, and the megamall, New Urbanism has proven both influential and contentious. (Its flagship development, Seaside, Florida, served as the too-quaint-to-be-real set for The Truman Show.) But its innovations and ideologies continue to shape the post-industrial streetscape, from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt.
Andres Duany, the father of New Urbanism, left his job as a condominium developer in 1980 and founded the firm DPZ with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. He’s spent those 30 years sketching up new developments (some as far away as Abu Dhabi), arguing with critics at academic conferences and town hall meetings, and dreaming up new ways to get Americans out of their cars and onto the street. Reflecting on the indelible fingerprints his work has left on our urban landscape, Duany talked to The Atlantic about today’s environmentalism, the problem with suburban teenagers, and why democracy can’t be trusted to build smart cities.
New Urbanism is now 30 years old. What was its original mission, and what has it become today?
Basically it is making communities that are mixed-use and mixed-income and complete, to the extent that they allow you to live without a car. And that has all sorts of implications. For the 50 percent of Americans who do not drive, they have a kind of freedom of movement.
That which used to be the raison d’etre of the original New Urbanism has been expanded and embedded into the environmental movement, because driving, of course, causes carbon loading of the atmosphere. So what began as an aesthetic movement has now become central; the way we see it, we’re being pulled apart by people who are taking New Urbanism’s genetic material and making it part of their agenda. It’s the same artifact being presented several different ways, for different agendas.
How has the country–the national zeitgeist–changed since your first New Urbanist projects?
When I first started practicing, there were no NIMBYs. I remember that developers were categorically admired–the people who brought us the housing and the offices and the shops that we needed. They brought us wealth. They brought us welcome neighborhoods. They pulled us away from a provincial poverty of all kinds. Everybody wanted to grow–growth had a really good name.
And of course, that’s been reversed now, and people are suspicious of growth. What happened is that there was a betrayal of the vision of what suburbia was going to be like. And in fact it did not deliver the open space and the freedom to drive around and the nature that was promised. All of that was betrayed. The anger is extraordinary.
When did the ideals of New Urbanism really begin to coalesce in your mind?
That was 1980. I was designing condominiums in Miami–very successfully–and then Leon Krier, the great theoretician of urbanism, gave a lecture in Miami, and basically within 3 weeks the message had sunk in. We didn’t turn on a dime, but within a month, I had said, “My god, this is so much more interesting, so much more important.” And so my wife and I left the firm and formed our own.
We didn’t know how to design urbanism, but we had the time to study it and we really did have something that was rare: an open mind. Everybody’s ideological now–ideological modernists, traditionalists, environmentalists. But there was a decade in which the schools were actually open minded. And you’ll find that most of the founding New Urbanists were educated in precisely that decade.
How does environmentalism play into all this? Back in the 1980s, no one was worried about designing “green” communities.
Environmentalism was very minor then. We stumbled across it because it was a more economical way to build. When the developers didn’t have money to throw around, we would revert to very light infrastructure. So we’ve got examples of very light infrastructure that’s 20 years old, and way ahead of its time.
Our take on environmentalism is what I call the “original green.” Which is really about quite simple, economical things. One thing I don’t like about the current environmental movement is that it’s been captured by a very high tech ethos, which actually turns out to be more expensive. I think its absolutely absurd that people say that LEED-certified buildings might cost two, three, four, five times as much. And I say, “What are you talking about? How did you get there?” This thing about triple glazing and 8 inches of insulation and green roofs, my God it’s so expensive. You can’t say, “Yeah, I’ll do it just to be popular.” We have to go back to the original green–not the gold plated green.
Last week, Brookings Institution released a report on the state of metropolitan America. Have you had a chance to read it? Apparently more and more young people are fleeing suburbia these days.
There’s this generation who grew up in the suburbs, for whom the suburbs have no magic. The mall has no magic. They’re the ones that have discovered the city. Problem is, they’re also destroying the city. The teenagers and young people in Miami come in from the suburbs to the few town centers we have, and they come in like locusts. They make traffic congestion all night; they come in and take up the parking. They ruin the retail and they ruin the restaurants, because they have different habits then older folks. I have seen it. They’re basically eating up the first-rate urbanism. They have this techno music, and the food cheapens, and they run in packs, great social packs, and they take over a place and ruin it and go somewhere else.
I’ve known for 10 years about this destructive monoculture that’s condensed in the suburbs. These people would normally be buying real estate by now. And we designed for them. We kept saying, “Aha, these kids, between 24 and 35, will be buying real estate.” Guess what? They aren’t. Because they can’t afford it. But they’re still using the cities–they’re renting and so forth. The Gen-Xers also discovered the cities; they’re buying in a proper way. The Millennials are the ones we’re talking about. And they love cities desperately. And they’re loving them to death.
What other projects are vying for your attention at the moment? We hear a lot about the Sunbelt these days.
There’s the Sunbelt, the Phoenixes and such, which I think sort of swallowed suburbanism whole. But the old south–the formerly provincial, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina–is going through a renaissance. When you meet young southerners, you’re talking to people who have gone to really good colleges, and they’re sophisticated and they aren’t scared.
When I work in New England or Washington, D.C., or California as a planner, these people are terrified of the future. They have seen the future and they hate it. Because what they’ve tasted of it has made their lives worse. It’s made them poorer, it’s eaten up nature, you name it. Traffic congestion, loss of things they love. So they hate the future and they’re really, really conservative. But I think the old south is where they were in the 19th century: really excited about the future, a can-do attitude. For about 10 years there’s been a stirring there. I love working there.
You spent your childhood in Cuba.
Only until I was 10. I grew up in Spain.
What’s it like to return to Havana–to an urban landscape untouched by the destructiveness of global capital?
I think it’s more than just capital. There are two kinds of destruction: there’s the loss of the city, the high rises, which is what happened in Mexico City and Buenos Aires and Bogota. But then there’s the other destruction, which is the migration of the rural people to the city. And that was controlled in Cuba. They just said, “You don’t have your card, you don’t have your permit, you are not coming in.”
But I think the most interesting experiment of all is Singapore. Singapore had nothing going for it. No raw materials. And you got a kind of top-down government that was almost completely enlightened, putting education first and so forth, and you have this city that is extremely livable.
While democracy does most things well, I think we need to confront the fact that it does not make the best cities. And that the cities that were great were rather top-down. You know–Paris and Rome, the grid of Manhattan. What would those have been like if there hadn’t been some top-down stuff? Every landowner would have done a separate little pod subdivision. That’s one of the things that’s naive about Americans–extremely naive, I find, as an outsider having lived in places that are possibly less democratic, like Spain. This idea that you have an individual right to do whatever you want with your land is very democratic, but the result is pretty questionable.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a debate in this country about certain things. We talk about bottom-up planning. And by the way, I make my living doing this bottom-up planning. But if you unfilter what people want–they don’t want poor people, they don’t want income diversity, and they don’t want shops anywhere near them and they don’t want rapid transit and they don’t want streets that connect and they don’t want anybody bicycling past their yards and they don’t want density. So you can’t just do unfiltered bottom-up planning. We need to educate.