The LookOut Letters to the Editor
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New Urbanism and Smart Growth

Dear Editor,

I was unable to attend this year’s annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) conference held in Pasadena last month. I was happy to read about the conference when The Lookout recently ran Mr. Gruber’s article, “Smart Urbanism.”

I agree with much of Mr. Gruber’s observations, yet I would like to express my own personal opinion regarding his comments about the relationship between new urbanism and smart growth, especially his perspective about “purists” and the issue of design. Although the differences are minor as Mr. Gruber points out, design is not an area of conflict. In fact, looking at how both groups view the issue of design may provide your readers with a better insight as to how these groups have been so successful.

I have been a proponent of new urbanism for over a decade. For the past two years, I have been working in a smart growth shop. This does not put me in a unique position. New urbanists and smart growth proponents are often one and the same. We work in the same circles and on similar projects. We sit at the same tables speaking on topics at conferences throughout the year. We collaborate on ideas, and solutions. Mr. Gruber is correct to think there is huge overlap.

New Urbanism and Smart Growth are very similar. New urbanism is the older practice, yet I believe smart growth has become the larger of the two. I see this as being beneficial to all. New urbanism’s primary focus is on the implementation of traditional architecture through design hierarchies of public and private space (as well as the theoretical study of the same, by new urbanist’s large group of academic proponents).

Although new urbanists are smaller in number, they are a highly focused and field-tested group. Being part of a larger group allows them to concentrate on their primary area of expertise while other colleagues address different areas of smart growth. By contrast, smart growth proponents are many. They include new urbanists and other design professionals like architects and planners, so design is a valued component of smart growth as a matter of course.

In addition to design, smart growth proponents focus on other issues including affordable housing, active living for seniors, vacant property campaigns, school siting issues for child safety, policy innovations, air and water quality, transportation, pollution, wildlife conservation, etc. Smart growth has a lot on its plate.

“Purists” or pundits would be incorrect to say smart growth proponents are indifferent to design. They believe very strongly that great places are created through thoughtful design, but here's the kicker, smart growth proponents encourage their new urbanists colleagues and other design professionals to create the visions people desire when citizens come together to discuss the best ways for their community to grow.

And don’t think the new urbanist’s work limited to design. Many new urbanists work on smart growth issues like those I previously mentioned. New urbanists equally utilize the expertise and knowledge of other smart growth advocates to assist them. This collaborative relationship has been a model for our success.

Contrary to Mr. Gruber’s description, smart growth proponents do not “roll their eyes” over the new urbanist's "nostalgia," nor do they blame new urbanists for capitulating to the developer’s design decisions (Mr. Gruber’s "lipstick on a pig" reference). Bad design is a tragedy that everyone suffers if a project doesn't meet the high expectations of the community stakeholders.

Sometimes, design setbacks are beyond the control of any professional. Existing laws, policies, citizens, or other third-party interest's can intervene to create the circumstances where the intended designs, policies, and outcomes are not enough to win the day. A post script; new urbanists employ Neo-traditional design techniques, not "nostalgia." There is no returning to the past. Like all good innovators, we use the best examples of yesterday's urbanism as a base in which to inspire and improve that which we build today.

Smart growth, when applied correctly, is a community process and it is also a community outcome. Local citizens can use smart growth's tools as a process to change existing laws, policies, and past land use practices that have become today’s obstacles to implementing better designed communities.

Smart growth proponents are keenly aware that the market rewards well designed places. Getting it right is a significant outcome of our work. From this perspective, I view the differences between new urbanism and smart growth as compliments of the greater whole.

One last thought about design and its relationship to new urbanism and smart growth. Good design doesn't succeed in a vacuum. Our country already has too many beautiful rural villages, Main Streets, and urban centers that are abandon or suffering from disinvestment. Other elements are needed if we are to bring these great places back to life.

While good design alone has not sustained these existing places, their buildings and street networks have most likely preserved the urban fabric necessary for revitalization when other smart growth tools are adopted.

Mr. Lee Sobel
Montgomery County, Maryland
CNU member
CNU-DC Chapter cofounder and board member
Smart Growth Network member

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