Criticism of planned communities as social engineering unjustified

September 02, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After years of media reports about it, the planned community of Seaside, Fla., has become something of a poster child for a brand of city planning known as New Urbanism. But for a trend that's received so much attention, too few people really understand what it's all about, says Emily Talen, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The biggest critique of New Urbanism out there is that it is trying to socially engineer people," Talen said. "I don't think that's the case. There are lots of horrible, fake New Urbanism stories around about how developers are preying on people's sense of loss and loneliness, how you can be bonded with your neighbors in these new communities. I think it's an awful phenomenon."

Part of the public's misconceptions, Talen said, originates with architects and developers who promote their developments by emphasizing the "community-building" features of their designs, such as front porches. "Architects are saying they're creating 'better communities,' but they don't really know what that means. It's been very damaging, and this 'community thing' is obscuring the real issues" of New Urbanism.

The true core values of New Urbanism, she said, are "environmental and spatial in nature: living more compactly, and reducing land consumption, thereby decreasing dependence on the automobile."

"There are social goals, but they're not about community -- they're about equity," said Talen, who is writing a book on the history of New Urbanism. Rather than segregating people in inner city neighborhoods and fringe developments or suburbs, New Urbanism promotes the incorporation of mixed-income housing within the same neighborhoods "so everyone has access to good facilities, like public schools."

Most assessments of the success or failure of New Urbanism to date have focused largely on its physical design features, Talen said. Past attempts to go beyond that and analyze its social goals have typically sold the concept short by tossing around those "unsubstantiated claims about New Urbanists' desire to engage in social engineering." In an effort to debunk the myths and promote further discussion of the issues involved, Talen evaluated the links between New Urbanism's physical planning proposals and three types of social goals: community, social equity and the common good.

"The analysis is based on the 'Charter of the New Urbanism,' which describes its core principles in detail," she writes in "The Social Goals of New Urbanism," a paper published recently in the journal Housing Policy Debate.

"Of the 27 principles, I was pleasantly surprised that none were about 'We want everyone to cozy up and feel a sense of community.' They were about tangible goals," she said, "because they were not based on social relationships. Nineteen of the principles were identified as being tied to promoting "the common good," and eight were linked to equity issues, which Talen calls "much more valued social goals that can be designed."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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