Is Catesby Leigh arguing for a man on horseback? That's how his article on new urbanism in City Journal seems to conclude .
As planner-architect Angelo Alberto observes, to transform fast-growing Washington Township in New Jersey’s Gloucester County from a metastasizing urban blob into a city, you would need a founder—a leader who recognized that traditional urban blueprints were more conducive than sprawl to an enhanced quality of life as well as to the embodiment of a community’s civic ideals. Such a leader would have the guts to scorn the bureaucratic minutiae of “process” politics and stake his authority and prestige on a principled judgment: “This is how we should build here.” Grounded in vision and culture, such leadership could build a community for future generations informed by the noble achievements of the past. Its wellsprings would run deeper than “cool,” deeper than “green.”
The New Urbanists, though, worry about inanities: whether the phrase “gizmo-green” is pejorative, for example. They need to get beyond marketing strategy, eco-hype, and trendy buzzwords, and focus on the formidable task of cultivating political leaders across the ideological spectrum who have the gumption to redeem the nation’s urban landscape—one community at a time.
I share Leigh's frustration at the slow pace of progress. But I am skeptical whether it's a matter of leadership. We have a thing called democracy. And the sort of people who emerge to become leaders reflect the common will. Unfortunately, Americans — decent people that we are — have been living amidst dreck for the last three generations and the vast part of our population (I have no doubt the majority) have no idea or understanding of "cityness." So a turn to a better build environment is not a hook by which a great leader can attract them. If we get any sort of man on horseback, he will be more along the lines of a know-nothing (and proud of it!) Rush Limbaugh.
Consider the Madrona travesty I discussed here yesterday. It's a perfect example of new urbanism. Nay, it's better. It's genuine old urbanism. in a neighborhood of high demographics — lawyers, doctors, architects, university professors etc etc. Yet even in such a neighborhood we have people who have no understanding of any kind of urbanism whether old or new.
What compounds matters is that the New Urbanists, as an organized group, have made things entirely too complicated for people to understand. Rather that attempting to simplify by using the "Three Rules" or something like it, they launch themselves into what many of them think is a wholesale social transformation and come up with intellectual systems (accurate as they may be) with names like The Transect. The only sound-bite which has been attached to New Urbanism has been by its enemies and it is a destructive one: "white picket fences."
No, I fear the problem is far deeper than lack of "leadership." Leaders can only lead when people are willing to follow and I see no sign of that if you use Seattle as a model.