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An Unplanned Discussion Among Andrew Ross and Cliff Ellis
An Unplanned Discussion Among NYU Professor Andrew Ross and SUNY-Albany Professor Cliff Ellis Stemming from a Development Nowhere Near New York

Andrew Ross

This weekend, the American Institute of Architects held a well-attended conference here titled Celebration and Central Florida.  Some of the list members were probably there.  A highlight was a debate between Andres Duany, the new urbanist town planner behind Seaside, Florida, and many other NU projects, and Alex Krieger, from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.  The salient features of the debate, as I heard it, boiled down to two parts:

From Duany, the charge that New Urbanism had succeeded, as a persuasive agenda, almost everywhere with the exception of the elite professional schools, like GSD, where resistance was heavily entrenched.  Andres announced, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that henceforth his polemical energies would be directed at professional curricula.

From Krieger, the unease at the prospect of two emergent urbanisms passing like ships in the night.  At the very moment that metropolitan urbanism is reviving for the first time in almost a generation, NU is thriving in the suburbia and threatening to lure away yet another generation of residents who are needed to stem metro decline in those very urban neighborhoods, ironically, that are admired by new urbanists.

These are not unfamiliar observations, and indeed they have been discussed recently on this list.  They were heavily qualified in all of the ways you can imagine without my detailing them here, but their juxtaposition in a single forum made for an interesting debate.

For what it's worth, my own findings here at Celebration--where I have taken a year of residence--show that very few of the residents moved here from the diverse metro neighborhoods of the sort that Krieger describes.  For the most part, they moved from other suburban locations, and were not, in other words, a direct example of white flight.  Of course, this proves very little in the long run, but it is important, I think, to have empirical confirmations or refutations of widely held speculations.

Downtown Celebration, Florida.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Cliff Ellis

I think that Duany is largely correct about the professional schools.  I believe he was referring specifically to architecture, but let's also take a look at urban planning.  Although a sizable number of planning academics have realized the virtues of the New Urbanism and incorporate its principles into their teaching, there is still a lot of suspicion of NU in the planning schools.  Why is this the case?

Allow me to suggest some hypotheses.  First, the planning academy has a large number of professors who are really economists, sociologists, demographers, and political scientists with an urban focus.  They don't think that physical design (or even "the city building process," as Bob Beauregard once proposed) should be the central concern of the profession.  They don't deal with the actual design of the built environment, and they don't care if their students learn how to shape urban space.

A deep knowledge of the history of urban form is considered optional.  They teach their students to do empirical social science, urban theory, planning theory, policy analysis, geographic information systems, and so on.  Design is not part of this package.   To these social scientists, the New Urbanism appears to be yet another retrograde attempt to reinstall physical planning at the center of the planning profession, and they will oppose that vigorously.  NU is seen as an alien intrusion from architecture that must be deflected or contained.

A case in point:  It is 1998, and the flagship journal of the planning fraternity, the Journal of the American Planning Association, has provided very limited coverage of the New Urbanism, and much of it has been critical.  There has never been a spirited, open-ended debate about NU in the pages of JAPA, even though NU has clearly become the salient alternative to low-density sprawl in the United States.  Why has such an important movement been marginalized in this way?  (Fortunately, the coverage in Planning, APA's monthly magazine which is more oriented to practitioners, has been better.)

The NU deflection strategy that is currently being used by hostile planning academics is two-pronged.  First, they demand very detailed empirical "proofs" that the New Urbanism is better than sprawl.  This may sound unobjectionable, but it is a project that could take a very long time.  Perhaps by the year 2030, enough empirical tests of traffic flow, resident satisfaction, use of public space, sense of community, and environmental impacts in NU developments will be accumulated to meet this criterion.  Now, empirical proof is a wonderful thing, and by all means let's try to prove that NU is better, but how much evidence is enough?  Opponents of NU can prolong this debate for decades, and  stalemate is a real possibility.   Some supporters of sprawl will never be convinced by any amount of evidence.

While this debate unfolds, developers and public agencies are laying down another thousand square miles of boring, expensive, unsustainable Nowheresville.  I don't remember planners, or anyone else, requiring the proponents of sprawl of the postwar era to "prove"--using the standards of academic social science--that sprawl, or modernist planning in general, was the optimum urban form.  Why is it that New Urbanists now have to present a hundred airtight arguments before we can even begin to change course?  As David Clarke once pointed out, there are people who would argue that we can't recognize the greatness of the Parthenon or Mont St. Michel without approval from a crew of certified "environment and behavior" researchers performing "post-occupancy evaluation."

Why is the "test of time," the success of many traditional urban patterns, given such little weight?   Perhaps is isn't "empirical" enough for the professors, or at least not empirical in the right way, encompassing too many variables which can't be captured in statistics.  Or perhaps they have bought into the conceit that our world is so utterly new and different that we have nothing to learn from the past.  In this view, spatial fragmentation and hypermobility are inevitable products of technological progress, making traditional urban patterns irrelevant.  If this point is granted, then all of the evidence based on historical success disappears from the scoreboard.  New Urbanists have to start over from the one yard line, with the analysis of traffic flows in Seaside.

However, choosing one urban form over another can never be a purely empirical matter.   It involves aesthetic, cultural, and moral choices.  This makes the social scientists very nervous, and will never fit into their "value-free" conception of planning scholarship.   The willingness of New Urbanists to choose one set of spatial patterns over another, in a decisive and compelling way, seems rather reckless to these scholars.  They want to wait until more computer printouts roll in.

The second prong of the strategy to deflect the New Urbanism is to argue that planners have already adopted most of the tenets of NU.  In this view, it is really the developers, bankers, politicians, and consumers who are to blame for our dreary and dysfunctional landscapes.  But this is surely an evasion.  Urban planners across the country are still mandating sprawl in their daily practice, and the New Urbanism is far from the common wisdom of the average planner.  The planning profession could do much more to advance alternatives.  Progress has been made, but the battle is far from over.

Yet another node of opposition to the New Urbanism is now emerging among geography and planning professors enamored of left-leaning postmodern theory.  These scholars are always on the lookout for material to deconstruct.  The critique of sprawl is old hat, so the New Urbanism appears as a juicy target.  Essentially, they create a straw man version of the New Urbanism, shorn of all complexity, and then attack it for being inauthentic, classist, sexist, racist,  conservative, and every other bad thing under the sun.  However, they offer no concrete alternatives to the status quo, just critiques of NU.  Now, I am not passing judgment on all of postmodern theory, which contains some important insights, but this particular expedition by the professors seems especially misguided, since the New Urbanism really does offer alternative designs that are compatible with a progressive political agenda. Perhaps these scholars are more interested in publishing articles than in producing workable strategies to repair the unraveling fabric of American cities?

So, in my view, Duany is right about the planning schools as well as the elite architecture schools.  Better gear up for a long march through the institutions.

Celebration square and fountain.
A Celebration public square surrounded by
homes of traditional Southern architecture.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Andrew Ross

I'm not at all sure where postmodernists come into the picture. You don't need to have even heard of postmodernism to question how upscale suburban development of open land (the predominant form of New Urbanism, both to date and in the coming tidal wave of bad knock-offs) relates to the pressing social problems that the history of housing in America has helped to create and aggravate.  I'm well aware that most planners don't believe it's within their capacity to address social issues, and that many believe it's their job simply to produce good design, but if planners want to restore their good name after the disasters of urban renewal and suburban sprawl and New Urbanism does, in part, have that professional goal then much work remains to be done in understanding how design is explicitly social, in its understanding, its implementation, and its effects upon population patterns, ecological sustainability, and civic tolerance.

On the other hand, Cliff Ellis is surely right to question the burden of proof laid at the door of NU.  And I am not unsympathetic to his complaints regarding empiricism.  But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  What I personally prize in empirical methods is not the behavioral liturgy of fact and objectivity, it is the opportunity to listen to non-experts talk about the ways in which they live in planned environments. When it comes to the vox populi, what you get in public hearings and community-oriented charretes is a lot different from what people say in their own homes and in the "post-occupancy"  environment.  Like most professionals, planners and architects don't necessarily have a good track record when it comes to listening to, and learning from the people who live with the results of their ideas and practices--in this case, residents. And, in my opinion, residents of NU housing are often typecast just as glibly--by class and race--as the new occupants of suburban housing were typecast after the war. 

There is a long and unfair tradition of establishing guilt by association with housing.  If we are interested in dispelling such myths, then a measure of empirical questioning seems in order.  As for the other kinds of unfairness, I believe you are correct in assuming that NU is held to a higher standard of scrutiny, but perhaps that is because NU holds itself to a higher standard, and probably wouldn't have it any other way, n'est-ce pas?

Celebration promenade.
Celebration's many small shops and 1950s-era movie
house line the promenade and manmade lake, which rest
adjacent to hundreds of acres of natural wetlands.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Cliff Ellis

I appreciate your comment, and assure you that I don't want to throw the baby out.  The New Urbanism is going to have to maintain a strong presence in the arena of empirical research, or it will lose credibility.  And as you point out, there is a very constructive domain of empirical research that involves taking residents seriously, looking closely at how people use space, identifying "bad fit," and, in general, studying how urban environments actually function in daily life.  As a former student of Allan Jacobs, I do appreciate this kind of research.  In addition, I am convinced that NU can produce the stronger evidence and the better argument.  (A good example of recent empirical research that supports many New Urbanist ideas is the book Transit Villages, by Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero.  In a different vein, the works of Kevin Lynch, Allan Jacobs,  William H. Whyte, and Jan Gehl also come to mind.)

So, I agree that the debates over empirical evidence in the academic journals are one component of the current struggle for a better approach to city building.  But we need to keep it in perspective.  Environmental design is not a pure science.  As in law, knowledge is often built up slowly through time by the accumulation of cases (again, I borrow from David Clarke's fine book, Arguments in Favor of Sharpshooting).  This is why building New Urbanist projects is so important.  You can only go so far with academic research articles.  In the end, you have to design--perhaps at the scale of the city we should say "plan"--and produce success on the ground.  This is especially true when it comes to the feel of a place rather than its bean-counting aspects.  Christopher Alexander was on to this when he talked about the "quality without a name" that we find in all great buildings and urban places.

Particular pieces of empirical research are also often prisoners of their time.  I can imagine an empirical study of a single New Urbanist project in 1998 producing some unfavorable or ambiguous results, perhaps with respect to trip generation, percent of trips on foot, viability of small-scale commercial areas, housing affordability, or the use of public space (e.g., no dramatic improvements show up).

Does this mean that the design is a failure?  Perhaps the social, economic, or environmental context will be different in ten or twenty years, finally allowing the results that were originally hoped for to emerge more clearly.  Perhaps more intangible spiritual or social benefits have been left out of the equation because they are just too hard to measure.  (Old downtown districts that were considered expendable in the 1950s now form the core of many a revitalized city center.)  In our market-obsessed society, non-market values are continually threatened, and empirical tests that ignore or downplay those non-market values will not be reliable guides for urban design.

A similar situation could arise with survey research.  If we survey suburbanites in 1998 and they say that they are perfectly happy with their ranch houses on large lots, is that the end of the debate?  Do the surveyed residents really understand the long-term consequences of their actions, and are they aware of the full range of alternatives?  Can social science surveys in the 1990s invalidate three thousand years of urbanism?  Survey data always need to be put in context in order to be meaningful.

Also, I'm still concerned about the "stalemate" issue.  In many domains of human affairs, you don't have to possess the better argument to win.  You just have to stall until the issue in question is moot.  Urban planning is a time-sensitive activity.  Failure to act can allow an inferior policy or technology to be "locked-in," making it very resistant to change.  If we want to act in a timely manner, we can't wait forever for the scientists in white lab coats to produce a final report on good city form.  Even the most empirical questions in urban planning--the ones that you would think could be resolved by a really good number crunch--have become the domain of "dueling experts."  Two sides, armed to the teeth with research grants and data sets, fight to a draw, leaving the spectators more confused than when the research started.  In this situation, we need to act without perfect information and smoking-gun arguments.  Choosing not to act, pending more research results, just means that we will continue to build more sprawl.  That is what I meant when I said that a demand for conclusive empirical research in favor of the New Urbanism could be used as a delaying tactic to avoid change.  It is also a matter of money and resources.  How much research money is available to study the New Urbanism in an unbiased way, as opposed to the studies commissioned by groups with a vested interest in the status quo?

On the one hand, New Urbanists should welcome the challenge to meet the higher standard.  Yes, I think we can win in the end.  But I still wonder how long it will take to assemble the proofs, especially if the terrain of the debate excludes or devalues many  arguments that New Urbanists like to make.  Social scientists often discount arguments that focus on the aesthetic quality of urban landscapes, the political importance of public space, the spatial supports for the sense of community, and the elusive positive "feel" of successful urban places.  For some empiricists, any move away from statistics leads to arguments that are "mere assertion," subjective theorizing, or pointless disputes over  taste.  But urban designers need a less inhibiting methodology, one that can capture the complexity of city form.  In this sense, then, the terms of the debate over the New Urbanism are themselves in question.

Celebration courtyard.
Alleys paved with bricks provide a largely hidden public space
for downtown employees and other residents of Celebration.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Andrew Ross

If this debate exists, it may already be anachronistic, as regards practice, and not likely to have much influence at places like the Urban Land Institute.  To my mind, the more interesting focus lies on the dialogue that local and state agencies will have with large-scale developers moving into the business of cranking out  traditional neighborhood developments, or TNDs.  How will the high standards be negotiated? A case in point is the St. Joe corporation, the biggest private landowner in Florida.  Peter Rummel, ex-director of the development team at Celebration, is now heading up St. Joe's plans to develop much of its one million acres of holdings in North Florida in the form of TNDs.  Given the state's regional growth management laws (only in existence since 1985), this large-scale development will require considerable cooperation with public agencies, just as the plans for Celebration did. 

Such cooperation is long overdue, but it also runs the risk of awarding high moral credibility to Florida's runaway developers.  Ravagers of the state's remaining pristine acreage could now go about their business wearing an environmentalist badge of honor.  Increasingly starved of resources by anti-government politics, and resigned, by custom, to merely responding to private developer initiatives, public institutions are no more in a position to act creatively and efficiently in the public interest.  State agencies and local government planners have long been accustomed to serving as handmaidens to private developers, lightly regulating and ensuring legal compliance of other folks' plans rather than coming up with their own creative initiatives. The recent acclaim for New Urbanism at several government agencies, and in state and local planning departments, is more an expression of relief at seeing civic alternatives emerge from a quarter that had been written off as a source of social innovations. 

Who could argue with the example of a non-gated, mixed-use, mixed-income community of relatively high housing density?  Especially if it were embraced by an private sector  movement within an industry storm-driven by the assumption that these features were impossible to sell?  Once the surprise is over, however, it remains to be seen what will come of the new condominium between developers and public planners.  I worry less about the number-crunching social scientists than about the backroom deals in state capitols.


Andrew Ross is Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at New York University.  He is the author of several books, including No Respect, Strange Weather, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life , and most recently, Real Love:  In Pursuit of Cultural Justice.  He is currently completing a year of residence in Celebration, Disney's new master-planned community in Florida.

Cliff Ellis grew up in Denver, Colorado, and received his Master's in Planning and Community Development from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1982.  He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of California-Berkeley in 1990.  His professional experience includes work in both private consulting firms and a public planning agency.  In 1994, he joined the faculty of the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the State University of New York-Albany, and he now teaches at the University of Kansas.  His research and teaching interests include land use planning, urban design, growth management, transportation planning, history of urban form, and planning history.  He is currently working on a book about the history of urban freeway building in the United States.


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