Planetizen Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Edited by Abhijeet Chavan, Christian Peralta, and Christopher

Steins Island Press, 2007, 208 pp., hardcover $35, paperback $19.95.

Since 2000, the discussion group Planetizen has been conducting online debates about most of the major issues in planning and development. The sometimes sharp volleys among individuals with contrasting points of view have made for stimulating reading, so it makes sense that Planetizen’s editors would compile the most significant statements that have circulated on the website, add a limited quantity of new material that puts the debates in perspective, and publish them as a book.

But the editors failed to do enough editing. Here it is 2007, and they’re still repeating arguments that were proven wrong several years ago. In the preface to the urban design section, the editors say that new urbanist developments “have been largely built on outlying green space and claim few successful infill projects, leading to the analysis that New Urbanism is simply a more compact form of sprawl.” A decade ago, that may have been true, but certainly not today.

I have no objection to someone’s saying that when traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) are built on the metropolitan periphery — and offer little employment, minimal public transit, and very limited shopping and services — they contribute to sprawl. That seems a fair assessment. Many TNDs have been built in locations that are troubling from a regional planning perspective.

But the Planetizen editors’ assertion that new urbanist urban or infill projects are a rare breed is mistaken — and mystifying, since on page 98 of this book, the editors publish a reply from a reader who notes that by 2001 “fully 50 percent of New Urban developments were infill.” The reader’s source was a New Urban News survey. The editors don’t offer any evidence that the survey was incorrect, yet they trot out the tired claim that New Urbanism amounts to “New Suburbanism.”

It’s as if the editors didn’t adjust their views as new information came to light and early assumptions became outdated. Perhaps they compiled the essays and responses too hastily. The title on an article by Dan Burden is “Ten Keys to Walkable Communities.” In fact, Burden presents eleven keys.

Prominent urbanists featured
The essayists include a number of individuals who have played prominent roles in New Urbanism and Smart Growth or who have interesting perspectives on the potential of these closely aligned movements. Among them are Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, John Norquist, James Howard Kunstler, Harriet Tregoning, Michael Woo, William Fulton, and Michael Mehaffy. The essays are organized into five topics: sprawl vs. Smart Growth; transportation; urban design; disaster planning; and society and planning.

Donald Shoup explains why communities need to rethink the idea of “free” parking. Mehaffy extracts from Oregon’s Orenco Station some lessons for transit-oriented development. Fulton examines how the premise that “growth must pay for itself” is affecting development and municipalities, and not always for the best. Norquist and Charles Shaw, a Chicago writer and activist, spar over whether the threat of gentrification is “grossly exaggerated” in all but a few metro areas. Constance Beaumont tells how to bring schools back into walkable neighborhoods. Libertarians attack Smart Growth, and suffer some smart retorts.    

Christopher DeWolf, a Montreal writer, photographer, and editor, launches one of the more surprising critiques of New Urbanism, saying, “New Urbanist towns too often commit the most heinous of urban sins: they segregate zones. … The majority of commercial establishments are constricted to designated town centers surrounded by a ring of residential areas with few bridges to connect the two sections. … They lack the organic growth and fluid blend of multiple uses that make urban neighborhoods so successful.”

One reader responds to DeWolf by acknowledging that new urbanist developments are not perfect, and says they need time. But another reader argues that New Urbanism produces too many “bad copies” on greenfield sites. “Frankly, a movement should be judged by the quality of its bad copies, not by the idealism of its aspirations,” the reader says. “The modern movement, as the New Urbanists often have demonstrated, has taught us that lesson.”

I wish the editors had identified the readers whose responses appear in this slim volume. Some of them are very astute, and it would be useful to know who they are and where they come from. Despite its defects, Planetizen’s book does provide insights into some of the great urban design and planning issues of this decade.