Enviros versus Architects: Both Wrong

Green architecture is an oxymoron, and the environmental movement is upside-down, if you follow the logic of a founder of contemporary urban planning, Andres Duany. Speaking today at the Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, Duany threw zinger after zinger about how his side of urban planning has raised the profile of the walkable city and effectively defeated suburbia.

“We have to be students of failure,” said the Principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, referring to the past three generations of planners that encouraged sprawl and isolated acts of architecture. His alternative, called new urbanism, design cities around a 10-minute walk instead of on driving. Examples include compact European cities such as Venice and the model city of Seaside, Florida, featured in the movie The Truman Show.

postcard from Seaside
A postcard from Seaside’s website.

Not only faulting cities and suburbs for losing their way, he pans the current environmental movement for trying to “green” everything, as if sticking trees in the sidewalk will save the planet. He upholds the European, treeless plaza as a better model of sustainability.

“The real way to save nature is to make cities that people really love,” he said. Suburbs get abandoned because of mediocrity, he claims.

I agree with his idea of compact communities, although I may quibble with his criticism of how environmentalists try to bring nature into cities. He says that new regulations would prevent a Manhattan from being created again, because existing streams and waterways would take precedent over human environments. My contention is that plenty of urban land exists for infill, thereby precluding the option of building on top of wetlands.

In my recent Going Green column, “Good Green News,” I wrote that one of Miami’s stregths is the separation of nature and city, which allows for concentrations of both. I can see how strict environmentalists would take issue with this stance, as they believe “nature” should overtake everything (this is Duany’s fear). I don’t see it as a “humans versus nature” debate, but rather as a “humans and nature” coexistence. Large expanses of nature deserve protection, but at the same time, people restricted to the ghetto deserve a connection to nature (the rich can afford to escape the city at any time). I believe even a compact city can retain attractive elements of nature, and I definitely believe that cities are “greener” than suburbs.

Duany makes his view clear. “There are consequences to the extravagance of the past 50 years. The lifestyle of the American middle class is causing the climate problems. It’s the beginning and the end of it.” He blames the car, and he is right. The car is the real American Idol.

As for what people really care about—the economy, stupid—he says we are stuck in the “new dimishment” and that “the real estate bubble is nothing.” The real problem is that we, collectively, can no longer afford our car-based lifestyle. So much for bailing out GM. We should be focusing on HM: human motors.

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