FOONG ON FINANCE: Meditations on Urbanism

As Aretha Franklin sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s swearing in ceremony last Tuesday, ABC News panned to images of the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, Capitol Hill and other scenes of architecture and nature from across the nation.

It was hard not to be moved, not only by the occasion, but by those images of great art in the midst of the swelling music. As those images flashed, it occurred to me that every one of those sculptures shown was by an artist from the Nineteenth Century. That was art that had something real to offer people. Is there a single living sculptor today who can produce sculptures of that stature? When called to rise to the occasion, to match the greatness of a nation, to create the great, old-fashioned emotions, art and architecture today will fall flat.

Maybe some will argue with that opinion. The point is that some things from the past are unquestionably superior—especially in this time of, arguably, low culture. In real estate, the New Urbanism movement in architectural planning does not avoid mentioning the past as it advocates for creating neighborhoods according to the principles that can be seen to underlie the cities, towns and villages of history. These are high-level places with heart and soul, which most people love—and which are so desirable that, increasingly, only the rich can afford to live in them.

Multi-housing investors should take note: the New Urbanists argue that investments in new developments may be worth more and hold their values better if they are New Urbanist communities rather than suburban-modeled ones. The Congress for the New Urbanism points out that an updated study by Mark Eppli and Charles Tu shows that between 1997 and 2005, properties in two classic New Urbanist communities sold at a premium—and even a widening premium in one case—to those in conventional developments.

As New Urbanist pioneer Andres Duany tells MHN in an interview in the upcoming February 2009 issue of our magazine, “Nearby shops for the ordinary daily needs, and sociable eateries are essential—and they cost less and raise value more than the usual immensity of dopey landscaping and desiccated pool houses.”

(Keat Foong is the executive editor of Multi-Housing News)