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Elitism of Urban Planning

The Atlantic’s recent story “The Next Slum” is the kind of piece that gets people talking, as stories about urban life and the growth of suburbs and exurbs tend to do. We just weighed in on the subject ourselves last week.

But what I found most interesting – and disturbing – about the Atlantic piece was what it left out.

Author Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute and an urban planning professor, predicts the decline of the exurbs: Today’s McMansions turning into tomorrow’s tenements. Cities and urban-style living, in the meantime, will become more desirable as people choose communities where they can walk and socialize with their neighbors. As proof, the article cites the popularity of suburban towns that have walkable urban centers, featuring a mix of residential and commercial development.

I’ve seen those places: Seaside in Florida, or Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, Md. And they are nice, with homes built close to each other, featuring front porches and town squares, a throwback to small towns, a contrast to the isolation of the cul-de-sacs. This whole movement started back in the 1980s and was popularized by Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. It came to be know as New Urbanism and there are developments like it around the county, examples of Leinberger’s thesis.

But what he fails to point out is this: New Urbanism’s greatest failure has been its inability to provide for mixed-income housing. That was the idea at the start – all this neighborliness and high-density development was supposed to include people of all income levels. That was the dream. But the developments proved to be so popular, and so expensive, that the moderate income houses never did get built on any substantial scale. The only mixed-income living at Kentlands turned out to be the Au pair suites above the garages.

Leinberger also is a real-estate developer. That should tell you something about his view. It’s nice to talk about desirable communities and walkable urban centers. But the biggest dilemma for urban planners and developers is not building these traditional-style towns. It’s giving everyone a piece of the dream.

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