New Urbs

Is Bad City Planning Making Us Lonely?


“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Loneliness, Urban Design, and Form-Based Codes | Steve Price, CNU Public Square

Humans are social, yet this primary fact of life is oddly absent as a core consideration in modern urban development regulations. To ignore the social needs of our species is to lose sight of one of the most positive drivers for shaping sustainable urban form. Providing for the satisfactions of community counters sprawl. Yet conventional land-use zoning disperses people and strips social life from the landscape. This is where form-based codes come in. They are the tool par excellence for guiding development in a socially sensitive way, configuring buildings and streets to enliven social life.

A remarkable and growing body of literature in contemporary social research is telling us that healthy, well functioning communities need face-to-face meeting, interaction, and communication among their members, something that electronic “social media” cannot replace. And it requires high quality physical space.


America’s Hunger for Luxury Housing May Finally Be Satiated | Jeff Spross, The Week

Around 5,100 new apartments will be listed for rent in San Francisco in 2016, which is the biggest annual number in 26 years; Manhattan will feature 5,675 new units. And 2017 will probably blow 2016 out of the water, with projections showing San Francisco gaining around 7,000 more units, and New York getting 14,000 new units. In fact, back in July, 2016 already looked set to meet or break apartment construction records in the major markets across the country. …

Much of this booming construction is in the super high-end market — it’s telling that the “low-end” market in Manhattan is considered to be all housing under $2 million. And it looks like the population that could afford to buy or rent those sorts of luxury units is dwindling: The number of highly paid tech jobs in San Francisco is down from a peak earlier this year, and it’s mid-pay jobs in hospitality and health care that are seeing the biggest gains in New York City.


Top-Down, Bottom-Up Urban Design | Elizabeth Greenspan, New Yorker

“[W]hat we need to do is think of the city as a more open system, which accumulates complexity, and in which those complexities have to be worked with, rather than simplified.” Take school buildings. In many cities, schools might be “built into factories, or into back rooms of housing settlements. And rather than see that there’s something wrong about that—this is what I mean about the break with the spirit of Corbusier—we should be working with making that kind of school better,” he said. [Richard] Sennett and his colleagues argue for city plans defined by flexibility, rather than by right and wrong answers.


An Uncredentialed Woman: The Unlikely Life of Jane Jacobs | Howard Husock, City Journal

Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is the first full-length biography of Jacobs, a woman without a college degree who became one of the most influential urban thinkers of the twentieth century. Kanigel deftly links Jacobs’s life experiences to the development of her original ideas. Born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs wrote for a living, and not always for glamorous New York publications. She began her journalism career as an intern at the Scranton Republican and then contributed to Iron Age, a trade publication at which she learned the nuts and bolts of the metals industry. She learned, for instance, that non-ferrous metals were vital to modern life and how the markets for them worked.  She worked briefly as a financial writer for Hearst and wrote an extended feature about Manhattan’s fur district for Vogue and another for Harper’s Bazaar about the crabbing culture on Maryland’s Tangier Island. She was, in other words, soaking up the details of how business, culture, and the urban environment worked together when done right—the very combinations she’d go on to celebrate in her breakthrough masterpiece, 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


New York, San Francisco, and the Real Rental Crisis | Jordan Fraade, Washington Post

Economists have traditionally defined “rent-burdened” households as those that pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The “severely rent-burdened” pay more than half. In all but two of the 11 largest metro areas in the United States, the share of low-income households that suffer from severe rent burden increased from 2006 to 2014, according to a March report by New York University’s Furman Center. Since 2008, rent burden has also become far more common among middle-class households, the combined result of stagnant incomes and declining rental vacancy. Pundits and demographers often hold up cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago as reasonably priced alternatives to pricey coastal hubs. But these “second-tier” cities are hardly immune from their own affordability problems. By 2014, a majority of all renter households in eight of the 11 largest U.S. cities, including all three listed above, qualified as rent-burdened.


This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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What the Rust Belt Can Learn from Rio

Samuel A. Love / Flickr
Samuel A. Love / Flickr

The hilariously mordant James Howard Kunstler once wrote a blog post about driving through northwest Indiana, noting the “ghostly remnants of factories” and neighborhoods “foreclosed and shuttered,” “places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaining denizens of the endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel…There was a Chernobyl-like grandeur to it, as of the longed-for end of something enormous that hadn’t worked out well.”

My own leafy town of Valparaiso is part of this region of over 700,000 that includes no major urban centers, only small cities and towns, none of them over 80,000. They include such locales as Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Michigan City, La Porte, Crown Point, Portage and Chesterton. Thinking of the map of Lake Michigan, I sometimes describe our post-industrial landscape as “the bottom of the lake.”

Earlier this month, nearby this gritty spectacle at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Front Porch Republic held its annual meeting. (The name of the group sounds like a breakaway comic-opera kingdom, perhaps a cousin of Groucho Marx’s Fredonia. In fact, FPR is a collection of writers, academics and genial cranks who all emphasize the local over the remote.) In comments at Notre Dame, I wondered what exactly is supposed to be our collective fate here in “the region,” as locals like to call it. Is Creative Class guru Richard Florida correct that our lack of information-economy resources means we’re doomed to just fade away? Should we take Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s advice and work to become more integrated into the neoliberal Chicago megaregion?

Perhaps what places like northern Indiana need is not innovation, but unnovation—to use a term coined by Boston-based journalist Ben Schreckinger. The idea is to resist the magical thinking that our little towns can ensure meteoric growth by trying to launch tech companies with virtually no resident tech talent. Forget Silicon Valley and Route 128 and the endless glorification of knowledge work (you might think of proto-Porcher Wendell Berry here): in the rustbelt, we need a return to economic roots. Schreckinger argues that non-urban Massachusetts—he might have said most of Indiana as well—should return to its traditional industries of farming and manufacturing, both of which have deep cultural roots (outside the big cities) as well as new technological tools.

Also worth considering is Catherine Tumber’s contrarian vision of the resilient post-industrial cities and towns of the future. She argues that pace the wiseguys like Florida or Glaeser, it is we rust-belters who are well-positioned for the future economy. That’s because our places will be “small, gritty and green” (from her book of the same name).

Here’s what she means. First, smaller cities and towns (under a half million in population) are built on a more sustainable scale and can often achieve consensus more easily. Second, their “grittiness” is their cultural memory of manufacturing and heavier industry, one example of which is Muncie, Indiana’s current national prominence in the wind energy sector, drawing on its history with corporations such as GM and Westinghouse. Finally, the greenness advantage derives from the way smaller cities and towns can benefit from and contribute to a clean energy economy based on land, manufacturing skills, waterways, and concentrated urban energy markets of their own.

Just for fun, I asked the audience at Notre Dame to guess the location of a real place which had the characteristics of low-rise, high density development; a pedestrian orientation; mixed use (homes above shops); organic architecture (evolves according to need); use of collective action; intricate solidarity networks; and vibrant cultural production. Sounds like Tolkien’s Shire, I know.

The place I had in mind, one I visited several years ago, was in fact the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro. The economy of a Brazilian favela, in many instances, can be an example of a kind of anarchist, self-organizing system, still somewhat free from much governmental involvement—one among several ways in which it typically differs from, say, Chicago’s West Side. These are exuberant, street-lively places built with much more social than economic capital, leading to neighborhood sayings such as “there are no beggars in the favela.” Importantly, they have managed to develop and even prosper outside the usual financial and civic systems.

Given the presence of Rod Dreher at the conference, it was natural to ask: does the Benedict Option have an economic dimension? I suggested that it necessarily had one, citing the Economy of Communion network as a kind of model. The EoC was born within the Focolare organization—a Catholic “ecclesial movement” founded just after World War II—and now has some 700 member businesses worldwide. In its grounding in personalist Christian witness and Catholic social teachings, the group is no quaint collection of handicraft vendors but a sophisticated coalition of triple-bottom line companies. I think their vision offers an important way forward.

Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana. He blogs at The Dorothy Option and Solidarity Hall.

This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Will We Always Have Paris?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

“We’ll Always Have Paris”? | Mary Campbell Gallagher, Architecture Here and There

When the masked thugs of ISIS swing their sledgehammers through Iraq’s museums and dynamite Palmyra, the world gasps and screams. But what if the vandal is a chic Parisian woman wearing high-heeled boots and talking like a visionary? What if her target is the world’s most beloved and most-visited city? Does the world gasp, or does it not even hear what she is saying? “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick tells Elsa in “Casablanca.” Yet now, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says she will “reinvent” Paris. Without putting it to a vote, she will replace the uniquely harmonious city we know with something “modern” and “contemporary.” She will pierce the low horizon with a dozen skyscrapers, replace classic stone facades with rivers of glass, and bury the famous zinc and slate rooftops under new construction. Mon Dieu! Doesn’t anyone get what Paris is doing to itself?


Why Cathedrals Are Soaring | Simon Jenkins, The Spectator

Something strange is happening in the long decline of Christian Britain. We know that church attendance has plummeted two thirds since the 1960s. Barely half of Britons call themselves Christian and only a tiny group of these go near a church. Just 1.4 per cent regularly worship as Anglicans, and many of those do so for a privileged place in a church school.

Yet one corner of the garden is blooming: the 42 cathedrals. At the end of the last century, cathedrals were faring no better than churches, with attendances falling sometimes by 5 per cent a year. With the new century, everything changed. Worship in almost all 42 Anglican cathedrals began to rise, and it is now up by a third in a decade. This was in addition to visits by tourists, who number more than eight million. There are more visits to cathedrals than to English Heritage properties.


Hartford’s Big Dig | Matthew Hennessey, City Journal

Every large city in Connecticut has at least one arterial highway slashing through its heart. Some have multiple elevated highways meeting in massive steel-and-concrete interchanges. The drive along I-95 from New York to Boston affords commanding views of Stamford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. Spend a little time on the surface streets of these cities, however, and the civic devastation wrought by their highways is hard to miss.

In Connecticut as in the rest of the country, massive interstate construction projects followed President Dwight Eisenhower’s signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Cities like Hartford were then suffering massive traffic congestion problems, as rising postwar incomes spurred a boom in individual car ownership. In 1949, several major insurance companies asked the engineering firm Andrews and Clark to compile an “Arterial Plan for Hartford” under the direction of New Haven native Robert Moses. “Doctors, we are told, bury their mistakes, planners by the same token embalm theirs, and engineers inflict them on their children’s children,” wrote Moses in a cover letter. It was an oddly prophetic warning from a man blamed by many for ruining New York City with his car-dependent infrastructure projects.


The Disposable Post-War Suburb | Johnny Sanphillippo, Granola Shotgun

Back in the 1950’s Colerain Township was the recipient of a wave of respectable prosperous families who were crossing the municipal line out of Cincinnati. They drove through Mount Airy Forest and left behind high taxes, high crime, lower quality public services, old unfashionable buildings, and poor black people. If you couldn’t afford a brand new home and a car… you clearly didn’t belong.

The schools were new. The shopping centers and office parks were new. Tax revenue poured in. Police, teachers, and administrators were hired. Parks were created. Libraries opened. Life was very good.

Fast forward sixty five years. Everything that used to be shiny and new is now aging – not all of it well. There are now decades of accumulated salaries, pensions, and health care obligations for municipal workers, past and present. The roads, water pipes, lift stations, sewerage treatment plant, and public buildings are all in need of expensive maintenance. Tax revenue is in decline. This town like nearly every other town of its vintage is functionally insolvent.


Art Deco Los Angeles | John L. Dorman, New York Times

Several of them have been razed, and a few of the surviving ones are underused or vacant. Tourists gravitate toward the Bank Tower, which has an observation deck, or Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. But before being literally overshadowed, these Art Deco treasures were once icons of downtown Los Angeles. And they still should be.

Most of the Art Deco buildings are smaller than the modern skyscrapers rising in the area, but they still soar. To explore them is to witness a grandeur that inspires you, unlike many skyscrapers, which merely surprise you. Because they arrived at a moment of economic expansion, they suggest the sense of endless possibility that permeated the city. I set off to get a glimpse of what those architectural dreamers were able to accomplish.


This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Google Maps and What Makes a Neighborhood Interesting

Trevor / Flickr
Trevor / Flickr

Where are the most interesting streetscapes and popular destinations in your city? Even among your friends and colleagues, there might be some lively disagreement about that question. But recently, search giant Google weighed in on this question when it overhauled Google Maps this summer. Now it has a new feature, an creamsicle orange shading in certain city neighborhoods, that it calls “areas of interest.” But what makes a neighborhood interesting? And do Google’s new peachy orange blobs correspond to anyone’s idea of what constitutes interesting?

The addition was part of a graphic facelift for Google Maps, which was generally applauded in the design community. The new maps are a bit lighter, more prominently include neighborhood names, and highlight notable landmarks. Freeways and major arterials, parks, and the new peachy areas of interest are the outstanding features on these maps.


But not everyone was enamored of the new orange blotches. Writing at CityLab, Laura Bliss detected a bias. Could it be, she asked, that Google was only interested in areas with certain levels of income, ethnic compositions and levels of internet access? Examining data for selected neighborhoods in Washington, Los Angeles, and Boston, she argued that low income neighborhoods of color tended to be less likely to get Google’s peachy designation.

For example, while Westlake, a neighborhood towards the east side of Los Angeles is dense, relatively low-income, predominantly Latino area, with many restaurants, businesses, and schools only a few lots are highlighted in orange. In contrast, the mostly residential, mostly white neighborhood of Sawtelle, on the wealthier, west side of Los Angeles includes Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards and a wide residential area, but the “nearly the entire area is shaded orange, for no clear reason.”

It’s a fair point to suggest that not everyone will find the same set of destinations “interesting,” and it’s likely given capitalism, demographics and math, that any algorithm-based means of identifying interesting areas will tend to select places that appeal to the masses, the mass market and the majority, and may leave out or fail to detect places that have appeal to subgroups of the population. And the fact that Google–while acknowledging that the presence of commercial activities influences its scoring– has been mostly vague about how it has identified areas of interest can add to the concern.

Earlier this year, at City Observatory, we set about tackling a similar question, using data on the location of customer-facing retail and service businesses to create a Storefront Index. Essentially, we used a business directory database to map the locations of millions of retail and service businesses, in the process identifying places that have strong clusters of these businesses that form the nuclei of walkable areas. The special sauce in the index is the use of a nearest neighbor algorithm that provides that we map a business only if it is within 100 meters of another storefront business.

Because our algorithm is transparent (you can see each dot on the map) and because we’ve made our methodology public (details here), we thought it would be interesting to compare the Storefront Index clusters with Google’s Areas of Interest. And in the process, perhaps we can marshal some evidence that will bear on Laura Bliss’s concern that there’s some latent bias hiding in the Google approach.

We’ve overlaid our storefront index map on Google Maps, so you can see how closely the two concepts align. We haven’t undertaken any kind of statistical analysis, but a casual visual inspection shows that most areas of interest do in fact have high concentrations of storefronts. Our City Observatory colleague, Dillon Mahmoudi has mapped storefronts in the 50 largest US metropolitan areas, and you can use this map to see how storefront clusters correspond to areas of interest. Here’s downtown Los Angeles. (Click on the image to visit City Observatory‘s interactive web page, with maps of other metropolitan areas).


Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the neighborhoods that Laura Bliss felt were slighted by Google Maps.  The first row shows two neighborhoods in Los Angeles, the second row two neighborhoods in Boston. The neighborhoods on the left were ones with very few and small areas of interest according to Google (and perhaps under-appreciated, according to Bliss); the ones on the right have relatively large shaded areas of interest.  The dots on each map correspond to our measure of storefronts–cluster of customer facing retail and service businesses.  Both of the “slighted” neighborhoods do have some clusters of storefront businesses (though their numbers are smaller, and there concentrations less dense than in the corresponding “favored” neighborhoods in the right hand column. While we’ve come up well-short of reverse engineering Google’s algorithm, these data do suggest that storefronts are a key driver of areas of interest.


Click to enlarge.

It’s a fair question to ask as to whose preferences are reflected in any description of an “area of interest.” Given the diversity of the population and the heterogeneity of tastes and interests, what will be interesting to some people will be banal or off-putting to others. Or maybe its a semantic problem: by describing some areas as “interesting,” it seems like Google may be implicitly characterizing other areas as “uninteresting.” Many of these concerns could be assuaged, we think, if Google chose to be a little more transparent about its basis for describing these areas, and if it called them by a different and more narrowly descriptive name, like “most searched” or “most popular.”

Ultimately, the solution to the problem Laura Bliss has identified may be democratization and competition. The more data (including everything geolocated on the web, including Google maps and listings, tweets, user reviews, and traffic data) are widely available to end users, and the more different people are crafting their own maps, the better we may be able to create images that reflect the diversity of interests of map users.

Joe Cortright is President and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters. This post originally appeared at

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Words on the Street

Eisenhower Memorial Commission
Eisenhower Memorial Commission

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

One More Inglorious Pile on the Mall | Edward Rothstein, Wall Street Journal

The news that the Eisenhower family has dropped objections to a modified version of Frank Gehry’s vision for a $150 million proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Mall in Washington means that in a few years we will probably be subjected to something only marginally less kitschy and overblown than Mr. Gehry’s earlier vision: a four-acre extravaganza featuring three statues of Eisenhower—as Kansas farm boy, Supreme Allied Commander and president—with a 477-foot-wide woven-metal tapestry depicting Abilene, Kan., suspended from eight-story-tall limestone columns.

The architect will now alter the tapestry’s subject and may skim off some bloat, but enough of the original idea will surely remain to allow it to fit right in with the many other mediocre monuments that have been crowding the Mall and other public sites during the past 25 years.

Want Affordable Housing? Legalize Main Street | Jonathan Coppage, Washington Post

In a sign that market solutions for the United States’ growing housing affordability crisis are beginning to earn bipartisan support, the White House this week unveiled its “Housing Development Toolkit,” which encourages state and local policymakers to undertake a number of long-overdue reforms.

The tool kit draws on some of the best and most up-to-date research on housing affordability and cites such respected researchers as Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser. But for such reforms to benefit smaller and distressed communities, Washington needs to undo its own role in distorting the housing market. In short, the Federal Housing Administration has to relegalize Main Street.

Lean Streets, Small Blocks: the ‘Good Bones’ of Strong Communities | Robert Steuteville, Public Square

A body without good bones will fall apart. And as many of us have come to realize, streets are the bones of communities. A community that lacks good streets will suffer—in its economy, its social well-being, and its health.

When people who study cities and towns say that a place “has good bones,” they mean that it has a connected network of small blocks and “lean” (not overly wide) streets. The blocks probably hold at least a few fine old buildings, though some of them may have been neglected, since the last half of the 20th Century was often unkind to old places. Urban renewal and parking policies led to the loss of many buildings.

The urban fabric may be tattered. Traffic engineers may have widened the travel lanes, converted many streets to one-way, and cut down trees. Nonetheless, in good bones there is the potential for renaissance. The essential elements—lean streets and small blocks, a characteristic praised by Jane Jacobs—are resilient.

Is There Too Much Parking? | Nate Berg, The Guardian

“As parking regulations were put into zoning codes, most of the downtowns in many cities were just completely decimated,” says Michael Kodransky, global research manager for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy. “What the cities got, in effect, was great parking. But nobody goes to a city because it has great parking.”

Increasingly, cities are rethinking this approach. As cities across the world begin to prioritise walkable urban development and the type of city living that does not require a car for every trip, city officials are beginning to move away from blanket policies of providing abundant parking. Many are adjusting zoning rules that require certain minimum amounts of parking for specific types of development. Others are tweaking prices to discourage driving as a default when other options are available. Some are even actively preventing new parking spaces from being built.

Urbanism, Texas-Style | Joel Kotkin et. al., City Journal

Of the cities I’ve called home, Austin has the most aspirational culture. People move to Washington, for example, to change the world, and often do so—for the worse. People come to Austin to build something new, earn their success, and have fun. Visit any one of the city’s coffeehouses, and new rounds of funding and pitches are in the air. Drive or bike anywhere on a weekend, and you’ll likely run into a festival that you had no idea was happening. Our zip code has more bars per capita than any other in the nation. Many are indoor-outdoor, which gives Austin a festive, public feel. Voices, music, and faces are all integral to the urban landscape here.

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Out of Portland’s Shadow

Esther Short Park, Downtown Vancouver, Wash. (Cory Barnes / Flickr)
Esther Short Park, Downtown Vancouver, Wash. (Cory Barnes / Flickr)

It used to be easy to avoid the litany of error that inevitably followed “I’m from Vancouver, Washington,”—Canada? D.C.?—by offering the simpler, “I’m from Portland.” No confusion there, it’s true enough—and in its early seasons, the TV show Portlandia gave you something to talk about with strangers. But the changes of the last decade, and even the last few years, have made it harder to elide the state line between Washington and Oregon that is the Columbia River.

Both Portland and Vancouver have grown enormously, with the latter now boasting a population of 172,000—adding nearly 30,000 residents since 2000. One rejected annexation plan from 2006 would have added even more residents, surpassing Tacoma and Spokane to become Washington’s second largest city. Vancouver has also grown a personality beyond just the not-Portland sentiment expressed when “Keep Portland Weird” was answered with “Keep Vancouver Normal.”

My official hometown has been called Vantucky, The Couve—and the chip on Vancouver’s shoulder is perfectly understandable. It is, in fact, the first Vancouver, with the Canadian metropolis to the north only a very, very wealthy knockoff. Historic Fort Vancouver (a national park, actually) was the Pacific headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company until Americans scared the Brits north to Victoria, and it is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest permanent non-native settlement. What’s more, even before all that, Lewis and Clark gave it five stars on Yelp, or would have, calling it “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.”

I moved to the Midwest for college and now am attempting to live cheap as a young writer on the Eastern seaboard. But one early hop across the Columbia River was also a hop across state lines, and it’s left me confused about where I’m from ever since.

Before I was from Vancouver, I was born in Portland. My parents and mewling and squalling me shared a tiny apartment down the street from a Moroccan restaurant. Because they were house managers for a domestic violence shelter in the building, they didn’t pay rent, but today similar (though somewhat larger) one-bedroom pads go for $1,585. The apartment contracted when confronted with kid and crib, so in 1995 it was time to move across the river.

In the suburbs of Vancouver, which was then essentially a suburb of Portland—and remains treated as such by my father, who commutes to work in the larger city—my parents bought an 1800 square foot, three-bedroom ranch home on a quarter acre for $129,000. With providential timing, they sold in 2007 for $230,000, right before the market tanked. We had bought a new house, also on quarter acre, in 2004 for $329,000. My dad guesses it is probably worth $375,000 now, but prior to the Great Recession it likely went to $450,000, and receded below $300,000 at the nadir of the housing market.

But while I grew up attending school in church basements throughout Vancouver, and ostensibly lived there, for most of my life a few free hours has meant taking the 20 minute drive over the bridge to Portland. Downtown Vancouver had little to offer growing up, and the city was growing multipolar, its new developments and economic growth mainly happening in East Vancouver, away from the historic district. It was a 20 minute drive east to suburban sprawl—strip malls and McMansions—or the same time south to a real city with real neighborhoods.

The realness of Portland and her neighborhoods is a conversation for another day; it is admittedly the most gentrified city in the country. But that has produced delightful, walkable mixed-use hubs even beyond it’s exhaustively profiled Pearl district. Mississippi Ave., NE MLK, Hawthorne, NW 23rd—Portland is a city of streets that have their own identities even as they share in the oh-so-easily-satirized personality of the city. The culture orients around food, coffee, beer, weed, exercise, and the outdoors. We are happy Epicureans inclined to full-out hedonism.

But can I say “we” anymore? Vancouver isn’t just the weirdly distended, angsty suburb it used to be. The population has boomed and prices are rising on both sides of the river. If you had a baby now and could make the tiny one-bedroom apartment work, maybe you’d stick to that. With traffic as bad as it has become over the desperately-in-need-of-replacement I-5 bridge and Vancouver’s growth, buying your starter house up north and working in Portland isn’t the same calculation it was for my parents.

Meanwhile, Vancouver is finally building along its waterfront, while its downtown is growing and revitalizing. A new central library building’s opening in 2011 marks the turning point in my experience of the city, and I spent a lot of my last visit home on Main Street. (Shoutout to the Thirsty Sasquatch tap house giving Portland shops a real competitor.)

Sure, Portland has Powell’s City of Books, more than 100 breweries in its immediate environs, a seemingly limitless supply of new restaurants and food carts, and great neighborhoods. But it was almost called Boston. Vancouver is Vancouver, the first one. Fort Vancouver stands reconstructed with its wood palisade and towers, and the surrounding parkland, the neighboring airfield, and the barracks above are all roots for the city, a sustaining history. Even when we were completely overshadowed by the younger upstart on the Willamette next door, we could take pride in our past and place.

Micah Meadowcroft is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Death By Chain?

CNU New England
CNU New England

New Urbanism has long been concerned with promoting vibrant Main Streets, corridors with local retail and small businesses that keep jobs and capital in their communities.

The American Conservative is partnering with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) New England chapter and the R Street Institute to bring together leading voices on this issue. Join us in Providence, RI on October 20, from at 5:00 to 8:00pm at Aurora, 276 Westminster St., Providence, RI. More information is available here.

If you’re in New England and care about strong communities, you don’t want to miss this opportunity to meet:

  • Cliff Wood, Executive Director of Downtown Providence Parks Commission
  • Kip Bergstrom, former Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development
  • Margaret Bodell, a Connecticut-based art center consultant with experience repurposing storefronts
  • Anne Haynes, Director of the Transformative Development program at MassDevelopment
  • The discussion will be moderated by former TAC editor Jonathan Coppage, now visiting scholar at the R Street Institute.

General admission to the event is $20, but The American Conservative has a limited number of free tickets for our readers. If you wish to receive one, please RSVP with your full name and address to [email protected], with the subject line “New Urbs event.”

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Burke and My Vocation in the Crosswalk

jeweledlion / Flickr
jeweledlion / Flickr

When all night long a chap remains
On sentry-go, to chase monotony,
He exercises of his brains
(That is, assuming that he’s got any).
Though never nurtured in the lap
Of luxury, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap
And think of things that would astonish you.

—Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe, Act II

There is a reason why a Google search for the phrase “When I grow up I want to be a school crossing guard” elicits precisely one entry on the whole planet. Even the most generously endowed libraries of high-school careers counselors do not exactly abound in pamphlets, let alone textbooks, on School Crossing Guardianship For Fun And Profit. The profession has no tiger moms demanding that their offspring be admitted to it. Nor do Borscht-belt comedians intersperse their jokes about “my son the doctor”—in Bob Dylan’s early days of fame it used to be “my son the folksinger”—with “my son the school crossing guard.”

Nonetheless, as I approach the end of my first term in the role, I can only wish that I had assumed it much earlier in my life. Although I will never grow rich from it, I could very easily grow happy in it.

Yet let no reader conclude that being a crossing guard constitutes an easy gig, or a gig that rewards the slumming mindset. There is a genuine and dexterous art to it, an art for which it probably helps if you were in your previous life a dancer, a drum-major, an altar-server for the Tridentine Mass, or (the reason for this will emerge in a moment) an orchestral conductor.


I did not seek out the job. An agency recommended it to me. Training involved, first, watching a DVD screened by the organization that acted as go-between for the agency and, at the other end, for the appropriate municipal authority in suburban Melbourne. Then the training involved completing a written exam for which—get this, all you pampered products of self-esteem-based creches masquerading as universities!—the lowest permissible pass mark was 16/20. (I scored a 17, should you care.) The third and last part of training was an hour actually on the relevant street, under the notably acute eye of a supervisor, and with real-life elementary-school students (we in Australia say “primary school”) to serve as, so to speak, guinea-pigs.

Was that scary or what?

There is so much which you have to remember as a novice crossing guard. Of course you must arrive at your shift in plenty of time, and must have ascertained that both the STOP sign and the safety-flags are accessible at the school itself. The fluorescent uniform must be unsullied. You must wear a hat, not least to avoid sunburn. (No municipal hat seems to be manufactured in my size, so faute de mieux I sport my own fedora.) In your pocket must repose a pen and a notebook, for the specific purpose of writing down the number-plate of any car whose driver takes a Dukes of Hazzard approach to road-safety. Your working-with-children card from the Justice Department must be produced upon demand, and must be either carried in your jacket, or else safely stored on school property with your other belongings. You must hold the STOP sign at a 45-degree angle in front of you while you stride to the mid-point of the zebra-crossing.

Then you must blow your whistle twice: toot-toot. Except if an emergency has occurred, whereupon you must blow the whistle once and lengthily, as a danger signal. It is all too simple to forget that the whistle is on your person at all, and to rummage around frantically for it in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Meanwhile, amid the relevant manual spasms, the STOP sign, about the size of a lance, is apt to fall from your other hand and crash metallically to the asphalt.

The above assumes that both drivers and pedestrians avoid being sociopaths, an assumption largely but by no means wholly true. At any moment, moreover, the municipal overseers can make unannounced visits to your school crossing, and can carry out on your attire the sort of inspection which (by some, doubtless exaggerated, accounts) General Tojo himself might have thought unduly pedantic.

Perhaps that all strikes you as redolent of a sinecure. If you really think it is, you would be better off running for Congress.  


As so often is the case when one’s work brings one into daily contact with small children, one soon finds that a majority of them have a courtesy that would do credit to adulthood, while a sizable minority of the actual adults have a puerility which might better suit a kindergarten. This school crossing is in an extremely rich (and necessarily unnamed) suburb, the sort of place where the standard approach to the social contract would probably consist of breakfast-time soliloquies like “I wonder what the peasants are doing.”

You have never seen so many Volvos, Mercs, Jaguars, BMWs, Bentleys, and ostentatiously hip Land Rovers being driven down one modest side-street in the whole of your natural life. The one time I saw a humble Mazda, I experienced the momentary but almost overwhelming feeling that Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation had hit town.

At first I kept believing that the kids were being shepherded over the zebra-crossing by their nubile older sisters. Then I discerned that I was showing my age: the shepherdesses were really the kids’ mothers. Most are entirely polite. Perhaps a tenth of them stare straight past you, every shift, every day, without fail. As every sailor, cop, or hotel chambermaid knows, you need only don a uniform for plenty of people to believe that you are quite literally invisible.


Sometimes, when not a single pedestrian arrives for 15 or 20 minutes, I derive the distinct impression of being on the dark side of the moon. Or—given the Tojo allusion above—of resembling the famous Japanese soldier whom the Philippines’ jungles disgorged in 1974, and who indignantly disputed treacherous rumors that Hirohito had surrendered back in 1945.

That forms the worst part of the job: the introspection and rumination which can kick in amid the absence of either pedestrian or automobile traffic. (See the Gilbert and Sullivan extract cited at the start.) As to what forms the best part of the job, it is twofold.

In the first place, it supplies regular human contact, so easy to be deprived of when you live alone and especially if you have been forced for years to slave over a laptop. Maybe 10 or 15 years hence, Silicon Valley’s mavens will have worked out how to automate the guard’s function so totally that it can be effected by a robot. But only a bookmaker with pronounced masochistic streaks would offer long odds on that outcome.

In the second place, life as a school crossing guard really is a zero-sum game. Were you to be caught out by the inspectors while holding the STOP sign upside down, you could not bluff your way out of the resultant imbroglio by saying “Ah, but that’s just your imperialist racist sexist heteronormative cisgendered perception of the STOP sign being upside down.” The inspectors would simply fire you.

Guarding a school crossing is a good job for any Burkean. Upon your consciousness it imposes an awareness of laws, customs, duties, and, in a modest way, ceremonies. It prohibits, thank God, being “creative.”

Have you ever pondered, in this connection, why the crossing guard will not let drivers traverse the crossing even after pedestrians, juvenile and otherwise, appear to be out of the drivers’ way? There is a sound statutory reason for that. Between the zebra-crossing and the curb, on each side of the road, can be found a white line which serves as the equivalent of Korea’s DMZ. It is not solely while pedestrians are on the road that the crossing guard is, by law, in loco parentis; it is also while they are off the road but not yet over the line.

From the beginning the instructor ordered me: “Don’t look at their [the pedestrians’] faces, look at their feet.” Drivers, even those most noisily convinced that there is a clear pedestrian-free path in front of them, are obliged to wait until the white line is crossed by the last pedestrian’s second foot. Or, if the pedestrian is a millipede, by his 1,000th foot.  


Still more Burkean, and in the context of the whole Western Enlightenment Project still more unmentionable, is the central truth of the crossing guard’s raison d’être. For that tiny little zebra-crossing, for that minuscule equivalent to the 1930s’ Danzig Corridor, the crossing guard is the embodiment of—trigger-warning: the English language’s filthiest, most obscene word is imminent—authority.

A crossing guard is not hired to be democratic. He is not hired to empathize. He is not hired to carry out “ecumenical dialogue” with (or to proffer “non-judgmental” “sensitivity training” of) the amphetamine-crazed road-hog who is 1.37 seconds away from flattening three schoolkids beneath the eight wheels of his truck. He is not hired to have “deep and meaningful relationships” with the parents, with the teachers, or with the school administrators. And if he has “deep and meaningful relationships” with the kids, then in very short order he will come to the censorious attention of the Vice Squad.

He must be friendly but impersonal, amiable but conscientious, empirical but law-abiding. Which is as neat a definition as I can imagine of Burke’s entire worldview. The local council does not hire the crossing guard to be a simpering, glad-handing invertebrate.

No, the council hires the crossing guard to show responsibility, punctuality, and leadership. To proclaim by his every official action that “the buck stops here.” To furnish for road-users the kind of guidance and direction which a conductor furnishes for orchestral players. In short, to be—at least for the duration of weekday work-shifts, and purely for the compass of, let me repeat, one tiny little zebra-crossing—a monarch.

And you wonder why I’d now feel reluctant to be employed anywhere else.

R.J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Street Cred: What Jane Jacobs Got So Right—and What She Got Wrong | Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

Her admirers and interpreters tend to be divided into almost polar opposites: leftists who see her as the champion of community against big capital and real-estate development, and free marketeers who see her as the apostle of self-emerging solutions in cities. In a lovely symmetry, her name invokes both political types: the Jacobin radicals, who led the French Revolution, and the Jacobite reactionaries, who fought to restore King James II and the Stuarts to the British throne. She is what would now be called pro-growth—“stagnant” is the worst term in her vocabulary—and if one had to pick out the two words in English that offended her most they would be “planned economy.” At the same time, she was a cultural liberal, opposed to oligarchy, suspicious of technology, and hostile to both big business and the military. Figuring out if this makes hers a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details is the challenge that taking Jacobs seriously presents.

Trains Built Roanoke. Science Saved It. | Colin Woodard, Politico Magazine

How did a small city in a disadvantaged region four hours from a major metropolis—one that had seen its signature industries atrophy or depart, that lacked so much as a branch campus of a state university—transform itself from the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians into a formidable rival to Asheville, North Carolina? The answer has lessons for small, out-of-the-way cities everywhere: Roanoke’s people did it largely by themselves, in small steps and with an eye to assets and alliances in the wider region around them. … And it all happened in what would seem the most unlikely of places: a city created, built and controlled for most of its history by the distant investors of that most controlling and rapacious of Industrial Age corporations, the railroad.

Occupy Broad Street | John Massengale

Slow Streets don’t invite suburban drivers to bring their cars to the city, as our urban highways and one-way arterials do. Slow Streets favor pedestrian and urban life. When we remove all the striping and signs that mark the streets as machine space, it becomes easy to make streets where people want to be. Before the automobile, we even put stone monuments and fountains in our streets. Temporary monuments like the original Washington Arch, which was originally in the middle of the street, marking the beginning of Fifth Avenue, were common. New Yorkers felt free to step out into the street as they do in Amsterdam. That’s the essence of Shared Space.

Big Cities Can Learn From the Landscapes of Small-Town America | Josh Stephens, Planetizen

Who cares about buildings? Anyone with enough cash can commission a life-size sculpture, plop it down on a vacant lot, and call it great architecture. Truly great architecture—as opposed to great “design”— is that which responds to and enhances its context. Some of that architecture is avant grade, and some is as anonymous as you and me. … The fixation on architecture-as-object persists, most recently, and predictably, in Architectural Record’s Top 125 Buildings. … AR lists the usual suspects: early innovators, the CIAM crowd and other high Modernists, a few postmodernists, some Brutalists, and contemporary starchitects. Many of their structures will make you numb with their visual beauty, or at least their visual complexity. Indeed, many of them look like they were made to sell magazines. They look amazing in photographs; what goes on beyond the edge of the frames is often anyone’s guess. The trouble is, no one teaches cute in architecture school. I suppose the New Urbanists have tried. Everyone else is too busy teaching phenomenology, parametrics, and deconstructivism, which is, to be honest, a pretty terrifying theory on which to base a building.

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Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice

Everyone who follows debates about urban planning already knows that sprawling cities build more housing and have lower housing costs. Yet last week Issi Romem, an economic analyst at BuildZoom, a company that helps people find and hire contractors, published an analysis of this phenomenon that sent urbanists reeling. It should not have done so. Romem’s data was not new and his analysis was flawed and misleading.

Romem also shows that cities have not been increasing in population density as much as the past. Again, this isn’t new. If anything, Romem understates what has happened: the largest cities in the United States in 1950 all began to experience population decline due to suburbanization in that decade and only New York City has exceeded its previous peak, while expensive, growing coastal cities like Boston and Washington, DC are still far off the densities and populations they had in the past.

While Romem’s data is indisputable, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Sprawl isn’t really as cheap as it seems. A network of tax breaks, financial guarantees, subsidies, and other chicanery keep parts of suburbia relatively inexpensive. Most notably, transportation costs are often excluded from the discussion of housing affordability, even though it’s hard to live anywhere without a way to get to work. For example, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has shown that the low density, car-dependent development that has typified American cities since World War II does not produce enough tax revenue to service the debt that cities took out to build the infrastructure needed for sprawl.

Romem compares the San Francisco and Atlanta metropolitan areas on affordability and the sprawling Peach City naturally beats out the more compact City by the Bay on housing costs, but if one includes transportation costs as a percentage of income, then Atlanta becomes less of a bargain, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T Index. A typical household in San Francisco, according to the measure, spends 50 percent of its income on housing and transportation, but a typical Atlanta household spends 54 percent of its income on the same costs.

This leads to what Romem calls the “land-use trilemma,” which presents the perceived trade-offs between more sprawl, doing nothing while letting expensive cities get more expensive, or liberalizing land use laws to allow more density. Much like C.S. Lewis’s trilemma, which was useful for Christian apologetics (but is usually ignored by more serious theologians and Biblical scholars), Romem’s trilemma is useful for the apologists of sprawl but falls apart upon examining his assumptions.

For instance, tucked away in a footnote, Romem writes that “Shifting from single family to multifamily housing involves a sacrifice in terms of living standards. The current wave of interest in micro-units takes the sacrifice of living standards to an extreme.” This is a load of tosh: last year a CBS affiliate in San Francisco did a story on a house in the Mission District where the rent was $1,800 a month (far less than the area’s average rent), but tenants were in bunk beds eight to a room and the house ultimately had 30 people in it. When compared with this living situation, even a 140 square foot micro-apartment one has to one’s self is going to be a major step up. Nor does an increase in density imply a shift from single family homes to large apartment buildings: the attached houses of the English Midlands are single family and have yards. Tokyo also achieves very high densities with detached single family houses, thanks to small sizes, small lots, and narrow streets.

A similar view of development underlines and undermines the trilemma. For example, Romem implies that development is a major intervention that happens on a neighborhood scale. He told Bloomberg‘s Patrick Clark, “No one is really thinking about tearing down single-family neighborhoods and putting up apartment buildings.”

But no urbanists really think that kind of demolition is necessary. There’s a wide spectrum between the Levittowns, archetypes of postwar sprawl, and Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City, once the densest neighborhood on the planet. Density can be added, as in the albeit extreme Mission bunkhouse example, by turning a single family house into a multifamily home. Apartments can be carved out in basements, second stories, and above garages. The principles of the New Urbanism suggest that such incremental development is healthier for cities, since property remains in the hands of smallholders instead of assembled into giant lots.

Some cities are improving the quality of life for seniors and housing young people with homeshares. Seniors in many cities face increased difficulties in staying in their homes because they have more house than they can take care of and are hit harder by increases in property taxes. These programs match young people with seniors and they pay a small rent while taking care of the house and keeping the older person engaged and active.

New Urbanism also presents an alternative to the trilemma by supporting the regeneration of small towns affected by deindustrialization. Many cities have older, traditional small towns with existing but dilapidated multifamily housing stock or downtown commercial or industrial blocks capable of being attractively renovated. New England in particular is home to many of them—towns like Southbridge, Mass and Woonsocket, R.I., or even Bridgeport, Conn. New Urbanist designs can also be applied to new development in expansive cities. Some big cities, especially outside the northeast and west coast, are surrounded by unincorporated land not subject to municipal zoning laws. A developer could build a denser, more urban neighborhood in these areas—which is exactly what’s happening in Toronto’s suburbs, according to Stephen J. Smith. The financing might be difficult, thanks to federal rules that, according to the Regional Plan Association, discourage the construction of small mixed-use buildings by capping how much commercial space they can have and promoting larger buildings.

Just as importantly, the land-use trilemma falls apart because realistically there is no alternative to allowing greater density. There are hard limits to the development pattern of American suburbia. The most discussed is commute time across metropolitan areas. According to Slate, longer commutes are associated with divorce, isolation, obesity, stress, neck and back pain, sleeplessness, and unhappiness. The conventional wisdom for dealing with long commutes has been to build bigger and faster streets and highways, but in the long term, this does not work. Several years ago Texas spent $2.8 billion to widen the congested Katy Freeway connecting Houston to its suburbs. At 23 lanes it is the widest highway in the world and Houston commute times have still increased, according to City Observatory. Metropolitan areas need not follow the standard pattern of a dense core—not that most American cities are dense by global standards—and dispersed suburbs, but could become more decentralized with pockets of higher density at certain points throughout a region, along the lines of Joel Garreau’s neglected “edge city” concept.

American cities need not face an ugly choice or a hard choice, but their leaders and citizens do need to make decisions based on the realities of market demand, high levels of public and personal indebtedness, and climate change.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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