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Monday, March 27, 2006


Planning, New Urbanism, and Sprawl

Community planners in Chesterton, Indiana have seen hopes sunk about a planned new urbanist community at a development called Coffee Creek Center. The vision for the center was conceived in 1996, but the planners have had trouble making the transition from planning over to actual construction of the homes intended for the center. The chief marketing intent was to lure commuters to this area just south of Chicago with the hope of offering country living in an urbanist setting while still providing easy access to the major market in Chicago.


The problem, according to Samuel Staley, director of Urban and Land Use Policy at the Reason Public Policy Institute is that the planners didn't estimate their market properly. Segedy said "the new urbanism concept remains a tough sell in much of the Midwest, where potential homebuyers are still more interested in having a big house on a big lot than in recreating an urban experience". He goes on to state that if someone wanted to live in a city-like setting, then why live one hour away from it? Segedy also claims that most new urbanist projects should be targeting suburban markets or areas near "older, crumbling inner cities", but miss the mark when they go after these other residents.

Robert Steuteville, whose New Urban News (http://www.newurbannews.com/) provides information to planners and those curious about the movement claims that most new urbanist centers have been primarily successful. He points out that many communities developed on new urbanist principles are not only successful, but also motiviating other communities to consider just such developments.

At times the philosophy and ideals of new urbanism seem at odds with what they call the problem of sprawl as well. The Center for New Urbanism's own philosophy is as such: " In all cases, New Urbanist neighborhoods are walkable, and contain a diverse range of housing and jobs. New Urbanists support regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe these strategies are the best way to reduce how long people spend in traffic, to increase the supply of affordable housing, and to rein in urban sprawl. Many other issues, such as historic restoration, safe streets, and green building are also covered in the Charter of the New Urbanism, the movement's seminal document.

Although these new urbanist philosophies tout the lack of dependency on automobiles and the availability of affordable housing, the fact remains that most who would live in such a development would more than likely still have to drive to their place of employment and will still pay a premium for the structure. And although many of these developments have shops and other amenities in the community itself, they still have to drive to get to other, more specialized and cost-controlled centers (even though they probably would never admit it). Also, in the very words of the developer responsible for the Prospect Park neighborhood in northern Colorado, "Current prices range from $285,000 to over $500,000, which at the "lower end" is about the average price of housing in Boulder County". Those kind of prices still do not resonate as the kind of housing a family living at or just below the poverty line would be able to afford.

The communities themselves seem on the surface to be a good idea (and in a sense, a very good idea--who doesn't like the notion of not having to rely on automobiles and would like to be more in touch with their community?), but the problem still remains. Sprawl is sprawl, and even though many new urbanists contend that the new urban community combats sprawl, they still seek out old farmland and build on it, and construct roads on it, and put shops on it. And in essence, isn't that the very sprawl they claim to be fighting? It seems like nothing more than slapping a label on something just to be able to market it a little differently and then sell it to those that consider themselves to be alternative thinkers. Their neighborhoods may be a bit different, but those that are building on farmland are just as "guilty" as those they slam for promoting sprawl.

Included is one of the links to the local Prospect Park community that has stated just such an ideal here in Colorado. It's a fascinating place to visit, and actually does look like a nice place to live. It just seems odd not to consider it as also being part of our evil "sprawl problem" (http://www.terrain.org/unsprawl/8/.

"The communities themselves seem on the surface to be a good idea (and in a sense, a very good idea--who doesn't like the notion of not having to rely on automobiles and would like to be more in touch with their community?), but the problem still remains."

Let's look at the thought: who doesn't like the idea of relying less on a car. Also note your observation that most of the people who will have homes in new urbanist settings will probably still have to drive to work. Also recall our earlier discussion of location choices for businesses as well as ideas like market areas.

A person may wish it were possible to have a home and not have to utilize a car for much travel from here to there to carry on everyday life. There are locations like this, but I bet most, if not all, are places with pretty high density. With sufficient density, the market areas for businesses will get smaller in size, and it will be easier for people to live without having to make frequent use of auto travel for daily living.

Many may hope to rely less on auto travel, but unless they also want to live in pretty high density settings, it simply may not be in the feasible set.
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