A Critique of Neotraditionalism

by Randal O'Toole

A recent issue of Newsweek magazine promoted the New Urbanism or neotraditional communities. This philosophy is driving planners in the Portland urban area to promote densification of various communities.

What is Neotraditionalism?

Neotraditional planning, also known as the new urbanism or traditional neighborhood development, is more or less the latest urban planning fad. Its advocates assume that people would rather walk, ride a bicycle, or take the bus than drive. The only reason why people drive so much, the theory goes, is that our cities are so poorly designed. The solution is to redesign the cities so that people won't need to drive.

The gurus of neotraditionalism are architects, including Florida husband-and-wife team Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and California architect Peter Calthorpe. As models of "good" urban design, they look to American cities of the 1920s, where people did walk, bicycle, or use mass transit much more than today.

Urban planning reached a level of competence in the 1920s that was absolutely mind-boggling, says Duany. He and other neotraditionalists note that, instead of segregating uses as cities do today, early twentieth century cities contained mixtures of stores, homes, and workplaces in the same neighborhoods. Houselots tended to be small so that many people lived within walking distance of stores or work. Moreover, a much larger share of people lived in apartments.

Neotraditionalism, then, requires a mixture of homes and businesses, small lot sizes, and lots of multi-family residences. Peter Calthorpe, for example, wants to build pedestrian places, where people can walk to do all their shopping and, in some cases, to work. Such pedestrian places would be located near a light rail or other transit station so people could rely on transit rather than cars when they needed to leave their pedestrian place.

Neotraditionalism contains several major flaws. First, planners have failed to consider why early twentieth century cities were so different than today. One reason is that people had far fewer cars in those days, so of course they moved around in other ways. In addition, the average families were poorer than today, so fewer owned single-family homes and most of those who did could not afford large homes on large lots.

A second problem is that the assumption that people would rather not drive is simply not supported by the facts. No matter how cities are designed, there will always be places that people will want to go that they can't conveniently reach on foot or mass transit. Even places that can be reached by mass transit can rarely be reached as quickly or as conveniently as by automobile.

For example, Clackamas County planners cite Portland's Hawthorne area as a typical traditional urban area. Yet this area is jammed with cars at all times of the day--with good reason. First, the shops that local people can walk to could not survive if they relied exclusively on foot traffic. Instead, they draw people from all over the city--people who drive. Second, people who live in the neighborhood all have cars because they can't do all of their shopping in Hawthorne--they need cars to get to Lloyd Center, Costco, or wherever. These problems would also be true of an suburban town center.

If increased population density led to increased use of mass transit, as planners assume, then Portland should have seen a major increase in transit over the past twenty years. In fact, the share of trips using mass transit has declined from 4.1 percent in 1977 to 3.3 percent in 1994.

This is not to say that the automobile is the perfect form of transportation. Car drivers impose huge costs on others in the form of pollution, congestion, and safety. The fact that drivers don't have to pay these costs is a major reason why cars seem more convenient than transit. The solution to these problems, however, is not planning or zoning but making people pay their full share of costs by, for example, charging fees for pollution emissions or rush hour highway tolls.

The third flaw in neotraditionalism is that planners have conveniently forgotten just what members of their own profession in the 1920s thought of "traditional" urban design. Most American cities of the 1920s were not "planned"--they just happened. It was the unplanned mixture of uses to which planners now want to return that led to demands for zoning in the first place.

In 1920, no major U.S. city had a zoning ordinance. Architects and planners worried that inappropriate activities, such as factories and residences, were often located adjacent to one another. To minimize conflicts, they urged that cities adopt zoning ordinances that would segregate uses and restrict development. A few cities (including Portland) did so in the 1920s, but most did not until the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Once zoning was adopted, planners reasoned that commercial businesses preferred to be on busy streets while homeowners preferred quiet areas. So they zoned busy streets commercial, zoned quiet streets single-family residential, and put a buffer of multi-family homes and semi-commercial activities in between.

This, combined with increasing use of the automobile, led directly to what we today call "strip development." People no longer used "mom-and-pop" grocery stores a few steps away from their homes when they could drive a little further and find supermarkets with more variety and lower prices. Today, such megamarkets as Costco and Cub Foods serve vast territories, something that is possible only with the automobile.

There is no doubt that the automobile led to congestion and pollution. But architects and planners blamed other problems on cars as well, such as strip developments, tract homes that they considered uniform and sterile, and other urban blights. In fact, these problems resulted from zoning and planning, not cars.

Some planners recognize that zoning is the true cause of urban "blight." Says Randall Arendt, a planning professor at the University of Massachusetts, zoning is why America looks the way it does. The law is the major problem with the development pattern.

Zoning is not a cure for the disease; it is the disease. Planners are nostalgic for a time before any of them were born--a time that people in their profession said was so bad that it could only be fixed by zoning. But zoning created many of the problems planners want to fix. And how are we supposed to fix them? More zoning.

This time, however, planners want zoning with an attitude. Says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, most zoning codes are proscriptive--they just try to prevent things from happening. For example, a zone calling for 5,000-square-foot building lots is a minimum, allowing people to use 10,000- or 20,000-foot building lots if they want.

In contrast, says Plater-Zyberk, neotraditional zoning is prescriptive. We want the streets to feel and act a certain way. In other words, a zone might call for building lots with a maximum size of 5,000-square feet. Such prescriptive zoning is used in many places, including parts of the Portland area. The multifamily residential zone being considered for Oak Grove is prescriptive; it forbids anyone from building a single-family home.

Planners got it wrong before and the urban blight that they now decry is their fault. How is it that giving them more power--the power not just to prevent certain uses but to prescribe certain uses--will fix the problem? What if they get it wrong again? It will be the people of Oak Grove, not the planners, who will have to live with the results.

Clackamas County planners are attempting to apply neotraditional planning concepts to Sunnyside Village, a proposed development around 142nd and Sunnyside that will include shops, multifamily dwellings, and single-family homes on lots smaller than 5,000 square feet. If people want to live in such an area, there is nothing wrong with building it.

But county planners are also proposing to "densify" Oak Grove, a Portland suburb, following neotraditional concepts. Neotraditional advocates says that their designs will rectify all of the problems created by post-World War II suburbs and developments. But Oak Grove is not a post-World War II suburb; it is a pre-World War I suburb and has grown only very slowly since that time. Neotraditional concepts do not apply to Oak Grove.

So what is the imperative to force small lot sizes and other neotraditional concepts on Portland-area suburbs? One important answer is Metro.

What is Metro?

Metro is the new name for the Metropolitan Service District, which was originally created to do things like collect people's garbage and run the Portland zoo. But in 1992, voters agreed to change Metro's name and to give it extraordinary powers to plan the Portland area.

The new Metro charter requires the agency to determine the human "carrying capacity" of the Portland area. Rather than do that, planners are projecting the future population growth and then planning to squeeze all of those people into the Portland urban growth boundary regardless of the cost or desires of local citizens.

The "urban growth boundary" is a line drawn around the Portland area outside of which farms and forests are supposed to remain largely undeveloped. To maintain this boundary, Metro planners and their supporters have developed an almost religious conviction that 50-by-100-foot lots are the largest that anyone should be allowed to have.

"I grew up on a 50-by-100-foot lot, and I was perfectly happy," says one Metro advocate. "So everyone else should be satisfied with a 50-by-100-foot lot." This "what's good enough for me is good enough for you (whether you like it or not)" attitude says a lot about what is wrong with planning.

Based on this conviction, and the neotraditional concept of prescriptive rather than proscriptive zoning, some Metro planners would like to require maximum lot sizes of 5,000 square feet (such as 50 by 100) in much the Portland area. This probably won't happen only because it will be politically unacceptable to the voters.

Still, in the back of many planners' minds is a conviction that Oak Grove residents are using "more than their fair share" of land when they live on lots larger than 5,000-square-feet. The fact that smaller lot sizes will destroy Oak Grove's character is ignored because planners have a neotraditional vision of what a community "should" look like: small lots centered around stores and shops to which everyone will be happy to walk or bicycle.

Metro is spending millions of dollars to prepare a 50-year plan for the Portland area. But how can we know what people will want in 50 years? Imagine if we were locked into a 50-year plan for Portland written in 1945. The plan could not have accounted for jet airplanes, freeways, fax-muters, shopping malls, cable television, or multiplex cinimas--none of which had been invented yet. We don't need to densify communities like Oak Grove today when we don't really know what tomorrow will bring.

The urge to save farms is another misguided planning goal. Farms receive more subsidies (nearly $50 per acre from the federal government alone), produce more water pollution, and use more water than urban areas. We need to examine the trade-offs before blindly destroying the quality of our urban communities to save farms.

Metro says we must protect farms because they are "open space." The large yards in Oak Grove are also open space, but Metro sees those only as developable building sites. We already subsidize farms with our taxes and suffer from the pollution they produce. Do we also have to destroy communities like Oak Grove to protect them?

Alternatives to Zoning

Oak Grove doesn't have to become like the Hawthorne area to save farms and open space. Nor do we need to use the failed tool of zoning. Instead, more creative tools are available to protect our neighborhood while allowing some increased densities. These include tradable development credits and deed restrictions.

Tradable development credits would allow landowners in areas that want to become denser to build at higher densities than allowed by current zoning. To do so, however, they would have to buy development credits from landowners in areas that want to maintain low densities. When someone sells a development credit, a perpetual restriction against further development is added to their deed. Property owners in local neighborhoods could vote to see if they want to allow denser developments.

For example, part of Oak Grove near McLoughlin is zoned multifamily residential at twelve units per acre. Planners say that twelve units per acre is not enough to make apartment construction feasible and they propose to increase it to twenty-four units per acre. Under a tradable development credit program, landowners could build more than twelve units per acre, but only if they bought credits for each additional unit.

Anyone in an area that is now zoned for 10,000-foot minimum lot sizes who has a 20,000-foot lot would get one credit that they could sell. Fractional credits would be issued for fractions of lots. This system is fair because it shares the benefits of densification with everyone who will also have to live with the costs.

Tradable development credits, deed restrictions, emissions fees, and congestion highway tolls can greatly improve the quality of life in our communities. These tools should be considered before the county writes a new plan for or changes the zoning in Oak Grove.

Most quotations in this article are from The Geography of Nowhere, by James Kunstler, an advocate of neotraditional planning. Quotes from Portland-area planners are based on personal conversations.

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