Posted by: Mike Soron | January 23, 2011

On public space and the “New New Urbanism”

“New Urbanism has been so successful that it has a lot of dinosaur DNA. The honchos are on board — you’ve seen them here. They want us to join them. Do we want to run among the dinosaurs, or among the mammals? I want to be is among the mammals.” – Andrés Duany, in “New Urbanism for the Apocalypse

Is it time for a new new urbanism? Just as cities, state agencies and nongovernmental groups across North America incorporate neotraditional approaches to (re)-building walkable, public and people-oriented communities, some of its key founders are calling for a reboot.

Andrés Duany and James Howard Kunstler spoke at the 18th Congress for the New Urbanism last year. Fast Company covered the event, critically rendered in the article “New Urbanism for the Apocalypse“.

It’s an excellent summary of new urbanism, its growing influence, and the new rejection and re-imagination by its founding fathers.

Here’s the gist: It’s time to get ready for the collapse of complex systems (cities, food, energy, government, etc.) brought on by a series of converging crises well-described by writers like Kunstler, Tainter or Canada’s Thomas Homer-Dixon. Duany’s response is a new new urbanism, an agrarian urbanism.

Agrarian urbanism, [Duany] explained, is different from both “urban agriculture” (“cities that are retrofitted to grow food”) and “agricultural urbanism” (“when an intentional community is built that is associated with a farm).” He was thinking bigger: “Agrarian urbanism is a society involved with the growing of food.”

His idea is to produce an intentional community organized around growing food, organized by the homeowners’ association. A “market square” replaces the strip mall, complemented by education and services for the local food economy. Duany imagines these communities employing “Hispanic laborers”, repurposing an economic underclass from ornamental landscaping and golf course maintenance to productive cultivation.

Kunstler’s collapse thesis lays the ground for this new style of urbanism. Peak oil, climate change, financial instability, and the probable weakening or collapse of familiar institutions, like national governments and welfare systems, compels some alternative path.

From Kunstler, in Fast Company:

“I have a harsher view of the situation we are actually in,” he informed the audience, before declaring that “techno-grandiosity” and “organizational grandiosity” will not be enough to save us from the Long Emergency. “Farming, at one level or another, is going to be your occupation.” Walking through historical forms of agrarian communities — plantations, prison farms, hippie communes and Soviet collective farms among them — he dismissed vertical farming as impractical and dense cores like Manhattan as impossible in the coming age without oil.

I am critical of Dunay’s approach to Kunstler’s (and other’s) collapse analysis, especially as it concerns public space and democracy.

The agrarian urbanism imagined by Duany (or at least as described in Fast Company) brings many of the likely factors of collapse into his response. Today’s income inequality and our broken labour system will find a new home in a world dominated by this sort of feudal homeowners’ association. Consider the problems of a landless, economic underclass employed by strata councils and condo boards in food production in a world with scarcer food and energy. Such a system might address the “food problem” but could make worse our inequality crisis. Alongside current and future problems in the real estate sector we should be very cautious in imagining how property relations are structured a decade or two from now. Do we imagine our families in the homeowners’ association meeting or toiling in the quinoa crops of the former strip mall?

It’s possible, of course, that this system doesn’t end up being all that different from what we now have — only a few of the pieces and goals get moved around. The money to pay for the new farming class is already available in developers’ landscaping budgets, Duany says. It seems conventional enough: switch your ornamental grasses to edible crops, “re-landscape for the apocalypse”. True indeed, but his proposal imagines the collapse of banks, industrial agriculture and the nation-state. What is the role of community here? Of democracy? And could agrarian urbanism end up as a new “road to serfdom” while society restructures in the absence of cheap, available oil and stable global trade?

As Kunstler notes, agrarian urbanism — or urban agriculture or urban farming or what have you — will take many forms. There are spaces for community farms, and feudal condo boards and stable city-states in the post-oil, post-collapse world they imagine. Already urban agriculture is undergoing an explosive blossoming of creativity, entrepreneurship and humanity. We should look there for inspiration, not to the destructive and uncomfortable system of migrant and rights-less labour in California, Washington or British Columbia.

I’d rather see a food system built around public space, community, and stewardship than one that duplicates some of the worst aspects of the current social and economic structure.

If we are imagining responses to the collapse of our current system is Duany’s conception of agrarian urbanism really the best answer? Surely, if Duany can do no better, than we must.

Mike Soron is a VPSN volunteer and an Urban Studies graduate student at Simon Fraser University. Follow him on Twitter.

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