Out With the New, In With the Old

In Minneapolis and elsewhere, proponents of the New Urbanist planning movement are promising a new tomorrow -- one that looks a lot like yesterday.

"A generation ago," as Jason DeParle pointed out in The New York Times Magazine last October, "there were more cheap apartments than poor families." Now the opposite is true. The Alliance for the Streets has found that in downtown Minneapolis alone, some 2,400 units of low-income housing have been eliminated since 1979. The need for that housing is only growing, however, considering that nearly half the new jobs being created pay $22,000 a year or less. In other words, we're not talking about single mothers and public housing; we're talking working families who nonetheless have little chance of working their way up the ladder. And there are those who believe that New Urbanist rhetoric about mixed-income development--as well as the current wisdom about "deconcentrating" poverty throughout the metro area--are just a sleight-of-hand that serves to obscure the mounting problem.

While dispersing the poor into the suburbs may sound sensible in theory, it runs into enormous practical obstacles. When the Mahtomedi City Council was considering housing some of the low-income Minneapolis residents being "deconcentrated" into the suburbs, one resident summed up the local reaction in a phrase: "We don't need a Phillips neighborhood in Mahtomedi." Even more absurdly, owners of $200,000 executive homes in Chanhassen have attempted to block the construction of $100,000 townhomes anywhere near them. So it's probably for good reason that the brochure for the high-end Bay Hill condominiums at West Ridge Market makes no mention of the lower-income apartments that are supposed to be built a few blocks away--six units of which will house some of those 700-plus "deconcentrated" Minneapolitans.

In the city, there are lots of upscale developments that place the wealthy in close proximity to those with significantly less income--sort of a market version of "reverse scattered-site" public housing. But it doesn't mean they really have to fit in with the community. In northeast Minneapolis, for instance, the upscale Lourdes Square townhouses would seem a model of New Urbanist "infill" development, taking advantage of a long-vacant site and adding to the dense, small-scale, working-class character of the neighborhood. Yet it's set off from its surroundings by a moat of grass and trees, a tasteful wrought-iron fence, and a single entry for cars--a private drive, that is, not a through street: all fundamental taboos by the New Urbanist book. Lourdes Square promises its residents all the color and convenience of urban life, while effectively shielding them from their neighbors.

The complaint that New Urbanism is in the end about catering to the well-to-do "is accurate if not fair," concedes Michael Lander, a local architect and developer who, along with Morrish, is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "It's very difficult to do, but it is something we are committed to; our ideas will be diminished if they aren't delivered to a full range of people. Ten percent of any street, any building, or any project should be devoted to the lowest income people--but that's the hardest way to do it. We're a long way from that, and I'd blame the average resident on the cul-de-sac before I'd blame the developer." In any case, it seems unlikely that developers will do anything over the short run--that is, "the coming development boom in central cities"--except to give the market what it demands: chic urban villages.

It's worth pondering why "villages," as opposed to the more traditional "neighborhoods," is the preferred New Urbanist term. Villages are comfortable, small-scale, more or less self-sustaining places, but there is also an exclusionary connotation: a sense of cozy and peaceful insularity, of places where like dwells with like.

An old-style, organically grown urban neighborhood, on the other hand, might include, in some areas of Minneapolis, big-buck homes and high-rise condos just blocks away from $350 efficiency apartments and run-down mansions turned into multiple-unit dwellings. Liquor stores, groceries, and laundromats are a few doors from boutiques and bistros. These are, it's been pointed out, exactly the kinds of "villages" revered by New Urbanists--but today it is virtually impossible to create them. "As a planner, I can build up a completely mixed street--all ages, all incomes, all kinds of businesses--but I would never get it built," says Lander. "I'd be run out of Dodge. As a developer, I can tell you that there is a huge fear about how close somebody wants to be to someone who isn't just like them. It's a constant concern."

Another buzzword in New Urbanist circles is "defensible space." Ironically, planner Oscar Newman coined this term in his landmark 1973 study of why so many public housing projects are crime-ridden failures. For Newman--who is one of the more prominent critics of the New Urbanism--defensible space means providing public housing with simple design elements like kitchen windows, front stoops, and fenced yards, features that encourage residents to participate in their communities and gain a stake in them, thereby reducing crime. Now defensible space has been upgraded into a kind of environmental security system for the urban village.

The appeal of the village and the perceived need for defensible space--as if any and all neighborhoods are subject to the crime threats that exist in the nation's worst public housing projects--jibe nicely with the zeitgeist. New Urbanism is "the only organized nationwide movement of consequence initiated by baby-boom architects," points out New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, and as such it's built upon both the nostalgia and fears of that generation. What with growing poverty, new waves of immigrants, and the growth of minority populations, the temptation to embrace an older, simpler vision of city life, one in which safety reigns supreme, is not exactly surprising.

« Previous Page
Next Page »