Features
Dan Cunningham

Building blocks

Development | On school choice and community-building, conservative Christians can work alongside New Urbanist groups

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

DENVER-John Norquist sat in a Starbucks-where else would the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) be?-and showed this summer once again why he makes political enemies left and right.

The innovative former Democratic mayor of Milwaukee is not a favorite of Democratic Party radicals, who dislike his fiscal conservatism. He criticizes the "moderate" Democratic Leadership Council, calling it "a bribed bunch of special interest people-the tobacco industry, the teachers union." Norquist also criticizes "country club Republicans." He strongly supports school choice and, in his sardonic way, praises Christian schools: "If they teach creationism, there's a pretty good chance that those kids will be able to spell creation."

At 6 feet 7 inches, Norquist casts a large shadow over the 3,000-member CNU, which several architects founded in 1993. The CNU recently had its annual convention here in Denver, and Norquist was not the only surprise for conservatives who expect hostility from "New Urbanists," folks who want to renew cities and retrofit suburbs to make them less car-centric. Sure, the CNU's first board president, San Francisco architect Peter Calthorpe, ripped me a minute into our sit-down because I admitted to skepticism about global warming, but he is also a school choice proponent.

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Calthorpe's reasons for supporting vouchers differ from those of many evangelicals-he doesn't want middle-class families to feel the need to live in suburbs for the sake of their children's education-but he is the type of liberal co-belligerent (to use Francis Schaeffer's term) whom evangelicals need. So is architect/community planner Andrés Duany, who grew up in Cuba, left there in 1960, flashes a libertarian streak, and garnered great respect here as the CNU's top guru.

Some evangelical pastors emphasize "human flourishing" because we are all created in God's image, so Duany's rapid-fire attack on "the current theory of environmentalism" is significant: "Their ideal is wilderness. . . . Every human who walks in undermines the ideal . . . but cities are part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Some CNU members obviously favor a top-down model run by urban planners, but Duany speaks of "two ways to do urbanism-with numbers or statistics, or the Jane Jacobs way in which you observe." (See "Ballet of the sidewalks," Nov. 17, 2007.) Observation leaves Duany endorsing quirky ideas: Forget the front porches with rocking chairs that few people use ("Americans don't like to be observed at leisure"). Instead, try front gardens that enable people to stand with a hoe in their hands and talk with passers-by: "They won't engage directly so they need a third party-a dog, a baby. A dog is a wonderful thing, but there's nothing like a tomato."

Duany also throws tomatoes: "Environmentalists are trying to ruralize everything. [For them] nature is the hammer, everything is the nail." He takes on those who insist that, in order to make mass transit cost-effective, "you should never build fewer than 14 units to the acre." He emphasizes use of the "transect," a spectrum of densities from wilderness to urban core that allows for a wide variety of housing choices.

Such CNU embraces of diversity even allow room for one of the left's whipping boys, "big box" stores that feature large inventories and relatively low prices within windowless, standardized one-story buildings surrounded by parking lots. One new urbanist goal is not to eliminate them but to incorporate them into the surrounding community by incorporating windows rather than blank walls and putting at least half the parking at the back or sides.

Duany praises neighborhood traditions and criticizes both avant-garde radicalism and the sense (present among both leftists and Ayn Randians) that listening to customers is a sell-out. His acolytes generally oppose relying on convention centers or stadiums for community revitalization, because such projects create activity during the business day or when there are special events, but ghost towns at other times. They don't care for cul-de-sacs that lead people to drive places that would be otherwise walkable if paths could be added and mixed-use development (such as neighborhood stores and offices) encouraged.

CNUers tend to criticize state regulations that don't allow pay-as-you-drive insurance. They don't want officials to determine insurance rates without regard to actual miles driven, even though risk increases with each mile driven: Pay-as-you-drive would lower rates for those who drive less. It would also provide an incentive to drive less, particularly if improvements in mass transit offered realistic alternatives, and if park-and-ride lots incorporated grocery and video stores, banks, dry-cleaning businesses, and so on.

Duany distinguishes between neo-traditionalism-combining what is beautiful from the past with what is efficient from the present-and ideological traditionalism: For example, he might furnish a house with classic furniture but install a modern bathroom with a good shower rather than a claw-foot bathtub. He and his followers accept gentrification as a way to bring new capital to long-depressed areas and roust petrified poverty. They look for cross-class mixes of housing.

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