I attended a debate on the merits of New Urbanism versus Landscape Urbanism (LU) at the graduate School of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University March 31, and I was surprised to hear students still damning New Urbanism for its association with gentrification. At one point New Urbanism was called “synonymous” with gentrification, and a landscape architecture student claimed NU is “pricing undesirable citizens out of communities everywhere.”
The LU partisans made no attempt to show how their ideas would be better for the poor — they admitted that Landscape Urbanism has no housing policy at all. The images shown, however, of tall buildings surrounded by landscape — which would require steel-frame construction and elevators — didn’t look very affordable. The new urbanist planning students countered by highlighting new-urban-designed HOPE VI — the most successful public housing development program in recent decades.
This gentrification complaint is an old one — it was not new when raised in the Harvard “Exploring New Urbanism” debates in 1999 and rebutted by then-mayors Roxanne Qualls of Cincinnati and John Norquist of Milwaukee, who said the poor need rebuilding, not disinvestment.
Nobody ever says a bad word about revitalization, but when that turns into “gentrification” is subjective. Is New Urbanism a tool for revitalization? Surely. Therefore, in the view of some, it causes gentrification.
Yet cities need revitalization — some desperately need it. Without an influx of other-than-poor people, any US city will end up in Detroit’s position sooner or later. Why would any advocate for urbanism want that? Then again, Detroit, with its vast wastelands, seems like fertile ground for the large-scale, park-oriented ideas of Landscape Urbanism — so maybe backers of this trend see decline as opportunity.
While the student-critics condemned New Urbanism, they spoke favorably of historic restoration. Yet many a poster child for gentrification — Park Slope, Brooklyn, for example — was transformed by historic restoration. Not only is historic rehabilitation responsible for most gentrified neighborhoods in the US, but also it creates little new supply of housing. New supply, which New Urbanism provides, helps to keep a lid on housing prices throughout the city, economists say. Yet New Urbanism, not historic rehabilitation, is the long-time bugbear in academic circles with regards to gentrification.
Sprawl is one alternative
Only development outside of the city is entirely free of the risk of raising property values in the city. Sprawl is to date free of the taint of gentrification — but that doesn’t make it affordable. Because of their high transportation costs, sprawling suburbs tend to be the most expensive places to live in every US metropolitan region. Even when housing costs are low in the suburbs, the poor are trapped by automobile dependency.
New Urbanism/transit-oriented development (TOD) is another alternative to gentrification, especially when it is located outside of central cities. Inside or outside of cities, TOD adds new housing that offers opportunities for families to limit transportation costs. Government may want to encourage inclusion of affordable units within new TOD areas, however.
Another answer to gentrification is the economic cycle. Every neighborhood — old urban or new, in the suburbs or cities — fluctuates in value over time. Celebration, an example of New Urbanism circa 1994 and developed by Disney near Orlando, Florida, has experienced a huge drop in housing prices in recent years. In the short term, this is bad for existing homeowners. In the long run, it is necessary. Celebration home prices rose too much prior to the housing crash, and the town has now become more affordable. This same reversal has taken place in many towns across America.
Two questions come to mind: Which neighborhoods will survive the down cycle with grace? What kind of new housing do we want to create affordable living in the future?
The answer to both of these questions is walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods. Critics from the Academy, and proponents of Landscape Urbanism, need a better line of attack.