Inroads on the right

Increasingly embraced by mainstream business groups such as the Urban Land

Institute, CNU now has an endorsement from one of the staunchest institutions of the political right as well. This summer, the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr., published a major article, ”It Takes a (Well-Planned) Village.” It was subtitled simply, “In praise of the New Urbanism.”

The article by Washington, DC, writer Catesby Leigh plunges into a world deeply familiar to members of CNU. It praises Vermillion, the new mixed-use community outside Charlotte designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., both for its graceful layout recalling Savannah and the way its diverse building forms accommodate 21st century life. Traditional Vermillion is the first village in Charlotte to offer cutting-edge live-work units, the article notes.

Leigh calls Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck worthy descendants of Jane Jacobs for exposing in their writing how “inept regulation of real-estate development and redevelopment” fuels misshapen growth patterns. He has CNU member John Massengale provide a blunt assessment of the American built landscape: “80 percent of America has been built since World War II and it’s not pretty.” And he credits longtime CNU figure Peter Katz for making an argument that’s appealing to conservatives — that encouraging a diversity of housing types such as back-alley cottages and coach-house apartments is a better way to provide affordable housing than enforcing quotas.

rejection of “radical” sprawl

Perhaps the most welcome part of the article is Leigh’s rejection of the claim made by some conservatives and libertarians that sprawl is an expression of consumer preference and a product of pure, free-market demand. Giving no credence to critics on the right such as pro-sprawl mouthpiece Wendell Cox, Leigh identifies suburbia as “a very radical phenomenon” that’s nevertheless become part of the mainstream, severing communities from place-making principles that promote civic life and instead isolating people and elevating the concept of individualism.

At the same time, Leigh offers a frank assessment of problems and challenges facing New Urbanism, starting with the fact that zoning codes in much of the country outlaw compact, mixed-use developments. Of course, many in the movement will have problems with some of Leigh’s assessments, too, including his dismissal of rail as a shaper of development patterns at a time when community leaders in sprawling cities like Atlanta are endorsing a light rail line to knit together neighborhoods.

Leigh recommends a number of pro-urbanist policy prescriptions to his politically oriented audience. He argues for a secondary mortgage market for mixed-use buildings, to encourage bankers to lend money to these projects. He also calls for orienting planning of metropolitan regions around land-use and building principles such as the “SmartCode” that reinforce the specific character of rural and natural areas, compact villages, and dense cities.

The lasting impression that the article leaves with readers may be as much philosophical as political. The New Urbanism is such a powerful set of ideas — supported by so much common sense and experience — that it can bring people together across the political spectrum. Since the appreciation of thoughtfully designed, enriching places ultimately transcends ideology, many in CNU have been reaching out to those on the right as well as the left for years. This effort seems to be paying off.