Douglas Newby
Architecturally Significant Homes
Horse & Trolly

New Geography: Organic Urbanism is the Cure for New Urbanism

10/25/2019

New Urbanism is like a virus. For 50 years it keeps coming back in mutated forms. It needs a cure.

First, the only thing new in New Urbanism is the new construction that tears down the organic city. A form of New Urbanism has been around for 50 years. Like I said, it is a virus that keeps coming back in mutated forms. But the scheme, of more density, new mixed-use construction, and fixed rail transit, replacing existing homes remains constant. The desire of planners to determine where you live and where you work also remains constant. New urbanists increasingly do not like single family homes, which most Americans prefer.

There is a growing New Urbanism movement across the country that says single-family zoning is bad. There are some cities like Minneapolis that have banned single-family zoning that had made up over 50% of Minneapolis. Some states, like Oregon, are considering abolishing single-family zoning. Even the Dallas City Council unanimously voted to allow two-story backyard rental houses in single-family neighborhoods. Former Dallas City Councilperson, Philip Kingston, said that single-family neighborhoods like Preston Hollow are no longer relevant. If this trend continues, your grandchildren or great grandchildren might never have a chance to live in a single-family zoned neighborhood, with front or back yards to play in, streets to ride bikes on, or familiarity with longtime neighbors.

In contrast, what I call Organic Urbanism works with people’s preferences, particularly those of families. It protects, preserves, and nurtures the city, allowing the creativity of individuals and neighborhoods to shape the direction of the city. This includes the single-family homes as well as a diversity of housing types.

Organic urbanism supports what people want in their diverse neighborhoods. In contrast new urbanism, particularly their allies in the planning profession, oppose such housing and favor density to support public transit and claim they make homes more affordable.

In contrast, organic Urbanists think denser apartment development makes neighborhoods less walkable and less desirable. Organism Urbanism strives to preserve, protect, and rejuvenate the existing housing stock of diverse sizes, styles, and conditions that is conducive to a mix of incomes and lifestyles. Organic Urbanism also favors zoning for less than what is already built. Less dense zoning provides the incentive to preserve and revitalize the existing housing stock, or lose the privilege of higher density on a lot if an existing multi-family building is torn down. For example, if a duplex or apartment house is zoned single-family and it is torn down, it can only be replaced by a single-family home. This gives the owner incentive to maintain the existing duplex or apartment house or lose their privilege of multi-family.

Organic Urbanism approaches the city like a garden. There is an understanding that the evolution of buildings and uses should evolve rather than being plowed under and planted like an industrial farm. In a garden that is nurtured, one might plant a sapling with sun-loving plants around it. Once the tree grows, one might plant, shade-tolerant flowers under the tree. There is a natural ebb and flow of decay, rejuvenation, and new construction in an organic city. Neighborhoods fall in and out of favor, creating opportunities for those of all incomes.

New Urbanism has a goal of creating diversity by diluting good parts of the city. Organic Urbanism strives for diversity by improving out-of-favor neighborhoods.

I will describe eight key differences of New Urbanism and Organic Urbanism.

  1. Density versus preservationNew Urbanism is in favor of more density replacing existing structures, even in a shrinking city.Organic Urbanism is in favor of preserving and rejuvenating the existing buildings in addition to adding new construction.

    Here is a historic duplex of two 500 sq.ft. apartments within three blocks of $2.5 million historic mansions that could have been renovated. Instead, because it is zoned multifamily, it will be torn down and the land added to the entire block of three-story new apartments being erected.

  2. Vibrancy versus nature.New Urbanism touts vibrancy as the key attraction to a city and thinks jamming people together will create vibrancy. Along the same lines, New Urbanism says the next generation is less interested in single-family homes and more interested in living in apartments.Organic Urbanism think more along the lines of Yogi Berra –when a city gets too crowded no one wants to live there anymore. The Wall Street Journal tends to agree. It reported that census figures showed that cities with over a half a million people collectively lost 27,000 Millennials aged 25 to 39 last year in 2018. New York lost 38,000 Millennials. This was the fourth year in a row city lost Millennials led by those 35 to 39. Millennials are the most committed to the environment and they love living in nature surrounded by trees, gardens, and a pleasing environment. Organic Urbanists understand Millennials interest in nature, trumps vibrancy, especially when they begin raising families.
  3. Income diversity in neighborhoodsNew Urbanism is in favor of providing the rich with cultural amenities and the poor with services and subsidies, while ignoring the middle class.Also, New Urbanism wants to create income diversity in neighborhoods by building moderate and expensive apartments and then having a percentage of those apartments subsidized for low-income residents.

    In contrast, Organic Urbanism creates income diversity in neighborhoods by rejuvenating inexpensive single-family homes, protecting middle-class neighborhoods, and encouraging expensive neighborhoods for high-income homeowners.

    This Organic Urbanism approach emphasizes emerging middle-class neighborhoods and protecting the middle-class residents that are disappearing in cities across the country.

    Organic Urbanism recognizes that diverse sizes and conditions of older homes allow diverse incomes in older neighborhoods. Old East Dallas is a good example. In Mount Auburn, you will find $150,000 cottages, in Junius Heights $400,000 bungalows, in Munger Place $700,000 prairie style homes, and on Swiss Avenue $2 million historic mansions. All four of these neighborhoods are within six blocks of each other. I have had friends and clients that owned an 1100 square foot home, and then moved to a 2400 square foot home, and then to a 5000 square foot home, all which were within 4 blocks of each other and in three different historic districts.

    This historic Prairie style home is part of a natural progression of home ownership in an organic urban neighborhood. The homeowner's first home was an 1,100 sq.ft. cottage in the Peak Suburban Historic District, then they purchased a 2,400 sq.ft. home in the Munger Place Historic District a few blocks away, and ultimately they purchased a 5,700 sq.ft. Swiss Avenue Prairie style home which is only four blocks away from their first two homes.

  4. Mass Transit and MobilityNew Urbanism calls for fixed rail mass transit to be built where people don’t want it. Recently, New urbanist planner Christof Spieler, openly suggest at a D Magazine-sponsored New Dallas Summit said we need the political will to put fixed rail through the middle of neighborhoods where people didn’t want it, in order to gain ridership. Michael Morris, the Director of Transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said at another talk that they are lobbying the State Legislature to allow tax dollars that had been allocated for mass transit, to be diverted to subsidize new development next to fixed rail so more people will use the rail system.Organic Urbanism instead acknowledges and applauds the incredibly diverse areas, fragile neighborhoods, and established buildings in Dallas where people live and work. It insists transit exist to serve people, not the other way around. Rather than tearing up neighborhoods for rail systems and forcing mass transit development, Organic Urbanists like 20th century forms of transportation like buses, and 21st century technology like Uber, autonomous vehicles, and air taxis to adapt to where people want to live and work.

    Also, Organic Urbanism want to entice people to walk by creating a pleasing environment, not forcing people to walk.

    Organic Urbanism recognizes that diverse sizes and conditions of older homes allow diverse incomes in older neighborhoods. Old East Dallas is a good example. In Mount Auburn, you will find $150,000 cottages, in Junius Heights $400,000 bungalows, in Munger Place $700,000 prairie style homes, and on Swiss Avenue $2 million historic mansions. All four of these neighborhoods are within six blocks of each other. I have had friends and clients that owned an 1100 square foot home, and then moved to a 2400 square foot home, and then to a 5000 square foot home, all which were within 4 blocks of each other and in three different historic districts.

  5. SchoolsSince busing did not work out, New Urbanists now want to extract people from low-income neighborhoods and place them in new subsidized housing in expensive neighborhoods so that they can live in these neighborhoods with better public schools.Organic Urbanists instead cheer on private schools, charter schools, ISD Academies, and collaborate private/public schools that are emerging in lower income neighborhoods. These schools also attract middle- and high-income families to these lower income neighborhoods, creating a more positive and natural diversity.
  6. Increase or diminish the value of single-family homesNew Urbanists Chris Leinberger, said at a D Magazine New Urbanism lecture, “Single-family zoning is good economically for the homeowner but is bad morally for the city.”New Urbanists see a moral imperative to replace single family housing with multifamily structures.

    Organic Urbanists see things much differently. They know the economic viability of the city is dependent on the sustained value of single-family homes and a prosperous middle class who tend to live in them. Organic Urbanists also understand the middle class is the strongest lobby for good schools, good police, fire departments, and parks.

  7. Affordable HousingMany are in favor of the city subsidizing developers to build affordable housing. New Urbanism is a great advocate of the city government subsidizing developers of affordable housing. But where do the developers find cheap land? Usually in the areas that would naturally appeal to low-income homebuyers.New Urbanism also is in favor of giving a developer more height or density for a new building in exchange for the developer subsidizing the rent of a certain percentage of the apartments in the building that will be designated for affordable housing units. Let’s say a builder wants to get permission to build high-rise apartments that will lease for $2,000 a month, the developer might then have to set aside for 20 years, 10% of the apartments in the building, where the developer agrees to subsidize the rent. If a developer is required to subsidize the rent for each of these units at $1000 a month, a tenant in an affordable housing unit is only required to pay $1000 a month rent for their $2000 a month apartment. This raises the price for everyone else.

    Organic Urbanists think a better solution than subsidizing rent would be for the city to require a developer to subsidize the interest on a home mortgage loan to help a low or moderate-income person to buy a home. This expands homeownership in the city.

    For example, Organic Urbanists would prefer that a developer not spend $1000 a month subsidizing one expensive apartment for a low-income renter, but instead the developer spending that $1000-a-month subsidy to pay for interest-free mortgage loans to three families, so each family could afford to purchase a $100,000 home. Or instead of a $1000-a-month rent subsidy for one apartment, the developer could provide six interest-free mortgage loans on six $50,000 homes for six low-income homebuyers.

    Organic Urbanists understand the greatest economic disparity between black and white families is wealth. Black families earn 70 cents on the dollar for what white families earn, but black families only have 4% of the comparative wealth of white families, because of the lower rate of home ownership and subsidizing rent on apartments does not create wealth for low-income families.

    Organic Urbanists also are opposed to subsidizing developers for their purchase of inexpensive homes that these developers will tear down so they can build new affordable housing. Organic Urbanists are in favor of preserving the existing housing stock that allows low income families the opportunity to purchase a home.

  8. Dilute good neighborhoods or improve bad neighborhoodsNew Urbanists declare that there are not any affordable homes where people want to live. Their resulting strategy is to extract lower income people from their deteriorating neighborhoods and relocate them to new subsidized apartment units on very expensive lots in the more attractive expensive neighborhoods.Organic Urbanists are in favor of improving low-income neighborhoods and making them more attractive for both low- and middle-income residents.

    Organic Urbanists understand that if a lot in an expensive neighborhood cost $500,000 and a lot in a deteriorated neighborhood cost $50,000, the same number of affordable homes could be built on either priced lot. However, if the affordable homes were built on the inexpensive $50,000 lot, there would be $450,000 left over to spend on new sidewalks, curbs, parkway trees, attractive street lights, and internet connectivity, which would improve the desirability of the neighborhood and attract people who would now want to live in this neighborhood.

Maybe the best example of the difference between New Urbanism and Organic Urbanism is their respective position on granny flats.

The New Urbanism idea of granny flats is sweeping the country. The mantra used in Dallas is that granny flats provide more affordable housing and allow senior homeowners to remain in their homes. A few months ago, the Dallas Assistant Director of Housing made a presentation to the Dallas Architecture Forum. She repeated this economic justification for granny flats, that they will create more affordable housing and allow senior homeowners to remain in their homes. When asked what the projected square footage cost of a granny flat was, she said she had no idea as there had been no discussion of the cost of a granny flat and this question had never come up within the housing department or City Council.

Organic Urbanism, on the other hand, looks for the best economic ways for the city to evolve for senior citizens and those needing affordable homes. If a nonprofit in Dallas spent $300 a square foot to build the 400 square foot Crossroads cottages for the homeless, it becomes obvious to an Organic Urbanist that renovating existing houses is a more cost-effective means of providing affordable housing than building new granny flats. Using the homeless cottage cost figures, building a 600-square foot apartment over a garage might cost $200,000.

This does not make a one-bedroom granny flat apartment affordable or lower the cost for a senior homeowner.

In the meantime, a two-story granny flat removes a canopy of trees, looms over the neighbor’s property, lines the front curb with on-street parked cars, and creates more transience in the neighborhood.

Here on one side of the alley you see New Urbanism granny flats blocking the sun and breezes that replaced towering trees. On the other side of the alley you see the layered canopy of trees that include mature pecan trees, tall cedar trees, crepe myrtles, and understory Japanese maples in the backyards of single-family homes that are still dedicated to nature, not rentals.

Conclusion

New Urbanism wants to create a city where people are forced to walk, forced to take fixed rail, forced to live in buildings shared with subsidized renters, and forced to live jammed together in dense neighborhoods in the name of vibrancy.

Organic Urbanism represents an alternative to the top-down tyranny of the new urbanist mantra. We recognize that the cycles of deterioration and rejuvenation create environments that people desire and where they can afford to live and work. Organic Urbanists would rather nurture a city where people enjoy living and walking in a diverse neighborhood, a city that entices Millennials and the middle class to stay in the city and raise their families.

Organic Urbanism allows creativity and self-expression can be manifested. Embracing Organic Urbanism, every person can impact the significance and stewardship of their city, their neighborhood, and their home.

Hopefully, Organic Urbanism can eradicate New Urbanism in our lifetime and reintroduce the concept that cities are not for planners or trains, but people.

Douglas Newby is a real estate broker who initiated the largest the largest rezoning in Dallas - 2,000 properties primarily in use as multi family rental properties to single family zoning. In 1979, in Dallas he created the first Restoration House of the Year Award, and for the Dallas Chapter of the AIA organized a city wide survey of architect designed and Significant homes. His TEDx talk is Homes That Make Us Happy. His website is: ArchitecturallySignificantHomes.com. Blog is DallasArchitectureBlog.com

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