Urbanism won’t fix people

I just finished a great article about the 20th anniversary of Disney’s New Urbanist town building experiment, Celebration. While the article is hardly a ringing endorsement of the experiment, it ends with, I think, an important point:

Yet for all its failings, Celebration has changed America. It provided a prototype for mixed-use development that encouraged more permissive zoning laws, says Robert Steuteville of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Baldwin Park, a successful residential development with a commercial heart, in nearby Orlando, was a refinement of the idea. Celebration demonstrated that suburban cities could market themselves to house-buyers by evoking urbanity. These days almost all suburban developers talk about “place-making” and “urban-style” living, and fostering a sense of community. Celebration got them talking that way.
A big part of Celebration’s success came from its association with Disney. “People had an impression that if they moved their kids to a Disney town, their lawns would never get any weeds and their children would never get anything but ‘A’s,” says Peter Rummell, who led the development for Disney.

One of the biggest arguments against denser urban environments and classical architecture is that it is pastiche, that it represents a hollow attempt at invoking a past that is gone. Critics argue that building classical, human-sized developments won’t fix crime or violence or anger. Just look at {insert New Urbanist development here}.

The thing is, of course classical architecture and urban development won’t solve crime, or cure humanity of all its ills. People murder, rape, abuse, and torment each other. That is a fact of life, has been for millennia, and it occurred in spades in classically oriented cities, just as it happens in even the most well-ordered suburbs. People are people, and the urban environment can only effect that so much.

Classical urban developments and buildings are held to an impossibly high standard, to solve for problems that other architecture and development patterns are not. They are asked to justify themselves on grounds that are patently ridiculous, as well as disingenuous, given that no one seems to ask whether crime might increase with every new modernist box that goes up, or strip mall that plows through what once was farmland.

But there are a few things that I’d like to point out that are measurable increases in quality of life in denser, human-oriented developments:

  1. Violence doesn’t really increase when people are in denser areas. In fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, crime is less likely to occur when there are a lot of people around. You understand this implicitly: do you feel safer in an abandoned area at night, or a well-lit, populated area?
  2. There are half as many murders as there are fatal car crashes. Even if there was a correlation between density and murder, it would almost certainly be better to have a slight uptick in the murder rate if the tens of thousands of people slaughtered on the alter of suburban mobility could be reduced.
  3. Rape, murder, and assault are all more likely to happen between people who know each other, meaning you’re not necessarily safer in the suburbs. If you are, density isn’t the factor keeping you safer.
  4. The wisdom of the market tells us simply that denser, more human-oriented development is the preferred development pattern for most people. Traditional neighborhoods have seen housing prices skyrocket over the last few decades, and stay higher than the national average, as the availability of this type of housing decreases over time. There is demand for this type of development that far outstrips supply. There’s a reason tens of millions of people pay thousands of dollars to visit New York City, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, London, and other traditional cities, and it isn’t the traffic.

Building denser places in traditional style won’t solve the age old problems of humanity, but there is clearly massive demand for this type of development. It’s time we stop holding classic development to a higher standard and start meeting that demand.