New Urbs

When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.
Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

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


China Greenwashes Le Corbusier

Tianjin Eco-city
Tianjin Eco-city

Around a wastewater reservoir on the outskirts of China’s fourth largest city, Tianjin, tower blocks built to one of the most stringent green building codes in the world rise in “eco-cells” bound by broad roads while, in strips of green space around the Yincheng Reservoir, wind farms have been planted.

This is Tianjin Eco-city, a joint venture of China and Singapore, and designed to be “A thriving city which socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource efficient—a model of sustainable development.” According to MIT Technology Review, $6.5 billion has been invested by the two governments as of 2012.

Unfortunately, as both a city and as a model of sustainable development, Tianjin Eco-city has all the hallmarks of failure. One doesn’t even need to read the articles about how difficult it’s been to convince people to move there, or the inconveniences they face when they do, to see why. A glance through the image gallery reveals everything: grandiose buildings on huge setbacks, wide roads clearly designed for speed, green space—not parks—forming buffers on sidewalks and highway medians and all overseen by the aforementioned apartment towers.

It’s Le Corbusier with solar panels. That sort of city, built from scratch and at such a scale to crush the human life out of a city, designed around the car at highway speeds and the misguided belief that mere open space (inevitably converted into parking sooner or later) was better than any place could be, comprises the heart of decades of urban failure in the West. It was the guiding ideology behind the planning of the infamous “projects”—St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and the depressing march of cheerless gray building after cheerless gray building through the Bronx—and the basic design’s hostility to human life is one of the reasons they’re remembered for poverty, drugs, violence and social collapse and not the visionary and progressive examples of architecture, housing policy and urban planning they were hailed as.

For Le Corbusier and his followers, the goal was not to work within a living tradition or build upon what had come before, but to completely obliterate the past. In a city or neighborhood he designed, there would be nothing left to remind anyone of what had gone before. The street itself would be abolished and everyone would live and work in gigantic, identical, concrete towers. It’s unclear if there was room in his utopia for churches or even farms and factories.

Not for nothing has Theodore Dalrymple compared Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.”

Being built around a polluted reservoir, Tianjin Eco-city is less disruptive than American projects that “renewed” whole neighborhoods at a time. Nevertheless, in being built from scratch it will suffer from many similar problems. It’s unclear how many people have moved in yet. While planned for 350,000 residents, MIT Technology Review reports a population of 20,000; The Guardian reports 6,000 and the BBC 12,000. Renting in new construction is more expensive than existing and while the government has been offering subsidized rent and kindergarten, apartments are still empty. For those who have moved in, the eco-city lacks both conveniences and amenities, so residents must drive to work, shop or do anything else.

The master-plan talks about promoting walking, cycling and public transit, but there does not appear to be a transit connection to central Tianjin, about 20 miles away. The references to driving alternatives in the Master Plan all talk about trips within the city. In any event, the wide, multi-lane roads and lack of anywhere within the eco-city to walk to will just encourage driving.

There are other things about the design that sound good but appear to be little more than an old Corbusier plan greenwashed for this century. While the eco-city may have a green building code, that doesn’t account for much. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council has written several times about the ways planners focus on LEED certification over things like walkability. This even affects the Environmental Protection Agency, as when they moved a regional headquarters from a fairly transit- and walking friendly part of downtown Kansas City, KS to a car-dependent, sprawling suburb.

According to the Environmental Building News, “…for an average office building in the United States, calculations … show that commuting by office workers accounts for 30 percent more energy than the building itself uses.”

As Jeff Speck put it in Walkable City, “all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood.” Moreover, a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that “building reuse almost always has fewer environmental impacts than new construction,” according to Time.

All these findings are consistent with the features of a traditional city, built over time, as opposed to Le Corbusier’s Year Zero.

China certainly needs sustainable cities. Even apart from the impacts on climate change—and China is the source of one-third of greenhouse gas emissions—the air and water pollution are already at levels usually deemed unsafe by Western governments. In the north, the average life expectancy has declined by 5.5 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Environmental damage has cost the People’s Republic about 3.5 percent of the GDP, according to Bloomberg, which has averaged 10 percent a year for a decade. Green issues may also affect the country’s stability: there were 50,000 protests on environmental issues in 2012, according to Grist.

Tianjin’s environment would be better served by the insertion of the eco-city’s technologies and techniques into the existing urban fabric, combined with the renovation of existing buildings. The Chinese have at least 4,000 years of urban history to draw on, as well as very good regional examples, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.

China can do better. It must do better.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.

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Bike Highways Aren’t Any Better for City Streets

Original proposal for Blackfriars junction
Original proposal for Blackfriars junction

It is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.

Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

The notion of a bicycle-only superhighway has been revived in places like Copenhagen and the Netherlands in recent years, but Mayor Boris Johnson has just announced plans to build bring a record-breaking bike highway right through central London. Johnson has proposed nearly 20 miles of segregated bike lanes that, instead of being guarded by loosely spaced networks of thin plastic poles, would have their own dedicated curbs.

Bicyclists are generally strongly in favor of dedicated lanes, with the more protection the better, as they the ones who fare by far the worst in collisions with cars. However, the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

One of the original designers of Los Angeles’s traffic and street patterns, Miller McClintock, instructed the public in the 1920s that “The old common law rule that every person,, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” The traffic engineers who constructed city streets, particularly after the advent of “forgiving highways” thinking in the 1960s, believed firmly in segregating out every mode of travel that they could, protecting pedestrians from cars, and cars from pedestrians. The old, dynamic, civic street that had survived in one form or another in every city in the world from the time of the Sumerians would be largely snuffed out.

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry this auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out. Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous. As I wrote a few months back,

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. … To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out.

City streets are not safe, they are dynamic. To design streets that tell their users a different story can lull them into a false, dangerous sense of complacency. Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest. It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

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


Five Ways Uber Changes the City

For all the commentary about Uber’s disruptive effect on the taxi business, it has has other remarkable consequences. It is opening up American cities by solving one of the biggest problems for residents: finding cheap, easy, and reliable transportation in out of the way places. Expensive, rare, and undependable taxis are being supplanted by easy, fast, reliable Uber cars coming into lightly trafficked suburbs and even into high crime ghettos. A caller knows immediately how far away his ride is located. No more calling back to taxi companies asking where the taxi is and when it will finally arrive.

In Washington, D.C., the consequences are tremendous. Already, apartment buildings that used to have waiting lists for parking spaces now have empty spaces. Many downtown buildings in Washington have some 20 percent less income from parking than before Uber and convenient short-term car rentals came about.

The system works with one’s smartphone, showing immediately how far away a car is and how many minutes it will take to arrive. Then one can track the approaching car on an electronic map on the phone’s screen. There is a permanent digital record of which driver is coming and which member has called from what location. Drivers don’t carry any cash and all the cost, tipping is included, is billed to the member’s monthly credit card statement. Driver and passenger calls to find each other are computer scrambled so that neither can later find and call the person involved except through the company. Primarily this protects passengers from any driver later possessing their private telephone numbers. Passengers are asked to rate their driver after each trip, and drivers likewise rate passengers. The process gradually eliminates obnoxious or incompetent drivers and passengers. Uber cars cost some 75 percent as much as taxis and don’t charge for extra passengers.

The negatives with Uber are concerns for safety (see below) and the proper screening of drivers. Most customers use UberX which consists of private car owners. They depend almost entirely on GPS navigation and often don’t know the best city routes. I would question sending young children alone with them. They should really be compared to chauffeurs to whom one must explain the best routes to take. The higher-class Uber Black car has more professional, knowledgeable drivers, but costs nearly twice as much.

The Many Consequences

First of all, the abundance of young millennials and empty nesters moving into the city do not even need to own a car. The savings in parking, insurance, and car payments is hundreds of dollars, say about $700 a month after tax earnings. A detailed study in Los Angeles came up with exact numbers for car ownership compared to Uber. For weekends convenient car rentals are also available by the hour or by the day from companies such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Uber’s main competitor is the much small company, Lyft, which offers similar service.

Secondly and most significantly, whole new areas which were once semi-slums or far away from offices and downtowns have been opened up to “urban homesteaders” and “gentrification.” Uber is accelerating the return of middle classes to city life. Low-cost housing is being gobbled up all over the city in out of the way places which Uber cars are able to service and locate, thanks to their satellite navigation systems.

Thirdly, popular inner-city restaurants and bars are now within easy access for suburbanites, which makes for more abundance, variation, and sales tax collection, benefitting full-time residents. Several persons can share a car (without taxi like surcharges) into the city with no worries or costs associated with finding parking spaces. They can then be assured of finding a car late at night to take them home. And they have no worries about one extra drink or fear of police dragnets looking for DUI’s, when a single such arrest can cost thousands of dollars in fines or lawyers or higher insurance rates or even damage their careers for the rest of their lives.

Fourthly, parents can arrange for late-night rides for their teenagers from parties without a fear of their drinking and driving. More parents are using the service to deliver and pick up young children from after-school activities. Likewise, aged parents can be driven to homes and doctors’ appointments. It’s all about low cost, reliability, and tracking the drivers. Parents can even see on their smartphone map screens where the car is located as it drives.

Fifthly, residents of poor sections of town (providing they have a credit card) can call for cars in parts of cities with scarce public transportation or almost non-existent taxi service. Sharing cuts the cost of commutes to work. Drivers need not carry any cash and so are much less subject to being robbed.

Uber drivers use their own cars, which are required to be late models, clean, and with air conditioning running in hot weather. They don’t talk on their phones when carrying passengers. They earn 80 percent of the fares. Drivers I’ve spoken to tell me they earn a hundred dollars and then quit for the day. Drivers can work part- or full-time, day or night as they wish. Rates are adjusted automatically (called surge pricing) when there is heavy demand or bad weather, indeed they can double or triple, but that means that rides are always available at a price. If the member does not want to pay the higher price he or she can simply wait out the situation and then call back. There is no extra charge for additional passengers, so passengers can easily share costs which brings down the price considerably for a group of commuters, for example.

Uber also offers a limousine service called Black Cars, at about double the price. They are larger, more luxurious models, often stocked with the daily newspaper and bottles of water, and usually can take more passengers. Uber must also reduce traffic congestion in big cities as fewer residents must drive around looking for parking spaces or use their cars for short distances.

Safety is the big issue for Uber and its detractors. Search for Uber and crime to find links. The company’s website explains its procedures in recruiting drivers, however its fast growth has raised questions about the security checks. Some cities plan to impose their own requirements, but the suspicion is that they might try to shut down the service instead. There have been many charges and some arrests after complaints. Some of the accusations are true, while others are exaggerated by its enemies or competitors trying to have the service shut down. Municipal background checks on drivers, various tightening up measures, and all sorts of ideas to guarantee safety are being debated and sometimes incorporated into the system. With millions of potential customers there will always be some crime issues. However, the tracking possibilities of modern technology will make crimes harder to commit and easier to trace when they do occur. There does seem sufficient security because more and more parents are using the service to deliver and pick up their children from after-school activities. The company carries liability insurance on all its drivers.

Uber may be just a forerunner of other sharing services that will break the power of big city protected monopolies. Taxis are the most affected, and already the price of taxi medallions in New York City have declined by some 20 percent from their preposterous values of nearly a million dollars each. The cozy collusion of City Hall politicians and taxi owners to maintain scarcity is under attack all over America. Smart phones and Uber-type services are bringing mobility and lower costs to millions of Americans who previously could not find or afford such transportation.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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Amid the Seas of Empty Asphalt, After Christmas

mall schematic

Today is the day after Christmas, the day when families across the country burst out from their households of holiday cheer in order to once again brave the lines and lots of shopping malls, exchanging gifts and chasing year-end deals. It is, in other words, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, a “peak” shopping day for which big box stores are equipped with acres of asphalt.

This peak parking planning might seem a welcome relief to the mom in the minivan circling ever further out in search of a single open spot. But for many, if not most, commercial retail development, that parking will not be used to capacity even at peak.

During the highest peak parking day of this retail year, the dread Black Friday, Chuck Marohn and the Strong Towns crew engaged in a very useful exercise, snapping photos of their local parking lots on the morning of Black Friday in order to gauge just how much peak supply was serving supposed peak demand.

In many cases, the Strong Towns monitors found lots half-empty—or worse. Any failures at peak demand only serve to emphasize how woefully disconnected our zoning and town planning often is from the real demands of good policy, however. For even if every lot were ideally full on peak days, that would leave acres of empty, nearly unusable space for the other 362 (or so) days of the year.

If the federal government was requiring bureaucratic agencies to build acres of offices that would never or almost never be used, conservatives would rightly point to that policy as being emblematic of out-of-touch government, disconnected from the discipline of the market and the needs of the people. Ted Cruz would quip about it on talk radio, and John Boehner would drone in perfunctory tones about a needless example of government waste. Because this particular government mandate is carried out by private actors acting in compliance with received zoning ordinances, however, conservatives often mistake commercial conformity for a product of free markets. And we have lived under the minimum-parking regime for so many years that we have come to be comfortable with oceans of empty lots as the seemingly natural pattern of retail life.

This comfort comes at a steep cost, however, as asphalt does not pay taxes, does not host events, does not bring communities together, save for the occasional pop-up car wash church fundraiser. Instead of more shops, spaced close enough to walk from one to the other, there are patterns of gradually degrading lines drawn on the pavement. All that empty asphalt can be seen as an imposed desert, whereby the government is intentionally yet needlessly forgoing revenues that will have to be extracted from its citizens by other means.

So as you get out of the house today, should you go shopping, or drive by a big box lot, I would invite you to take a mental note of how many parking spots lie empty. And take another note of how many people, how many enterprises, how many ministries, could be fit into one Wal-Mart’s sea of concrete.

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What Is a Suburb, Anyway?

Walking through Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood one afternoon a few years ago, I remarked to a friend that the streets surely must represent the epitome of good urban design. A neighborhood of mostly two- and three-story handsome brick townhouses, punctuated by the occasional mid-rise apartment building, it was dense enough to support convenient corner stores; my apartment there was a short walk from drugstores, restaurants, supermarkets, parks, and transportation downtown. Yet abundant trees, porches, and room for private gardens cast a sylvan glow over the place, such that despite a degree of density, one never felt trapped in a concrete jungle.

Still my friend wasn’t ready to glorify Capitol Hill in the planning textbooks. “Well, I don’t know, it’s a bit sprawly,” he replied. At first I was taken aback. The compact district was a far cry from any postwar American suburb, places that are the very definition of sprawl. Then I remembered that my friend was visiting from England; compared to the narrow lanes of Old World towns, the 19th-century neighborhood is indeed almost suburban. It is bisected by broad avenues and most lots even have room for small front yards. Though it was created before cars, the extra room has meant that it can accommodate them, albeit at a lower level than the average American suburb, where households often host more vehicles than persons.

I was reminded of this Atlantic cultural gap recently, when The Economist, a mainstay of elite opinion produced in Britain, declared that “The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it.” The 5,000 word essay takes one on a whirlwind tour, providing a few case studies of suburban life across the broader Anglosphere: booming South India, the ever-expanding American Sunbelt, and postindustrial London belt towns. All of these places, the magazine reports, conform to data that shows the preponderance of urban growth taking place outside the old urban cores. But in its sweeping claim of a “great suburbanization,” the report seems to sidestep a central question: What is a suburb, anyway?

First we arrive in the new outskirts of Chennai, where The Economist reports that a new development could stand in as a Bollywood set for Southern California. After all, it is named “Lakewood Enclave,” a glib tribute to the postwar Los Angeles suburb where so many Baby Boomers, including my mother, were raised by their GI Bill parents.

The new Indian Lakewood is also home to a rising middle class, but in physical form would appear to be a much different place. Where the American Lakewood consisted mostly of detached, single-story homes, pictures of the Chennai suburb show homes more densely packed, all with at least a second floor, and far less outdoor space on each lot. Some of the houses abut five-story apartment blocks. While it may not have brownstone elegance and close proximity to downtown, Lakewood Enclave’s footprint seems closer to Capitol Hill than its Southern California ancestor. It may currently lack the scale and infrastructure of a more established community, but its relatively dense layout would seem to allow for at least one characteristic that is a fundamental part of the urban experience: walkability.

So it is somewhat surprising when The Economist puts the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona, in the same category. Yes, both Lakewoods and the residential quarters of the desert city follow fundamental suburban patterns, excluding any noisy commerce or polluting industry and building in a uniform manner that enables quick, cheap construction. Yet Maryvale, a once prosperous Phoenix neighborhood that the report extols as a place where poorer families can afford to buy homes on relatively large lots, is part of a metro area that consistently ranks among the nation’s least walkable cities. Everyone needs a car, and many spend several hours a day commuting behind the wheel.

Maryvale is also an example of the economic rollercoaster of boom and bust often engendered by such speculative developments. Families seem to abandon them as quickly as they came, finding little to care about once the new suburb loses its original sheen or better prospects appear elsewhere. Perhaps this is simply the American way, or the result of market forces, but the abandoned infrastructure creates drawbacks—consider the waste and environmental disaster created by abandoned cities like Detroit—that planning officials could mitigate.

The problem with the suburb is not its location outside the urban core or primarily residential character. Instead, a lack of attention to form and aesthetic considerations has resulted in throwaway places that are not adaptable for future generations. In this vein, it is surprising that there is no reference in The Economist’s report to New Urbanism, a movement that in the wake of the failures of postwar Urban Renewal programs, is drawing on traditional forms to create or retrofit existing places that will serve multiple generations, accommodate a diverse swath of income levels, and not require a car for every errand or outing. (This last feature is particularly important for the developed world’s growing elderly population. My 95-year-old grandmother, not content to live among only older people in a retirement home, is now marooned in a California suburb.)

My own current neighborhood fits this definition of a suburb that lacks the negative aspects of postwar sprawl. A 20-minute train ride from the center of Philadelphia, it boasts a retail and small office district within a short walk of most homes. Built before the car displaced the railroad, it now offers multiple modes of transport—including one’s own two feet—and while our family has only one car, there are some residents with children who choose not to have even one. The Economist contends that “as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring…” But in the case of the prewar suburb, the blurring began long ago.

Lewis McCrary is Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.

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

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Taxi Trouble in Texas

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a freedom-loving state. We like our regulations same as we like our steaks: rare.

That, at any rate, is the stereotype, and there is a lot of truth to it. But while the Lone Star state adheres to a hands-off approach to governing in many areas, it ain’t always so.

Consider ridesharing. Using smartphone apps to connect drivers with passengers, companies like Uber and Lyft have grown rapidly over the last few years in many big cities by offering a cheaper, higher quality alternative to traditional taxis. Many drivers work part-time, setting their own hours and making good money doing so.

Yet on Thursday, the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that would impose so many restrictions on ridesharing companies as to effectively ban the practice. Under the new regulations, before Uber or Lyft drivers are allowed to pick up fares, they must submit to a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test, a drug test, written and verbal tests of English proficiency, and random vehicle inspections. Given that the individuals in question already have drivers’ licenses, many of these regulatory hoops are redundant or even pointless.

As if that wasn’t enough, the San Antonio ordinance piles on insurance requirements that far exceed any reasonable justification. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, a San Antonio taxi need only have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The San Antonio ordinance might not pass. Then again, it might. Last month, a Houston ordinance went into effect requiring a 40-step process for driver registration. Though much less onerous than the proposed San Antonio ordinance, the law was sufficiently burdensome that Lyft announced it was suspending operations in the city. Uber has likewise indicated that it will have to pull out of San Antonio if this ordinance is adopted.

San Antonio, and especially Houston, are relatively conservative for big cities. Republican Greg Abbott won both cities during his recent triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis for governor.

Yet even before these recent ordinances, these cities ranked near the bottom of the class on ridesharing regulation. Last month, the R Street Institute released a scorecard ranking America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies. San Antonio received a grade of D- and ranked 47th out of 50, behind every other Texas city. Houston was only slightly better, with a grade of C- and a rank of 40. By contrast, the American city with the most “hands off” approach to ridesharing was Washington, D.C. And Austin, which is known for being the more liberal of Texas’ major cities, also passed a comprehensive ordinance legalizing ridesharing.

Now, Portland, which is as liberal as they come, is currently seeking a court injunction barring Uber from operating in the city. The issue isn’t that liberal cities are better on ridesharing; it’s why the most conservative, free market cities aren’t uniformly good on the issue.

Why are Texas cities lagging when it comes to ridesharing? Demographics and entrenched interests are two important factors.

In denser cities with more reliance on public transport, the benefits that come from ridesharing are all the more vital. Some cities have also been dealing with the issue longer than others, which helps public officials and the public at large gain a better understanding of the value alternative vehicle-for-hire companies can provide.

How a city regulates traditional taxi and limo services is also important. When a city puts caps on its taxi fleet this can create a powerful lobby against more competition, whether from traditional or alternative sources. By contrast, where entry into the taxi market is already relatively easy, there may be less resistance to new transportation models.

Whatever the reason, though, this trend cannot continue. Texas continues to urbanize, and its success depends on being able to continue to attract people to live and work in vibrant communities. Cities like San Antonio can’t afford to be seen as backward when it comes to technology and transportation.

Josiah Neeley is Texas Director for the R Street Institute.

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Traditional Development Is a Municipal Gold Mine

In the United States, cities have spent the past 60 years reconfiguring public spaces to be oriented around the automobile. When new places are built, regulations require that they be similarly designed. The largely unchallenged assumption behind this approach, especially when it comes to commercial property, is that the more cars driving by, the more successful a place will be. Is this true?

If we look at it from the perspective of a local government, that assumption becomes highly suspect. Auto-oriented development costs more to maintain and provide service to than walkable alternatives. At the extreme, Detroit’s fiscal problems are a symptom of having too much stuff–too many miles of streets, pipes, curbs, and walks–and not enough people. If the city were half its current size but had the same population and tax base, its financial problems would be much more manageable. That is intuitively obvious.

It is the other side of the equation–a city’s revenues–where things are not as clear. Cities seek the Wal-Mart out on the edge of town not because it is cheap and efficient to provide services to–it clearly is not–but because they believe it produces such great returns, such tremendous wealth for the community. Wal-Mart pays a lot of taxes. What city wouldn’t want that?

Such a simple thought process does great injustice to our cities and the taxpayers forced to support their operations. It isn’t raw size that matters but productivity: how much revenue is produced per increment of cost? In that prism, the auto-oriented approach to building fails miserably.

Highway 210 runs east/west through the downtown of Brainerd, Minnesota, my home town. This used to be the streetcar route in a different age, but the hope of progress along with federal transportation subsidies prompted us to abandon that line years ago. The highway abuts a traditional neighborhood that has since struggled. In particular, along the highway were three commercial blocks built in the traditional style, with the single-story buildings pulled up to the street presenting a dilapidated front to the passing traffic. It is one of the most unpleasant stretches of development within the city.

In an effort to clean up this part of town, the local government planned for the redevelopment of this section into something they identified as “auto oriented.” In recent years they have been able to convert one of the blocks entirely, replacing the blight with a brand new drive through restaurant. The new facility has two lanes, a large parking lot, a fancy sign, and a shiny façade. Locally, the belief that this is an improvement is a fairly universal one.

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Unfortunately, the math doesn’t justify that belief. The new taco joint has a total value of $618,500. Two blocks over, using the same amount of land and having the same amount of public infrastructure, the collection of old and blighted structures has a total value of $1,104,500. The block the city is trying to have torn down is, in its dilapidated state, providing them 79 percent more tax base and property tax revenue than its shiny, new, auto-oriented replacement.

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How is this possible? How is it that a collection of tiny shacks built nearly a century ago are worth so much more than the brand new development on the same acreage just up the street? The answer is revealed over and over and over and over and over again when one looks at the financial productivity of different land use patterns: the traditional development approach is a cash cow. On a per-foot or per-acre basis, it is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation. Taxpayers get far greater returns when places are scaled to people instead of cars.

There are a lot of implications to this insight and a lot of areas to explore as a result–including sales tax and job creation, both of which also come out ahead in traditional approaches–but there is one thing that must be clearly understood: recreating that old and blighted block and all of its financial productivity is illegal today. The local zoning codes, which–mandated or inspired by state and federal guidelines–require setbacks, coverage limits, greenspace, excessive parking and minimum floor/area ratios, prohibit building in the time-tested, traditional building pattern. Even if people wanted to build something that was more financially productive–and many people do–it can’t be done.

Through regulations that reinforce false notions on how wealth is created, American cities have mandated their own financial demise. The first step to turning things around is to remove barriers that prevent incremental development in the traditional style. Any local government serious about their community’s future prosperity is taking this inexpensive step in earnest.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

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

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Why Conservatives Must Engage Urbanism

© Jonathan Coppage
© Jonathan Coppage

Is there a place for conservative urbanism?

That was the question prompted by Charles Marohn’s recent New Urbs article, “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” Ben Adler, an environmental reporter over at Grist, said the conservative base will never listen to the lonely (though growing!) conservative urbanist voices. Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy argued conservative urbanists are abusing Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in favor of elitist technocratism. Both pieces help illustrate just how limited urbanist politics have been, and just how important the New Urbs project (along with our like-minded friends across the conservative landscape) could be for broadening this discussion.

Adler documents how “urbanism is actually growing in popularity among a small cadre of conservative intellectuals,” who “understand that the traditional town design favored by urbanists—houses that face the street, with porches and stoops, sidewalks, public parks, and shared mass transit—fosters strong communities.” Yet he warns: “Just don’t expect their ideas to catch on in conservative America.” He continues, “The main problem for conservative urbanists isn’t the quality of their arguments, but rather that they fall on deaf ears within their own movement.” Adler argues that popular American conservatism is about tribalism before principles, and subsidized suburbia suits them just as Tea Party retirees are fiercely defensive of their own entitlement checks. American conservatives are coal-rollers and Sarah-Palin-Big-Gulp celebrators, who “have adopted pro-market, small-government values as a loftier framework for their politics of resentment.”

Keith Miller’s critique of New Urbs does not resemble Adler’s redneck parody, but instead embodies a different very familiar, very instinctive backlash against urbanist ideas among many American conservatives:

Which brings me to the main reason my conservative instincts are not moved by Bess’s New Urbanism of the heart or Marohn’s case against the suburbs. Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good. We already have an American political tradition that stands for that proposition; do we really need another?

Miller also makes the tired jab that a Burkean disposition is a foreign, European elitism (though he also tries to wrap himself in Burke’s mantle). Most fundamentally, Miller argues that Reagan liberated conservatism from Burke and built a broad suburban coalition around populist appeal. Any criticism of that coalition is seen as a necessary endorsement of large-scale central planning of the sort Reagan opposed.

In Adler and Miller’s critiques, we come to see just how deeply infused development patterns have become with the culture war’s identitarian politics. Miller’s anxiety at suburbanites being looked down upon is fed by Adler’s disdain for coal-rollers. Conservatives and progressives are two different creatures, and if one has anything in common with the other, they must be a secret sympathizer for the other side. Likewise, if one has any differences with a self-identified brother-in-arms, that brother must be a closet enemy.

The Atlantic writer and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows encountered just this issue in a reader letter responding to his accounts of how mayors and cities are making things work at local levels. In his recent post “In Which I Am Recruited to Switch Political Teams,” Fallows conveys some reader feedback:

I write to needle you a little bit. What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism. A smart conservative could use your title, ‘national problems, local solutions’ as a title for a fine book or lecture. Laboratories of democracy, etc. People know what is best for their own community, and they know best how to deal with local issues. … I’ll go away now, but you could be a fine conservative.

I look forward to reading Fallows’s eventual full response to his reader, but for now he simply notes that he once was just such a fine conservative, and that “local sensibility has historically found supporters and backers independent of party alignment.”

That last point is very true, and Bill Kauffman’s lovely ode to local sensibility from Friday is a testament to how a love of the local can cross both national parties and national fads. Republicans talk a good game about devolving power, but often carry that rhetoric on down to the most local level, where self-governance should be happening. Democrats often give fine words to localism and good urbanism, but have a persistent tendency to try to enshrine their arguments in legal codes at the earliest political opportunity.

Conservatives, taken apart from Republicans or Democrats, should be in place to ground the urbanist discourse, to curb its excesses and overreach, and continue the long, hard work of bringing the most suspicious to the table. When Charles Marohn, who wrote the suburbs piece, goes to towns and places in his day job at the nonprofit Strong Towns, he talks about building a sustainable tax base, which any fiscal conservative should be able to appreciate. He doesn’t, and we here at The American Conservative, don’t talk about those who live in the suburbs with disdain. That’s our family, that’s our staff. It’s not about what’s “hip” or fashionable. It is about what conduces to community.

Communities can certainly thrive in sprawling suburbs, because the fundamental units of a community are people, and good people can overcome bad urbanism. Bad people can certainly overwhelm good urbanism. But why should we not give as many people as will seek it the opportunity to live in communities built in accordance with the wisdom of the generations?

Miller’s point that most people in the past lived in rural areas, on farms, is well taken. But when they came together to build a town, to build a city, it was almost unanimously built along lines that would look very familiar to a New Urbanist’s eye. Small blocks with interconnecting streets and alleyways, instead of gargantuan, impermeable city blocks with harsh interstates slashing through city centers, dividing the city against itself. Intermixtures of homes and shops, so supplies are never too far away, and customers are nearby, instead of zoning ordinances that exile houses to one side of town, stores to another, and never the twain shall meet.

New Urbs is not about sweeping mandates or snobbish judgments. It is about asking the question: if people have lived in similar patterns for hundreds of years, is there as a wisdom in that? And if people today want to live in those patterns, should they be allowed to do so, or should those patterns be banned? Because that is the default position of the overwhelming majority of cities and suburbs alike across this country. Traditional neighborhood designs are illegal under the current legal regimes. Someone wanting to open a corner store to serve a residential neighborhood simply can’t do it. A developer wanting to build a mixed-use community has to account for the time and expense of obtaining hundreds of individual variances from the zoning codes.

Adler argues that conservatives will not be receptive to arguments about the environmental costs of suburban sprawl. And he’s probably right. Adler and I likely have a great deal of agreement on environmental issues, but it is not a motivating factor for conservatives like it is for liberals. And that’s an even greater reason for conservatives to take up the urbanist mantle.

For a few fusion reactors and Elon Musk’s affordable electric car could put carbon-heavy fossil fuels out of business without requiring the slightest change in American development patterns. After all, most Americans already drive less than 40 miles a day, which even GM’s existing technology can approach. However, if those technologies come online too late to keep us from coasting over an IPCC-approved carbon point of no return and into an abyss of catastrophic climate change, why even bother changing how we live?

If civilization survives the next few decades, however, people will still need places to live, and they will need ideas about how best to live. That’s what New Urbs is here for. Not to save the planet in 30 years, or to save the economy in 10. We’re here so that the built environment our great-grandchildren inherit will give them the best chance to live in flourishing communities.

A firm grasp of the long-view, taking into account the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born, has always been one of conservatism’s greatest strengths, and it is this quality in particular that informs our work. The good urbanism of Alexandria’s Old Town has served that suburb well for several hundred years. The Victorian townhouses of D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood are skyrocketing in value these days, but their pattern was set a hundred years ago. The Main Street-style of mixed-use development that once was the standard in this country has been nearly regulated out of existence over the past 70 years, as John Norquist’s article in the latest print issue of TAC explains, but those restrictions are slowly being undone, thanks in part to Norquist’s work while helming the Congress for the New Urbanism. If new Main Streets start to be built again, it will represent a recovery of nearly lost cultural wisdom. There’s nothing more conservative than that.

To chain our ideas to those that accompanied Ronald Reagan’s 1980 political coalition would leave us, in Yuval Levin’s apt phrase, “blinded by nostalgia.” Likewise, to throw up our hands at the supposed futility of convincing NASCAR dads and baby boomers of some of the merits of traditional neighborhoods would be to surrender to a fatalism unbecoming of the time scales at which we understand culture to work.

We’ll keep arguing, and writing, and pushing, and prodding. As James Fallows is documenting, and as Bill Kauffman recounts, there is a dynamism at the local level of American life that puts our national politics to shame. There, in the city council meetings and the zoning board hearings, is where the future of our built environment is being decided. And there’s too much exciting work to be done to sit quietly, or switch sides just as the opportunity to invigorate a new conservative urbanism is opening.

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

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The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

In his recent column, “Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives,” the prominent urban geographer Joel Kotkin creates and then slays a number of straw men in defense of suburban development patterns and all that is right and good in this country. This, unfortunately, is a lament that too often goes unchallenged, ceding a large swath of the American experience in the process. It is time for conservatives to confront the true nature of the suburbs.

America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. We can excuse modern Americans for not immediately grasping the revolutionary ways in which we restructured this continent over the past three generations–at this point, the auto-dominated pattern of development is all most Americans have ever experienced–but today we live in a country where our neighborhoods are shaped, and distorted, by centralized government policy.

Kotkin begins his piece with a reference to Franklin Roosevelt. In the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt pushed for the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The traditional way of building a home–in slow increments over time, sometimes with an attached commercial enterprise that helped with cash flow–became impossible to underwrite as government officials, desperate for economic growth, used regulation to make the single family home the only viable option for new homeowners. The federally-established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac followed. The results were rising home ownership and economic growth, but on a very different framework, one where families held significantly higher levels of long term debt.

Dwight Eisenhower likewise embraced the capacity of centralized government action to reshape society. The Interstate Highway Act was a grand vision to connect the entire country with a world-class highway system. This undertaking was finished three decades ago, but policymakers found transportation spending such a seductively simple way to create short-term jobs and growth that we continue to expand it aggressively.

American governments continue to be obsessed with maximizing people’s capacity to travel, even as they ignore minimizing the amount people have to travel. Not only must American families pay the taxes to support this continually-expanding system, but to live in it they are required to purchase, maintain, and store a fleet of vehicles even as they endure heightened sensitivity to oil price fluctuations (and support the military adventures that result).

Like Medicare, Social Security, and a myriad of other federal initiatives, housing and transportation subsidy programs are as popular today as they are financially insolvent. In an effort to prop up our suburban experiment, we now have the Federal Reserve owning the mortgage-backed securities market while Republicans in Congress champion “pension smoothing” as a way to pretend an insolvent federal highway trust fund can continue to build more roads. As with any over-centralized effort, a lack of appropriate feedback mechanisms allows the system to continue barreling down its present course–until it buckles under its own insolvency. Our suburban experiment has an expiration date.

Kotkin argues for the popularity of subsidies for highways and dispersed single-family homes when he claims the suburbs, “represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility.” This is a pleasant platitude, but is it true?

If it were, we should expect the typical American to actually enjoy more upward mobility than those in other societies. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Research shows that most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility than the United States, despite living at much higher densities.

We would also expect Americans to have more economic security–more accrued wealth–than those in other societies. Again, the reality is that Americans rank 19th in median net worth behind countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Japan, countries that have urban population densities many times that of the United States.

The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.

That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.

To quote the late columnist Earl Wilson, “Modern man drives a mortgaged car over a bond-financed highway on credit card gas.” Debt-to-income and debt-to-assets ratios for U.S. households have grown steadily during suburban expansion. That’s because there is an enormous ante required to participate in Kotkin’s version of the American dream. Two cars. Two incomes. Home, work, daycare, school, milk, and fun all require an enormous investment in time behind the wheel every day. It should be no surprise that younger Americans, burdened with student loan debt and having diminished job prospects, are less and less willing to tie themselves to a 30-year mortgages with two car payments.

Where Kotkin sees a “forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs,” I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation. In America, they are becoming that again.

This leads us to a final truth: cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

If conservatives want to identify with the artificial paradigm of an urban left and a rural right meeting on the suburban battlefield, we will continue to empower a progressive governing minority in a country that is solidly conservative. Instead of abandoning America’s growing urban centers to the left, we must see the inherent conservatism rooted within traditional neighborhood patterns of development. These are our people. They are there just waiting for us to speak to them.

Clinging to the Kotkin Doctrine of suburban primacy during this period of change will not only lead to a generation of conservative exile; it will produce a much weaker America.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

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

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