New Urbs

A Recipe For Transforming a Midwestern Neighborhood

Home in Hilltop (Elias Crim)

VALPARAISO, Ind.—Even the most successful cities at some point or another face the question: How can we fix up our so-called “bad” neighborhoods and make them safer and more prosperous places?

First, we must ask why the neighborhood is considered “bad” in the first place. The answer is almost always a perception about crime as well as the appearance and condition of the housing.

Second, we need to beware of “fixing” other peoples’ spaces. Not only does that approach smack of elitism, it is also limiting. It overlooks the valuable insights and input of the residents themselves, which a successful campaign of neighborhood improvement will need to include.

Finally, as you think about helping a neighborhood grow stronger, you want a recipe, not somebody else’s blueprint. Community regeneration involves lots of variables so you’ll need guidelines that can be tweaked, the way a good cook adjusts a recipe.

My neighbors and I are looking at adopting a version of asset-based community development which has worked for several communities in our region. But we’re adjusting the recipe by pouring in some principles from the Strong Towns movement led by Charles Marohn.

What follows here are some initial field notes on a neighborhood called Hilltop in my leafy college town of Valparaiso, Indiana—population 33,106—located at the southern end of Lake Michigan, about halfway between Chicago and South Bend.

It’s odd, in a way, that Valpo (as we call it) would even have a neighborhood that needs much strengthening. In our northwest Indiana rustbelt region (Gary, a smaller version of Detroit, is only 20 miles away), our town is considered a bastion of middle-class prosperity, complete with a gingerbread town square practically out of the set of The Music Man.

But here’s the flip side: We have several neighborhoods in Valpo that are struggling and mostly neglected. That’s because our city planning sometimes falls into what one observer characterized as the nineteenth-century City Beautiful philosophy: top-down, emphasis on civic culture, tilted toward tastes of upscale citizens, indifference toward keeping some housing affordable, etc.

But one of our lower-income neighborhoods is no longer going ignored. That’s because it’s located smack in between Valparaiso University and the downtown area. Here’s a look at the area called Hilltop and its two very different faces.

The Neighborhood of Hilltop

A historic area of the city, Hilltop’s reputation today is ambiguous: It contains some nice older homes near its northern border and it has one or two streets where the local police regularly respond to resident calls.

Hilltop’s area is less than a mile wide and less than a half mile deep, perhaps 40-50 smallish city blocks a short walk from the downtown to the west and the university to the east.

A friend at the regional planning commission pulled some census data for Hilltop’s zip codes in order to give us an estimated population of 1,507, of which 1,142 (76 percent) were counted as white, with 243 Hispanics (16 percent), 91 African-Americans (6 percent) and 81 Asian-Americans (5 percent). The area has 203 people under 18. Of Hilltop’s 804 housing units, 91 were reported vacant.

Hilltop—in a town with very little crime other than petty property crimes and a 50 precent drop in all crime over the last decade—is reputed to be a “bad” neighborhood. In fact, reportedly one-third of all local police calls are tied to Hilltop, but its proximity to downtown likely heightens the impression that one area causes all the trouble.

One of the neighborhood’s assets, Will Park, used to be a spot where late night drug deals went down until the city decided to cut away some trees and brush to make the park more visible from the street fronting it. Things are better now, although negative perceptions about the area remain.

You could probably guess where all this was going. Despite its reputation, Hilltop’s geographical location means it’s also now in the sights of local developers. The first new high-end townhome project—on the Hilltop street bordering downtown—is being finished now and more are undoubtedly in the works.

New 2,600 square foot townhomes for $450,000 each, on the border of Hilltop and downtown Valpo. (Elias Crim)

Several months ago, with some of these concerns in mind, some friends and I convened a small group of neighborhood residents to hear their impressions of the neighborhood, its strengths and its weaknesses. Luckily, the group included the one resident who knew everything about the area: Riley, the pony-tailed hippie postman. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Let me tell you what other folks in town here don’t get. We Hilltop people love our neighborhood. We don’t think of it as being a problem area; we think of it as being the most interesting part of Valpo. I mean, we’re the most diverse area in the region. Not only black, brown, white but Asian—all kinds of Asian. Middle Eastern people.

And we look out for each other in this neighborhood. When you’ve got a problem, it’s easy to go find somebody to help you out, because we all know we need to stick together.

Riley’s comments really struck me; they were the exact opposite of the impression many Valpo folk have of Hilltop.

Our listening session included several more testimonials, as well as a number of suggestions for things residents would like to see: more sidewalks, street lights, more daycare, neighborhood cleanup days, activities for kids in the park, among other concerns.

More listening sessions will be needed and then we hope we can identify some neighborhood leaders to form a kind of steering committee for a new community organization tasked with creating a neighborhood quality of life plan. See the smooth way that sentence went down? Maybe you didn’t even notice the interesting phrase “community organization” because you were focused on the innocuous-sounding “quality of life plan.” We’re not drawing attention to the community organizing part, as that kind of political-sounding language might scare off some Valparaiso leaders. Instead, we talk about how we’re about “creating a sense of place” and shoring up property values.

The good news is that Hilltop has many community assets to build from. In addition to the park and historic homes, the neighborhood also offers social services like a daycare center and the women’s residence mentioned above.

There’s also Union Community Church, a tiny multi-racial congregation. Admittedly only a few members are residents of the immediate neighborhood. Still, we hope the church can become an anchor for the Hilltop area, partly through involvement in our new community organization.

Hilltop also once contained some commercial activity—small shops and stores, a single restaurant—but today none exists. Rebuilding that base will be one of our goals. Maybe we’ll even push for a community-owned grocery.

The next steps in our process are simply to identify more Hilltop residents—renters, owners, students—who want to come together to create a plan for the area and, in so doing, give it a new voice in the future of our town. Great examples of successfully revitalized campus neighborhoods exist.

As we move forward, we’ll be rooting our plans in the community’s needs and steering away from the outsider “fix it” mentality that has labeled this neighborhood as simply “bad” and a “problem.” And we’ll continue to adjust our recipe for success as needed, incorporating many of the principles of Strong Towns—involved citizens, financial solvency, and responsible land use—along the way.

Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog and publisher focused on re-imagining community. He and his colleague Pete Davis podcast at Dorothy’s Place. He has been a member of Strong Towns since … forever. This piece originally appeared at Strong Towns.

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Time for a Left-Right Consensus on Zoning Reform

Zoning is having a moment. Across the country, and across the political spectrum, Americans have begun to pay closer attention to the land-use regulations that shape their neighborhoods. And many are fast discovering that some of their most fundamental values are being antagonized by a persistence of antiquated or imprudent rules.

From a political perspective, this presents a unique opportunity: Bad zoning laws threaten some of the deepest values of both of our major political traditions, so the circumstances are ripe for unusual bedfellows. To understand the overlapping nature of those concerns, consider the effects of bad zoning on some of the key priorities of both the conservative and progressive traditions in American politics.

Old But Not Right?

Few principles are more essential to American conservative politics than a belief that citizens should exercise control over privately-owned property with minimal state interference. Since the Supreme Court’s 1926 Euclid decision, however, courts have upheld an expansive view of the police power over land-use matters. Today, outdated laws shaped by dubious mid-20th century urban planning theories, have prohibited sensible building patterns—like Main Streets, with efficiency apartments above stores, and a wide variety of home-based businesses.

Zoning laws were originally written to address the major nuisances of the industrial era— loud, polluting factories and superblocks of overcrowded tenements. Since World War II, however, their mission has crept further away from these salutary objectives to a point where the state—through municipal governments—can now regulate or prohibit almost any use of private property through a simple ordinance. Not only does this stifle individuality; it prevents people from converting their parcels to the highest and best uses the market will support.

During the postwar era—when suburbs and cars were the way of the future, and cheap, undeveloped land surrounded all our cities—the postwar type of zoning seemed a reasonable trade-off for many conservatives. While it regulated the private land market, it was locally enacted. In addition, its intent was to protect a broad base of individual, private owners.

Today, things have changed. Many of our most prosperous regions have been effectively built-out—few undeveloped lots remain—and laws preserve building patterns from the less populous 1950s and 1960s. This in turn has created an artificial shortage of housing units to which local markets cannot respond. Property owners who could benefit from making more intense use of their parcels find their hands tied by local zoning. Families and individuals are priced out of regions where opportunities are strongest. Personal potential and mobility are limited. And local governments become powerful fiefdoms, selectively approving lucrative projects for (often) politically-connected developers while preventing smaller owners from similarly maximizing returns.

Most on the Right also express a strong preference for decisions made close to home. But to work, a decentralized national power structure requires a critical mass of healthy, vibrant communities. Today, small-town America is in deep economic and cultural crisis. Local wealth is drained away by global corporations, and few incentives draw the talent to replace what is lost. Meanwhile, many of our cities are changing so quickly that people cannot recognize, or afford, the places that were once familiar. In short, our communities are failing to respond to rapid change in a way that transmits essential traditions or even offers a sense of continuity. It is particularly salient that, among the casualties of bad zoning are housing options that would allow people to remain in long-term communities, close to family, friends, and self-help groups; as well as affordable retail spaces in which small businesses could begin to rebuild and retain local wealth.

Strong social networks, and their intimate connections to local wealth, are among the most important components of local self-reliance. Such dynamics reduce the need for government support and allow a decentralized power structure to flourish. But a status quo that prices people out of long-term communities attenuates the ties that facilitate self-reliance.

On their own, the above-mentioned real estate deficits would be troublesome; but they are made much worse by the fact that the types of real estate they represent—apartment housing and Main Street retail space—would otherwise be the building blocks of traditional town centers. Significantly, the basic arrangement of traditional towns and cities represents a cultural tradition that can be traced down to modern times from classical antiquity. After a centuries-long process of trial and error, traditional urbanism represents the physical imprint of a functioning, Western- or European-style community. Its forms facilitate commerce, law, religious practice, artistic tradition, civic pride, and ultimately a sense of belonging. Our communities can only be vibrant when their moving parts work together; and conservatism can only work with a critical mass of vibrant communities.

Since the 1920s, new communities have mostly failed to develop according to traditional forms. Today, a critical mass of Americans no longer lives in communities shaped by centuries of tradition; instead, they have been displaced to communities built on the technocrat’s zoning model. Not coincidentally, alienation, isolation, and cultural illiteracy are reaching crisis levels. Traditional urbanism is a time-proven, effective method that transmits an understanding of behavioral patterns from one generation to the next. Its loss is a significant break in that link. For those on the Right who are concerned about the erosion of culture and tradition, this really matters.

A Middle Class Left for Dead?

On the Left, the stability of the American middle class has lately resurfaced as an immediate concern. Activists tend to focus on union membership, and the public-sector systems that unions helped establish (e.g., unemployment insurance, good public education, and safety net programs) as the institutional pillars of a broad middle class. There is merit to these claims. But along with the booming economy of the postwar era (which made such programs solvent), a key component of the American middle class was access to affordable homeownership—and the opportunity to obtain an equity position in an increasingly financialized society.

During the middle-class heyday between World War II and the early 1970s, homeownership became the fundamental building block of an economic foothold in the United States. It combined affordable housing (allowing savings and consumer spending) with appreciating equity, which provided a source of collateral. The suburbs were the heart of this phenomenon, but their rapid construction also took pressure off existing urban housing markets. As a result, housing in working-class neighborhoods was also relatively affordable during the period.

By the early 1970s, the barriers to entry were rising. The aggregated impact of zoning laws on the cost of housing in a particular region was observed in New Jersey’s constitutional law cases that came to be known as the Mount Laurel decisions. Initially, the effects of exclusionary zoning were felt by low-income residents, including—perniciously—many working-class African-Americans, who found themselves priced out of the growing suburbs just as the wave of civil rights legislation abolished many of the legal hurdles that had previously kept them out.

Two generations later, an increasingly sizable proportion of middle-class households cannot afford to purchase median-priced homes. This is especially so in the most prosperous parts of the country. Recent statistics show that in the highly regulated land markets of the Northeast and California, affordability is dismal. In Los Angeles, a 2017 study found that just 6.6 percent of local homes were affordable to households at that region’s median income. In 2014, the figure for the five boroughs of New York City was below 9 percent. For those on the Left who want to see a strong middle class, our failure to provide a vibrant market of affordable housing options in affluent regions—and, by extension, an equity position in the market economy—is a serious stumbling block to social mobility.

The specific degree to which zoning-imposed growth restriction has driven the divergence between household incomes and home prices in such regions is a question ripe for multivariate analysis. That it has been a crucial factor is not debatable. And one of the most immediate effects of zoning-based growth restrictions is the displacement of wealth into adjacent, poorer neighborhoods. On a local level, gentrification takes place more rapidly, and more chaotically, than it would if individual neighborhoods—particularly, the most desirable ones—had room to absorb growth under their zoning rules. In good times, this pattern has produced a knock-on effect that disrupts communities throughout entire metropolitan regions: affluent newcomers are displaced to historically middle-class neighborhoods; middle-class newcomers are displaced to historically working-class and poor neighborhoods; and the working-class and poor are either forced to accept crowded living conditions, or to abandon the region entirely.

On the surface, this gentrification pattern has yielded a number of positive effects, including the revitalization of neglected buildings, windfalls for buyers whose purchase preceded the rise in values and a fleeting economic diversity while neighborhoods are in active flux. But on a deeper level, this pattern has also fed antagonism and competition over scarce space in the places where people have—and fear losing—their most intimate ties. It has turned old neighborhoods into floating commodities. And it has had an especially devastating—and largely unreported—impact on a significant population of working-class and poor Americans of the Northeast and California. Over the last generation, many of the working-class residents of places like New York City, San Francisco, and Boston, especially renters and young people, have been forced to choose between tolerating increasingly substandard living conditions in their home communities, and relocating to distant, unfamiliar places.

This phenomenon may also have played a part in a waxing hostility toward immigration. Consider that a major portion of the white working class that once populated the coastal cities of the Northeast and California has been on the losing end of this phenomenon. Many have watched as their old neighborhoods have been repopulated by immigrants who are willing to pay more for less; long-time residents may even intuit that the newcomers have driven up prices and created a sense of disorientation and loss in a place that had once been safe and familiar. And while older owners have benefited from a rise in property values, other long-time residents have suffered—particularly older renters and young people who wish to remain in the communities where they have grown up. This a terrible price for bad zoning policy; and the irony, from an urban planning perspective, is that  even today many of the traditionally working-class neighborhoods of the Northeast and California continue to have low densities.

The Castro district, San Francisco (Andrey Bayda/Shutterstock)

If local zoning had simply permitted these communities to absorb growth as it occurred, it is likely many longtime residents would never have been priced out by rising rents or property taxes. This means that more young people could have remained in their home communities and benefited from deep ties to family, social networks, and local wealth; and space could also have been made for new immigrants (and internally-migrating Americans) on much friendlier terms. Instead, our inability to accommodate change at the neighborhood level has resulted in the attenuation of countless social ties; the loss of myriad old communities; and an increased degree of hostility and resentment between competing, but similarly powerless groups, over space that never needed to be so scarce. If anything should outrage even the most nominal Leftist, it is a bureaucratic policy that pointlessly pits the American working class against new immigrants over something as fundamental as the need for decent housing.

Finally, while America may be a center-right country, there are abiding, regional exceptions. New England and its Midwestern outposts have formed a cradle of liberalism since the time of the Abolitionists. In the early 20th century, the industrial cities of the Rust Belt gave us labor Leftism. Most recently, the San Francisco Bay, and—to a lesser extent—a constellation of old Eastern college towns and enclaves in New York City have become incubators of the New Left. A pattern emerges: with the exception of the smaller cities of the Rust Belt, the historical geography of the American Left overlaps today with high housing costs and zoning-imposed growth restrictions.

The irony is rich. But as in many social science problems, causation is less important than correlation. Left-of-center Americans who wish to remain in these parts of the country are forced to chase higher incomes. Few things are less consistent with traditional liberal or left-wing priorities than a pursuit of money to the exclusion of other priorities; yet, this is precisely what many of those living in the progressive touchstones of the Northeast and California now do. Ultimately, most on the Left—including many who find themselves caught up in this rat race—would say that Americans should be free to live in whatever city they choose without being required to adopt the values and lifestyles of corporate careerism. Many on the Right would agree. Moreover, these vibrant, historic regions are integral parts of America. Shouldn’t all Americans, regardless of their current wealth or geographic origins, enjoy basic access to the cultural and economic riches of our great cities?

Where Left and Right Meet

Presuming there is space for a consensus, where do we find it? Broadly deregulating the nation’s metropolitan land markets sounds promising, but untenable within the current political landscape. Note, too, that this alone would not bring back the traditions of neighborhood-building that shaped communities until the early 20th century. Instead, due to the loss of tradition and the rise of technology over the past century, it would take us into uncharted territory. Moreover, we will continue to need ways to exclude real nuisances from the neighborhoods where we live and work.

Ultimately, then, the need for reform should focus on the core parts of zoning ordinances that stubbornly prevent salutary change without an overriding and compelling justification. Examples include arbitrary massing requirements, unit counts, and the separation of compatible uses. These approaches must be replaced with regulation that allows developers to meet market demand, with as free a hand as possible, while working within the liberal parameters of traditional urban forms. Such reforms could allow neighborhoods to adjust to the needs of their current residents and businesses; free property owners to pursue the highest and best use of their parcels; and, over time, allow regional housing costs to trend toward equilibrium with local incomes.

Perhaps more importantly, they would allow more Americans, through broader economic empowerment and individual freedom, to shape their communities into reflections of their actual life patterns, cultures, and personalities. This shaping—by rich and poor, urban and rural, liberal and conservative—was once an essential part of what made the United States such an exceptionally democratic society. To a troubling degree, we have lost this quality in recent years—in no small part because of bad zoning.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.


The False Mirage of Eco-Cities

Songdo, South Korea. (Wikimedia Commons)

The famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This explains a lot about urban planning, where every attempt at newness and innovation results in a rehash of the same failed ideas from the 1930s.

Late last year, three supposed innovations in urban planning appeared in the American press: Songdo International Business District in Incheon, South Korea; the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince’s Gulf of Aqaba venture, Neom; and a Bill Gates-backed “smart city” in Arizona called Belmont.

Similar to the Chinese Tianjin Eco City, Songdo is a greenfield development with a focus on building with environmentally friendly technologies and techniques. Unlike Tianjin Eco City, which was built on a re-mediated landfill, Songdo was built on marshy land that was filled in, as well as land reclaimed from the sea, destroying a migratory bird habitat. It also began planning in the 1980s and its emphasis has always been on becoming an international business hub, with the environmental benefits a perk. In fairness to Songdo, much of the silliness has crept into media articles about the place, rather than from anything the planners have done or said—and although the Songdo plan is dreadful, it’s not a case of officials saying one thing and doing another.

Yet Songdo has features that would be cheered on by the Modernist architect and icon Le Corbusier, an approach that has signified dullness and failure in the West for decades. The streets are wide and each building is surrounded by “green open space.” This does not function as a place, since it can’t be used for anything, and has no attraction. It offers no environmental benefit, because it makes people drive more, and all that grass is a monoculture that must be mowed and treated with pesticides. It offers no refuge from wind, rain, snow, or heat. Every building in Songdo also seems to have a parking garage attached to it. All these things encourage car use while making pedestrians unsafe, thus discouraging walking. Songdo partially makes up for these drawbacks with streets that are paralleled by walking and biking paths and the district is also connected to the Incheon subway system. But according to Gyeongju-based writer Ian James, who visited Songdo for Korea Expose, the transit station is in the middle of nowhere, not near the parts that have been built up.

Viewed in Google Maps, Songdo presents an eerie, mirage-like aspect. The Corbusian towers in parks are located in superblocks set back from the street, except where there’s an entrance to a parking garage or an occasional group of one-story retail blocks. The result is that no matter how close one gets to the buildings, they always remain distant.

James also described a city that was empty of human life. He went into the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, where “I discovered an empty spotless cafeteria, with a spectacular view of the empty spotless city.”

“There is an oppressive, Chernobyl-like emptiness here,” James wrote. “Where else could I be reminded, every time I walk out of my apartment building, that I was really just an insect, a minor annoyance in an architect’s designs, as bulldozable as the homes of endangered birds.”

Neom, Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s $500 billion new city in northwest Saudi Arabia, is even more ambitious. The new Saudi crown prince has set aside 10,000 square miles on the Gulf of Aqaba for the project, reports Bloomberg.

Neom is part of the prince’s efforts both to reform Saudi law and government and his efforts to diversify the economy. According to Bloomberg, the city will function like the “free zones” in Dubai—that is, with its own laws and with autonomy from the Saudi state. Women, for example, are expected to have greater civic, political, and economic freedoms than elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

However, Saudi Arabia has tried similar projects before, without success. One such attempt, King Abdullah Economic City, is only home to 5,000 people instead of a projected two million.

Like Songdo, Neom is supposed to be green and its boosters are talking about it leading the world in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.

No concrete plans have been made yet, so it’s difficult to critique on urban design grounds. Conceptually, it’s not unheard of, either. Hong Kong and Singapore used a similar model of building a semi-independent outpost—and a man called Paul Romer was pushing a similar idea a few years ago.

But even if Neom is a little Switzerland (or Singapore) in the desert in terms of governance, there’s no guarantee of success. Back in the day, the Shah believed he could diversify Iran’s economy away from oil by buying factories. It didn’t work too well.

Meanwhile, in a very different sort of desert, Bill Gates is getting into city building. He invested $80 million into an Arizona company called Belmont Partners, which intends to build a city called Belmont in the desert west of Phoenix. Projected to have a population of around 80,000, Belmont will sit on 25,000 acres, with 470 devoted to public schools, 3800 for residences, and 3400 left as open space, according to The Verge.

Belmont Partners issued a press release and it is telling:

Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communications and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution modes, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs.

Children will enjoy playing in the data center and one day old folks will tell younger people about their romantic first date holding hands while they watched the autonomous logistics hub.

It is difficult to imagine how “forward thinking” a town can be in the Arizona desert, since climate change is supposed to make the place uninhabitable by 2050, according to Vice. It also demonstrates very vividly that electric and autonomous vehicles will not save the planet. Sprawl is bad for the environment. All the houses, all the vehicles, and all the buildings—especially the computer temples—will have to be heavily air conditioned. They will further deplete scarce water resources and build a whole lot of new infrastructure. Belmont Partners could have gone someplace like Buffalo, where there’s plenty of water, existing buildings, and infrastructure—and they would only need air conditioning for less than half the year. The people building Belmont are also anticipating a new interstate will connect to the city to spur development—so a “smart city” will involve yet more environmentally and financially unsustainable investments in infrastructure.

None of the three cities discussed here are being built for people. They’re being built to attract investment, to make statements, and to test technology. But those things are not what cities are for, they are things that happen in cities. Resilient cities are for people, and they are generally built where it’s convenient to stop overnight, cross a river, meet for trade and gossip, or at a religious shrine. They should not spring up because a prince, or a developer, or a tycoon pointed to a spot on a map.

Yes, investment and experimentation happen in cities, but because they are things that people want and need to do. New cities and even new neighborhoods the world over have become costly, empty quarters because planners think of cities primarily as collections of buildings, or traffic circulation and parking problems, or bird’s eye views of computer renderings. But a city is first and foremost a place—a location where life happens—and building one always takes time, even if it’s designed well.

Buildings can be built anywhere. But it’s the drama of human life unfolding through time, in all of its wonder and tragedy, that makes a city.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

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

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Stuck in America’s Struggling Small Towns

Are some towns better off dead?

That’s the argument National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and Reason’s Nick Gillespie have made in the past, after considering rural blight and the devastating dearth of jobs for poorer Americans in those areas.

But a new report, recently released by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, responds with a more holistic diagnosis. The partnership was formed a year and a half ago with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and aims to find new ways for the government and philanthropy to assist the poor.

In their report, the partnership suggests that many poor people are “stuck”—geographically, economically, and socially. And geography is the main factor behind the latter two forms of stasis, as City Lab’s Michael Anft notes in his analysis of the report: “When it comes to being poor in America, geography is still destiny. Regions of chronic intergenerational poverty, shaped by the structural inequities that are part of the nation’s history, have remained stubbornly resistant to change.”

“Place matters,” the report authors write. “The community where a child grows up greatly influences her or his opportunities for upward mobility. Comparing children in the same family who move from a low-opportunity to a high-opportunity area makes this clear. Children who move at age 12 fare significantly better than their older siblings. Children who move at age 6 or younger fare the best.”

Thus, the report aims to provide the poor with avenues out of geographically destitute areas and into “opportunity communities”—a strategy that hearkens back to Williamson’s and Gillespie’s urging that stagnant towns be allowed to die.

But thankfully, the report adds some nuance that is absent from those other diagnoses. Its authors don’t believe struggling towns and cities should be left to crumble and rot: while we should prioritize the needs of those stuck within their borders, we ought to try and revitalize these places if we can.

“For every person to live in a safe community that offers the opportunities fundamental
 to mobility, we must revitalize historically distressed communities, preserve and increase affordable housing in newly restored communities, and expand access to opportunity-rich communities and institutions for people living in low-mobility areas,” they write. “We must pursue all three approaches together.”

The authors call for an “intensive place-conscious” strategy that combines revitalization and affordable housing with access to the aforementioned “opportunity communities.” While we want to renew and reinvigorate struggling areas, it’s also important to acknowledge the toll a broken neighborhood takes on its youngest members. Thus, the report suggests prioritizing safe and stable housing for high-need, low-income families with young children.

This balance matters because we cannot only consider the needs of the mobile. We must also acknowledge the impact their out-migration has on those left behind. Much of rural America, especially, is growing “older, poorer, and less educated,” as Sarah Jones recently put it at the New Republic.

In her article, Jones talks to Pennsylvania State University professor Ann Tickamyer about the idea that geography is destiny, that poverty is an inescapable condition within certain regions of the United States. And while Tickamyer agrees with the statement to some extent, she adds this important caveat: “Any time you make descriptions about what the problems in rural places are, and what people should do, you’re generalizing way beyond what is reasonable. The Mississippi Delta is really different from central Appalachia and the Texas borderlands.”

Tickamyer also points out that what we leave behind may not be all bad, as we go out in search of greater gains:

The poorer you are the more you depend on a safety net that is more likely to be made up of your relatives and friends, family, community than of whatever the official safety net is. So if you are poor, sporadically employed or unemployed with kids, who provides the child care? Who helps out when you run out of money to purchase groceries or need an emergency car repair or whatever? It’s going to be the people who you are connected to in your community and in your family.

Some movers will find new forms of support within opportunity communities. Others will leave it behind. A D.C. drug store clerk once told a friend of mine that he had to help a mother who had come in with her obviously sick and unhappy child because she didn’t have anyone to watch the baby while she picked up her prescription. This is the reality for many in isolating and stratified cities: while these areas may offer financial boons, they make connection and rapport much more difficult to establish.

Leaving isn’t always the answer. So how do we help those who choose to stay, who choose familial and communal support over economic relief? This is where it becomes incredibly important to build “strong towns” and revitalize neighborhoods, to not just urge people to leave, but to take up the vital work of placemaking. Comparing this concept to that of “homemaking” makes the vision clear: we must foster an ordered place, steward its resources wisely, and ensure that it is safe and comfortable for all those who reside within it. It’s a vision that cannot be achieved without determined placemakers: community and civic leaders, philanthropists, businesspeople, and politicians who are ready and willing to dedicate themselves to their place.

This vision already exists, to some extent, in many of America’s struggling communities: I know an MIT graduate who left his job with Microsoft to return home to small-town Oregon—to one of the poorest counties in the United States—in order to “give back.” He’s helped develop STEM programs at the local community college, worked to develop greater, more affordable broadband connectivity in the community, and provided a multitude of jobs to local workers through his farm. I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses. He’s rescuing it from stasis and decline through his dedicated volunteerism and work on urban revitalization. And there are a multitude of young college graduates I’ve met who have turned down D.C.’s appealing paychecks and glamor and instead returned to their hometowns—to family farm jobs, ministry work, non-profit initiatives, small-town law offices, and more.

I’m beginning to see that there’s a lot of promise in the returners: those who go out from their hometowns, learn vital skills (and perhaps earn what they can’t at home), and then return with a mind to give back, to grow, and to steward. It isn’t a perfect or a full answer. But for many of America’s struggling towns, it may be a start.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National ReviewThe Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.

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Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Gets Some Things Right

Last year I wrote a letter to President Trump outlining four principles for prioritizing federal spending in a new infrastructure bill. Last week, a preliminary infrastructure spending plan was leaked, the way things like this often do in our nation’s capital. Many have asked me to comment on the leaked document and so I’ll give you my immediate qactions: There’s lots to like, and it could have been much worse.

My nightmare scenario was another Obama-style stimulus bill ($831 billion total with $105 billion spent on infrastructure) only focused on handing out federal dollars primarily for new highways, interchanges, frontage roads and other build-it-and-they-will-come kinds of investments. This is nowhere near that. Breathe a sigh of relief.

My ideal scenario would have been something that focused on the four principles I put forth last year: (1) prioritize maintenance, (2) prioritize small projects, (3) spend more below ground than above and (4) prioritize neighborhoods more than 75 years old. There’s a little bit of that in this bill.

Spending Priorities

Half of the undisclosed amount of money (widely believed to be in the $200 billion range) would go into something called the Infrastructure Incentives Initiative. This has all the hallmarks of the worst of federal infrastructure spending: anything infrastructure-related is eligible, any government or public authority can apply, scoring is heavily weighted to induce local governments to take on lots of debt and there is only faint concern for long term maintenance costs or return on investment. Yuck!

But the plan has one provision that changes all of this: Grant awards can’t exceed 20 percent of total project costs. Wow! I’ve been on projects where the federal government paid 95 percent — an approach ripe with all the worst kinds of perverse incentives — but that won’t happen here. For a state or local government to get the federal money, they will need to have some serious skin in the game to the tune of 80 percent of the funding. If that provision makes it through Congress (count me doubtful), it would be transformative.

With state and local governments picking up 80 percent of the tab, I suspect projects will naturally gravitate towards those of the smaller maintenance variety, particularly projects that have a positive return on investment (small, underground, and in older neighborhoods). It’s harder to convince yourself that a negative-returning expansion project makes sense when you are spending your own money (and robbing from your already insolvent maintenance budget to do so). This dramatically reduces the worst incentives associated with federal infrastructure spending.

Of course, this shift has already brought some outrage, so we’ll see how it ultimately works out. Will Congress give up that much power? Again, I’m doubtful. Governing Magazine has suggested the proposal “puts the onus on states” (it does) and Politico compared it to the Hunger Games with cities and states fighting to the death over meager federal scraps:

Instead of the grand, New Deal-style public works program that Trump’s eye-popping price tag implies, Democratic lawmakers and mayors fear the plan would set up a vicious, zero-sum scramble for a relatively meager amount of federal cash — while forcing cities and states to scrounge up more of their own money, bringing a surge of privately financed toll roads, and shredding regulations in the name of building projects faster.

To say I disagree with Politico here is an understatement. (So does Strong Towns fan and CNBC commentator, Jake Novak, in his analysis.) Cities and states can — and absolutely must — make their infrastructure investments generate a positive real return on investment. The overwhelming maintenance liability they have now is because, for decades, with the federal government picking up almost all the bill, they never had to worry about whether a project made any financial sense. Now they do; with their own money in the game, there is no other option.

This shift should have happened in the late 1960’s when we had finished the bulk of the interstate system. Our delay makes it more painful, but no less necessary.

Have a Few Billion, Elon Musk

The plan also puts 10 percent of the appropriation into what is called a Transformative Projects Program. Sigh.

In practice, this would mean roughly $20 billion for demonstration projects, project planning and capital construction of transformative projects, which are “exploratory and ground-breaking ideas that have more risk than standard infrastructure projects but offer a larger reward profile.”

More risk? Since nearly all public infrastructure projects lose money — i.e. have a negative return on investment — I’m not sure what exactly is meant here by “risk,” but let’s just play along. I’m also not sure what a “larger reward profile” is, but I’d be less skeptical if the government had a chance, as an investor, to directly share in the financial upside of a successful project.

The Transformative Projects Program requires only a 20 percent match for capital construction meaning the “partnership” will be an 80 percent federal contribution in exchange for no equity in the potential success of the endeavor. Sadly, this sounds a lot like the public/private partnerships we’ve grown used to. In other words, it’s not really a partnership at all, just government subsidizing risk taking. Maybe you like that, but let’s not pretend it’s a true partnership.

The Rural Share

The proposal would spend 25 percent of the appropriation ($50 billion) on rural areas. Most of this money ($40 billion) would be given directly to governors to spend — literally provided to the governor to dole out — based on a formula that, perversely, rewards the total number of lane miles.

My home state of Minnesota will do well with this. Our former congressman — the late James Oberstar — was, for many years, the head of the transportation committee and, as a result, we have lots of lane miles (many of them rotting in the snow with no money to fix them). The notion of rewarding those who have been prolific in wasting prior funds is a time-tested rural patronage strategy. It’s unfortunate to see it in this bill.

And it’s hard to see how this money will be spent well. Rural areas are the worst infrastructure offenders, making the least productive investments out of desperation cheered on by eager cadres of consultants and grant coordinators. That being said, there are some states where we know that governors will take a different approach with the flexibility they are being given here. We’ll point out and cheer on those stories when they happen in the hopes they become a model for everyone.

New Financial Principles for a New Era

Critics are sure to suggest — as Governing and Politico have — that this bill is the federal government turning their backs on cities and states. This would be a more credible argument without some of the reforms being proposed as part of the bill. These changes give local governments more options for raising revenue and more motivation to find other responses to demand beyond simply begging the federal government for more money to build more stuff they can’t afford to maintain.

Perhaps the most radical change is a provision to give states the flexibility to toll interstates so long as the revenue is reinvested in infrastructure. It’s a welcome and long overdue baby step towards some actual pricing feedback. We can see this possibly leading to a broader shift away from gas tax, general funds and debt to actual user charges as the primary mechanism for funding highways. Standing ovation for a real, substantial reform.

I’m also elated by a requirement — this is not flexibility but a requirement — for value capture financing to be used to fund major transit projects. In other words, the next time California wants to use billions of federal dollars to make a few people who own property around new transit stops filthy rich—only to have those same people become NIMBY opposers of any development that would make the government investment actually pay off—the state won’t need to resort to local zoning tyranny to avert multiple crises.

When the federal government invests billions of dollars in a transit improvement, it must make the land around the stops more valuable, and then that value must be captured to pay for the project. For those of you who suggest we should be more like Japan, China or Europe in developing transit, there’s your main difference; they largely do that kind of value capture and we don’t. This is the only way successful transit in this country will be built at scale.

In summary, this isn’t how I would write a bill, but I’ll take it. There is enough reform here, and the proper shifting of costs and incentives, to where this proposal won’t be a disaster.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared on Strong Towns and is republished with permission.

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Orange County Gets Density—and Subpar Urbanism

Here’s a spot in Santa Ana, California—although it could be just about anywhere. Every town in North America has a string of used car lots along the side of its aging eight lane suburban arterials. In this location land values and market demand for housing are so incredibly high even the obscene regulatory constraints, up front impact fees, environmental remediation, and NIMBY opposition are being overcome to accommodate new development. But the stuff that’s getting built is a platypus hybrid of suburban and urban typologies.

Across the street on what was once a nearly identical second hand auto dealership is a new housing subdivision. The market wants fully detached single family homes with two car garages and garden space in this location. What the underlying economic situation mandates is an intensity of land use that gets the price per unit down below the $700,000 level, which is what buyers in the region can manage. Most of that cost has little to do with the homes themselves. The dirt, infrastructure, and entitlement process chew up much of the budget. So developers are creating vertical row homes that don’t physically touch.

The few feet of air between these homes is largely symbolic, but it’s a cultural artifact that many people prefer. All these homes are tied together invisibly by a rigid homeowners association that dictates every aspect of what can and can’t be done here. But these feel like autonomous spaces.

While the floor plans don’t vary much, the aesthetic treatments do. Each home gives the impression of being unique with traditional domestic touches. The people who build these places know exactly how to appeal to specific demographics. In this case there’s a need for family homes suitable for children, yet close to employment and the larger ties of extended family and ethnic bonds. These buyers are predominantly Vietnamese.

Of course the entire subdivision is gated and walled. Residential communities like these are almost always fitted with reassuring security features. I tend to believe these gates and walls are more of a suggestion of safety rather than truly physically secure, but buyers are more confident when they see these amenities.

People may want a large front lawn and generous back garden, but to achieve that kind of property in Orange County they’d either have to pay an exorbitant price, or relocate to the far fringe of the metroplex and endure a soul crushing commute. The marketing department and interior designers set the stage for a comfortable life within the walls of these homes, which do in fact have everything on most wish lists. It’s all just a bit compressed. Each of these units sold before the complex was fully built out.

Ingeniously the units that face the arterial do, in fact, touch and form a visual and acoustic screen for the rest of the development. The trade off is that these townhome condos have the physical and legal distinction of being live/work spaces. It’s permitted and approved to conduct certain kinds of business in these units. So if you happen to be a professional photographer or tax accountant you could run your shop on the ground floor. That’s a rarity in suburbia and a trade off many people are willing to embrace.

Standing in the median between multiple lanes of high speed traffic I tried to imagine what the neighborhood would be like when the remaining used car lots and aging strip malls eventually give way to more of these complexes. It won’t be the nostalgic Ozzie and Harriet landscape many people still pine for. But I’m not sure that ever existed exactly as people like to remember. The discount auto malls put things into perspective pretty fast.

But this landscape won’t ever be Paris either. Everyone will continue to drive everywhere and traffic will metastasize as it always has. Walking, biking, and taking the bus will remain marginal and largely unrewarding activities. At best it will become a stucco Queens—an outer borough with drought tolerant plantings. Not terrible I suppose.

Then again, I remind myself that Paris isn’t building Paris anymore either from what I see littering the penumbra of that city. The hulking boxes of Carrefour, Bricorama, and Ikea that grace the French capital’s A4 Autoroute rival New Jersey at dusk. Time marches on. Is any of this better? Worse? I’ve made my peace with the process, warts and all. We don’t get perfection. We get what solves our problems and meets our needs right now. It’s all about compromise.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.

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Are These Four Walls Causing You Pleasure—or Pain?

In many happy cases—humoristic medicine, miasmatic theories of disease, bloodletting, and animal magnetism—science has swept away theories that were well established despite being nonsense. But it has also frequently confirmed the wisdom of traditional methods, proving that some longstanding practices aren’t just stale accretion but actually good sense. One such domain—in which the most contemporary of sciences are increasingly buttressing some of the oldest human practices—is in the flourishing exploration of the intersection of architecture and neuroscience. The emerging field is bringing new attention to old questions about how buildings can affect us as people.

There’s a long tradition of scientists testing which changes to an environment produce anxiety, interest, or relaxation—in animals. For example, there have been experiments with rats in mazes and enriched or drab environments, discovering that they could be bored or lulled by patterns and physical arrangements, or also enticed or frightened by them. In the early 2000s, researchers at University of Parma in Italy made an important discovery involving mental imaging in macaques: simply observing other animals engaging in an activity caused brain activity essentially the same as carrying out the activity itself. As Harry Francis Mallgrave, author of Architecture and Embodiment, explains, “This systemic firing of specialized neurons means that we mentally simulate or embody most of what we apprehend through the senses, whether we are aware of it or not.”

Now these methods are catching up to humans. Research has confirmed that tools—and more importantly for our purposes, usable surfaces, such as stairs or door knobs—prompt an immediate neurological response that’s equivalent to actually engaging with these items. Humans happily haven’t been locked in many mazes, but some have been placed in increasingly sophisticated simulations, sometime featuring virtual reality headsets, and recent testing has confirmed that many variables prompt us to respond to our surroundings not merely rationally but emotionally; these can prompt stress or fear or relaxation or comfort, can wake us up or exhaust us, and more.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue.

This disjunct between rational theory and lived experience goes to the heart of the way architecture is practiced. “Space” is the great theoretical canvas of contemporary architecture. But people don’t live in space. They exist in real places. As Sarah Goldhagen wrote recently in Welcome to Your World, “most of the time when people encounter the voids and objects that constitute our built environments, they do not direct their attention on space per se. Instead, what people register nonconsciously and what they consciously choose to focus on are the experiential opportunities offered by a place’s affordances.”

Advances in neuroscience have confirmed that the brain has stages of processing. There are early glosses designed to make sense of a space that we do not understand before some gradual modes of comprehension offer us a fuller picture—as well as persistent perceptions of environments that can be individually altered but are widespread. A Churchill quote is perhaps surprisingly common in such literature: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The proposition neuroscientists advance is often even stronger. As Goldhagen continues, “To say the built environment is us is but a slight exaggeration. And it is certainly no exaggeration to say that the built environment shapes who we are and how we move through the world physically, socially, and cognitively, as well as in the sense of how we construct and reconstruct our identity.”

This research is not, as you may already suspect, confirming the wisdom of our common architectural practices today. You’re likely not looking out the window at a neurologically satisfying building, you may not be in one right now, and you might not be returning home to one either.

An overwhelming criticism of the architects and neuroscientists at work in this burgeoning field is the last century’s etiolation of a rich and complicated field to simple dimensions, lost in the intellectualized formal experiments of Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, and other varieties of prestige architecture. A conjoined problem has been the unreflective, impoverished domain of mass architecture and its vast domains of cheap surfaces, from the big-box store to the McMansion.

This new research seeks to question the manipulation of space as a mere geometric exercise, but also the increased prevalence—in the age of photography, Instagram, and computer modeling—of scenographic conceptions of architecture. It’s nothing new to declare that these modes have often dissatisfied their users and residents. But recent research has offered more concrete evidence that they might even prove to be unhealthy and out of sync with human nature.

Illustration by Michael Hogue


Many of the most prominent architects and neuroscientists working in this frontier gathered in Chicago this past fall at a conference organized by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, “Architecture as Experience: Human Perception and the Built Environment.” [Disclosure: The American Conservative‘s New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation]. Perhaps most prominent among the distinguished group was Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect and critic, who has argued for decades for an architecture that is “interactive and embodied … rather than from an inclusive theory and fully rationalized processes.”

In his keynote address Pallasmaa observed that contemporary architecture is not formulated as such: “Modern Architectural theory education and practice have regarded architecture as visually idealized and aestheticized spaces.” One of the field’s great oversights is the “failure of modern architecture to address the divide between thinking and feeling.” Feeling is not, in the conception of most involved with this field, a superfluous or even a grudgingly necessary element—it is vital.

Another architect, Sarah Robinson, invited the audience to consider the experience of entering a building:

Moments upon entering a space we sense its ambience. Its whole atmosphere conveys itself wordlessly. It is an experience that is immediate and total. The space that surrounds us can intrigue and beguile us, confuse or overwhelm us, or provide us with a sense of warmth and invitation. The mood that permeates the space seems to permeate us, whether we will it or not. Experiencing architecture, and more broadly speaking, engaging places, involves far more senses than the usual five.

Robinson continued, considering what happens in substandard construction:

More often than not the spaces that surround us are deprived of any such qualities. Their surfaces are flat, monotonous, their reflections brooding, their bodies, lacking in contour, leave no place for our imagination or feelings to rest. The indifference of most places leaves us feeling indifferent. If they involve any feeling at all, it is one of boredom.

Also missing from the traditional picture is the the human ability to move through space. As Pallasmaa wrote in his essay “Stairways of the Mind,” our encounters with structures “consist, for instance, of approaching or confronting a building rather than the formal apprehension of a facade; of the act of entering, not the static appreciation … To live in something is different than to survey it from stately points or to pass through, and involves a deeper sense of engagement with a location in all of its multisensory aspects.”

A portion of the problem is the enduringly indeterminate status of architecture as both art and practical necessity. You don’t want a watercolorist to design your home, but you’re not likely to hire a civil engineer either. It is a field of art that lends itself to comparison to all others but it is distinctly different; we don’t live in movies or paintings. Goldhagen has made this point elsewhere: “Our relationship to the built environment differs from that of any other art. It affects us all the time, not only when we choose to pay attention to it.”

If we had formerly ignored this essential truth, neuroscientists are now confirming it in the lab. As Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons in the University of Parma study, explained in a videotaped address to the Driehaus symposium, “Former dichotomies such as mind/body, nature/nurture, perception/cognition have given way to the belief that minds, bodies, cultures, and environments interact with each other on different levels of organismic expression over the course of generations.”

Now what does this all mean? Neuroscience hasn’t just revealed that if a room is full of door knobs we will be entertained for hours imagining using them—or if there are staircases present that we will end up on another floor in our minds. There are a variety of preferences for which we’ve had initial encouragement. Human preferences are malleable and variable, and many are what you would expect—but heretofore they had not been proven with scientific methods. As Mallgrave noted, “Aesthetic theory, which survived the last stages of the postructural era in the intensive care ward, has a significant resurgence with the rise of neuroaesthetics.”

Suggestions of the architecture and neuroscience field may appear to be proxies for collective or individual subjective aesthetic judgments. But some human responses—if unquestionably embodied—are less variable, such as stress, rest, concentration, or relaxation. The “boring places” and “places of anxiety,” discussed in Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, are more concrete sensations.

Ellard has conducted a variety of virtual reality experiments at his lab at the University of Waterloo. One featured a few simulated home environments, including a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design and a model contemporary suburban home. “When we tracked the route that people followed during their explorations of the houses, we were surprised to find that there were certain rooms that were not entered at all. Most prominently, the large formal living room in the suburban house was peered into from both its entry points but was not explored at all.”

Caryatids on the Erechtheion, Athens. (Thermos/Wikimedia Commons)

Featureless places reliably bore humans; blank walls or empty spaces induce anxiety or produce quickened paces in a variety of tests. Preferences for traditional bounded space and other New Urbanist planning techniques are common. In general, environments that lack easy opportunities for a human presence, such as the suburban landscape of highways and sprawl, are associated with stress. In studies of these phenomena, bilateral symmetry is a frequent preference of test subjects, while jagged or impossible forms are often a deterrent. Ellard discusses research conducted by Humboldt University and University of Haifa researchers that simply involved monitoring gameplay in a room featuring two different collages, with “one room sporting sharp, angular shapes while the other room displayed shapes with curves.” Players were quantifiably more aggressive in the game overlooked by the angular collage.

Architectural historians have been finding faces in architecture for centuries, and humans value these. Building compositions of base-shaft-top that resemble the human form also resonate.

Beyond human likeness, research into our perception of architecture often finds a strong link to the obvious products of our labors. This point has been made before: Modernist architect Richard Neutra summarized its essence perfectly in his 1954 work Survival Through Design:

Viewing hand-formed pottery, or the lines of a draftsman, or the lettering of a calligraphist, we unconsciously identify ourselves with their makers: We seem to follow vicariously the imagined muscular exertion in the nervous experience of the craftsman as if experiencing it ourselves. In the same way, our tongue is slightly innervated when we only think of a word; our muscles tighten while we watch a wrestler or a tightrope walker, however comfortably we ourselves may be seated. Our empathetic experience of the pains of creation, unconsciously inferred when we look at a product, may add or detract, heighten or reduce, our enjoyment of it.

Of course, there’s always more to humanism in architecture than Greek caryatids or gargoyles or hand-hewn elements. A human taste for patterns seems amply confirmed by neuroscience. Virtual-reality experiments in a classical as opposed to a modern environment have confirmed boredom in the latter. Testing of environments of office parks or blank, overly uniform walls yielded disinterest.

Parliament of Bangladesh by Louis Kahn (Wikimedia Commons)

The antidote is a “patterned complexity” resembling the adornments of nature. Neutra wrote in opposition to famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s dictum that “form follows function.” On the contrary, “sometimes function follows form,” with natural elements seeming to reliably yield lower stress levels—not merely the presence of trees, but the use of wood as opposed to unnatural elements. Reflective glass is often unwelcome. If testing of these propositions is in coeval stages, a number of authors speculate on the comfort provided by the natural aging of materials: In Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty observed that concrete’s seemingly unnatural process of aging is disorienting and serves as an active deterrent to the appreciation of Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and ’70s.

There may also be, beyond natural materials, some inherent archetypes within architecture. As Thomas De Monchaux describes Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, building on a description provided by Sarah Goldhagen:

The shapes of these facades derive some of their uncanny homeyness, the theory goes, by conforming to intersections and accretions of about forty universal geometrical templates—weird “viewpoint-invariant” configurations called geons—that we have wired into our brains. These configurations serve as perceptive shortcuts to apprehending the bewilderingly complex shape of the world. Our preconscious use of geonic forms—wedges, boxes, barrels, donuts, cones—is reinforced by our associative memories of all the built places that have convened those templates.

These responses of the brain are not rigid universal preferences. Testing also suggests that humans crave some things at some times and some at others. Red walls and daring shapes might stimulate both performance and stress. Comforting and familiar shapes might stimulate rest, comfort, or boredom. Bright or variable light is desired at some times, soft and indirect light at others. Mallgrave stresses the importance of both “parasympathetic places of retreat or recuperation” and more active locations, “stimulating compositions in their social and spatial values that also demand significant energy expenditure to take in and understand.”


Most of these observations about architecture and embodiment are hardly new. The question is what we are supposed to do now that these truths have been reconfirmed with new technology.

The importance of light and space was a familiar impulse from the progressive era and in many forms of social housing, zoning codes, and tenement clearance projects across the globe. But the idea that simple mathematical formulas could produce utopia was disproved by the typically featureless housing developments that sprang up according to their specifications.

As with many fields, the majority of evidence we have concerning neuroscience and architecture has tended to arise either in areas of common societal concern or  those where profit is involved. School design has increasingly internalized evidence about the role of minimizing distraction in design, both by limiting external noise and rearranging classrooms. There was a 1984 study that showed hospital patients with a view of nature healed faster with fewer complications; subsequent work has reinforced this conclusion. Blue light reduces neonatal jaundice. Prisons have experimented with varied colors in order to reduce both inmate and guard stress. As Robinson explained at the Driehaus conference, generational increases in depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders may have something to do with where we are living: “It would be difficult to deny the coincidence that we now spend 90 percent of our lives inside of buildings—and if the built environment fails to nurture our capacities for emotional intelligence,” it may bear some responsibility for the rise in mental health issues.

There have been some parallel bodies of work that touch upon questions of health. The rise of the open office plan has offered quantified evidence of increased stress and distraction—and reduced productivity levels. Some fields of design are excellent at accomplishing other easily quantified but questionable goals: Casinos and shopping centers, for example, are constantly redesigned in accord with the quest for increased sales. Ellard classifies them as “places of lust.” These projects are often the equivalent of engineering tastier fast food—in which science brings us the benefit of more superficially irresistible yet unhealthy choices.

Who is to blame for the presence of so much architecture that is insensitive to the human condition? While many of the thinkers in this emerging field fault modern conceptions of architecture, most are not hostile to modernism in general or in part. Plenty of modern architects are praised. Many modernists devoted tremendous attention to the holistic questions of satisfying spaces for living. Even Philip Johnson, who was responsible for high-profile promotion of architecture’s most avant garde movement, Deconstructivism, declared that “All architecture is shelter” and that “All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.”

Much of the problem is not in the occasional asymmetrical and often structurally confounding commissions of Deconstructivists, who don’t typically design the buildings where you work, live, or shop. It is more widespread. The rest of our environment is often built to the most banal standards of mass specification and economy, of faceless suburbia and prefabricated life. And this lack of attention to the built environment has consequences. As Richard Driehaus commented at the Chicago symposium, “Some speculate that by 2030 half of the buildings in which Americans live will have been built since 2006. Decisions about how they are designed can’t be left to chance.”

However evanescent architecture has often become, we won’t be rid of that soon either. As Goldhagen comments: “Once finished, a new urban area or park or building will likely outlast every person who designed, engineered, and built it. It will survive too the people who wrote and adjudicated the codes that dictated its permitting. And it will remain in use long after those who commissioned and paid for it are gone.”

It’s surely worthwhile to question the orthodoxies of the so-called “starchitecture” of the most elite and visible designers. And yet the insights of neuroscience and architecture must come to bear on the far wider practices of construction, which have very little to do with contemporary art museums, big libraries, or new university arts centers. The problems of one-dimensional architecture are more diffuse, all the way down to the plastic and other artificial materials that now dominate so much of contemporary construction.

Neutra noted early in Survival Through Design that this unexpectedly important element of building, the materials in our spaces, is at the core of our development from an early age:

Strange as it may seem, my first impressions of architecture were largely gustatory. [As a child] I licked the blotter-like wallpaper adjoining my bed pillow, and the polished brass hardware of my toy cupboard. It must have been then and there that I developed an unconscious preference for flawlessly smooth surfaces that would stand the tongue test, the most exacting of tactile investigations, and for the less open-jointed, and also more resilient flooring.

Richard Neutra (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing over a half century ago, Neutra predicted present developments, and offered a cri de coeur to design that is more mindful of the whole body—and not merely the photo or the drafting table: “Designers of the future will neither cater to harmful habits nor gratify arbitrary desires. Their decisions will abide by ever-increasing physiological information.”

Criticism of architectural education is mounted in virtually all literature on the topic, both at the elite pinnacle and broader, more banal reaches of architecture. As Robinson confirmed, “With some notable exceptions… Human bodily experience has been effectively eradicated from architectural education right up to the present day.”

Neuroscience may be a field in which technological developments have the potential to rehumanize architecture. But Mallgrave noted that the rise of computer imaging in architecture has likely rendered it arid. “We are, for the first time, training a generation of architects with little or no proficiency in drawing. In some schools, in fact, students are trained exclusively through the keyboard of a computer from their first design studio forward.” He praises Swiss architect Peter Zumthor for banishing the computer until later stages of design and architects who spurn the lifeless simulations of 3D computer modeling.

More broadly, many at the symposium commented that the building industry, whose interests are quite distinct from high-brow architecture, tends to incorporate some types of improvements rapidly—materials or surfaces that provide for energy efficiency, greater water recycling, and the like. Yet insights that provide for a better lived experience are not nearly so rapidly applied to everyday construction projects.

Many of these findings in neuroscience are in early stages, so it’s welcome that many writing on the topic are restrained in their expectations or arguments for sweeping change across the practice of architecture. None are pressing to discard the traditional or recent concerns of architecture. None wish to simply hand control of architecture to neuroscientists, or to prescribe red breakfast nooks and blue bedrooms. The repeated argument is for offering neuroscience a reliable place among the multiple concerns that shape architecture, not in seating it at the head of the table.

Architect Robert Lamb Hart summarizes perhaps the most helpful attitude towards this body of work in his book A New Look at Humanism. “The important point is an ancient one: Ultimately the most useful learning is an educated awareness of the sources and consequences of our own thinking, feelings, behavior, and experience.” We should still ultimately be doing whatever we wish to our buildings, but equipped with a full sense of what they’re doing to us.

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications. 

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Driving and Thinking on a Classic New Jersey Highway Strip

Credit: Addison Del Mastro

When I visited my parents in New Jersey for the holidays, I brought my camera and drove down U.S. Route 22 to take some pictures. Route 22, which traverses New Jersey east-west from Pennsylvania to Newark Airport, is one of the state’s most heavily retailed corridors and one of its first major post-war highway strips, in other words a four-lane highway cluttered by fast food, big box stores, plazas, motels—everything imaginable.

This stretch and many others in New Jersey—the Lawrenceville/Princeton Route 1 strip and Route 10 in East Hanover come to mind—was once a motel-and-diner route that was bypassed but not killed by the Interstate. Some of the original build-out, both architecture and signage, still remains, albeit largely transformed and repurposed. As a child, a drive down Route 22 meant a family shopping trip. As recently as the early 2000s, it included such vanished outposts as Sports Authority, Sixth Avenue Electronics, The Wiz, and many others for which, in our dizzying economy, there’s little evidence left of their erstwhile existences.

A peculiar building transformed and maintained through multiple business changes—kitschy, but good urbanism.

I can’t say why this old strip in particular interested me so much, but in addition to taking photographs I also did some reading about some of the shopping centers there, trying to figure out their retail history. One of the first along Route 22, built in the mid-1950s, included a large discount department store: first the long-vanished Great Eastern and Valley Fair chains, and eventually a K-Mart and Pathmark, also now closed. A few years ago, before the vacant space was razed and replaced with a Costco, nearly the whole center sat empty. The real estate holder for the center is a company called Vornado Realty Trust. Vornado was a midcentury appliance maker that was purchased by Two Guys, a New Jersey-based discount store chain with locations along Route 22. Two Guys, before going defunct in the ’80s, branched out into the real estate business, using the Vornado name (which was later licensed to the company currently making Vornado-branded fans). The short of this is that a little, odd remnant of a midcentury discount department store still remains in that dead, and now revived mall.

This anecdote has something to teach us, reinforced by observing countless other shopping centers and even whole development patterns: Our basic modes of living have remained basically unchanged over the decades. It is very easy to absorb by osmosis the pseudo-theology of progress that animates much American thought—the hazy idea that God wants us to live in ever-larger single-family McMansions and drive two SUVs in ever-longer commutes out from the exurbs, along with its corollary that this upward progress represents a large and desirable break with the past. One could easily think that America’s true rulers are prosperity gospel preachers and the Jetsons.

Yet while the cosmetics of cars and buildings might evolve, and the suburbs might inch their way out into the farms, not much has really changed since at least 1950. Costco and Great Eastern are not the same store, but both are discount department stores that have occupied the same piece of land on the same road for nearly 70 years. Go several decades back, long before the neon and the chrome, and Route 22 is still there. Historic imagery shows a gradual build-up, not an explosion. The change is real, but it is gradual and path-dependent. Look at the historic satellite imagery on Google Earth or historic aerial photos, and you’ll see that “development” quite often means “a little more of what we already have.” Satellite maps, like ruins, are a good antidote to delusions of grandeur. Everything we have built is just a swatch of gray in a sea of green. Our mighty highways are thin lines, mere impressions in nature.

Another thing I noticed is that despite traveling through dozens of towns—or perhaps because of it—the highway strip becomes something of an entity unto itself. Nobody in my family ever said “let’s drive through North Plainfield” or “let’s go shopping in Springfield,” though we passed through and stopped in land belonging to those municipalities plenty of times. We simply said “let’s drive down Route 22.”

A 1960s motel sign; building recently demolished. Probably among the first post-war structures built on Route 22.

There are, of course, plenty of real towns behind and between the “retail corridors” of strip malls and chain restaurants. It is true that the coveted several miles of highway frontage that each distinct municipality on the route claims are a major source of revenue and jobs. Most articles about the economy of North Plainfield, for example, center around projects along the North Plainfield stretch of the Route 22 strip. Yet these strips display little of the character, human interest, and diversity that off-highway places do. For example, mostly absent on the strip are niche or ethnic businesses, which have more trouble affording the high rents. Within a couple of miles of Route 22 are a Polish deli with an excellent homemade $6 lunch special, a German grocery shop selling locally produced kielbasa and smoked meats, and a small butcher. Along the nearby highway itself are a stranded motel sign—the motel has been torn down—and large centers featuring Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. Driving these strips can feel uncannily like running somewhere in The Flintstones.

Peruse the Google Maps satellite view overlaid with state and Interstate highways, and you’ll notice that there are large areas that have no state highway frontage at all, and that are nowhere near an Interstate exit. Geographic space is not linear, of course, so this should not be surprising. Yet it is easy to forget that the major highway strips cover only a small slice of the given land area. Some of this “stranded” area consists of vast tracts of cul-de-sac developments with an occasional fossilized, semi-engulfed main street, the kind of place where a half-gallon of milk requires a 15-minute drive. But much of it is forest or farms, where a surprising number of people still seem to subsist on the land in some manner.

Martinsville, NJ: a small Main Street-style commercial strip, center, entirely surrounded by cul-de-sac neighborhoods. Copyright Google Maps 2018.

When I drive along the backroads of New Jersey or Virginia, I see plenty of small homes and fields with tractors, aging cars, stacks of firewood, and horses and cows. One can almost imagine that this is real land, lived on, worked on, and passed down, and that the Interstate and the mall build-up and now the retail apocalypse and even the financial crisis mean nothing here. It is not that simple, but it at least means the uglification of the American landscape has been far from comprehensive. One knows this from the fact that many American backroads, even in 2018, have no Street View imagery in Google Maps. Still, I did not drive around small towns and farm country to take pictures of a fading way of life. I took pictures of fading suburbia.

Another remnant of early post-war signage. There were originally five cans.

It is possible to recognize, at a high level, that suburbia and sprawl are faulty modes of development, and still feel nostalgia for them and chronicle their history. The suburbs are old enough to have developed their own history and culture—human realities that can be appreciated and coexist with another reality: that, ideally, there might be no suburbs at all.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.

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Slow the Cars

We design our streets like roads, as if their primary function—and sometimes their sole function—is the movement of automobiles.

Many people don’t grasp the difference between a street and a road. They think the terms are interchangeable, and rightly so. In the United States, we’ve spent decades—and trillions of dollars—blurring the distinctions.

To make our cities financially strong and successful, we need to reclaim the lost art of building great streets, and we must empower our transportation professionals to build high-performance roadways. There is a serious difference between those two pursuits.

Streets: The function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth. On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem of businesses and homes that produces community wealth. In these environments, people (outside of their automobiles) are the indicator species of success. Successful streets are environments where humans and human interaction flourish.

Roads: In contrast, the function of a road is to connect productive places to one another. You can think of a road as a refinement of the railroad—a road on rails—where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two.

With a street, we’re trying to build a place. With a road, we’re trying to get from one place to another. Streets emphasize wealth creation. Roads are about movement.



Why Is This Distinction Important?

Designing our streets as if they were roads creates three fundamental and interrelated problems.

First, it’s really expensive. We spend a lot more money on everything from engineering to asphalt when we overbuild our streets. And because poorly designed streets suppress demand for biking and walking—two lower cost alternatives to driving—they actually induce even more demand for transportation spending.

Second, poorly designed streets drive down the taxpayer’s return-on-investment. In general, the more auto-oriented a development pattern is, the higher the cost to provide public services and the lower the value per acre.

The kind of streets that are typically located in auto-centric areas are not only less financially productive, they also tend to be less adaptable, less flexible and thus more financially fragile. The financial struggles our cities face are directly related to the poor financial productivity of our auto-based development pattern.

Third, designing our streets as if they were roads is not safe. These environments combine fast speeds with randomness and complexity, a condition unsafe for drivers and particularly unsafe for anyone outside of a vehicle.

Stroads: The Futon of Transportation

A stroad is a hybrid of a street and a road. Much like a futon, it tries to do two things at once and is forced to compromise on each. A stroad tries to move cars kind of quickly along a corridor that also builds some wealth. The result is expensive infrastructure serving low-returning properties that fails to move traffic quickly while being particularly dangerous.

A stroad is the worst kind of transportation investment we can make, yet we build them all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. If you are driving between 25 and 50 miles per hour, you are probably on a stroad. They are everywhere.

That’s because of the way in which transportation professionals approach street construction. As they do with roads, they start the process by selecting a design speed. They then establish the volume of traffic they are designing to accommodate. Given the speed and volume, they then reference a road design manual to provide recommended dimensions for safe automobile travel. Finally, they calculate the cost of the project.

The order of these values—speed, volume, safety, then cost—works well for roads, but it is nearly the complete inverse of what is needed to build a productive and safe street. Successful streets emphasize safety first—and that’s safety for everyone, not just driver and their passengers—and then focus on cost, volume, and finally speed.

If we want a place to be successful, automobile speed can’t be the top priority of street designers. It needs to be their lowest priority.


The most compelling thing we can do today to make our cities wealthier and more successful is to substantially slow automobile speeds on our streets.

We need to incrementally shift each of our stroads to become either a street or a road, distinguishing the parts of our existing transportation network over time to emphasize either a street function (wealth creation / complexity) or a road function (traffic movement / simplicity).

And while the fragile financial condition of our local governments is what compels us to make this change, it is clear that building lower cost, higher returning streets will also save lives and improve the quality of life for our citizens.

That is why #slowthecars is such a critical part of implementing a Strong Towns approach.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared on Strong Towns and is republished with permission.

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A Philosopher Embraces New Urbanism—At Home and In the Classroom

Eastown, Grand Rapids (Lee Hardy)

My flight was scheduled to arrive at LAX at 11:30 in the morning. Perfect, I thought. I could get a rental car and be out of Los Angeles before rush hour, heading up the California coast to visit my father by mid-afternoon. But my plans were spoiled by a thunderstorm in Chicago, which added five hours to my travel time. I arrived in LA at 4:30, picked up the rental car, and quickly got on the 405 northbound. It then took me one hour to go eight miles. And there were miles of heavy traffic still in front of me. Exasperated, I imagined an aerial view of my situation: surrounded by hundreds of cars on an expressway that now looked more like a linear parking lot. Clearly something was wrong with this picture.

Since my ill-timed visit, the 405 underwent a $1.6 billion construction project to ease traffic by expanding its capacity. After adding a travel lane and a set of new on- and off-ramps, the results are in: according to a study of the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the 405 is now even more congested between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 pm. The results could have been predicted. Adding capacity to highways rarely reduces traffic congestion. It just invites more drivers. The phenomenon is known as “induced traffic.” We have known about it for years. And yet we keep spending tax dollars on the same old solutions, which often just make things worse.

I am a philosopher by training. But I have written a book on urban design. Much of the content of The Embrace of Buildings is drawn from an interim course on urbanism I’ve been teaching for the last ten years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When people ask me how I got interested in urban issues, my short answer is: “I grew up in LA.” My long answer is that I grew up in Fullerton, in Orange County, about 35 miles southeast of LA, during the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, Orange County was a collection of distinct towns surrounded by orange groves and bean fields. My father owned a drugstore on Harbor Boulevard, the main street of Fullerton, which would take you to Newport Beach after a half-hour drive to the south. As a child I performed a variety of menial jobs in the store, often pausing to listen to conversations my father held with his regular customers, who also seemed like his friends. Lives were shared; local affairs discussed. Later I supplemented my income by filling in for my friends who delivered The Fullerton News-Tribune, the local paper, on the east side of town.

By the mid-1960s, the character of the region was changing rapidly. A carpet of housing subdivisions, shopping malls, parking lots, freeways, and gas stations was being rolled out from LA. Soon the orange groves and bean fields disappeared, and Orange County became one vast undifferentiated conurbation. It was difficult to tell when you left one town and entered another. The towns themselves had been gutted as retail moved out to the malls. Typical travel distances lengthened, and traffic became a serious problem. The Fullerton News-Tribune folded and became a weekly section of The Orange County Register. When asked by outsiders where they lived, people rarely named their town anymore. They just said, “Orange County.” It didn’t seem to matter where you lived, as long as you were reasonably close to a highway and the TV reception was good. At the end of his career, my father worked for a chain drugstore in a supermarket far removed from his place of residence. His customers were strangers to him, and remained so. Just about all traces of civic life and identity, it seemed, had evaporated.

The pattern of post-World War II development I witnessed in Orange County struck me as fundamentally wrong-headed. But others appeared to accept it as inevitable and somehow normal. I found few people voicing concerns. Until, in September of 1996, I read an article in The Atlantic by James Howard Kunstler. The article was drawn from his earlier book, The Geography of Nowhere, and previewed his forthcoming book entitled Home from Nowhere. In that piece, Kunstler articulated all the private feelings I had been harboring about urban sprawl, often in sustained and delightful runs of purple prose. Underneath his impassioned writing style, however, lay a solid analysis of the effects and drawbacks of functional zoning and automobile dependence.

Following up on that lead, I soon discovered the existence of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization of architects, city planners, and citizen activists devoted to the retrieval of classic urban form and the creation of walkable city neighborhoods. I joined the Congress and attended many of its national conferences. I delved into the literature on urban design and the cultural history of cities. I did coursework at the University of Miami School of Architecture. I studied cities as I traveled in North America, Europe, and Asia. I made contacts with like-minded architects, planners, and developers in the Grand Rapids area, and then began to offer a course on urban design during the January interim at Calvin College.


The New Urbanist movement was controversial when it came together in the mid-1990s. But its sentiments, it seemed to me, were little more than a straightforward extension of common sense. Consider the opening statement of its Charter, adopted in 1996: “The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.” Clearly the problems identified by the Congress were genuine problems. Or so I thought. Its agenda also seemed to me to be on the right track: “We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.”

Moreover, the recommended means and guidelines of the Congress appeared well-fitted to its proposed ends: “We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.” I could find much to affirm and little to argue with in the Charter.

Nevertheless, the New Urbanism has had its share of critics. Some hold that it subscribes to a version of “architectural determinism,” as if getting the physical form of cities right would somehow guarantee a well-functioning human community. I have yet to meet a new urbanist who holds such a view. In fact, this objection is anticipated in the fourth paragraph of the Charter: “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.” Good urban form is best thought of as an enabling condition, not an all-determining factor.

Others have criticized New Urbanism because many new developments built along its principles occupy higher price points in the real estate market. They tend to be exclusive and unaffordable. The high prices, however, reflect the level of demand for such places. They are indeed attractive. And rare. The solution to that problem is to build more of them, not less.

New Urbanism has also been criticized as a pointless exercise in nostalgia, a futile attempt to turn back the clock to the quaint towns and neighborhoods of yesteryear, when in fact the future marches on, inexorably, to bold new experiments in oddly shaped glass towers, massive superhighways, and electronically assisted automotive transportation. In response to this claim, I can only point out that what comes later in time does not always represent true progress. As C. S. Lewis reminded us in Mere Christianity, “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” In The Embrace of Buildings, I argue that low density, auto-oriented development is in fact taking us down the wrong road, and that turning back to rediscover the principles of classic urban form represents a step in the right direction.

Finally, it has often been said that New Urbanism is doomed to failure because it will never get Americans to abandon their cars. But that was never the aim of the movement in the first place. The point is to promote the creation of places where driving remains an option, but is not a necessity, places where alternate modes of transit are available. The addition of transit options not only serves the one-third of Americans who do not—or cannot—drive; it also makes it possible for some households to reduce the number of cars they must own, thus saving thousands of dollars a year.


My interest in walkable city neighborhoods is not merely theoretical. It’s also part of my experience. I have lived in such a neighborhood in Grand Rapids for the past 30 years. It goes by the name of Eastown. It’s an old streetcar suburb that was largely built out in the 1910s, before car ownership was widespread. People, primarily professionals in that day, would take the streetcar downtown to work, return, and walk home. Home may have been a single-family detached house. Or it may have been a duplex or apartment. Eastown contains a variety of residential options. The neighborhood had its own retail section that supplied residents with their daily and weekly needs within a comfortable walking distance.

“Once a year we close the street for a block party.” (Lee Hardy)

Much has changed since then. A good number of buildings have been lost to parking lots. Some of the retail has moved out to big box stores on the edge of the city. But the community still has good bone structure, a fine network of connected streets. And many walkable destinations. Within a five-minute walk of my house lies a farmer’s market, a supermarket, three churches, two elementary schools, a civic theater, two coffee shops, a pizza parlor, a donut shop, three restaurants, two bakeries, a brewery, a park, a college, a creek, two used-book stores, a shoe store, a yoga studio, a massage therapist, two beauty salons, a gift shop, a gym, a butcher shop, a delicatessen, a post office, a bike shop, and a bus stop. My wife and I make do with one car, since I can ride my bike or moped to work in fair weather and take the bus in foul.

Our four children, now grown, have fond memories of living in a neighborhood where they could walk to the park and its playground, to the supermarket for candy, or to the coffee shop for hot chocolate with their friends. They grew up in a house where the front porch was just eight feet back from the sidewalk, and the neighbors’ houses were just eleven feet to each side. In the summers the doors of the houses on our block were open, and they and their friends easily circulated from house to house and yard to yard under the welcoming and watchful eye of their adult neighbors. Once a year we close the street for a block party. Then not only the food but also the musical instruments come out, and the fire department often supplies a big red fire engine for the children to inspect. In the summers, on random Friday afternoons, someone will announce a spontaneous Happy Hour, and we’ll gather on a porch for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Every December we go caroling with a group of about a dozen neighbors. Those among us who fall ill can expect visits and regular deliveries of prepared food. We have made many friends in our part of town, and many acquaintances. The built form of our neighborhood did not make us sociable; but it made it easier for us to be social.

Lee Hardy is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. His latest book is The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods, from which this article is adapted.

Copyright 2017 Lee Hardy.

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