Building the New Urbanism
Places, Professions, and Profits in the American Metropolitan Landscape
A book by Aaron Passell , Routledge, 2013, 148 pp., $125 hardcover
I don’t normally read all the way through books on the New Urbanism. There are several reasons for this: 1) I know the story already, 2) They tend to be woefully inaccurate because of careless research, or 3) They have an axe to grind—usually coming from the ever-popular academic prerogative to dump on success. I must emphasize that I am speaking ill only of books by academicians. Those by Kunstler, Dutton, Langdon, etc., have been quite good.
Now we have a new one by an Aaron Passell, professor of sociology at Furman University. It is called Building the New Urbanism. This one is different. These are the reasons: 1) Professor Passell can REALLY write well. There is nothing painful about getting through it. 2) He has visited several new urbanist communities and has actually observed them and spoken to residents. As we know, urbanism cannot be judged from a photograph—which is the reason most critics seem to be imbeciles. 3) He is unique in his profession in not expending any ink quoting other professorial texts; thereby avoiding polluting both his prose and his facts. 4) He picks up quite a few aspects of New Urbanism that are not normally dragged into the discussion, such as HOPE VI, the Mississippi Renewal Forum, the early days … These passages are very interesting, even to those of us who were there. Being seen by outside eyes is bracing.
Then again, the book suffers from a few problems. First: it is in my (humble) opinion overly centered on the work of DPZ and the East Coast—although I suppose this only balances those books that are overly centered on the work of the West Coast.1 The second is that he underestimates the technical achievements of codes, standards and protocols like Rapid Fire.2 Third, the last chapter runs a very cursory critique of the New Urbanism, which is doubtless a sop to the skepticism requisite of professors.3 It is wholly incompatible with the evidence presented in the rest of the book.
Above all, the book is short and crisp and to the point. It is very much worth reading, as we often neglect to look back with satisfaction on what we have done. We are our own best critics—but perhaps we go too far in that regard.
In any case, Professor Passell is well intentioned and comes through as one of those worthy members of the human race hard to find within the academy. This work deserves our attention as much as did Langdon’s, Kunstler’s, and Dutton’s.
Andres Duany is an architect and planner with Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, Florida.
Note: This article is in the April-May 2013 of Better! Cities & Towns. Subscribe and get all of the reports packaged in a convenient, tactile format delivered to a special box on your doorstep. Some of our reports are for paid subscribers only.
This review was shown by Andres Duany to Aaron Passell and he responded with the following:
- 1. I agree with you about the East Coast focus of the book. Not to excuse, but rather to explain, this was a matter of access. Most of those founders and key actors not represented in the book were people who never responded to repeated attempts to include their voices. I hope it is clear throughout that I am writing on the basis of those conversations I did have, not obscuring the fact there might have been others to have.”
- 2. “I’m sure you are right about the technical achievements of the various innovations you mention – their evaluation is beyond my expertise, but they deserve further attention going forward.”
- 3. “Though I admit to feeling some pressure from fellow academics to maintain a degree of neutrality in regard to the New Urbanism, I think a “sop to skepticism” is slightly unfair. Rather, and this refers back to further attention to technical innovations, I was primarily concerned with comprehensively establishing a baseline for the study of the New Urbanism and its development. That necessarily included identifying some shortcomings.”