New Urbanism in Houston

This article in the Chronicle reports on the recent visit to the city by Andres Duany, a proponent of the New Urbanism school of city planning, which focuses on integrating development with a mix of housing, businesses and  public places in walkable areas.

Planner takes new look at urban living | – Houston Chronicle

Duany and other New Urbanist planners design compact, walkable places where homes are close to shops and offices and where public gathering spaces such as parks and plazas are just as important as houses.This approach is a novelty in Houston, where most developments still reflect a suburban, automobile-focused model.

Duany, in several appearances before business and community groups, said Houston should find a way to devote at least a small fraction of its 650 square miles to projects like Liu’s.

By doing so, he said, the city will be in a stronger position to compete for talented young professionals who want to live, work and play in truly urban environments.

“The world is changing radically in the 21st century, and Houston is not well positioned to be one of the winners,” Duany told the Greater Houston Partnership’s quality of life advisory committee. “This city cannot put together two walkable blocks.”

I think the last statement reflects the arrogance inherent in the New Urbanism. From what I’ve read, it assumes that cities comprising distinct areas of walkable, urban spaces are the only ones that will succeed in the next century. It presumes that no one else will have a preference for a different kind of living situation, that everyone will be able to afford the increased cost of living that seems to be inherent in places that have those characteristics, and that such a community will be viable in varying climates. Not to mention that it usually requires government intervention to direct the planning and placement of such communities. It also discriminates against families that may not fit the ideal of young professionals. It’s true that spaces like Duany is designing would be attractive to certain people. I would enjoy living in an area like the one he described, but I wouldn’t want that area design to be mandated by any type of central planning entity and subsidized by the taxes of other residents of the city.

Duany’s visit coincided with a spirited public discussion of the best growth model for Houston, a debate triggered by urban historian Joel Kotkin’s recent report for the Greater Houston Partnership.

Kotkin said Houston’s leaders would be foolish to focus on attracting the so-called “creative class” of young, highly skilled workers — the very people that Duany says Houston should try to attract by creating more walkable urban environments.

Tory Gattis, a local blogger who participated in developing Kotkin’s report, said Duany’s style of development might find a market in central Houston, but it should be developed through market forces rather than government codes.

“I think (Duany’s message) will get a reception in the core,” Gattis said. “It makes a lot of sense there. The question is whether to encourage it or coerce it.”

I’ll be interested to see how the projects described in the article evolve. In this case, they’re being undertaken by a single developer on land that he controls, so it truly is an experiment to see what the market will bear.


2 Responses

  1. Left to their own devices people will mostly make ugly things and places. Good design takes a strong hand and the result is, if done right, a better life. FYI I’ve made a film about Duany and the effect of good / bad design on community and democracy called Subdivided.

  2. Yes, comrade, but how far are you willing to go to impose that design? The point of my post is that I’m personally attracted to elements of New Urban and other similar design philosophies, but I don’t think you can make a strong argument that it should be forced on a community. Saying that the design you favor is necessary for a “better life” or improved democracy is elitist and wrong.

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