The New Urbanists met for their annual confab in Providence over the weekend and I was there among them, as I have been for thirteen years, because there is no other organization in America that is doing more to remediate the fiasco of suburbia — or, as I call it, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. I have been telling college lecture audiences for a while now that pretty soon the only urbanism will be the New Urbanism. I am not being facetious.
This movement has been broadly misunderstood over the past decade, especially by some of the major morons in the mainstream media, such as David Brooks and John Tierney of The New York Times, who repeatedly make the fatuous argument that suburbia must be okay because Americans overwhelmingly choose to live in it. Well, that’s nice. The trouble, though David and John, is that suburbia is coming off the menu. In a world of $70 oil and upward, suburbia is a dish that can no longer be served up in America’s economic kitchen. Someone should inform the waiters.
The New Urbanists were first among the entire architecture-and-planning establishment to volunteer to help in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and they have received nothing but scorn and ingratitude for proposing that the Gulf Coast towns be redeveloped as something other than parking lots with casinos, or that FEMA learn how to deliver a well-designed small cottage instead of a trailer to people who have lost their homes. The minions of the elite architecture schools, lead by Reed Kroloff of Tulane University, have been especially dismissive, proposing instead architectural exercises in irony and High Art — just what people living in tents with no plumbing need.
The New Urbanists are the only group I know of who offer a comprehensive set of intelligent responses to the awful challenges we face in a looming mega crisis of the environment. Assuming that the human race wants to carry on, and to do so under civilized conditions, we are going to need collective dwelling places, civic habitations. It has yet to be determined what scale will be possible, and exactly what kind of energy will be available to us for running them. But the signs so far indicate that the scale will have to be much more modest than what we are currently used to, and the quality will have to be much higher.
The New Urbanists performed an extremely valuable service to this society over the past decade. They dove back into the dumpster of history and retrieved the knowledge needed for the design and assembly of real civic environments — knowledge that had been thrown away gleefully by the traffic engineers and municipal Babbitts in the delirious years of building the easy motoring utopia.
One day soon, America will wake up from its infotainment-fueled sleepwalk and start desperately looking for answers to the predicament it finds itself in. A lot of that will revolve around the basic question of where we live, and how things in it are arranged. When that wake-up occurs, the New Urbanists will be ready, reliable, confident, and congenial as always — something like our country used to be.