Faith Based City Planning

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    Jason T. Radice

    Interesting opinion piece by Rick Harrison, the “creator” of the Prefurbia method of neighbohood planning. Like some argue with the whole green movement, he argues that the New Urbanist architects and planners treat it more like a religion to which residents must submit themselves to at the direction of the egotistical neo-utopians, rather than live how they want in a neighborhood that is not in the city, nor poorly try to mimic a historic old town. Afterall, the market dictates sucessful development.



     BTW-if you haven’t checked out the Prefurbia method, it is pretty radical and very environmentally freindly, as well as cost effective, and just plain better to live in that the traditional grid susburb. Check out He also created a nice chunk of software for thing.

    Noah Mabry

    Although I agree that doing anything compelled only by blind faith is unwise I also dont buy this guy’s argument. First of all if you really love the burbs that much go ahead and live in them, but don’t pretend your promoting sustainability based on the fact that your developement has acres of lawn that you call “pervious area”. Also it seems to me that he is merely substituting his “faith” in curvy roads and full front porches in place of new urbanist design standards he decries in the article (one of which is front porches, oddly enough). He also sets up a total false dicotomy of safe lush lawns of the burbs and high rise high crime cities. And what is more faith based than trusting a software package to do all the designing for you?


    I really think that since WWII our predominant developement pattern has been the suburbs and therefor until recently there really hasn’t been much of a choice. Our cities are undergoing real changes and a lot of younger people are moving to more urban environments. I will say though that either side acting holier than thou doesn’t much move the discussion in any productive way.


    Roland Beinert


    Like Noah, I don’t see how the approach you are advocating is any less faith based. Your preachers are economists, developers and planners like Rick Harrison. Your god is the Market. Your evil enitities are governments and new urbanist planners.

    Rick Harrison never mentions anything he KNOWS, only things he believes, does not believe or is thankful for. For example, he does not believe that consumers will flock to higher density living. So apparently he simply does not believe surveys that indicate 55% of the respondents would prefer to live in a smart growth community (…  ). Perhaps he believes the people living in Kentlands were forced to live there somehow, or that they hate it there but can’t leave.

    Like most opponents of new urbanism, he does not fully understand it. How can anyone argue effectively against something if they don’t understand it? How can you even know if something is worth arguing against if you don’t fully understand it? He seems to believe that new urbanists think no one should drive. If you actually read what new urbanists write, you will see that what they really want is an end to the DOMINANCE of the car in planning and design. The streets are narrower, but cars are still allowed on them. The garages are still there, they are just not the most prominant feature. Drivers are allowed and encouraged to park on the street. There is no mention of forcing people to walk or ride a bike in bad weather.

    He also implies that new urbanism promotes extreme high density like in NYC. If you read what new urbanists are saying, you realize they actually advocate a whole range of densities. Andres Duany, for example, advocates development along a transect, with very dense develoment in the inner city, and low density at the edges of a town or city. Advocates of suburbia usually only promote low density development, even in the inner city, so I would argue they are more extreme than the new urbanists when it comes to density.

    New urbanists certainly tend to be idealistic. If you read some of the things written by people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, you will see that they were also idealistic when they promoted car based development. The problem is they did not bother to consider all the possible effects of their designs on city life. Developers and officials were just as idealistic as Wright and Corb about cars, so their designs were promoted and copied in real cities. At least new urbanists base their solutions on historic towns and cities. This means new urbanism is at least loosely based on what has worked for thousands of years, while conventional suburbs are based mainly on idealist fantasies of architects like Wright and Corb.



    Although the argument started off relatively well (I think our neighbourhoods can sometimes be over-designed and over-regulated), he doesn’t seem to have any logic to his arguments later on: 

    I am thankful that I live in a place that offers a sense of space, yet is not too distant from neighbors and services. I am especially thankful for choice. Yes, there is a coffee shop about a 10 minute walk away, but a three minute drive will get me to a coffee shop that offers more tasty drinks at lower costs.

    Looking outside, I see two feet of new snow. I’m especially thankful that I do not have to use our icy walks in the sub-zero temperatures, and wait for the bus that connects downtown to the bus that would take me to within a ¼ mile of my office. Yes I’m thrilled to have a 5 minute drive to work instead of an hour bus ride (buses connect downtown, not in the burbs). Of course, those with faith believe that exposure to sub-zero weather and walking along icy surfaces is somehow healthier.”

    So he doesn’t like that he would have to wait for two different buses to finally take him to within 1/4 mile of his office, at which point he would have to walk the rest of the way.  Fair enough, I don’t know anyone who would like that.  So how on earth does he think low-density development fixes that problem?  It’s the separation of uses into commercial/residential and the ensuing suburbs that caused that sort of problem.  About the topic of choice: aren’t suburbs the epitome of low to no choices?  they’re so low-development and so single-use that there is no choice.

    Noah Mabry

    I do understand the point that not everyone wants to live in the city, even if it were the most wonderfully designed neighborhood imaginable. However, the prevailing suburban model is not a sustainable alternative in the long run. As Jim Kuntsler says our suburbs are a fantasy cartoon versions of living in the country. The whole article sets up this straw man of super high density crime ridden cities that nobody would ever want to live in because the only transportation is a poorly thought bus system. I think that the real New Urbanist ideal lines up more closely with what was laid out by Roland. 


    A great example of excellent town design for people who actually want to live in the country that has real value for the people who live there is the work of Coen and Partners. I recently found a talk Shane Coen gave as part of a lecture series at Princeton on iTunes. It’s free and can be found by searching “Down the Garden Path” on iTunesU. He shows how thoughtful design can form viable communities outside of the city proper and not meaningless blobs of development filled with cloned housing stock that ignores it’s context. 

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Does “Faith Based City Planning” imply that we should turn over our will to God because he/she/it will plan our cities for us or that city planners think they are God…and we should have faith in them… because they know what’s best for us?

    Jason T. Radice

    I think many of you are reading too much into this. His point was that the current “trends” do not work into everyones desired lifestyles, and there should be choice.

    The ‘God” he is referring to are the architects and planners who advocate one type of development….theirs. The Prefurbia model is a MARKET based ALTERNATIVE program for the design of suburbs (most new urbanist communities are just fancy suburbs, after all). Yet, the technique can be applied to a more urban infrastucture as well. The design is more akin to FLO’s Riverside neighborhood outside Chicago. The benefits of the theory is leaving more open space via less infrastructure (less pavement and less mechanical drainage), pedestrian interconnectivity as the sidewalks are laid out first, and providing more lot yield on the same plot of land than tradional methods with less PERCEIVED density.


    I attended an excellent presentation by Witold Rybcynski of his new book Monday evening at the National Building Musuem. He had stated the same general idea as Rick Harrison, that planners and architects tend to design the way THEY think people should live, not the way people actually WANT to live. This is a concept that I have heard from many who’s egos are in check and actually research history and take into account market forces in their design. Here is an article about Rybcynski’s presentation which went through the history of urban development and the various “design movements”:



    BTW: The book is also an excellent read.

    Trace One

    Jason, Wytold is harping on his talking point, “public-private” NOT market based only. Market based only  to me would mean exclusively private, right? That is NOT what Wytolds tired ‘idea’ is all about.. He’s  been saying that for a while, public-private, public private, and to that I say, yawn, so what else is new? 

    to the prefurbia concept of private only (I fail to see how his program suddenly yields hiterto unknown  (???) curvy roads and open space) I say, is to laugh..Most cities in the world are developed by private enterprise almost exclusively.

    I don’t see how the planners have some sort of stranglehold on design that you perceive..Perhaps  your own personal whities need to be less tight.

    As far as I can tell, market dicates development as much as it wants to, otherwise we would not get the burgeoning Dubai in the desert with no water, the suburbanization of the central valley of california – need I go on..

    You seem to really have a thing about people trying to control  you..You already mentioned the governments “stranglehold’ on the banks – to which I say, ???

    Government has been cowed by business, in america – we don’t regulate off shore oil drilling and so get the Gulf disaster, we don’t recycle, can’t clean the Chesapeake (failure of stormwater regs scandal).

    Since the days when your fair city was laid out by L’Enfant, since Olmsted set aside those 800 vaunted acres of marshland way  north of Manhattan’s density, planning has become nothing but a water-carrier for market forces. The City of Charlottesville PAID the OMNI hotel developers to put their stupid hotel at the end of the mall, and were never paid back..Where is the ‘stranglehold”?

    Really, where, Jason? I am interested in your answer….

    Trace One

    ps, my own hometown was the unincorporated city of McLean Virginia..Now there’s a good example of the stranglehold of planning concepts on development! NOT!.


    I agree.  Private forces largely drive development, and it tends to be the same old same old suburban style that gets implemented.  In my opinion, it’s only because of “new” municipal policies asking for some mixed use, or slightly smaller lot sizes to accommodate slightly more density, that even a bare minimum of choice and diversity has been incorporated into the suburban landscape.  


    I don’t see how this type of development results in less infrastructure costs, unless people will be using grey water harvesting systems and septic tanks and generating their own power…unless you are talking about changing existing dense urban neighbourhoods into a more permeable environment by removing paving and adding green infrastructure to reduce the load on grey infrastructure.

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