Does New Urbanism Work in Olympia?

Here is an article that discusses the patterns of growth in a typical city. We could safely compare these patterns to what we see happening in Olympia and draw similar conclusions. These developments result from our behavior, intentional or otherwise as they are expressed in the market forces of supply and demand. City staff and planners, as well as developers in almost every city in this country believe operate under the assumption that well laid plans make the city. Through these mechanisms, that require public involvement, the people can determine their city’s course. This idea conflicts with reality.

Decades ago, the Department of Transportation, in the name of growth, builds a highway through a traditional neighborhood. The highway maintains its character — high speeds, wide lanes, channeled traffic — despite going through a developed urban neighborhood.

The city embraces the highway and the promise of prosperity it holds. Over the years and at tremendous expense, the city’s traffic engineering department converts the local streets to auto-centric corridors, widening lanes, removing on-street parking and eliminating sidewalks.

The city’s planning department promotes a “modern” land use code, complete with use-based zoning that reinforces a hierarchy of streets (local/collector/arterial), the need for off-street parking and makes much of the traditional development pattern non-conforming.

The state reinforces the horizontal growth pattern with subsidies for new infrastructure on the periphery and a property tax system that rewards dis-investment and decline with lower rates of taxation.

The federal government adds subsidies for single-family homes, energy and transportation to the mix, further reinforcing the horizontal nature of local growth.

In response, the city’s traditional neighborhoods stagnate and decline. The growth that is a natural byproduct of successful is now directed to the periphery. This only reinforces the dependency on the automobile as, perversely, residents of once-walkable neighborhoods with a variety of commercial options are now forced to drive to the periphery.

Further dis-investment. It makes no sense to live in a traditional neighborhood, or own a business in one, if you must drive everywhere anyway. There is no spatial advantage.  When a person of modest means can get a larger home, a larger lot and have the same conveniences — if not more — outside of town while paying lower taxes, it is rational that they will do so. Why stay? Further decline.

This is a marvelous recitation of the dominant development pattern that has held the United States captive since the conquest of the automobile mode of transit. Only a few urban areas have escaped this cycle, and notably, most of them were sufficiently developed in a previous epoch that was dependent on, and perpetuated, a different form of spatial organization.

This cycle in which we’re locked is difficult because there is no blueprint for escaping the automobile mode described above, though there are piles of literature about it online. Proponents of New Urbanism (a school of thought to which I belong), often proclaim successful examples, but they are very few and far between, and unfortunately they are often accompany controversial land-use decisions that often make it impossible separate a desirable theory from  its application in the particular place. In other words, these are supposed to be wonderful places to live, work, and raise a family, but neighbors complain about them, the city doesn’t understand them, and the consumers can’t afford them.

The problem with New Urbanism and New Urbanists arguments is they too often ignore the ambivalent attitude people have about the decisions people make in the range of housing choices, just like their lifestyle decisions, just like their professional work. For example, proponents of dense living in Olympia could live in huge, sprawling houses, nowhere near a dense development easily accessible to transit (in Thurston County, basically downtown). Proponents of local food systems in Olympia eat tomatoes in January. Environmentalist liberals drink bottled water and swear by Apple products produced under questionable conditions for the workers. And of course, there’s nothing better than the liberal guy who works in a biochemical or engineering firm plying his trade at tremendous but plausibly deniable personal fault. All of these examples of human ambivalence and irrationality demonstrate the problems of transcending the automobile epoch to the post-automobile epoch. It’s not so much that we don’t want to transcend this epoch, but we’re conflicted about it. And it’s hard enough to do even if we were resolved, because a huge segment of the economy is structured towards its continuation.

There’s no better example as far as I’m concerned that with our dear liberal Olympia’s parking issues that are so well documented. People here generally want a sustainable existence (if responses to surveys can be trusted), local farmers to fill the farmer’s market stalls, but they better not have to pay for parking and there better be plenty of it at the market full of local food. Who will deny the success of Hawkes Prairie and the continual decline of downtown Olympia even in the face of its strong local push, impressive marketing, and the attention it gets in the local papers? Until we reconcile these contradictions, we’re going to be spinning our wheels on the policy front and that means we’ll have difficulty reaching our goals assuming of course we can agree on them in the first place.

We actually have an example of it here in Olympia with Briggs Village. It will probably look nice but I don’t see the benefit of a master planned village in the relative middle of nowhere. It’s dense without the benefits of density. In fact, in this application we see the real shortcoming of trying to force urbanism. Just like you can’t create a person using the materials found in people, you can’t really make a city by putting buildings, streets, corners, and plazas together. Why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

New Urbanism is a beautiful theory, and has several success stories that are well deserved. However, I don’t believe it is able transcend the contraction of human behavior that I’ve described over the last couple of posts, and unfortunately I think it presents particular problems for Olympians.

What do you think?

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One Response to Does New Urbanism Work in Olympia?

  1. tom hyde says:

    Many of the concepts of new urbanism are great with an emphasis on walkable, livable neighborhoods, community open space, hidden cars, and aspects of the 19th century New England village. But the biggest problem is that, unlike the villages of the past which may have evolved around contemporary uses of the time (cowpaths in Boston?), new urbanism villages are built without evolution, all at once or in phases, with no natural evolution of their own. This is not a community creating itself, it is more akin to Frank Lloyd Wright telling us how we should live, down to the table and chairs, or as the case may be, the cute homogenized albeit attractive motif modeled on nostalgic sensibilities. It often ends up, at least to me, as cynical as a tract housing development even if done infinitely better. In short, it’s fake. And often kind of creepy. One need go no further than Seabrook to step into some kind of unsettling Peyton Place where the comfortably khaki clad all drink the same kool-aid. There is no real diversity. No evolution, and no tolerance for it.

    All of that said, I do see very real benefits in taking these concepts to very small enclaves with central courtyards, greens, no cars in front, etc. I’ve seen this done well in Seattle and a good first step in Olympia would be to take these ideals first into affordable housing. Perhaps this is already being done. But on a large scale, really it’s just the same ‘ol shit in a very nice package.

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