07/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Report From the Denver New Urbanism Congress, Part 2

Inasmuch as I concluded my first Huffington report from the Congress for the New Urbanism going on now in Denver by vowing to ask New Urbanists how they responded to criticism both from cultural progressives in the contemporary architecture and planning world and from libertarians who say they're out to take away the single family house much as gun controllers might take away guns, when I got back to the congress after writing the article I began asking the question.

One New Urbanist I asked was Sandy Sorlien, the Director of Technical Research of the Center for Applied Transect Studies. (The transect is a tool New Urbanists use to analyze land use by dividing types of use from the rural to the urban into six zones.)

Ms. Sorlien told me that she does "smile" when she hears criticism that shows what the critic doesn't know much about New Urbanism, unless it's coming from someone who should know better. This would be the case when in response to criticism from knowledgeable critics, New Urbanists had already, in her view, "refined their tools and message," and the critic is an architect or planner.

Bruce Donnelly, an urban planner from Cleveland, told me that he doesn't worry much about cultural critics from the left and the right. Instead, he worries about "environmentalists who don't see the big picture of regions." What he hit on with this is a worry that affects urbanists of all persuasions, which is about the neo-Jeffersonian attack on cities from "greens" who often seem to want cities to go away, or to become unlike cities, even as current research has shown that dense cities use energy and other resources quite efficiently.

And of course if cities are dense, then that saves more open land from suburbanization.

I got a mixed message when I talked to two architecture professors who were attending the congress about the tensions between New Urbanists and those teaching contemporary architecture in the schools. One, who teaches urban design in New York, told me that she believed that there was "less vitriol" now. She said that a lot of bitterness came out of the original treatment that the founders of New Urbanism -- many of whom themselves were in the academia -- received from their colleagues (and then dished out) in the early days of the movement.

Now, she thought that with the confluence of views about urbanism and architecture that has occurred with, among other things, the economic crisis, which has come at the same time that there is increasing skepticism in the schools about the emphasis in recent years on the design of standout, one-of-a-kind buildings, has led to a softening of attitudes.

But another professor I spoke to said that her dean has recently asked her to change the title of the "New Urbanism" course she has been teaching. Apparently, having a course called that is embarrassing.

The fact is that New Urbanists -- or at least some of them -- share the blame for the gulf between them and the contemporary architecture establishment. Many of them continue to wave the bloody shirt of Modernist urbanism, and associate contemporary architecture with that, when virtually no one anywhere, including the "starchitects" who design the big, flashy buildings New Urbanists tend not to like, advocates the urbanism of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and C.I.A.M.

In America, that kind of thinking has been discredited for 50 years (although adapted forms of it are still being built elsewhere, such as in China). But from the rhetoric emanating from some New Urbanists, you would believe that it's the Modernist monsters they have to battle to build a new town for an enlightened developer when the local zoning would require conventional suburban development (CSD).

At the congress on Thursday I attended a talk by Professor Emily Talen on the history of New Urbanism. Prof. Talen teaches at Arizona State University and is the author of a history of New Urbanism (New Urbanism and American Planning: The Conflict of Cultures), and she described how New Urbanism is a synthesis of four "cultures" of planning that arose in response to the ills of the 19th century industrial city.

What struck me about her talk is that it seems that over a century or so of thinking about it, theories were created for all kinds of urbanism except for the kind that became dominant in America: suburban sprawl. There were the new town planners like Ebenezer Howard (the "Garden City"), the City Beautiful movement with its grand boulevards, the celebrators of diverse cities as they were (Jane Addams, Jane Jacobs), regionalists like Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, all of whom Prof. Talen says are sources for New Urbanism, and finally the Modernists with their towers in the park.

None of them described what in fact happened: CSD, with its various hierarchies, all kept separate: hierarchies of roads, from freeways to arterials to collectors, all the way down to cul-de-sacs; hierarchies of single-family residential districts based on size (and income); hierarchies of retail, from regional malls, to big box malls, to small strips; and hierarchies of job-centers, from office parks to industrial parks to warehouse districts.

CSD was the major event of the 20th century affecting land, yet it had no theory, no movement.

I spoke to Prof. Talen after her talk and she agreed that this was mystery; as for credit -- or as she and I agreed, blame -- she said the suburban developers under the rubric of their Urban Land Institute had created the standards and models for what got built. From a theoretical perspective, she thought that CSD was in some sense a jumbling of ideas from Modernism (the expressway) and the Garden City (escape from the city itself to a piece of the countryside).

How American -- turns out thinking doesn't count.

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, has just been published by City Image Press.