The Rules of Livability and New Urbanism: A Conversation with Emily Talen
There's that saying, "If you don't like the outcome, change the rules." For livability, that means changing the zoning. All sorts of seemingly reasonable and well-intentioned laws have been passed at all levels of government that have had the effect of encouraging sprawl, which many now feel is undesirable and unsustainable. Emily Talen, a professor at Arizona State University and co-editor of the Journal of Urbanism, takes a dive into zoning, its consequences and how best to rewrite the rules in her recent book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form. She also recently edited an updated edition of the Charter for the New Urbanism. We talked about both works:
Livability: Rules are a double-edged sword, aren't they? You need them, but they can go very wrong.
Talen: A lot could happen if we got control and could change it. It's something planners realized early on, and it catapulted them into having a professional status in the 1920s. But, yes, it's a double-edged sword because they're wreaking havoc right about now.
Livability: Since many of the rules are written at local levels, don’t you have to keep fighting the same fights?
Talen: Strong and determined personalities can have an impact. A lot of it is an educational process. People are realizing that we need to have cities that are livable, walkable, diverse and not car-dependent. People are starting to trickle in. People who are doing the coding are getting really good at knowing the political process and how to do the community engagement right – leveraging instead of fighting against the community. You still have people who are adverse to anything planning and incredibly afraid of change. Those are the communities that will be last to turn around.
Livability: That’s why the charettes and community meetings are important to the way the New Urbanism movement operates, right?
Talen: You really need to say, “Well, if you have this change, this new type of regulation or have this smart growth plan put in place, here's what you get.” You also have to show, “If you don't do it, here's what you lose.” If you just put out a statement to a community like "tell us what you want," it's never put in terms of "Well, if you want to have that, here's what you have to give up." It's a hard political thing to get across.
Livability: The Charter is organized along certain principals for the New Urbanism movement. As you were editing, were there some that struck you as more or less successful or that stood up better over time?
Talen: All of the authors were asked to revise their chapters. The need for revision was greater at the regional level than in the block/street/building chapters. The larger the scale, the more the revision needed. There was no climate change in the original  charter. That wasn't even part of the language. That way of thinking and measuring and talking about development has really had an effect on regionalism. I don't think much progress has been made on the regional end. That's the most difficult part of the charter to implement, and it might well be the most important part. The politics to do regional planning in the U.S. are pretty nonexistent.
Livability: Is it possible to overstate the role of the built environment in creating livable places?
Talen: Yes. Certainly. I'm often frustrated with my academic colleagues for not putting enough emphasis on the built environment, and then I’m frustrated with the New Urbanists for putting too much emphasis on it. That's especially noticeable with the issue of affordable housing. I've been critical of New Urbanism for not paying more attention to that.
Livability: A recurring theme on this blog is that walkable urbanism runs the risk of becoming a luxury good.
Talen: It's a huge problem. The New Urbanists aren't really sure what to do about it because their focus – you see this in the Charter – is on getting the built environment right. Most of them are architects, they're not policy people. In the Charter revision, I was glad to be the editor because I snuck in some things. I put in a bit that I wrote about Community Land Trusts. I think that's a way to go for the New Urbanism movement. It's about taking the land out of the speculative market to maintain affordability. It's a basic principal. If you're going to keep building these beautiful, walkable, transit-enabled places, there is no way they are going to be diverse unless there is some policy behind it. It's not going to maintain diversity via the market only. Neither can you expect it to be maintained by having government programs support it because those are constantly in decline. The community trust model is a nonprofit model that doesn't have to do with government.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.