Half a Bridge: A Review of "The Smart Growth Manual" by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Among those people who love cities and small towns, and despair of the sprawling wreck of development that characterizes America, there's been a civil war raging -- one between those urbanists (or rather some of them) who call themselves New Urbanists and those urbanists (but not all of them either) who identify with Contemporary Architecture.

It's a war fought from camps that are poles apart. The New Urbanists dominate among developers and planners, while the Contemporaries dominate academia. The war is bitter, but it is one that reminds a neutral observer of Freud's concept of the "narcissism of small differences."

There is, however, a banner, under which all the urbanists (or nearly all -- this is not a field where a writer can safely express himself in absolutes) will march against sprawl: "Smart Growth." Smart Growth is shorthand for everything that would both revitalize our existing cities and towns and channel new development into non-sprawling alternatives. For the most part, the New Urbanists and the Contemporaries agree on the principles of Smart Growth.

A book has now been published that could bridge the gap between the New Urbanists and the Contemporaries. It's called The Smart Growth Manual. The three authors are associated with New Urbanism: Andres Duany, one of the founders of New Urbanism and one of its most provocative thinkers, and two planners who have worked with Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon. It's evident, however, that the authors have tried to avoid the issues that divide the Contemporaries from the New Urbanists.

To a large extent, but not fully, the authors have succeeded; along the way they have written a useful book.

The book is useful because it's a compilation of good planning principles -- 148 of them. The principles are organized geographically and hierarchically, from the region, to the neighborhood, to the street, and finally to the building. Each principle has one page, and each page has an illustration. 

The format is simple, but not simplistic. The book is not directed toward planners, who should know all these principles already, but rather to elected officials, builders and members of the public, who, with the knowledge contained in the book, might demand (often from themselves and each other) better development.

As for a bridge between the New Urbanists and the Contemporaries, the book goes half-way.

The Contemporaries attack New Urbanism largely on two grounds. Because many developers of new communities within sprawl or rural zones have designed them under the rubric of New Urbanism, the Contemporaries identify New Urbanism with sprawl itself, and dismiss it as irrelevant to the task of healing America's cities. Their other attack on New Urbanism is that it is hopelessly nostalgic because these new developments typically use traditional architecture.

New Urbanists reply (i) that the principles of the Charter of New Urbanism apply both to the rebuilding of old cities and to alternatives to conventional suburban development, and (ii) that the Charter is neutral about architecture. (New Urbanists like Duany go on to say that architectural style is generally a matter of market preference depending on location and building type -- traditional sells single-family houses in new towns; modern sells apartment buildings in cities.)

Duany and his co-authors seem to have gone out of their way to avoid fighting with the Contemporaries over these issues in their new book. 

For instance, in the regional section under "Growth Priorities," the authors prioritize alternatives for growth, from "smartest" to "dumbest," on an urban to sprawl continuum. The smartest categories for growth are urban revitalization and infill, and the dumbest are new neighborhoods requiring new infrastructure or in environmentally sensitive areas -- implicitly consigning many New Urbanist projects to the dumber categories. 

As for architecture, the authors state explicitly that "new buildings should not be compelled to mimic their historic predecessors." Although they also suggest that architects pay attention to local practices regarding materials, colors, roof pitches, etc., which one can interpret as favoring traditional design, it's telling that the authors' example of the quintessentially bad building is not something in Modernist glass and steel, but rather a classic of a different sort, the "Orange County McMansion." (As a possible olive branch to the Contemporaries, the book includes, admiringly, a photograph from a Rem Koolhaas building.)

The book, however, does not fully succeed at avoiding the New Urbanist/Contemporary clash. The problem is largely with the illustrations. Once the authors finish with regional principles, and delve into the neighborhood, the street and the building, the principles themselves may be neutral, but the images used to illustrate them are taken overwhelmingly from New Urbanist new town and new neighborhood developments.

At times these images subvert the principles themselves. In a section on designing retail frontages, the authors declare themselves against fussiness -- but the example they use, from a New Urbanist development, is a storefront that is overwhelmed with cuteness (overhanging lamps, exposed cast iron beams, awnings, etc.).

But even when the illustrations are consistent with the message, collectively they give the impression that the book is a handbook not for smart growth, not for improving neighborhoods already spread out on the urban grid, but for building ideal (and idealized) new neighborhoods and towns in the sticks.

Which is a shame. If the book used images that were more urban, it would have an easier time facilitating a dialogue between the warring camps of urbanists. A dialogue that is long overdue.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.

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