CNU XV Blog, Part 12: Duany on cities vs. suburbs

MLewyn's picture

This afternoon, Andres Duany spoke about the relationship between cities and suburbs. He began by noting that contrary to popular myth, New Urbanists are quite involved in urban development; the only reason people think otherwise is that NU development fits into cities rather than sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.

But most of his speech addressed how suburbs outcompete cities, and how cities can learn from suburbs. He focused on the following:

1. Amenities. The suburbs' major amenity is spare land: larger back yards, etc. In the mid-20th century, cities tried to compete by echoing the suburbs, with lower density, more parking, more greenspace, etc. This strategy failed miserably- why have a half suburb when you can have the whole thing? Instead, cities should focus on their chief amenity, the public realm. A healthy city has a better public realm, better streets, than suburbs. This is the one area in which suburbs cannot compete with downtowns. Density is necessary for this, but it is NOT sufficient- high density sprawl with no streetlife cannot compete with low density suburbia, which is why so many older suburbs are fading.

How do you get healthy streetlife? Mixed use. Without mixed use you have lunch-only restaurants in downtowns that die after dark.

Bring in activities used every day. Focus on (and subsidize if necessary) activities used regularly, NOT activities used once in a while. Yes to movies and restaurants used every day. No to football stadia used 8 times a year, or festivals that occur once a year.

2. Comfort- Cities must not only be safe, they must feel safe. It is not even enough to be as safe as 1950 Detroit, with less street crime than today but still plenty of beggars, trash, graffiti etc. Cities must feel as safe as suburbs do today. How does this work? Start with a few blocks; create more surveillance, both with cameras and by individual municipal officials. (On the other hand, in marginal neighborhoods where this is least practical, appeal to the risk-oblivious).

3. Schools- If you want families, you have to have schools which appeal to suburbia. If not, forget about families and appeal to singles and empty nesters. (Duany didn't speak about how to fix schools- wisely, given the complexity of the topic).

4. Predictability- Investors like predictability; suburbs provide predictability by ensuring that if you comply with their master plan, you can build instantly. To be fair, large suburban developments do require developers to run a political gauntlet. But smaller developments are permitted virtually instantly, because there is a master plan that allows development as of right. By contrast, in cities even smaller developments require NIMBY-fighting and lawyers. A strong plan is the remedy for this - cities should create comprehensive plans that allow development as of right and thus ensure that developers don't have to worry about rezoning, NIMBYism etc. In other words, given the ubiquity of zoning, planning actually means MORE property rights, not fewer, in an urban environment.

5. Retail- A lot of New Urbanists deplore out of town chains. But out of town chains often have better product selection and more appealing packaging, lighting etc. than "mom and pop" stores. A business district without national chains can't compete with suburbia. (It is not clear whether Duany thinks this is equally true of "Big Box" retail such as Wal-Mart).

6. Private governments- Suburbs have private governments (homeowners' associations, etc.) that are smaller, and thus more responsive, than city governments. If cities can duplicate this they will be more appealing.

The good news: just as traditional urbanism is infecting the suburbs, good government is infecting cities.


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!