Shifting Urban Development Toward ‘VillageTowns’

by Melissa García Lamarca

Claude Lewenz has dedicated much of his life to developing the concept of VillageTowns, an alternative approach to urban sprawl departing from questions such as why and how we do and should build communities. The suburban and vehicle-dependent growth model that emerged in the US after World War II has run rampant and obviously resulted in dozens of societal and ecological ills all over the world, for which alternatives like ecovillages and co-housing (among many others) have been proposed as solutions. With some similarities to new urbanism, Lewenz has created his VillageTown approach with instead a more mainstream appeal, yet still having many of the needed actions towards facilitating more sustainable living. 

Inspired by Aristotle’s concepts of a good life, Lewenz bases his VillageTown model on principles of conviviality and citizenship plus artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth. These ideals, as well as enabling people to provide for economic, social cultural well-being while protecting and preserving environment, are reflected in the proposed urban design: human scale dimensions, no cars allowed within enabling smaller, pedestrian streets (i.e. below), plazas as public spaces to encourage interaction, and many others. From various studies Lewenz found that the optimal population for a village providing face-to-face contact and mutual aid is 500 people, while that of a town is 10.000, a size that adds economic, social and cultural enrichment. The VillageTown is thus created in this conglomeration of 20 villages into a town foreseen to cover 500 acres, 125 of which are urban, 325 greenbelt and 50 industrial, freight depot and motorpool (cars cannot enter the VillageTown), with a community-organised governance system.


While this approach is interesting as a replacement for building new suburbs, industrial estates and so forth, one of my big concerns is how we use the already existing built environment, that is how we can reclaim, reinvent and reuse the large amounts of built areas that exist at present. In this light, it appears that the VillageTown approach has been developed through a narrow lens with little reflection on how it connects into bigger social change movements, such as Transition Towns and Degrowth, that seek a broader societal transformation reflected at multiple levels (social, environmental, physical etc.), changes we desperately need considering the challenges we face with climate change, ever-growing social inequities and many others. 

The VillageTown model works clearly within the existing capitalist framework – reflected in Lewenz’s stated goal of turning real estate development upside down (or right-side up) – with a proposed house in one of these new areas costing $250,000. This price tag makes me wonder how diverse such areas would end up being, perhaps instead creating neo-ghettos of privileged people able to ‘buy in’ to such a development. It is easy to think romantically about the concepts of community and citizenship, and unfortunately most of what I have heard or read about VillageTowns falls into this trap. 

The projects currently underway in the US, Australia and New Zealand are still at the early stages; experience will tell how the VillageTown concept functions in practice.

Credits: Image of Claude Lewenz book How to Build a Village from villageforum.com. Image of human scale streets from villageforum.com.

5 comments:

  1. The Villagetown provides an alternative to building the next suburb. You cannot fault Mr. Lewenz for not seeking to solve all of the world's problems, his current goal is to prove that this particular model works and can be used instead of the current model for new development. The ideas that he offers will also be valuable for other people, such as the transition town folks, to achieve their goals, but it is not reasonable to fault him for focusing his efforts in a different direction from yours. Once these efforts are up and running, he may well turn the to need to retrofit existing communities, or he may decide that his part of this work is finished and others should carry on the work. You would benefit most from finding solutions to the problems you see instead of implying that Mr. Lewenz has ignored more important issues.
    It is also important to note that Mr. Lewenz is attempting to take a mainstream approach which can appeal to most people regardless of political affiliation. He intentionally avoids the controversial issues which the transition movement focuses on in order to focus on individual quality of life, the reaults of which should be immediately evident to the individual, not on saving the world, though saving the world might eventually be a nice side effect.
    Regarding housing cost, first take a look at Mr. Lewenz's ideas regarding Parallel Market Real Estate. Consider that the thing that makes the idea appealing is the diversity, therefore the people interested in this particular model of living will only move a project forward if it will be affordable (and those who are interested in exclusive developments already have models such as gated golfing communities).
    Now consider how housing costs will compare to the costs of living in current cultural and entertainment centers such as NYC and how costs will be affected by the creation of many VillageTowns, i.e. A place like New York currently has a sort of monopoly on a certain kind of lifestyle. Too many people trying to be a part of it contributes to overcrowding, sprawl, and high housing costs. Many people would prefer to choose from one of the hundreds of VillageTowns that may one day exist.
    One of my personal goals is to see these projects come to fruition so that those proven ideas can then be applied to the current towns that I know and love. If individuals such as those in the Transition movement help to make VillageTowns happen, it will prove that changing our way of living is something that can appeal to all kinds of people.

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts wryan, I am glad to find a moment now to read and reflect on them.

    In terms of your comment on finding solutions to the problems I see, I want to clarify that I do think that change needs to happen at all levels in the current (capitalist, patriarchal, etc.) system we live in, in terms of working inside and at the same time creating alternatives. Regarding the first, the VillageTown approach has many great elements, but my point was that I think it would really benefit from being more engaged with alternative movements - even just starting with dialogue and discussion, to see how/where there are intersections and potential for collaboration. At the same time while I definitely understand your point about the purposeful strategy of taking a mainstream approach to appeal to all people (not just 'alternative' ones attracted to transition towns, degrowth etc.), everything we do is inherently political. The VillageTown approach is not 'just' a physical alternative to suburban development, as expressed in built form, but contains deeper social, ecological economic and political transformations. While it might be controversial, such issues can't be avoided (conflict is part of life!). Our actions are not politics-free.

    I think part of the challenge we face in creating a more sustainable and socially just world is breaking down the barriers between people working for change on mainstream and alternative levels. My point is that there is a lot of mutual learning that can happen between the two when a shared vision is held, and in the end I think social change movements become stronger from working together. All this to say that in my opinion the VillageTown approach would be better and stronger for engaging with other alternative movements.

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  3. Dear mgl,

    It’s a lovely Saturday morning; I’ve answered my email correspondence, and I was taking a break from writing a business plan when I did a Google search on "VillageTown". This blog came up although on another web site (http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/polis-blog/16795/shifting-urban-development-towards-villagetowns#comment-1551) that did not permit a reply. When I back-tracked it to your site, it seems there is a limit on what can be written, hence I will try to respond to the key points:

    While your answer to wryan says that your point was to encourage the VillageTown approach to benefit by engaging with alternative movements, your original review says something different.

    The first two paragraphs of your review state the facts, but the balance of the review renders a judgement, and unfortunately it judges not the idea of VillageTowns but instead judges misunderstandings. It does not appear to have been based on reading the books, but on my public talks or web pages, where one never can go into the level of detail required.

    You wrote “…with a proposed house in one of these new areas costing $250,000. This price tag makes me wonder how diverse such areas would end up being, perhaps instead creating neo-ghettos of privileged people able to ‘buy in’ to such a development.”.

    Somehow you missed the key word “average”. If the average price of a new home is $250,000 this means many will sell for less, and others will sell for more. If the reader of your review is given the impression the entry price is $250,000, then the VillageTown idea is fatally misunderstood by the reader. The review appears not to consider the effects of parallel market real estate or what happens when one builds a 50-acre industrial park where blue collar workers make things with their hands. Thus, the review comes to the erroneous conclusion that the VillageTown will likely end up as a neo-ghetto for the privileged. The review’s final judgement in effect writes off the idea based not on fact, but on a fallacy.

    In your reply to wryan, you presume there was and is no dialogue with alternative movements. This is incorrect. However, it’s a bit like having a dialogue between Boeing and Cessna on making airplanes. They both fly, but they are two different industries. The alternative movement is like Cessna, they carry a few people at a time, and they work on a small scale and budget. VillageTowns seeks to take on the suburban sprawl industry, which is a behemoth like Boeing. In fact I have had considerable discussion with many in the alternative movement, and many of their good ideas are woven into the VillageTown idea. Your reply to wryan presumes that has not happened, or that benefit has not come from it.

    In your review, you do not take the same position as you replied to wryan, but rather state “one of my big concerns is how we use the already existing built environment, that is how we can reclaim, reinvent and reuse the large amounts of built areas that exist at present.” That is a separate conversation.

    In effect that says we should stop looking at providing an alternative to future suburban sprawl, and instead join the work of social change movements on fixing the broken car-based systems. The conversation about fixing what is broken is a different one than building an alternative to future suburban sprawl.

    The world needs both conversations, but they are separate conversations. The validity of VillageTown needs to be judged on its merits, not on the merits of transition towns or other different movements focusing on different challenges.

    In order to bring more light and less heat to the conversation, I would appreciate if you consider re-writing your review based on the VillageTown idea as it is presented. If you have not read the books, email me and I will see what we can do to get you copies. If you have questions you wish to put in the public forum, please feel free to go to http://villageforum.com and post them so I or one of the stewards can answer them on the record.

    Claude

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  4. This blog has also been posted here :
    http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/polis-blog/16795/shifting-urban-development-towards-villagetowns

    where it has received attention from two of the major players. I encourage the author to respond there or steer readers back to polis

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  5. Thank you wryan for the heads up, I appreciate it.

    I have responded especially to Claude's points there:
    http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/polis-blog/16795/shifting-urban-development-towards-villagetowns

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