Steve Belmont on Successful Urbanism


By Dom Nozzi

January 17, 2003

I recently read the writings of Steve Belmont. He wrote a book called Cities in Full, and has published journal articles about the benefits of centralization. After reading Belmont and mentioning his thoughts on an urban design list I subscribe to, a comment was made that Belmont is not particularly bullish on new urbanism.

It is clear from his comments that Belmont does not like the idea of building new towns in greenfields. He is a VERY strong supporter of centralization and high (centralized) densities.

Belmont urges that for the sake of healthy transit, and to achieve noticeable environmental and social benefits, cities MUST retain the lion’s share of employment, shopping, and higher density housing. The idea of moving jobs and shops to “edge cities” as a way to reduce trip distances (due to suburban housing migration) is NOT supported by logic or data. He points out that given a fairly uniform dispersal of housing in a region, moving jobs to the suburbs might reduce commute distances for the subdivisions in that one portion of the urban area, but moves the jobs FURTHER from those who live in other parts of the region. The only way to minimize travel distances for the entire region is to centralize them.

Keeping employment, shopping and compact housing in the downtown is important, according to Belmont, but it is also essential that low-density, detached suburban housing be kept OUT of downtowns (suburbanizing downtowns is an extremely common and counterproductive practice, as Paul Bedford would point out).

The housing market seeking a walkable urban lifestyle, states Belmont, is most likely to be lured by walkable amenities such as proximate distances to retail, services, small parks, and offices. These amenities can only be established in a walkable manner when residential densities downtown are relatively high.

My presumption is that Belmont is not supportive of walkable new towns in greenfields because he believes it would not only drain energy from a downtown, but would also (even over the long run) increase trip/commute distances. That is, the greenfield new town could not be designed to be “self-contained” enough to capture most trips (unless there was no urban development within driving distance of the new town project, presumably).

Similarly, Belmont argues against the “polycentric” model, in which multiple (activity/town/neighborhood/commercial) centers are designated and promoted in a city. He points out, accurately, that a great many city planners have urged this form of urban development as a way to minimize trip distances (in my opinion, “multiple centers” are frequently promoted because the inevitable establishment of major shopping centers at major intersections has reactively compelled planners/officials to do so). But as he says, when both spouses work, it is extremely unlikely that they will work in the same (nearby) center, even in the long run, and especially given the frequency of changing jobs. In addition, with the exception of chain stores/restaurants (where there is no distinction between them), people will continue to travel to their favorite stores, restaurants, etc., often in places remote from the nearby sub-center. And continue to want to visit their friends and relatives in other parts of the region. The result: An increase in travel distance and an increase in auto commuting when we move jobs/commercial/entertainment centers out of our central downtown.

The only way to minimize trip distances for the region, and to promote a healthy city, in Belmont’s point of view, is to keep urbanism centralized.



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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

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