New Urbs

Why San Francisco Has to Build Up

Shotgun house Jon Keegan/Flickr
Shotgun house Jon Keegan/Flickr

Is the shotgun starter home the answer to San Francisco’s famously desperate housing crisis?

Joel Kotkin suggests just that in a recent report and follow-up interview with SF Weekly. In so doing, he makes the classic suburbanist mistake of ignoring what lies below the building.

First, the context. San Francisco has long found favor as a short city on the bay, squeezed into a peninsula between the waters of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Home to the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties, the city prided itself on a progressive resistance to trends that might spoil its cherished character. Some of the most restrictive land-use regulations in the country were imposed in order to keep towers of density out, and the seaside charm of low rooflines ubiquitous. Thanks to the temperate climate and the culture, the homeless found both accommodating weather and welcoming residents.

The rise of Silicon Valley in the nearby suburbs attracted a different kind of immigrant to the bayside city, though, and the maturation of the tech industry began drawing new residents to San Francisco at an enormous scale. As the city’s regulations prevented housing supply from growing apace with the exploding demand, rents and home prices followed the predictable course into the stratosphere. There has been a growing chorus from the right to center-left for greater housing density to be allowed in order to release the pressure that has turned San Francisco into one of the most distorted housing markets in the world, but it is resisted by long-time residents and anti-gentrification activists alike out of fear that the wealthy would run amok with their city.

Now, Kotkin argues, he has uncovered evidence that high-density building must in fact cater to the wealthy, and the resistance is justified. Tall downtown apartment buildings use more expensive materials than cheap starter homes, and have to clear severe regulatory hurdles to be completed. Ergo, San Francisco would be better off building cheap, flat single-family starter homes than higher-density multifamily structures.

The problem, of course, is that San Francisco looks like this:

San Francisco 1915 - Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco 1915 – Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco’s population may have doubled since 1915, but the city itself remains exactly as bounded by its aquatic borders as it was then, when it hosted the World’s Fair to celebrate the newly opened Panama Canal. The only direction left to build is up.

That may be a banal conclusion in urbanism circles by now, of course, but it is worth keeping up with Kotkin’s always-creative arguments in order to underline the oft-missing variable: the land.

City Observatory‘s Daniel Hertz effectively unpacks this point, pointing out that Kotkin’s construction materials argument would hold quite effectively in a vacuum: “if we constructed buildings floating out in space, that might make condos more expensive. But down here on Earth, buildings are built on land. And land costs money.” Moreover,

in high-demand housing markets, it’s land costs that make single-family homes so expensive. That’s because single-family homes have to absorb all of the price of the land they sit on in their own prices. If you build multiple homes on the same piece of land, then each of the homes only has to absorb a fraction of the land’s price.

In a city like San Francisco, with extremely limited land subject to extremely high (and still rising) demand, the only way to give housing a hope of affordability is to split the land cost among more people. The market likely could have long cleared that hurdle if it weren’t hopelessly shackled by the city’s land-use regulations.

Of course, you could also socialize the cost by building subsidized affordable housing, if you so desired, layering further market distortions upon San Francisco’s already tortured peninsula. Many urbanists believe that is the only way affordable housing can be built to provide for the lower end of the market at this point. I’ll be picking up that argument in my next post.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Why Bernie Sanders Shouldn’t Call Baltimore ‘Third World’

Bernie Sanders speaks at a criminal justice forum. Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com
Bernie Sanders speaks at a criminal justice forum. Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

Baltimore’s Sandtown is getting used to media blitzes. After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April, the subsequent protests and a night of rioting brought lots of journalists, but the national media probably weren’t due back until it was time for “one year later” stories. But on Tuesday Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a stop there. He spoke on the need for jobs and better housing, but what dominated coverage of the event was his off-the-cuff reaction to Sandtown: “You’d think we were in a Third World country.”

I lived in Sandtown for six years and recently moved to South Sudan. There are a few similarities, yes, but there are also some very important differences that the language of “Third World” misses.

First of all, the term “Third World” is a Cold War relic that should be retired along with proxy wars and terrible accents in movie villains. It is not meant to elucidate anything positive when it is used to describe a place. Instead it attempts to politely signal “abject poverty” by using the language of geopolitical otherness. Even the crustiest old colonizers I know have switched to the more politically correct term “developing world,” which more accurately reflects reality.

Even when one grants that the poverty in Sandtown can be clearly seen just by walking through the neighborhood, the reference to the “Third World” neglects the history that shaped this poverty. Where I live now in South Sudan looks the way it does because some things were never built, but also because the northern government bombed anything that looked like infrastructure and spread landmines across anything that didn’t. Baltimore was shaped by racism, too, but in more subtle forms designed to slowly poison and suffocate what people owned rather than instantly blow up or burn it. Knowing the local history of how an impoverished community got to be that way is crucial to addressing how to make things better.

This may seem like a pedantic point or a gotcha game, but one of a presidential candidate’s jobs is carefully choosing words to foster trust and communicate vision, and the vision that Sanders is communicating is one of pity. (To be fair, his next event was framed as a “listening session” and while most of the pastors don’t work in Sandtown, they represented a broad base of African-American Baltimore’s concerns.) The optics of poverty are crucial and people should see how terrible certain parts of Sandtown look—they reflect a systemic neglect that ought to be a cultural shame. Some voters may need to be moved by pity, guilt, or shame in order to go along with a more radical economic plan, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the poverty in Sandtown is self-evident.

Yet there are other parts of Sandtown that don’t look like the developing world. At the same time, they aren’t mistaken for an affluent block in another part of Baltimore, nor do they look like suburbs. They have their own character, having been clawed back from urban decay by the hard work of local residents partnering with foundations and city government.

The 1200 block of Whatcoat Street. Not shown: banana plantations, pile of AK-47s, children in rags playing soccer

The block next to the house I still own was the winner of 2009 Afro News Clean Green Block Award; it is still kept meticulously, as can be seen above. Those houses were rebuilt by a different set of forces than the block that Habitat for Humanity renovated, as each part of the neighborhood has retained or recreated its own character. There are streets in the neighborhood that I would avoid in broad daylight and others where I would happily let my toddler wander around.

Politicians should be commended for spending time in neighborhoods where poverty is having obvious effects. I recognize that 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for a man who is running for president to visit an area that had voter turnout in the single digits, and I do not begrudge Bernie Sanders that he did not see the Clean Green Block Award winner. Doing so certainly would have made the narrative that day more complicated, which is exactly the point—there is only so much that a president can do for any one particular neighborhood or even a certain set of neighborhoods with similar characteristics.

The impulse to lump all poor communities together with “Third World” discourse also makes it easier to assume that they have monolithic opinions (which often conveniently agree with whoever is invoking “the voice of the community”). If you talk to people in Sandtown about how to address the issues facing their community, they will almost invariably mention the same sorts of things that have made Bernie popular on the campaign trail, including more generous government funding for jobs and housing. But they will also usually bring up the urgent need for cultural or spiritual renewal, a stronger sense of fatherhood, and greater personal responsibility as part of fighting poverty.

This mixture of discourse from approaches typically dividing left and right is by no means universal, either, which is why talking about particular places with such universal language is so dangerous: it constrains the political imagination to suppose that the right set of fixes in Washington will bring flourishing to Sandtown and Muskogee alike. While some of Senator Sanders’ plans have the potential to help poor people across the country (such as greater support for worker-owned cooperatives), others could hurt the poor with a blundering colonial instinct to help, overzealous in its confidence that it has seen Sandtown and now knows what Sandtown needs.

Aside from any reservations about the senator’s host on his Baltimore trip (a local pastor known more for his showmanship than his shepherding), I am concerned as someone who loves Sandtown that Sanders didn’t talk about the good work that is already happening there and in many impoverished places. There are local leaders and local initiatives that are working to address the economic, cultural, and social issues that perpetuate poverty; most policy efforts will crumble without thinking about ways to support (or create more of) these front-line soldiers. As crucial as top-down efforts are to mitigating poverty—particularly the emphasis on ending mass incarceration and finding ways to create more jobs that are accessible to low-skilled workers—Baltimore’s government-directed “community development” efforts (like a certain casino) often do not account for the bottom-up work that takes place in homes, churches, and other civic institutions.

I’m glad that people like Bernie Sanders are drawing attention to urban poverty in places like Sandtown. We should be vigorously debating whether or not the policies he proposes would help—but more importantly, we should be thinking about the vast number of things policy cannot do in forming character, strengthening families, and building up the institutions that promote solidarity. After all, one man’s election cannot change the way any one neighborhood looks. It takes neighbors working together to do that.

Matthew Loftus teaches health workers and practices family medicine in South Sudan with his family (MatthewandMaggie.org). Before that, he lived with his family for six years in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Seeking a Return to Beauty

Championing the return of beauty to urban spaces is rooted in an ethos of affirmation, nourishing the citizen’s sense of place and belonging which underpins strong communities. Traditional architectural styles can inspire civic pride and symbolize civic values, unlike the monstrosities of glass and concrete which uglify today’s towns and cities.

There is a temptation to become fatalistic and resign ourselves to the inevitable destruction of the places we love. But that need not be the case. In Great Britain, there has already been some progress which could be emulated here in the United States.

An unlikely leading figure in the effort for reviving beauty in urban spaces is Prince Charles, the future King of England. As long ago as 1984, Prince Charles delivered a provocative speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects which criticized the architectural styles of the post-war era. He elegantly described a prewar London where an

affinity between buildings and the earth, in spite of the City’s immense size, was so close and organic that the houses looked almost as though they had grown out of the earth and had not been imposed upon it—grown moreover, in such a way that as few trees as possible were thrust out of the way.

Later in 1989, Charles published a book, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture, following his wonderful BBC documentary the previous year, which reinforced his critique of modern architecture. You can watch a clip here.

Charles has not been merely content to voice his concerns. He has put his words into action through The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. Its most significant achievement has been Poundbury, an urban extension of Dorchester in Dorset, England, where traditional urban styles have been adopted.

The development began in 1988 under the supervision of Léon Krier, who went on to become a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. Krier decided to prioritize people before automobiles, and mix commercial and residential buildings together, thus producing an attractive urban environment where people could develop a sense of place.

The practical benefits are clear as the development has allowed Dorchester’s population to grow by 25 percent, reconciled high population density with good living standards, and invested in sustainable urban development, such as 11 “Eco Homes.” Over the years Charles has made an invaluable contribution to the renewal of beauty in urban spaces, and resisted the rising tide of vulgarity and ugliness.

Another important crusader for beauty in urban spaces is the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who has focused on reviving the neoclassical tradition. His two most notable works are the bronze statues of Adam Smith (2008) and David Hume (1997) on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile:

Alexander Stoddart's Adam Smith (left) and David Hume (right). stephengg/Flickr p&p/Flickr

Alexander Stoddart’s Adam Smith (left) and David Hume (right). stephengg/Flickr p&p/Flickr

One can see Stoddart’s beautiful craftsmanship shine through alongside a clear sense of civic pride, thus giving a meaning to these statues that simply cannot be found in the abstract and postmodern novelties that litter our cities today.

The subject matter Stoddart focuses on is equally important. Instead of sculpting the “footballers” and pop artists who define Britain’s vapid celebrity culture, Stoddart depicts the philosophers who helped make Scotland’s essential contribution to the development of Western Civilization. The result is public spaces with a sense of affirmation and value, instead of cynicism and meaninglessness.

Beauty is based upon an ethos of affirmation. It makes people’s sense of place and belonging tangible which is essential to the flourishing of individuals and communities. By putting beauty at the heart of urban planning and turning back the tide of vulgarity and ugliness, there is hope that we can create urban spaces which reaffirm our collective identity instead of rejecting our past.

David A. Cowan is an editorial assistant at The American ConservativeNew Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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House Republicans’ Asphalt Socialism

Marcin Krzyzak / Shutterstock.com

The House of Representatives has hit on a clever new strategy for funding the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund: raid the Federal Reserve. Their plan calls for transferring nearly $60 billion from the profits earned on the Federal Reserve’s operations—basically fees paid by member banks—to bail out the Highway Trust Fund.

For years, many macro economists have been urging the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy by using its power to effectively print money in the form of a “helicopter drop”—simply crediting every American with a certain amount of extra dollars in their bank accounts. The idea has been suggested as a way to jump start consumer spending in a moribund or deflationary economy by economists of some stature, including Ben Bernanke and Milton Friedman. The idea was advanced as a way of accelerating the sluggish growth we’re currently experiencing in an article in Foreign Affairs. But while it might make theoretical sense to economist, it was simply politically impossible, because as The Economist intoned, the idea of a helicopter drop would be anathema to Republicans.

But when it comes to a helicopter drop for highways, there’s no such problem. Remarkably, the proposal to tap the Federal Reserve’s funds comes not from radical Keynesians, but from the Republicans in the very conservative House of Representatives. And apparently, the same people who preach personal responsibility in almost every other field of endeavor want to insulate automobile drivers from paying the costs of the roads they drive on. While they may espouse the virtues for the free market in almost everything else, this position makes them “asphalt socialists” when it comes to transportation.

The best estimates are that drivers now pay only a tiny fraction of the direct costs of building and operating roads, not to mention causing huge externalities in the form of crash-related injuries and deaths and pollution. As we’ve noted before, the heaviest road users are the ones who get the biggest subsidies: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that trucks already cost the public as much as $129 billion annually more than they pay in road user fees. And a report from TransitCenter and the Frontier Group recently detailed the $7.3 billion in parking tax subsidies drivers get every year as well.

(Even with these subsidies, however, increasing fuel efficiency and the decline in per capita driving have pushed down revenues for the Highway Trust Fund, and contributed to the current crisis.)

While this latest chapter of dysfunctional public finance and ideological hypocrisy is playing out at the federal level, it’s equally prevalent in the way states and localities treat driving, too. Local governments have parking requirements that drive up the cost and drive down the supply of housing to subsidize car ownership. In Seattle, parking requirements add something on the order of $250 a month to the price of a typical apartment.

The new transportation bill will favor cars in other ways, too. Local highway projects will get an 80 percent federal match, but transit projects will get only 50 percent. Meanwhile, important sources of funds for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle programs, including TIGER grants and the Transportation Alternatives Program, were cut or imperiled.

While advocates of the road system regularly cloak their arguments in the rhetoric of choice and the free market, our transportation system is actually characterized by heavy government intervention on behalf of private vehicles. Massive, taxpayer-supported subsidies effectively bribe people to drive, and insulate them from the financial consequences their choices impose on others.

Drivers want more roads—as long as they don’t actually have to pay for them. The fact that there’s no stomach for increasing the gas tax—even though gasoline prices have fallen by more than a dollar a gallon in the past year—shows that when put to the test of the marketplace, there’s actually little demand for more transportation.

The irony, of course, is that transportation is clearly one policy area where traditional free market principles would put a serious dent in the problems of traffic congestion, air pollution, and safety. If car users faced anything close to the actual costs of building and operating roads (and mitigating or preventing the injuries and pollution effects), we’d see much less driving, and much less demand for additional capacity.

Joe Cortright is President and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters. This commentary appeared originally at CityObservatory.org. City Observatory is an independent think tank on urban policy issues supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Church Bells and Gospel Choirs Under Gentrification

This story begins with the mundane, the bureaucratic even: a local noise ordinance complaint.

Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. recently received a notice from their city’s administration, noting the filing of a complaint claiming that the church’s evening gospel choir practice violated the local nuisance ordinances. The city’s letter indicated that fines of up to $3500, with $500 more accruing each day, could be imposed upon the church should it prove noncompliant.

Oakland church leaders were outraged, and Pleasant Grove Baptist pastor Thomas A. Harris III said, “Kind of hard to believe because we’ve been here about 65 years in the community and all of a sudden we get some concerns about the noise.” Harris and his fellow pastors see this challenge from the Oakland administrative state as just one more intrusion by gentrification. Lawrence Van Hook, the senior pastor at nearby Community Church, said, “We’re being bought out. We’re being moved out. We are being priced out of our own neighborhood” by the influx of well-off tech workers from across the bay in San Francisco.

While West Oakland has indeed seen a surge in home values in recent years, the small case of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church noise complaint may point to a much bigger force at work alongside the raw economics.

In his epic work A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor posited that a central difference between contemporary Westerners and those of centuries past is the rise of the disenchanted “buffered self.” Taylor summarized this a few years ago:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. [Emphasis added] We have changed.

A church’s bells—or the carried amplification of an energetic gospel choir—are not respectful of our selves’ “buffers.” Their enchanted sounds penetrate the neighboring air, and the neighbors. When a church is the heart of a community, the center around which the built environment is ordered, such penetration can serve to strengthen a place. When those neighbors start to be displaced, however, perhaps especially by the super-buffered moderns of the tech industry, the “joyful noise” may pierce the new neighbors unbidden, and unwelcomed.

This would not be a problem in a typical suburban neighborhood, of the sort that populated Silicon Valley in its earliest days. Take St. Raphael the Archangel in Raleigh, NC, for instance:

St. Raphael, nestled in a thoroughly suburban neighborhood in North Raleigh, is surrounded on all sides by woods, and fields, and parking lots. Almost all of the homes in the area were built after World War II, and are well-insulated single-family lots. Were St. Raphael to conduct a late-night choir practice at full volume, the only ones possibly disturbed would be the Jesuit priests living on-site.

Now take a look at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, in West Oakland:

Pleasant Grove Baptist is embedded in its neighborhood, surrounded by residences on all sides. A strong plurality of area homes were built before World War II, and many are multifamily dwellings. It is precisely that urban building pattern, populated by turn of the century Victorian homes, that is drawing the Bay Area’s tech population away from Raleigh-style suburbanism, and into possible conflict with still-enchanted neighborhood institutions.

Conflicts between existing (especially black) urban churches and the new generation of millennials moving into city centers can especially be found in those areas where churches spill out of their buildings’ bounds into the public space. As Taylor continued in his summary, “the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” And so the reshaping of city centers along the lines of best practices urbanism can serve as a very physicalized manifestation of the buffered self’s reordering of its world in a way that conflicts with that outspilling nature of urban churches.

Here in Washington, D.C., that can be seen in a conflict between an attempt to expand the city’s network of protected bike lanes and the surge-parking capacity of streets surrounding the city’s (again predominately black) churches. As Eric Jaffe relates, significant D.C. churches like Metropolitan AME and United House of Prayer sought for new bike lanes crossing in front of their churches to have a gap in protection (plastic barriers that shield bikers from car traffic), so that on Sundays those churches could have diagonal parking available to their parishioners. Metropolitan AME received an accommodation, which the United House of Prayer is seeking.

Jaffe calls such a compromise an “example of appeasement will encourage many more attempts to subvert public interests for private gain.” To Jaffe, it appears the (disproportionately young, white, and relatively well-off) cyclists that the bike lanes protect are the public, in whose interest the regulations and built environment of a city should be constructed, while a church is a private institution invading the community’s space.

Bike lanes may put the conflict into the starkest relief, as there is competition for the physical space of the street, but the regulation of a church’s auditory emanations may be the strongest test case of the struggle for a city’s soul between the returning, buffered moderns and indigenous urban church-goers.

When Princeton historian Emily Thompson cataloged the advent of city noise regulation in New York about a hundred years ago, she collected six years of complaints from 1926 to 1932 on a dedicated multimedia website. Several complaints centered around newly installed church bells (public religious melody has never found unanimous favor), but Thompson notes that “Like all who wrote to complain about the noise of church bells, Mr. Wolf received a form letter indicating that, since the ringing of church bells was protected as a religious freedom under the Constitution of the United States, no action could be taken to alleviate this noise.” A Health Department inspector continued with one citizen, explaining “it is not and never has been the policy of the Health Department to do anything that might be construed as interfering with ones [sic] religious liberties in the slightest degree.”

The question to monitor closely in the coming years is whether that official deference to the place of religion in the public ear is maintained, or whether the penetration of public space by churches begins to be seen as the subversion of “public interests for private gain.” As city neighborhoods are filled with an influx of young new nones giving “autonomous order” to their lives, will the tools of urban regulation rest with a city’s traditional residents, or be seized to defend the buffers of modernity from enchanted invasion?

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.

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When Universities Abandon Education for Buildings

University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr
University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured the University of Cincinnati’s ambitious building boom, a budget-busting architectural bender that has employed “a murderers’ row of architects—Frank Gehry, of course, along with Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne” to further the school’s “decades-long bid to turn a quiet commuter school into one with a global reputation.”

Cincinnati is merely one the most prominent examples of a national explosion in debt-fueled collegiate building binges ushered in along with the new millennium. A 2012 New York Times report asked for the numbers and found that, “Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody’s, according to inflation-adjusted data compiled for The New York Times by the credit rating agency.” What’s more, “In the same time, the amount of cash, pledged gifts and investments that colleges maintain declined more than 40 percent relative to the amount they owe.”

In total, Moody’s found those institutions to have amassed over $200 billion in debt, $122 billion being held by public universities, $83 billion by private institutions. The University of Cincinnati, with its lavish gambit for international prominence, now holds over $1.1 billion of debt, approximately $200 million of which was spent on construction in the past 10 years.

Cincinnati administrators are happy to defend this spending, as they told the Times in 2012 that “The institution has profited mightily from the changes that we have made,” for “We have gone from a second-choice institution to a first-choice.” And indeed, university enrollment increased approximately 30 percent over the past decade.

However defensible individual capital investments may be when deployed to expand a university’s enrollment or periodically maintain its facilities, though, University of Cincinnati’s reliance on the star architect model left its campus as a hodgepodge of slants and odd angles, along with the all-too-common signature of experimental architecture, imminent decay:

Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the university had cheap cladding slapped on during its construction from 1989 to 1996, and over time it began to rot and peel away. Repairs and renovations on the $35 million building cost $20 million, and the university borrowed $19.25 million to help pay for them.

On a snowy evening this past March Patrick Deneen lectured on the architecture of university libraries, highlighting how,  over the past century, they had too frequently gone from (in the title of the lecture) “Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship.” Deneen’s argument, as summarized by JuicyEcumenism’s Matthew Maule, was that universities abandoned building libraries in keeping with classical forms and understandings of how to organize knowledge, light, and people, and instead exchanged that wisdom for concrete brutalism and glass-and-steel sci-fi modernism. What’s more, “the shift in form parallels the change in function from a focus on educating students to assisting the university’s research faculty whose output is often only read by a few of their peers.” A research library organized merely to contain faculty work that would never be read was necessarily built differently than a teaching library aiming to bring knowledge, students, and scholars together in serendipitous encounter and reverent transmission of wisdom.

Deneen pointed out that the classical architectural forms had been tested by hundreds of years of cold, rain, heat, and all kinds of inclement weather, and had survived the stress test of the centuries. Likewise, the classical educational model relying on great texts had been tested by the millennia of Western civilization, and had that civilization to testify to their passing grade.

What does the starchitectural building boom of University of Cincinnati indicate about the aims of contemporary education? It would seem to be a debt-fueled consumerism, a highly leveraged sensationalism, where institutions of higher education represent not institutional transmitters of wisdom, nor even organized laboratories seeking to let knowledge grow from more to more, but rather marketplace actors competing to attract student-customers by way of lazy rivers and gigantic gymnasiums. As Nikil Saval worried in the Times, “the university will turn into a luxury brand, its image unmoored from its educational mission—a campus that could be anywhere and nowhere”

Those students will then be saddled with the bills for the building booms through soaring tuition or swelling student loans. And the university administrators will take home the salaries and the credit due to those running such a successful scheme.

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Kentucky’s Conservative Urbanism

All images courtesy John Sanphillippo
All images courtesy John Sanphillippo

All the talk about urbanism these days is dominated by places like Brooklyn, Portland, Vancouver, and San Francisco because they’re prosperous and fashionable. It’s so easy to dismiss them as anomalies. Defenders of suburbia are quick to say (with some justification) that, “Most ordinary people don’t live in places like that.” So let’s look at a supremely middle-of-the-road small town in Kentucky.

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This is the historic Main Street in Bellevue, Kentucky. The buildings are close together, they tend to have a mix of uses with shops downstairs and apartments upstairs. The business district is walkable and bikeable. It’s easy and safe for older people as well as children to navigate. The majority of the shops are locally owned. And notice that not a single building is more than three stories tall. Downtown Bellevue is… charming.

It also happens to embody all the tenets promoted by the Smart Growth “coastal elite”. Except Bellevue was founded in 1870 by some profoundly conservative market oriented families. Bellevue isn’t New Urbanism. It’s just plain old fashioned regular urbanism like every other town built before World War II. Its form was dictated by practical considerations based on what worked well on a tight budget. From the beginning there was a good balance of taxable private property relative to the public cost of providing quality municipal services.

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The majority of the homes in Bellevue are fully detached single family houses with front and back yards. Bellevue happens to have de facto “affordable housing” in the form of those apartments above the shops downtown and modest single family homes mixed in with the grander places in the same neighborhood. Landlords are likely to live in the same building or very nearby and to attend the same church and shop in the same stores as tenants. There’s simply no need for subsidized housing or government “projects”.

And Bellevue is a NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. People just automatically like living in town in their later years. Why move to a segregated village for the elderly in Florida or Arizona with a shuttle bus to the mall on Tuesdays when you could live close to family and friends in your home town?

Yet Bellevue is also an excellent place for young families with children. In short, Bellevue is a complete place and an excellent example of really good urbanism that’s every bit as solid as the trendy places that get all the lime light these days. Not coincidentally, its a highly sought after place to live.

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Here’s something else you see in a lot of older places. Some of the best land in town along the river has been set aside as a public park. In part this is a response to the fact that the Ohio River floods periodically. Having a park take the brunt of the damage is more cost effective than building and maintaining a massive levee. But the riverside park does something else. The public park raises the collective value of all private property in town, not just expensive homes right on the water. This isn’t some communist redistribution of income. It’s a pragmatic capitalist technique to take a little strip of public land and passively leverage it to create much larger private value.

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These photos are also from Bellevue, Kentucky. These were taken in the modern, post World War II suburban section of town next to the Highway. The needs of motorists are paramount here. The streets are extra wide and there’s plenty of free off street parking. The shops cater to people who drive. The gas stations, auto parts store, car wash, supermarket, and drive-thru restaurants are all exceptionally welcoming and useful to folks in cars.

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Some people like living in a walkable neighborhood. Other people prefer a driveable suburban living arrangement. It’s a big country so there’s room for everyone to find a place they really love and want to call home. But there are inherent benefits and drawbacks to each kind of development. Notice that everything that makes the old part of Bellevue pleasant for people on foot makes it less conducive to people in cars. The opposite is true in the newer part of town. The more a place is made effortlessly driveable the less it works for pedestrians or cyclists.

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Bellevue has a grand total of 576 acres and serves a population of 5,900 people. It’s contained on all sides by other municipalities as well as the river. Horizontal expansion isn’t an option. Bellevue has a fixed amount of capital stock in the form of land. That’s all there is to work with.

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Here’s how the suburban auto-oriented development pattern uses that scarce resource. A handful of one story, single use, semi disposable buildings are scattered across a vast landscape of mostly empty parking lots. And nearly every one of these businesses is an out-of-town corporate chain that sucks money directly out of the local economy in exchange for a tiny sliver of sales and property tax. No one in Bellevue will ever see the owner of Kroger or McDonald’s at church on Sunday or at the local PTA.

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In contrast, here’s a section of Bellevue’s historic business district. The traditional development pattern delivers far more value per acre while requiring infinitely less public infrastructure. These small mixed use buildings from the late 1800’s are as solid as ever. Because they’re small and lack giant parking lagoons they tend to repel national chains that need more space and have very specific design parameters. That’s actually a good thing since it creates a niche for local merchants who are far better at recirculating money within town.

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Let’s go back to the riverfront again. Here’s a stretch of Bellevue that uses the post war land use pattern. A good deal of the land right up against the water has been turned in to a Burger King parking lot. People living directly across the street just one block from the river actually have lower property values because of this form of development. That translates to less tax revenue for the town with more ongoing maintenance expenses for the oversized car oriented infrastructure.

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Here’s another modern approach to riverfront development. This cluster of mid-rise condos is built on a giant fortified plinth in the floodplain in order to sell water views at a premium. In exchange, all the neighbors get a view of the parking garage and trash dumpsters. I’m pretty sure no one pays extra to live next door to this place even though it’s only a block from the river. This is a winner-takes-all approach. The more locals try and access the river near this private complex the more the condo residents will complain to the authorities about trespassing. Bellevue gained some taxable revenue from the condos by devaluing all the surrounding property. That’s not a great economic plan over the long haul.

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Most municipalities and states (and the federal government for that matter) are consistently spending more than they collect in revenue. A majority of towns are already deep in debt and servicing that debt is becoming a larger and larger portion of the budget. The usual conversation of, “Teachers are paid way too much” and, “We just need to entice a big employer to our town” or, “If we widened the highway the new Target and Walmart will arrive to provide tax revenue” has entered an era of diminishing returns. This approach isn’t going to fix what’s broken. In fact, this set of policies is what’s slowly destroying our towns.

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The idea that compact, mixed use, pedestrian friendly development is somehow alien to American families or productive capitalism is so strange. It’s exactly this type of building that made America financially and culturally strong from the very beginning. It’s actually all the low grade scattershot construction smeared across the landscape that’s concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer distant hands and impoverishing ordinary towns and families.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun.

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Brad Pitt’s Rotting Post-Katrina Modernism—and Ours

Ten years ago this past weekend, Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, destroying over 300,000 homes, over 100,000 of which were in the long-beleaguered but even-longer proud city of New Orleans. The images of an iconic American city under water, which many of us revisited over the past week, still haunt. The rebuilding of New Orleans, it was apparent even then, would be more than a disaster-relief project; it would tell us how much we still understood of our traditions.

That’s when Brad Pitt decided that the birthplace of jazz needed a Hollywood soul infusion. As Peter Whorlskey recounted at the Washington Post Friday, Mr. Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to import the world’s greatest architects into New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward and bestow the hardest-hit victims of Katrina with world-class branded houses that incorporated LEED-platinum environmental consciousness. Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Shigeru Ban were all brought in to offer Lower Ninth Ward residents their visions for post-Katrina residential life. The only hitch? According to Whorlskey, “the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget—that is, in reality.”

Mayne proposed a house that could float, in case the levees gave way again. A useful contingency plan, but prohibitively expensive to implement. Ban required too-costly carpentry. The famed Gehry did manage to technically approach the budget by building a $350,000 duplex—but could not tempt any natives into actually wanting to live in it.

What’s more, the unbuilt budget-busting houses may have been some of the modernists’ best contributions to the recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward. For the houses that were built by other high-flying architectural artists relied on experimental materials that have proven very prone to molding and even severe rotting in the muggy New Orleans climate—less than 10 years after they were built. Many of the others showed off their sleek, flat rooves—to which the natives reportedly responded, “you know it rains a lot here, right?” Several of the architects seemed more taken with the hurricane than the residents, Justin Shubow recounts, as they designed one home with an aesthetically “damaged” roof, another “that looked like a trailer broken in two, and another one that looked like a house piled on top of a house.”

Responding to these modernist failures, “one of the 21st century’s architectural power brokers” Aaron Betsky wrote, “The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.”

Michael Mehaffy captured the modernist Make It Right ethos well in his recent, excellent essay, “What We Didn’t Learn From Katrina”:

Let us not learn from the successes and delights of New Orleans itself, they suggest. Let us not empower local people with local solutions. Instead, let us bring international architects to craft novelty inventions, and bestow them upon these lucky denizens. If these novelties happen to perform poorly—if they rot quickly, or have other problems—well, who knew?

Mehaffy goes on to note that “New Orleans has the embodied knowledge of how to make an exquisite street, a delightful house, a durable and enduring piece of the city. But we are in the bad habit of ignoring it.” New Orleans in fact has one of the most distinctive architectural identities of any city in the country, and a large part of that is due to it being specifically adapted to its environment. What’s more, the people of New Orleans are famously attached to their identity. You don’t stick around through “the hurricane before the hurricane” of urban dysfunction and decay because the climate is nice. You stay because the city has a soul, as Rod learned helping Crescent City native Wendell Pierce with his memoir.

Thankfully, Pitt included at least one local firm in his project, and the Billes Partners prototype is sure enough the most popular design ordered by the actual residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Elevated and LEED-certified, the house still draws on New Orleans style. What’s more, Billes himself notes, “We did actually listen to what the neighborhoods folks might like in a house… They were looking for a porch, and they were were looking for a protected area to drive their car into. And they wanted something that looked familiar.” Steven Bingler of Concordia, another involved local firm, notes that “A lot of features of our design come from our knowledge of the New Orleans community—for example, an eight-foot-deep front porch. The community has commented that four-foot-deep front porches aren’t big enough for their rocking chairs.”

The modernist marvels of Gehry and co., with their clean absence of context and experiments in high-speed housing decay unfortunately reflect the state of architecture more widely. As Bingler noted in a New York Times op-ed, “we’re trying to sell the public buildings they don’t want, in a language they don’t understand,” because “we’ve taught generation of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them to listen.”

As Mehaffy reflects,

New Orleans is a marvel of informal order. Its older neighborhoods are loose jazzy improvisations of buildings and details and quirky outdoor spaces, all exquisitely human scale and aimed at pedestrian delight. A walk down one of its streets reveals the layers of human activity and change that have grown up there, re-organizing, and transforming neighborhoods bit by bit. It is a marvel of durable livability.

As New Orleans begins another decade of post-Katrina life, this massive project of reclamation and rebuilding is a strong lesson in localism. Watching his city come back to life around him, Bingler noted that “it was the citizens of New Orleans who saved New Orleans. If you ask around, there is no shortage of politicians and businesspeople who will take the credit. It’s interesting that, for the most part, those people tanked and failed. Some of them are in federal prison as we speak.”

New Orleans is still struggling to retain its character amid the hurricane-imposed population changes, but the city’s strength is built into its streets, into its buildings, and into its people. Where one of those components falters, the others can reinforce, but context-less modernism would cut another of the supports out from under the community.

We can hope that New Orleans has a clear enough sense of its own identity to fend off those threats. We might need to be more worried, however, about the creeping decay of our own neighborhoods and cities under the gradual pressure of an architecture without a soul.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


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Why Walkability Matters

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock

The ability—and perhaps, to some extent, the desire—to walk is largely disappearing from America, says Antonia Malchik. In an Aeon Magazine piece, she considers the ways we’ve undermined walking through modern urban planning, and through our obsession with cars:

For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.

It is true that if you’re watching the Super Bowl, say, it’s the car commercials that are stuffed with patriotism and references to good ole “Murica.” On a larger scale, the car (regardless of its size or make) seems to reference the ideals of individualism, autonomy, and privacy that many Americans hold dear. It’s a piece of privately-owned property that you can bring with you, wherever you go.

In a sense, Malchik’s piece makes me wonder whether the decline in home and/or property ownership has only made the car more important to Americans: because at least traditionally, it’s the home that we would associate with these feelings of pride and autonomy. But fewer Americans own property—and of those who do, fewer regard such ownership with the same sort of long-term allegiance. Owning a home is often a commercial endeavor, a rung on the ladder to bigger dreams and more square footage elsewhere. Thus, cars often help us express our sense of autonomy and personality in a way home ownership may have in the past.

Yet in the decline of walking—and correspondingly, in the decline of walkability—there are certain elements of community and culture that we may lose. Because despite its inefficiency or tediousness, walking provides several goods that the car cannot.

First, walking helps to cultivate community. Driving is an isolated mode of travel: it separates us physically from those around us, be they drivers, walkers, or bikers. Driving also promotes a desire for speed and efficiency: it spurs us to get somewhere fast, rather than urging us to enjoy the journey. When we drive, we usually have the end destination fixed in our minds. When we walk, we have time to stop, linger, and notice—perhaps even to say hello to passersby. Walking encourages us to take part in the fabric of the place we inhabit: it forces us to pay attention, and to acknowledge the others surrounding us. We have to share the sidewalk. We have to stop for cars or bikers, for strollers and dog walkers. It forces attention, and correspondingly, can foster relationships.

Second, walking provides space for the carless. There are many who either cannot afford an automobile, or who are more comfortable walking. For some, it may be a matter of principle: they believe biking and walking, taking public transportation when necessary, are healthier for them and better overall for the environment. For others, driving may be impossible due to health or financial reasons. I know a woman with brain cancer who is not allowed to drive—but she’ll often still try to walk to church or the grocery store when she cannot get a ride. Having safe sidewalks and intersections provides her an essential means of transportation.

Such services not only offer space for the carless—they also foster a safer environment overall. A society with walkers is a slower-paced society. Some view this as a bad thing—they prefer being able to get from point A to point B with the greatest amount of speed possible. But speed and efficiency often curb community closeness—and they can be lethal for the carless, who are left with no choice but to cross busy intersections or navigate narrow sidewalks alongside highways. Providing space for walkers encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention. It forces them to be present, and conscientious, of those around them.

Correspondingly, walking should teach mindfulness to pedestrians, in how and where they walk. It should force them to pay attention to their environment and teach them to be prudent. (Though the walker’s prudent decisions are often impeded or negated by the space they are given, and/or by drivers’ carelessness. The burden of responsibility is on the driver—owner as they are of the faster, heavier, more isolated vehicle—to be aware of their surroundings.) Thus we see that walking and walkability can teach prudence and responsibility, to both drivers and walkers. It encourages both to be mindful of the other, and fosters an environment in which speed is secondary to safety, efficiency to wellbeing.

Finally, walking is important because it breaks down insular barriers that keep us from knowing and appreciating our place, our moment. Matthew Crawford spends a lot of time talking about this in his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head:

… The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating idea seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. … The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating.

… Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them.

The more we insulate ourselves from those around us, the less safety and community we are able to enjoy. Crawford points out that cars weren’t always this way—but it is largely what they have become, through modern automobile engineering. The question, thus, is whether we should hold up driving as an emblem of American individuality and expression, or whether we should, cognizant of cars’ limits and dangers, also make room in our society—and on our roads—for the walker, who also embodies important American ideals: those of neighborliness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility (to name a few).

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

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New Urbs Returns from Dallas

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Welcome back.

A couple weeks ago, we were privileged to attend the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, as the first year of our New Urbanism Initiative reached its culmination. TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz and I were in attendance for the full week of festivities, attending panels and events around Dallas. Now that video for most of the sessions are available, commentary and reflection will be forthcoming.

We were also very fortunate to have the opportunity to host a panel on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives,” in which the TAC crew was joined by New Urbanism icon and founding father Andrés Duany and Strong Towns president and New Urbs regular Charles Marohn for a fascinating discussion about the intersection of conservatives and new urbanist thinking. That video is now available below:

Just before going on stage, we had a dynamic discussion with Chuck Marohn on his podcast (which I linked to previously), describing the arc of the New Urbs project and our hopes for the future of conservatives and cities (or in Schwarz’s case, his natural conservative pessimism).

And after our panel wrapped up, we moved to D Magazine’s offices, where Wick Allison held court on the devastation Dallas wreaked upon its own downtown by building highways straight through them, as well as the work that he and the Coalition for a New Dallas are doing to reverse that damage and recover their city from the well-meaning follies of corporate titans and central planners. We are still waiting for the pictures to come back, but expect a post on that soon.

Yesterday, Robert Steuteville of the essential New Urbanist publication Better Cities & Towns (which I understand will transform into a new CNU publication this year), was kind enough to profile our panel, and the work that we have been doing here, in a post titled, “A New Right Hook for New Urbanism.”

Steuteville relates,

For nearly a year, The American Conservative, a right-leaning national magazine, has been running well-written, informed, and positive online articles on the New Urbanism. Two of its editors joined a panel discussion at CNU in Dallas titled “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

This is newsworthy for two reasons:

1) No national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted this much coverage to New Urbanism.

2) Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

One thing I am very confident about is that there is indeed a new generation of conservatives moving into the urbanism discussion, and that the right’s future includes a strong population of city dwellers and walkable neighborhood lovers.

Stay tuned for the next year of New Urbs, as we have a lot of exciting plans underway. And keep coming back.


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