Headcase Design

If one scans the architecture magazines of the early 20th century, it is common to find in the letters section vitriolic disputes about the design questions of the time. It was with those sparring words in mind that I welcomed the invitation to rebut Robert Bruegmann’s critique of The Smart Growth Manual (“ How Smart Is Smart Growth?,” February 2010), my most recent collaboration with Andrés Duany. I was also excited about the prospect of creating a brief taxonomy of the anti–New Urbanism species and trying to get to the bottom of their disdain for our work. For the sake of brevity, I will call these groups the Libs, the Mods, and the Saints. I’ll begin with the Libs, or libertarians, because that is the direction from which Bruegmann lobs his review. Libs feel compelled to remind us of “the difficulty [of] sorting out the exact extent of human impact on a pattern of global weather that has fluctuated widely over the millennia with or without human intervention,” as Bruegmann does in his book Sprawl (2005). They likewise discount the role that highway building, redlining, and racial politics played in the growth of suburbia. For them, sprawl exists because Americans want it, and any attempt to improve transit or to enforce walkability is the first step down the slippery slope to death panels.

To this group, which is quite skilled at mustering facts in support of its utterly counterintuitive claims, the only rebuttal is to revert to common sense and a single question: How, by any possible stretch of the imagination, could it be considered efficient, healthy, or even acceptable to have spent the better part of a society’s wealth constructing a national landscape in which most citizens require a one-ton, poison-belching prosthetic device to satisfy their daily needs? (Slap forehead and continue … )

The Mods include anyone who cannot brook the traditional building styles found in many New Urbanist developments. While most New Urbanists feel that buildings have an obligation to communicate the spirit of their place, most Mods feel that buildings must communicate the spirit of their time, and that revivalism is a lie. Never mind that some of their favorite buildings are Greek revival (Roman) or Roman revival (Renaissance); we must not repeat this once-acceptable act of bringing tradition into the present.

While the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism is careful to remove style from the debate, many New Urban communities, like the Kentlands in Maryland, attempt to embody and evolve the architectural traditions of their region. Duany is quick to remind us how, while most of us were trained in architecture school to serve clients and patrons with sophisticated designs, nobody prepared us for the vast collection of customers that we would take on when we tried to reform the middle-class market. These customers include the review boards who must approve our projects if they are to be built—and, as we noted in our book Suburban Nation (2000), “it is hard enough to convince suburbanites to accept mixed uses, varied income housing, and public transit without throwing flat roofs and corrugated metal siding into the equation.”

Formerly director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Jeff Speck leads his own city planning practice in Washington, D.C. He is co-author of Suburban Nation (2000) and the just-published Smart Growth Manual.
Formerly director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Jeff Speck leads his own city planning practice in Washington, D.C. He is co-author of Suburban Nation (2000) and the just-published Smart Growth Manual.

Like many New Urbanists, I live in a Modernist house, but I don’t let my personal style preference doom my clients—who are trying to sell smart growth to a stylistically conservative market. Nor do I think my preference is important. Finally, there are the Saints, who are the hardest group to rebut because they are essentially right. The Saints, who wouldn’t dirty their hands with conventional development practice, point to those New Urban communities that have failed to fully achieve the goals of the movement and call them “better-looking sprawl.”

In response, it’s worth noting that many projects that claim to be New Urbanism or Smart Growth are not, which is one reason why we wrote The Smart Growth Manual. But even if we look only at our own work, we have to admit that some of it falls short—again for the simple reason that we are a movement of reform. Reform means that you start with the processes and products that are currently in place and try to make them better. For this reason, each New Urban project must be judged not only against an ideal, but also against the built environment that surrounds it.

To drive to Kentlands from historic Georgetown is a disappoint­ment, but to drive there from sprawling Tyson’s Corner is a revelation. That experience, and the hard slog that led to it, is what keeps us in the fight.