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Debate between Wendell Cox and Andrés Duany

What was billed as a debate was actually more like an exchange of views. The event began with a presentation by Andrés Duany that was essentially his "Introduction to New Urbanism," with an emphasis on all the obstacles to development and the goal of increased choice. This lasted for 30 minutes, and then Wendell Cox gave a presentation that reprised the arguments found in his websites, articles, and online discussion forums. Cox mentioned several times how close he was in agreement with Duany. He made an explicit distinction between Duany and other New Urbanists such as Kunstler and Calthorpe. Those he lumped together with the Smart Growth movement, and presented a barrage of statistics critiquing the assumptions of those movements.

Following Cox, Duany made a responding statement, which is transcribed below. Several selected questions from the audience are also transcribed. Many of the questions that are not included here were technical in nature and would not have been out of place at a CNU Congress.

--Laurence Aurbach

Conference organizer Randal O'Toole

Opening statement by Wendell Cox:

COX: First of all, my compliments to my predecessor, to Mr. Duany. I just will probably ruin his reputation among his New Urbanist friends, but if he were typical of the New Urbanism, we would have very little to disagree with him on. (applause) We stand for choice; I certainly agree with him that we should not be outlawing these kind of developments. If people want to live in density, they ought to be permitted to live in density; if they want to live in sprawl, they ought to be permitted to live in sprawl. Now, there will be something of a debate here because we will be disagreeing on some points, and the points we are going to be disagreeing on are going to be the points where he actually used figures. Because you'll probably get the impression that as much as he's not comfortable with figures, I'm very comfortable with figures. (laughter) And that's not to say he's right and I'm wrong or the other way around.

Anyway, the question we're asking this evening is, Are Smart Growth and New Urbanism compatible with the American Dream? And let me say also, give my thanks to the Heartland Institute out of Chicago for being a sponsor of my presentation this evening.

(30 minute presentation follows)

Response by Andrés Duany:

DUANY: It's really an interesting and compelling presentation; you can see exactly why I was so worried when I read Randal's book, which is actually a slightly more calm version of the same kind of thing. (laughter) And there's a different style in the graphics -- the bars, Wendell's bars are a lot fatter. (laughter)

But the general trend is exactly the same. Now, I was thinking what to say. In fact, one of the things I'd like to do is invite Wendell to lecture at the Congress which will take place here in Washington, the 11th Congress, and to have us engage in this. And then I was thinking, well, here I am representing the New Urbanism; what would in fact be the response of the New Urbanism if a large group of New Urbanists had heard this presentation?

The first would be this. It would be a group of people who would begin to question the statistics. Which is that somebody would stand up and say very cleverly, "You know, there's three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." And I think that is a complete dead end. Because even if the ratios were not exactly as they are, as convenient, it is sufficiently like the presentation we just saw that it should in some measure cause a crisis within the New Urbanism. Even if we adjust it. And actually, Mike Watkins did a little adjustment here, saying, "Well, you know, the little diagram of Portland, he really didn't show what would happen to the traffic in Portland if transit didn't happen." But the fact is, even if that were shown, it's still a comprehensive disaster. It's just a slightly more comprehensive disaster. (laughter)

So, what do we do? Now, the New Urbanism responds different ways. It is an organization of very bright people who actually like this kind of thing. The first response would be, there'd be a whole bunch of people on his tail trying to correct or give counter arguments. Then there'd be a whole bunch of people who would just ignore it. You know, the kind of people who do not read Randal O'Toole's book; the kind of people who do not read "The Skeptical Environmentalist" -- they just assume it's just ipso facto wrong. And there's a group in the New Urbanism -- and they're actually the foot soldiers that you need to charge the cannons, God bless 'em. You know, in "The Charge Of The Light Brigade"... Somebody has to believe enough in the British cause to actually do the last hundred meters. We need those guys too.

The most interesting aspect of the New Urbanism is that, in the beginning, we were founded on the analysis of failure. This is where, actually, we get along. Because understand that the New Urbanism was conceptualized, was born out of the failure of the planning movement. That actually, one great vision after another was presented to the American people and actually comprehensively adopted. Because it's not as if we have not been listening to people about what to do. The Model Cities -- people would show up in the Model Cities program and say, "I have this new vision of the city, and I would like you to demolish that neighborhood." And they would go like that (sweeping gesture), demolish that neighborhood, and then they would demolish a square mile. And the people saluted and did that. It's not as if Americans have not been listening to their planners, it's just that the planners have been failing.

We were born of that failure. Both extremely aware that something needed to be done to correct the past failure, but also that we ourselves could simply be the next failure. And as a result of that, there is a very thick stream through the New Urbanism that, in fact, whenever things fail we really find out why.

For example, six years ago (maybe 8 years ago now), we were asked to do the downtown plan for L.A. to replace what's called the Silver Book, which is the 1990 plan. And I immediately went to see the planner of the 1990 plan to find out what didn't work. I went to interview him, what worked, what didn't work: He didn't tell me what didn't work. And I think there's a very healthy aspect to the New Urbanism that is willing to confront failure, including our own potential failure.

And so this presentation, which actually posits that we will fail, would fascinate an enormous number of us. We'd just be absolutely riveted. You know, the way that our projects fail, our ideas fail -- in a smaller scale, we know that some of the things will fail, and we get to work on it. This is somebody who is presenting that we're going to fail comprehensively. Now, none of us want to waste our lives being yet one more generation of failure. So I think there is a group that would be very fascinated in engaging this.

I'm speculating as to what the result may be. And I think it would make us very, very conscious that we're not a homogeneous group. And it may be that the New Urbanism -- I'm now speculating, and as a planner I can think of nothing but the long range. I mean, the present is completely irrelevant, the present. What is the long run in this? One of the things that may happen within the New Urbanism is that this would cause a schism. There would actually be a schism within the movement with people who would then say, "Well, we will ignore this and charge the cannon." And people who say, "We will claim less. We will claim less and deliver that which we claim."

We have someone, Mike Watkins here from our office in Kentlands, who said, "You know, all we do in the end is try to make people's daily lives better, isn't it?" And he was looking out the window when he phoned me and had this terrific insight, actually seeing some kids walking to school or walking to the movies. And it was obvious that their life was better because they lived in the Kentlands than if they did not. They were having a good time with their freedom, children that cannot normally get around without driving.

And a base case, I think that a very strong but nevertheless subjective case can be made, that the sum of human happiness increases because of the New Urbanism. That if we were allowed to operate more broadly, the sum -- and I'm now getting statistical -- the sum of human happiness would increase at a higher rate. And perhaps that is less claiming than another group would wish to do, in terms of transit and the urban boundary or so forth, and that may actually clarify one of the distinctions that exists within the New Urbanism.

I don't think this schism would be complete in that it would turn into two groups, because in other issues we would overlap differently. But that is something that actually in the long run could occur. Particularly if this group continues to grow, and we began hearing more and more of it, and people in the public process begin quoting more and more of Randal's book against us. Which is exactly what I thought when I read the book, and in the public process there's always someone who stands up and quotes me against myself. (laughter) So I think it's only a matter of time before somebody that actually is trying to prove that I'm wrong quotes somebody else in front of me.

Now, if you think that this particular presentation or rebuttal, so forth, of mine is weak because I did not engage the statistics: It's not my thing. This is not my thing to even remember numbers, even if I did believe them. There would be some New Urbanists that undoubtedly would have different statistics, but I think that that is less interesting and ultimately less important than actually figuring out what to do with this. What do we turn this critique -- which in fact, we could never have paid for, it's too damn expensive to pay somebody who actually would engage in a kind of think tank effort to find out what could go wrong with the New Urbanism. Somebody has actually paid for some research about what the outcome might be of our lives' efforts, and it could be very, very interesting if we actually took it to be for what is, which is a critique, and to see how we can engage in it. And that's all that I can offer now.


COX: I promised Randal that I wouldn't respond, but I just want to say one thing. And that is, that whether or not the New Urbanism creates a sum improvement in humanity, is really going to depend upon whether or not it is done voluntarily. And if it is voluntary, and it succeeds, it will by definition improve humanity. And if it fails, it will improve humanity, because we are all better off when we have the freedom to do what we like.

Questions from the audience:

Q: I'm Phil Langdon, I'm editor of the New Urban News. I have several concerns about the demonizing of planners, who in my experience are pretty decent people, and who really don't push much down the throats of people the way they did in the 1950s. And I have a lot of concern about how you define coercion. Now, there's been a lot all evening about how bad Portland is, but my understanding is that they have a popularly elected metropolitan government. So if things are so bad in Portland, it would seem the people of Portland would have the ability to vote out of office people who are making things so terrible, and expand their urban growth boundaries if they decide that in fact they're now concerned [the price of housing] is going up too fast. So I'd like to know why you feel somebody is forcing this down the throats of everybody who lives in metro Portland.

COX: I don't believe that it is alright to tell people how they have to leave those [illegible] if they can't afford it. I do not believe that is the right of government. And voting has a real problem, if you look at the referendum that was held last May, the only reason we don't have a significant restriction on density in Portland is because Metro got scared and put its own measure on because it knew it was going to lose.

DUANY: Well, I actually think you said something earlier, that actually Portland has in fact increased its, I mean --

COX: Yeah.

DUANY: The political process is responding, and the urban boundary is actually being moved as a result of the political process. By the way, I think there's a difference between the polemic -- you know, this very hard response is a polemical argument against a polemical statement that corresponds to the polemical statements that were made by the other side. Everybody's exaggerating to get attention. Which works marvelously well, no one's going to stop. But that's why you sort of have to accuse the other of being the very devil themselves.

Q: No, I think we should be as accurate as possible. I think that would serve the purpose [illegible] of both sides, to be as accurate as possible.

DUANY: I agree with you.

(next question)

Q: This whole conference is about preserving the American dream, and your statement that there's no cause, no emergency, and that people love sprawl, kind of is interesting, being that it's the number one issue on voters minds: congestion, open space, commute times, quality of life. In fact, so much so, that most politicians in most states are choosing it as a platform. So my question is, if everybody's so happy, why is this such an issue? And maybe the American dream isn't actually what you think it is, and maybe people aren't as happy as you think they are.

COX: I think that what you have to do is look at what Andrés put up [on the screen] with Loudoun county -- the one-acre minimum lots. The people who are pushing the anti-sprawl agenda, the people who are saying, "we hate sprawl," are the people who are there already. They don't want other people in their neighborhood. It's not that people in central Washington or the inner suburbs would like a house in the external suburbs. You see, this is the problem, it's the NIMBY movement. You've got these strange coalitions of the Sierra Club and its types with upper-middle income people in the suburbs creating a situation where it is essentially an exclusive historic situation and in the long run it's going to reduce home ownership. And I believe -- and perhaps it's polemical -- but perhaps it's time we begin to recognize that our backyards end where the deed says they do.

Q: Andrés, I live in Portland, and when I go to meetings, they quote you all the time. Peter Calthorpe, John Fregonese -- they quote you, they tell me my neighborhood has to look more like the neighborhood we looked at today, the Kentlands. And they come in and they zone, right next to me, without asking me or my neighbors, rowhouses! Well, they didn't ask me; I didn't pick Kentlands; they slammed it right next door to me. And what's happening in Portland right now -- a lot of people don't realize it -- is that neighborhoods are getting madder and madder and madder at New Urbanism and Smart Growth, because we're not asked if we want it, we're forced to have it.

DUANY: There's a large discussion going on in the New Urbanism now about the public process. And the public process can be very easily manipulated by essentially the neighbors. You know, the immediate neighbors. It is very, very difficult to get anything done -- I'm not talking about the townhouses, but for example, it's very difficult to introduce an elementary school. It's very difficult for us to introduce into an existing community a community center of some kind. Because the very, very few neighbors who are in fact affected can basically pack the room, and actually prevent something which is again the common good. So you take the opposite case here; it's very hard to get anything done in an existing community.

Now, what I learned -- just to be interested in -- I learned this is what they do in Australia. I saw a beach in Australia that actually had all the wealthy peoples' houses on it. And as part of it, they built a beach club for the people who didn't live on the beach. And I said, "How'd you do this?? Don't you have a democracy here?" And he said "Yes. But we don't confuse a democracy with the immediate neighbors." (laughter) "We think the immediate neighbors are in fact lobbyists for a single issue." And what they do in Australia when the process is engaged -- this is in Perth -- they actually get the electoral board to select a few hundred names at random among the citizens. So they come in; they're told what the public issue is, and then several dozen volunteer, say fifty. And these people come in as jurors do in the United States to truly represent the community as a whole, and they're the ones who do the public discussion. Then people like yourselves who are the immediate neighbors are seen for what they are, which is the immediate neighbors; it's not the same thing as the citizenry. Because the basic principle is, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. You see, whenever you get in trouble, whenever you say "it isn't working here," it's that democracy isn't working. And you have to figure out how do we make this more democratic.

I'm surprised you were unable to stop whatever you didn't like, because most people can.

Q: We didn't know about it until it was --

DUANY: Yeah. Well, that's not democracy either.

Q: Yeah.

COX: Let me just say also, with respect to that, a lot of what passes for a public process in this country is what I would call a dictatorship of busybodies. (laughter) You know, you open up the process to all comers, and I like, I'm not sure that what they're doing in Perth is the way to go, but it sounds like a much better way than this idea of self-selecting the people who are interested in interfering with the lives of others.