Monday, May 13, 2013

Circling Back to a Good Idea Isn’t Trivial

During its early history, many criticized new urbanism as a mere recycling of old land-use ideas.  I never understood the disparagement.  Shouldn’t effective public policy mandate the use of good ideas regardless of the provenance?   Nonetheless, the recycling criticism seemed pertinent to many.

In recent years, I’ve heard the denigration less frequently.  Perhaps folks have begun to grasp the unjustness of the complaint.  Or perhaps I’m associating with a more thoughtful group of people.  But in case pockets of the resistance remain, let me enumerate my top three reasons why new urbanism shouldn’t be subject to the petty compliant of plagiarism.

First, new urbanism is a solution to more complex problems than were faced a century ago.  Although the results of new urbanism often look like the land uses of the early 20th century, the modern land-use issues being addressed have more facets.

The biggest single difference is the automobile.  Building a workable town center when most people will arrive on foot or by trolley is very different from building the same town center when most people will arrive with 3,000 pounds of metal, plastic, and glass that they expect to stash in a convenient location.  And that they can use to move to a different place if this place doesn’t hold their interest.

Nor is the automobile the only difference.  Technology has a multifarious impact on cities, from offering information on a range of different destinations for outings to encouraging people to stay home where they can enjoy electronic experiences.

Many people could have designed livable town centers in 1913.  It’s a different, and more complex, task in 2013.  That fact the a good town center in 2013 might look much like its 1913 counterpart speaks to how both meet a underlying human need, not a lack of originality.

Second, to return to a past idea and then to seek to improve upon it isn’t a simple or trivial task.  Indeed, it’s contrary to some primary impulses of group thinking.

Whether at government, business, or family levels, decision-makers often come in two forms, those who wish to constantly push onward to new and improved ideas and those who wish to cling to the comfortable ideas of the past.  To argue that a past concept was a good start, but still needs enhancement is to antagonize both groups.

Far from being a simple-minded regurgitation of the past, new urbanism has gained ground because it’s a good solution and because its proponents have been remarkably persuasive in overcoming institutional resistance.

Third and last, just because an idea was used previously doesn’t mean it was used optimally.  There are always opportunities to improve on the ideas of the past.  And to make them more truly our own possessions.

In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, artist, and politician, “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience."

So, while the new urbanism may have some similarities to the urbanism of a century ago, it’s a different and more evolved creation.  Anyone eager to disparage new urbanism as mere recycling is just plain wrong.  And you may tell them that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe says so.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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