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
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.
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 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
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 --
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.
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.
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.