New Urbs

Time Heals (Some) Buildings

In the site’s “Utopia Week” back in April, Gizmodo Urbanist Editor Alissa Walker tried to put her finger on the root cause of an instinctive objection that she (and others) can have to New Urbanism developments. Specifically, she asked, “Why Is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?” She touches on the fact that Seaside, one of the earliest New Urbanist communities built by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek on the Florida coast, was tapped to serve specifically as a model of artificial nostalgia as the setting for Jim Carrey’s television set hometown in The Truman Show movie. She also references Celebration, Florida, the Disney-built community whose graphic designer reflected that “when I lecture and describe any number of projects I’ve worked on, nine times out of ten the first question is about Celebration, and the question is usually some version of: But isn’t that Disney town sort of, you know, creepy?

Because New Urbanism explicitly calls back to traditional ways of building and planning, its practitioners can sometimes be tagged, as Leigh Gallagher describes in her excellent The End of the Suburbs, “as sellers of a kind of fakified nostalgia.” There may be some cognitive dissonance at work, seeing classic architectural styles and neighborhood designs spring up de novo in previously empty lots, sparkling in fresh pastels beside trees that remain saplings. Indeed, as Celebration’s graphic designer relates, New Urbanist architect “Jacque Robertson once said in Celebration’s early days, ‘This will look great when all these trees grow in.’ I suspect he’s right.”

Yet James Howard Kunstler wrote in his classic Atlantic essay “Home From Nowhere” that the older, traditional buildings are not only more appealing because “the trees have grown in,” but because they were built in keeping with what Burke called “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”:

The buildings our predecessors constructed paid homage to history in their design, including elegant solutions to age-old problems posed by the cycles of weather and light, and they paid respect to the future in the sheer expectation that they would endure through the lifetimes of the people who built them. They therefore embodied a sense of chronological connectivity, one of the fundamental patterns of the universe: an understanding that time is a defining dimension of existence — particularly the existence of living things, such as human beings, who miraculously pass into life and then inevitably pass out of it.

Because traditional builders inherited their craft from builders gone before, they were both the heirs and the keepers of the practical wisdom necessary to build a place properly. One of my own Amish ancestors moved down to the Baltimore area from Pennsylvania around the turn of the century, and carried his trade with him to make houses with room for large families that would last through the generations. The plain Mennonites have long left those homes, but the care and quality put into providing for an Amish family have ironically made them highly sought-after mansions for the downtown upper crust (after making Jacuzzi accommodations, of course).

Old houses have plenty of drawbacks, as the walls were not built for easy wiring and the rooms not designed for big-screen TV viewing. It is often easier to grab a pop-up McMansion built to the spec of the moment. And that was the pattern set for Americans in the 1950s, as Kunstler notes that “It is no small irony that during the period of America’s greatest prosperity, in the decades following the Second World War, we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings.” Built with the expectation of expiring in step with a 30-year mortgage, well within the lifetime of the home’s first generation of owners, a tremendous amount of the housing stock in the United States has been built, like the rest of our consumer goods, to be disposable.

But homes built for the generations hold an appeal beyond convenience, and a resonance with souls that recognize soulful work. Kunstler continues,

Chronological connectivity lends meaning and dignity to our little lives. It charges the present with a vivid validation of our own aliveness. It puts us in touch with the ages and with the eternities, suggesting that we are part of a larger and more significant organism.

New Urbanism is in many ways a project of recovery, rescuing the shards of wisdoms shattered by a half-century of sprawl in an effort to recapture the warmth and comfort that people feel in those older houses and neighborhoods. But the one thing that’s impossible to rush is time. As the trees grow in Seaside, and Celebration, and Kentlands, as the homes turn over and are passed on, we will learn whether the New Urbanists got it right, or if there are still more lessons left to recover.

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


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The Highway Bill’s Bread and Circuses

Last night the Senate passed its version of the highway bill, voting to refill the federal Highway Trust Fund’s tank just enough to let it coast to the other side of the November midterm elections. After those elections, it is expected that there will be a strong push to raise the federal gas tax in order to close some of the gap between projected revenues and estimates of what it would cost to maintain our infrastructure status quo.

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, the former engineer turned passionate urbanism reform advocate profiled here, summarizes the common arguments made for hiking the federal gas tax:

The gas tax needs to go up because (1) it has not been increased since 1993 so inflation has eroded a lot of its purchasing power (wait – I thought inflation was good). Then there is (2), our cars have gotten more fuel efficient and so the gas tax doesn’t go nearly as far as it once did. Finally, (3) we have horrible congestionsafety problems and we need the economic growth that comes with transportation investments.

Marohn went on to do his own number crunching, however, to see just what kind of a hike in the gas tax would be required to meet the American Society of Civil Engineers’ wish list, and came up with this rather alarming chart:

Strong Towns

Strong Towns

Marohn continues,

I’ve passed this around and people want to know the math, which I’m going to provide below, but here’s the takeaway: we may have a funding problem, but that’s not what is going to take us down. Our real problem is that we have not had to think about what we are doing for a long, long time. We’ve been so wealthy and affluent that funding the most bizarre transportation arrangement on earth became akin to the American way of life. Congestion-free roadways and ample parking are to the United States what bread and circuses were to Rome. Get out your fiddle, that smoke is real.

The question facing us now isn’t whether or not to increase funding for transportation but whether or not to reform – or even question – the very nature of our approach to transportation. An increase in the gas tax, additional sales taxes/fees or more deficit spending only allow us to continue to distort – for a few more years – a transportation system that is not financially viable. Without any price signals providing supply/demand feedback, we are destined to build ourselves into insolvency (again).

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, on the other hand, has been pushing his own “Transportation Empowerment Act” in order to cut the federal gasoline tax significantly, and devolve increasing amounts of responsibility for transportation planning and maintenance back to the states without the currently attached federal strings. He offered the plan as an amendment to the current highway bill, but it failed 28-69.

Even with only a couple days left to act, it seems likely that Congress will re-up the current system until after election day, at which point we will get the bread and circuses display once more.

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


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Why Conservatives Should Love the City

In Pew’s recent survey on political polarization in America, there was one finding to rule them all: Only 4 percent of “consistent conservatives” want to live in the city. Just 4 percent! That’s fewer than the proportion of Americans who believe the moon landing was faked. Conservatives clearly have an overwhelming preference for rural areas and small towns, as the two account for more than three-quarters of right-wing America’s preferred living arrangements. Even the city-hugging suburbs garner 20 percent support. But to actually live in the city? That’s a line too far.

Conservatives may prefer the rural life because they’re more likely to have more kids, as some have suggested. But that’s not the driving factor behind conservative distaste towards city living, for it’s not as if liberals have such dramatically lower rates of family formation that 46 percent of them prefer to live in cities.

No, the right’s distaste for cities is a deeper and less circumstantial sentiment. Many still see cities in the light of Gotham and Gomorrah. They are cut from the cloth of Thomas Jefferson, who once said, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” This overwhelming antipathy toward cities is just as real today as it was in Jefferson’s time. And this feeling will, absent change, effectively marginalize conservatives.

Now, don’t get me wrong: rural living is a beautiful thing. Americans of all kinds are welcome to live wherever they please. But to have so many conservatives so deeply reject the city sidelines conservatism from politics, culture, and the economy at a critical time, while discouraging those who might otherwise have used their voices for good in the city.

While the country is growing urban, conservatives are going rural. They desire to live in places that are losing population relative to the rest of America. For a while, conservatives may benefit from a preference for being spread out. But in the long run, it will be difficult to buck this trend and keep a solid electoral and cultural foothold. The growing share of urban Americans will be a ringing death knell for a strong conservative showing in national elections.

In the meantime, rural living will increasingly inform the platform the right puts forward. These policies are likely to be out-of-step with urban America; that is to say, most of America. Large cities already make up 85 percent of America’s economy. Their economic concerns are as different as their industry makeup, and their transportation needs will differ too.

Meanwhile, cities will also be dogged by many of our country’s most pressing challenges, such as sclerotic bureaucracies and walled-off markets. They will be in need of good ideas, particularly of the sort that reform-minded conservatives are cultivating. Yet the American right risks feeding a closed loop of country conservatism.

What’s more, culture-making is not just a bottom-up affair. It’s rather more like making tea, with a small cluster of people packing together the artifacts that will inexorably seep into whatever we boil up and drink down. That is why culture is more or less made in cities.

Networks of city elites hold a firm grasp on the means by which common knowledge spreads, whether television, universities, or newspapers. In fact, New York City and Los Angeles alone inform much of what we see on our TV screens or read on our iPads. If you include Washington, D.C., in the mix, you have covered centers of finance and politics, too.

If conservatives feel like they’re on the outside looking in on culture-making now, just wait a decade or so—it’ll get worse.

We can and should be free to live in small towns. But a preference for rural living shouldn’t be drenched in antipathy to cities. Both for our culture’s sake and our own, conservatives should learn to stop worrying and love the city.

Michael Hendrix is the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

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

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Welcome

Welcome to New Urbs. Over the course of the next year, The American Conservative will be opening a discussion on how to rebuild America’s communities and sense of place by fostering humane, sustainable, and walkable built environments, made possible by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. For while the breakdown of community and the family is a consistent theme in conservative circles, the conversation very rarely gets beyond some mix of exhortation towards traditional values and demands for rollback or reform of the welfare state. That’s where a school of urban design called “New Urbanism” comes into play.

Just as an individual is embedded in a family, and a family is embedded in a community, so too a community is embedded in its neighborhood. The patterns we live in can bring us into the sort of constant, casual, incidental contact that builds bonds between neighbors, or they can silo each of our families away, leaving civil society to wither as the “place between” is filled with asphalt and strip malls. As Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind, and Andres Duany wrote in “Conservatives and the New Urbanism” in 2006, “Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.” New Urbanists aim to reinvigorate those traditional structures, like the classic Main Street with living space above the storefronts, and other homes right around the corner.

Suburban sprawl has, through an accident of history, often been defended by conservative Americans, especially those who mistakenly consider suburban living to be the pure product of free choices and free markets. Yet traditional building of the sort encouraged by New Urbanism is very amenable to conservative sensibilities. Traditional neighborhoods where a family can live within walking distance of their church, or send their child to the grocery store to pick up an ingredient for dinner, are often illegal to build today. Even the supposed free-market success of the automobile over mass transit has itself been heavily subsidized. These issues are of a kind with arguments and concerns that conservatives of all stripes should be very familiar with.

After decades of exploding sprawl, humane environments are making a comeback, and that will be the focus of conversation here at New Urbs. We will be bringing attention to efforts currently under way to rescue and rehabilitate legacy environments, as well as looking at promising new projects. We will be discussing and exploring the ways the federal government has undermined sustainable environments and encouraged sprawl, and the ways local regulations and laws have followed its lead. Transit strategies will be debated, bringing a conservative perspective to a crucial place-building discussion. We will also be taking a hard look at some of the toughest questions facing New Urbanism, such as family-friendliness, affordability, and the balance to be struck between effective design and overzealous mandates.

While many details will be fleshed out and explored at greater length over the next year, there are a couple common misconceptions worth dispelling at the outset. First, as Matt Lewis wrote recently at The Week, “Nobody I know is suggesting that big government — or the U.N.! — ought to mandate or impose these sorts of development policies.” As conservatives should know better than anyone, one can support something without believing that the state should mandate it, and one can oppose something without believing the state should ban it. The problem now is that so many places do ban New Urbanist development, often requiring developers to request dozens if not hundreds of variances and exceptions to local rules, at significant cost.

And second, “New Urbanism” does not equal big cities, or small towns for that matter. The rural-to-urban Transect developed by New Urbanist Andres Duany provides for high-density urban downtowns, medium-density suburbs, and even nearly no-density rural and natural environments, all within a proper understanding of place. There is plenty of room for debate about how to best put sound principles into built practice, but we should begin the discussion with clarity.

So please bookmark this page, add the RSS feed, and follow “New Urbs” on Twitter. I’ll be running things, writing on the issues described above, and flagging some of the most interesting on-topic material from around the web. I’ll also be bringing in a variety of other writers, conservatives and urbanists, to carry the conversation forward. On that note, if you are intrigued by any of what you’ve read above and would like to discuss it or write about it, my e-mail address is jcoppage (at) theamericanconservative.com, and I would love to hear from you.

I hope this space can become a community of its own, and I look forward to rigorous, good-faith discussions in the comment threads. Keep coming back.

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


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The Conservatism of New Urbanism

Photo Dean / cc

Responding to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s contention that the American left is intellectually exhausted, Noah Smith argues that one place liberals are stirring up new, progressive thinking is “the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities.” As Smith explains,

In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs.

Urban planning can indeed have more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs (though urban planning is influenced by several federal government programs, it must be said). It determines the shape of our communities, and the patterns of our movement. Winston Churchill’s famous line that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us may hold doubly true for our neighborhoods. And that is why New Urbanism is such an important conservative movement.

As Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, explains in his book Suburban Nation, “The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history,” whereas

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.

No less a conservative icon than Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined TAC‘s William S. Lind and Duany to present a report,“Conservatives and the New Urbanism,” in which they wrote,

On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally-designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war “sprawl” suburbs. As conservatives, we are supposed to prefer traditional designs over modern innovations in most things (and we do). We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.” But once we set Richard Florida’s “creative class” pablum to the side, it becomes apparent that when it comes to New Urbanism, progressives are designing better than they know.

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

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Can Main Street Poach Talent From Wall Street?

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James Fallows of The Atlantic has been touring the United States with his wife, stopping in small and mid-size cities to try and get a picture of what is actually working in American politics. He says they’ve found it in the nation’s mayors, who are exercising a strong hand of leadership to bring the best insights of urban planning and town development to their constituents, and revitalizing even economically stricken towns like former textile stalwart Greenville, South Carolina.

He recently got a response from a small-city Midwestern mayor currently on military duty in Afghanistan, who told him that “There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them.” The young mayor went on to postulate that “The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government,” because it is increasingly becoming a place where people of talent and industry can get things done:

In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.

Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.

I’d like to see some hard numbers before jumping all the way on the small city optimism bandwagon, but as Fallows remarks, “We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere,” where many of the people they encountered were driven by “the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success” (emphasis original).

I wonder, too, how much the utopian shine of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture might start to wear thin on practically minded people of talent, and how far Wall Street’s quantitative gymnastics might fall from the sort of meaningful work that can drive late nights for a purpose past the paycheck. Town renewal can be every bit as intellectually stimulating as credit-default swaps and big firm lawyering, with bookcases of accumulated zoning codes in need of a dramatic revamp customized to the needs of each place. That’s not even to mention the tremendous creativity and human capital needed to cultivate established interests while courting new businesses with, as Fallows puts it, “a conception of the town—people think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great—that depends on a series of specific achievements.”

So even if small cities and large towns can’t end up poaching quantitative whiz-kids from Wall Street, or steal blistering coders from Palo Alto, they may actually be able to do one better: attract great town managers.


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Reform Conservatism Needs Place

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It is once again a summer of conservative reform. Just as last year’s swells of heat and humidity were accompanied by a public discussion outlining the case for a “reform conservatism” by Ross Douthat, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and others, so 2014’s retreat of spring has been marked by the release of “Room to Grow,” a 120-page prospective agenda designed to drag contemporary American conservatism out of 1981’s death grip and give it marching orders fit to the challenges of the present day. Yuval Levin’s introduction calls the effort “a conservative governing vision” that articulates how conservatives can embrace policy solutions deriving from their understanding of how society best operates: decentralized and interdependent, not atomized and anonymous. The, by one count 22, policy proposals contained within “Room to Grow” address health care policy and the tax code, education reform and work-life balance, financial/regulatory reforms and family-friendly federal policies.

As responses rolled in, Levin clarified what he saw as a persistent liberal misperception of “Room to Grow” and its associated project, as the GOP’s answer to Clintonian DLC centrism:

From my point of view (and I can speak only for myself of course), the key point to understand about what people are calling “reform conservatism” is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right. And in particular, it is an effort to move from arguing about how much we should be willing to spend on the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society. 

It is not in this sense a response to the Tea Party movement (and of course it predates that movement by some years) but rather a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action. [emphasis added]

Levin’s introduction to “Room to Grow” described the aims and purposes of such a pushing of the GOP to the right:

The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

That space between the potentially atomized individual and the looming Leviathan state is what prevents either from coming to dominate the social texture, and so hollow out the rich, interweaving webs of relationships that bind a society together. Yet “Room to Grow” rarely takes up the institutions of civil society as a central topic in and of themselves. The family is certainly given ample attention, with W. Bradford Wilcox, Carrie Lukas, and Robert Stein all articulating elements of an agenda to help encourage marriage and family formation and growth. Many of the other policy discussions would surely help support non-commercial civil society institutions, and involve topics very worthy in their own right, such as breaking up the biggest banks and encouraging employment. Indeed, one gets the sense that a great deal of attention has been paid to the vulnerability and uncertainty faced by so many middle- and working-class families, who often feel that they are barely hanging on.

That economic and social isolation is not the product of macroeconomic factors alone, however. The same liberation technocracy that, often out of the best of intentions, undermined the family with the unintended marriage penalties baked into the American welfare state ravaged the neighborhoods and communities that families were once able to rely upon when the hard times came (as they did much more often in previous generations). The progressive spirit came down upon the cities, bulldozing communities weak in the measurables of the moment, but strong in social solidarity and common support. It subsidized interstate systems and street grids that were placed in the hands of planners and engineers who would work with singular purpose to maximize car flow, without a thought given to community cohesion. The postwar explosion in building was dominated by a misunderstanding of human life manifested in suburban sprawl-friendly federal policy and local zoning codes alike. Their legacy has been a country largely built for a prosperous people seeking to purchase entertainment within the privacy of their own homes and backyards, not in town commons or on front porches. Read More…

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Are Suburbs Worth Saving?

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The suburbs are often attacked from various camps, for their lack of originality and often dismal community. But Russell E. Saltzman defends his suburban existence at First Things:

Fact is I like living here. I have met more neighbors here than anywhere else. The day we moved in, we met a dozen people who made a point of greeting us and one guy brought over some cookies. If the alternative to that is living in something resembling socialist-style worker’s housing with ten floors of basement, I’ll stay here.

Saltzman brings up some good arguments for the suburbs—many have an aesthetic beauty, revealed in their curated lawns and reflective designs. For many American kids who grew up there, the suburbs are reminiscent of backyard barbecues, pool parties, and the smell of freshly cut grass.

Additionally, our alternatives to suburban life are often bleak. As Saltzman puts it, the apartments and other urban buildings of our time often reflect a bland, foreboding design. Tall apartment buildings often display either an entire lack of privacy, or aesthetic ugliness—or both. Some offer porches or roof seating, but most lack private space to make them more habitable. Meanwhile, long rows of modern townhouses often display significant isolation, as they’re pocketed off from city centers in a suburb-like fashion, and they often lack shared common space of the sort that helps foster community.

Such housing options discourage both community, and the ownership of private space. Apartment-owners often are forced to share common goods, without any sense of ownership or privacy. This can often counteract community, as people pull into careful, cautious corners, afraid of offending or dominating. Meanwhile, suburb owners have their private space—but often, they lack any public arena or common space to share with others. When the fabric of cities was more integrated, with shops and parks threaded through residential areas, there was greater opportunity to happen upon people, without feeling like an intruder. Jane Jacobs notes this in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“… It is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions of commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships.”

In contrast, she describes a city deprived of this sidewalk community:

“When an area of a city lacks a sidewalk life, the people of the place must enlarge their private lives if they are to have anything approaching equivalent contact with their neighbors. They must settle for some form of ‘togetherness,’ in which more is shared with one another than in the life of the sidewalks, or else they must settle for lack of contact. Inevitably the outcome is one or the other; it has to be; and either has distressing results.”

Meanwhile, the traditional homes of an older, more traditional and integrated urbanism rise to higher and higher prices—or they’re demolished to make way for more “modern” designs.

Is the suburb the best answer we have to isolation and modern urbanism? Saltzman shows that community isn’t impossible within the suburb. And he’s right: with careful intentionality, we can curate community, even there. We should weigh the benefits of suburb life that he espouses, and consider how to build on those strengths—even while we pinpoint and address the weaknesses inherent in its urban structure. No housing option will be entirely perfect; ultimately, it’s the people that make a place habitable.

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

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As Detroit Prepares for Clear-Cutting, Signs of Hope

Yesterday an Obama administration-convened task force released what the New York Times called “perhaps the most elaborate survey of decay conducted in any large America[n] city,” detailing the pervasiveness of perceived blight in the Motor City. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force surveyed 377,603 properties, and recommended 40,077 for demolition, 38,429 for further review. Task force leader Dan Gilbert set the stakes somewhat colorfully, saying, “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” In order to fully follow the task force’s clear-cutting recommendations, Detroit would need to spend at least $850 million, almost twice the $450 million the city has already planned to spend on blight.

The Times story, and its accompanying infographics, follow a traditional script in discussing Detroit: staggering back before the enormity of the city’s failure, peering in at the ruin porn lining the city’s streets. Yet even as the city has gone bankrupt, has been placed in the hands of an appointed manager, and now faces the prospect of spending enormous sums it doesn’t have just to tear down tens of thousands of its properties, there are local kernels of hope blossoming out of the void.

In a recent discussion on the EconTalk podcast, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pushed back against the idea of Detroit as pure desolation:

If you go right now, today, to the core of Detroit, it’s actually one of the most exciting places in the world. And largely because of the absence of government. There’s nobody there telling people: You can’t open this business, or, You have to get a permit to do that or inspections to do this. There are very few barriers for young people to start a business and get things going.

Likewise, the famed New Urbanist architect and urban planner Andrés Duany wrote earlier this year that “Detroit is going to be the next ‘Brooklyn.’ Perhaps not all of Detroit. But certainly a portion of the city has the potential to become as rich and thriving as New York’s trendiest borough.”

How could Detroit, poster child for post-industrial urban decay and dysfunctional governance possibly be characterized as “one of the most exciting places in the world,” or seen as holding—even in part—the potential to rival “New York’s trendiest borough”? Precisely because the city’s governance has collapsed in on itself, and the area is so incredibly cheap. As Duany recounts, Read More…

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Why Sprawl Goes Broke, but Cities Rebound

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Suburban sprawl often comes under criticism for a variety of aesthetic, environmental, and social reasons, but one criticism rules them all, Aaron Renn writes. They aren’t financially sustainable:

new suburbs look attractive for a number of transitory reasons: everything is new, state of the art, and exactly in line with current market tastes; no legacy costs; no legacy institutions, deals, political dynasties, etc; few low income residents and thus low social service costs; deferred infrastructure development; the efficiency of large lot development; and scale economics in public service provision in a growth environment.

Eventually though, your shiny new suburb fills up and so growth comes to a halt, then often about the same time it gets old. This send all of those positive factors into reverse, triggering a cycle of decline that will ultimately cause major problems in vast tracts of suburban America that aren’t either a) wealthy communities or b) in markets that have tight restrictions on new building (which preserves these communities at the expense of rendering them unaffordable).

Renn recounts the experience of his current home of Indianapolis, where the city chased after its fleeing tax base by annexing the surrounding suburbs and forming a truly sprawling metropolitan government. As the shine wore off, however, the suburbs declined, and sprawl’s short-sighted design began to take its toll. As Renn wrote,

The bottom line is that the type of development that’s been ongoing in Indy and most American communities can’t ever generate enough tax revenue to pay to provide the infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to support it.” Even the old city was comprised of widely-spaced single-family houses without so much as curbs, much less sidewalks. Suburbs are built because the land is cheap, as is generic development. There is simply no tax base to fund infrastructure developments that could revitalize the dragging sprawl.

Contrast Indianapolis’s infrastructure dilemma with the rapidly developing neighborhood of NOMA in Washington, D.C. Located north of Union Station, NOMA has seen an explosion of multi-story business and residential development over the past few years, with rooftop views of the Capitol obstructed only by the sheer number of cranes at work. The neighborhood has conspicuously lacked “open space,” or parks, in the eyes of its residents and developers, but that will soon change as the city has allocated $50 million to build NOMA some parks. Why does NOMA get park space when Indy can’t afford sidewalks? It has the tax base to pay for it. Although for accounting reasons the money is coming out of general expenditures, the NOMA neighborhood now contributes $49 million more per year to the city in tax revenue than it did in 2006. By building dense communities with businesses and residences intermixed, urban development can go where decaying sprawl fears to tread.

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

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