New Urbs

Slow the Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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



Why Is This Distinction Important?

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

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

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

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

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

Stroads: The Futon of Transportation

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastown, Grand Rapids (Lee Hardy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 Lee Hardy.

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We Should Not Fear Gentrification In the Rust Belt

Grant St., Akron, Ohio (Jason Segedy)

Gentrification (noun)—the process by which people of (often modest) means who were once castigated for abandoning the city are now castigated for returning to the city.

AKRON, Ohio—Gentrification is a word that we hear with increasing frequency in contemporary discussions about American cities. But what does that word really mean? And, even more importantly, what does it mean in the context of the region that I live in and love—the Rust Belt?

Does gentrification mean the displacement of the poor—pushed aside to make way for the affluent? Or does it mean reinvestment in economically distressed neighborhoods that haven’t seen any significant investment in decades?

It is important to be clear about the meaning of this increasingly ambiguous term, because what needs to happen in the vast majority of urban neighborhoods in the legacy cities of the Rust Belt is far less ambiguous.

Despite over 50 years of well-intended social programs, concentrated generational poverty, entrenched socioeconomic segregation, and the resulting lack of social and economic opportunity for urban residents, still remain the biggest challenges for the older industrial cities of this region.

As Joe Cortright says in his brilliant piece “Cursing the Candle,” “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”

And, as the Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube says, “It’s hard to imagine that the city will do better over time without more high-income individuals.”

High poverty rates in cities like Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, are partially due to regional economic conditions and structural economic challenges related to deindustrialization.

But overwhelmingly, concentrated poverty in these cities is due to private disinvestment in the urban core, made manifest by upper and middle-class flight to the suburbs, socioeconomic and racial segregation, and the loss of neighborhood retail and basic services. Today, the geographic disparities in household income between the central city and the surrounding suburbs remain profound.

In Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, respectively, 24 percent, 31 percent, 35 percent, and 36 percent of the population lives in poverty—as compared to 14 percent, 14 percent, 15 percent, and 15 percent in these cities’ respective metropolitan areas. Keep in mind that these metropolitan area figures include the core city—meaning that poverty rates in the remainder of the metro area are even lower.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists.

Writing about gentrification is becoming a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks. Many of the pieces that have been penned on the topic are important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But as more and more people in the Rust Belt read these accounts, and take them out of their geographic context, alarm over gentrification (particularly on the left) is steadily growing in metropolitan areas and housing markets where it should be the least of our urban policy concerns.

In the eastern Great Lakes region, with its low-cost of living, depressed housing markets, and surfeit of vacant and abandoned properties, most of the changes that are being held out as disturbing examples of gentrification—and are provoking hand-wringing in places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit—simply amount to the return of the middle class (and a sprinkling of the truly affluent) to several small pockets of the city.

The degree to which these fledgling positive examples of private reinvestment in long-neglected neighborhoods have truly taken root and have begun to influence regional housing markets is still uncertain. Documented cases of low-income residents being uprooted and displaced by spiraling housing costs have proven even more elusive.

While it can be unclear whether the return of middle class and affluent residents to a neighborhood will really do anything to improve economic conditions for the poor, it is an ironclad certainty that a continued lack of socioeconomic diversity, and its concomitant concentrated poverty, will improve nothing and help no one in these cities—the poor most of all.

For 50 years now, people, jobs, and economic opportunities have steadily left our cities for the suburbs. The status-quo in our region is, indisputably, one of widespread, entrenched urban poverty, geographically separated from (predominately suburban) economic opportunity.

Yet even the earliest signs of neighborhood revitalization, and nascent attempts at building new housing and opening small businesses, are frequently opposed by people who are convinced that they are acting in the name of social justice.

Sincere as these anti-gentrification sentiments might be, I believe that they are harmful, and, if allowed to derail incipient efforts to reinvest in urban neighborhoods, simply serve to ensure that the existing dynamic of socioeconomic segregation will remain unchanged.

In many cases, the very people who claim to be fighting the current unjust system are inadvertently perpetuating it. Gentrification alarmists have yet to come to grips with the fact that their position usually serves to reinforce the existing, highly inequitable, situation.

Many critics of Rust Belt gentrification are holding cities to an unreasonable standard, and placing them in an impossible situation.

If much of the city remains poor and run-down, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

If, on the other hand, parts of the city begin to attract new residents and investment, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

Sometimes, it seems that the only thing that people dislike more than the status quo is doing anything substantive to change it.

In Akron, 81 percent of the people who work in the city, and earn over $40,000 per year (hardly a king’s ransom), live outside of the city. It is unclear how Akronites living in poverty will be better off if these people remain in the suburbs.

Let’s get concrete. If you are a well-educated, middle-, or upper-income person (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), and you live in an economically diverse urban neighborhood, is your presence a bad thing for your community?

Should you move, instead, to a suburban community that is likely to be highly segregated and economically homogeneous?

If you are an entrepreneur starting up in the urban core, should you decide to open your business somewhere else? And how, precisely, will doing that help the community that you are leaving behind?

When middle-class people return to urban neighborhoods, they have some disposable income, which helps create markets for retail and small businesses that in turn provide basic services and job opportunities for the urban poor.

This means that urban residents who are struggling to get by may no longer need to over-extend themselves to purchase a car, or endure long and inconvenient bus rides to access entry-level jobs and basic services in far-flung suburbs. Instead they may be able to save time and money by walking to businesses in their own neighborhoods.

With the return of middle- and upper-income residents, long dormant business districts and housing markets may begin to approach at least minimum levels of functionality and attractiveness to prospective entrepreneurs, investors, and residents.

For existing urban homeowners, the gradual rise in property values, in areas with extremely depressed and artificially low home prices, often means the difference between a house being rehabilitated, or it beginning a tortuous cycle of neglect and decline culminating in demolition.

This is especially important in the legacy cities of the eastern Great Lakes, where low property values and a glut of vacant and abandoned properties, rather than financially crippling housing costs, are the largest real-estate challenge. And unlike superstar cities on the coasts, cities in this region still have large percentages of households that are comprised of working-class homeowners living in single-family homes.

Take it from someone like me, who lives in a city with 96,000 housing units. Of these, only 16 single-family homes were built last year, while nearly 500 were torn down, and the median value of an owner-occupied house is $78,000.

To be sure, the return of new housing, small businesses, and more affluent residents is not a panacea, and there may be legitimate concerns, at some point, about rising rents and higher property taxes for existing residents.

But in the end, I have yet to see a proven model for improving economic conditions in an urban neighborhood that is predicated on ensuring that concentrated poverty remains. Maintaining the status-quo in urban neighborhoods, in the name of opposing gentrification, will do nothing to help the poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Cities typically begin to rebound with small successes in individual neighborhoods, attracting new housing and jobs, and eventually building upward and outward from there—setting the stage for further incremental investment by the private sector.

If we urbanists truly believe that socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods are as important as is often claimed, we cannot panic every time a new house is built, a new person moves in, or a new business opens. These are overwhelmingly good things for neighborhoods and cities that have seen precious little investment for decades.

Should we remain vigilant, and work together, in a cross-sector manner, to help ensure that the rising tide is actually lifting all the boats?


Should we double-down on the status-quo in our region—one of entrenched poverty and racial segregation, because we are afraid of what any type of socioeconomic change could mean for a neighborhood?

Absolutely not.

Squelching private investment in the urban core is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. It will only serve to ensure that lower income, middle income, and upper-income people continue to live apart in separate and unequal enclaves, and it will make social and economic conditions in our urban neighborhoods worse rather than better.

If we are really serious about breaking down barriers in our neighborhoods, and celebrating socioeconomic diversity, then we have to come to grips with what that means and what that looks like.

Yes, it is complicated and messy, but it is simply not good enough to say that the status quo is unacceptable. We need more than words. We need to act. We need to fight the correct enemy. We need to do more than curse the darkness. We need to light a candle.

We don’t need more top-down economic silver bullets. We need collaborative, incremental change—person-by-person, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, informed by humility, prudence, sensitivity, wisdom, and love for our neighbors.

Working together, we can become a much better connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place. The only people who can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

It’s not enough anymore to be against something. It’s time to be for something.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 22 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

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Why Some Suburban Malls Survive

hxdbzxy / Shutterstock

I have a somewhat morbid fixation with shopping malls. Which is to say, I love to hate them. I enjoy looking at eerie pictures of abandoned malls, poking fun at the mindless consumerism that takes place therein, and smugly reading articles that—correctly—point out that malls are ruthlessly ugly and mathematically inefficient uses of urban space.

The theme of the death of the mall, so associated in our minds now with a bygone era, can be in certain circles a sort of truism. That the malls will all be gone soon is not an assertion likely to ruffle feathers or elicit demands for evidence at a cocktail party or an academic conference, and yet there’s a problem: it’s not true.

This all struck me last weekend when, desperate for a place to take my toddler that was warm and indoors, I realized that the nearest free communal space for kids to play amidst a Chicago winter was in fact a nearby shopping mall.

Contrary to all expectations, it was absolutely packed. I didn’t see a single empty storefront. The food court—presided over by a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe courtesy of a popular tamale stand—was thriving. Despite being awkwardly located directly across from Victoria’s Secret, the kids play area was positively teeming with children scrambling over plastic animals and shouting “DAD, WATCH ME DO THIS!”

Now if you’re a seasoned veteran of mall studies, you’ll quickly say that the story of our time isn’t quite that all malls are dying out, it’s that most of them are dying. The remaining ones, almost exclusively catering to an elite clientele in well-to-do suburbs, are becoming even more massive and more upscale. The King of Prussia Mall in the western suburbs of Philly, which I visited twice in four years living in the general vicinity, is the largest in the country by square footage and showing no signs of slowing down. Think places anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s, not Sears or JCPenney.

But my local mall isn’t that at all. Standing near the juncture of a very densely populated majority Hispanic suburb, a town that is one-third African American, and a number of smaller municipalities all of which are about equally working class, I saw enough real diversity in an hour to make an Oberlin admissions counselor salivate.

A number of factors explain this mall’s continued existence.

First, the nearby communities are the early suburbs of the 1920s, built with compact bungalow houses on small lots. This high density means that the available market within just a few miles of the mall is extraordinarily large. It helps, too, that the local population is majority minority and working class, which means that the area is mostly devoid of Amazon Prime-subscribing DINKS and hipsters too self-conscious about their own authenticity to be caught dead in a suburban mall.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire at all to return to this place any time soon. But it really hit me that merely by being present in this mall and observing the plain fact of its ongoing success, I had to moderate my assumptions about the fate of malls writ large.

Why is this mall succeeding? Heck, why are any malls still succeeding? Before condemning the mall to the ash heap of history, we should ask what the appeal of the mall is in the first place.


In a short essay on “Shopping Mall Morality” written in the 1980s, the historian Allan Carlson came to their defense, pointing out that the architect who first dreamed of the shopping mall was no fan of suburbia at all, and in fact conceived of the mall as a way of combating its ills.

Victor Gruen (Wikimedia Commons)

Victor Gruen escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria with, by his own account, nothing but an architecture degree and eight dollars in his pocket, yet would go on to build the first indoor and outdoor shopping malls in America in the mid-1950s. The central theorist of the shopping mall, Gruen began by observing the chaos of mid-century suburban expansion. No fan of these new neighborhoods, Gruen thought that rising automobile use obliterated community coherence and called the suburbs themselves “an arid land inhabited during the day almost entirely by women and children.”

To Gruen, the suburbs cried out for communal, civic-oriented spaces that gave meaning to an otherwise dull lifestyle. As Carlson puts it, suburbia needed something along the lines of a Greek Agora or a medieval cathedral surrounded by market stalls and public activity.

Gruen’s original conception of the mall would fit just such needs. There would be the necessary parking, of course, but he thought the mall might be a way of prioritizing pedestrian activity over the movement of vehicles. Pleasant walkways and centers with seating, art and sculpture installations, public performances by musical groups, and trees and green space (both indoor and out) were designed to draw the community together not only to make business transactions but to enjoy life together, forming bonds of community the suburbs otherwise lacked.

For Carlson, shopping malls successfully filled such needs:

Escaping the grasp of both social democratic planners and profit-minded entrepreneurs, they took a unique shape. Representing neither the triumph of socialism nor of capitalism, the malls actually evolved into a new political-economic form, one bearing in structure an uncanny resemblance to the medieval manor.

Carlson goes on to explain how this structure created unique managerial and even legal forms. The tenants of a mall have to work together to settle disputes, and understand that the good of each business relies on the overall fate of the entire mall ecosystem. Each location had communal obligations to the other tenants, but also to the public spaces that they jointly maintained.

Like guild systems that enforced quality and price levels to assure a basic income for all, malls operate on the theory that the whole venture depends on the little shops.

So discount stores that set the wrong price point might be banned, or a potential new tenant denied a lease because it would directly compete with another longstanding retailer.

This balance of interests created an atmosphere that people seemed to like: by the late 1970s malls had exploded across the country, gobbling up nearly half of all retail revenue nationwide across 18,000 locations. They were thought of as relatively secure places to visit or allow adolescents to explore, they protected people from the elements and the dangers of car traffic, and they were clean and well-maintained compared to many of the cities of the day.

Carlson notes that one Harvard psychologist declared that visiting malls was now a communal ritual where otherwise isolated people could share common experiences, and a study by researchers at the University of Kansas “confirmed that shopping at malls had primarily a social, rather than commercial, purpose.”

But a little over 20 years since he launched the first mall, Victor Gruen had turned against his creation.

He memorably quipped, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” which he said represented environmental degradation, the death of the city center, and substituted “an artificial and therefore sterile order for naturally developed blends of urban forms.”

Perhaps the mall will continue on its current trajectory, closing up shop in many locations while becoming a labyrinthine showcase for luxury goods aimed at the upper echelons of our society in select locations.

And if in the coming decades shopping malls do go the way of Blockbuster and disappear, I’ll give it two cheers. Two, not three, because while I won’t personally miss them, I am inclined to agree with Victor Gruen that something like them was needed.

As long as there are human beings living in suburban environments, the fundamental needs that drove Victor Gruen to design malls will remain. And some form grasping at a more communal life—whether medieval cathedral squares, Greek marketplaces, or mid-century shopping malls—will be attempting to serve them.

Matthew Gerken joined American Philanthropic after serving as a program officer at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where he organized the Institute’s first-ever collegiate debating symposium. He studied intellectual history as an undergraduate at Yale, and has experience in education, event planning, and foundation research. An Illinois native, he currently resides in Wilmington, Del., with his wife.

This piece originally appeared in two parts at Philanthropy Daily. 

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The New Urbanist Credo: ‘Make No Big Plans’

Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume III, CreateSpace, 228 pages.

Whether you’re coming from a Hayekian skepticism about big schemes or a Wendell Berry-like belief in protecting traditional communities, the conversation around how to make cities successful has changed quite a bit since the 1960s—when Jane Jacobs waged a one-woman crusade to keep Greenwich Village weird and intact.

Part of Jacobs’ argument was that the current theory and practice of urban planning, as typified in the massive projects of her nemesis, the mega-builder Robert Moses, suffers from a kind of false expertise. It’s a kind of approach that cooperates nicely today with the neoliberal agenda and our collective fantasies around “the smart city” and other such dangerous chimeras.

These days, my favorite Quixote taking up Jane’s lance against these bad ideas is recovering civil engineer and polymath Charles (Chuck) Marohn, the founder of the 2,000-member international movement known as Strong TownsIf you don’t already follow the organization, they just published a new book called Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume III. Here’s why you should buy a copy, read it quickly and then wrap it as a Christmas gift for that urbanophile friend.

About a decade ago, Marohn put down his copies of James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany, resigned his day job building pointless city sewer extensions and began blogging about what he dubbed the “Growth Ponzi Scheme.” The biggest problem with our cities and towns, he concluded, was simply their long-term fiscal unsustainability. Now that the maintenance bills on our half-century of suburban expansion are coming due, we’re headed for peak debt and a crash unless something changes.

Despite this dark message, Marohn, a genial Minnesotan with an easy public style, probably struck most of his early audiences as a civic-minded Republican with an independent streak. Luckily, he’s turned out to be much more interesting than that.

So what does Strong Towns do? Aside from running a high-traffic blog bursting with ideas, perhaps their major program over the last few years has been the “curbside chat”—which amounts to Marohn flying into town to tell you and your city officials exactly why your place is broke and why the business model you’re using (Kunstler likes to summarize it as “driving forever to Walmart”) is dumb and even deadly.

In front of hundreds of audiences in places as different as Fate, Texas and Yale University, Marohn has popularized sane urbanism by arguing for a return to human-scale, walkable, dense neighborhoods. While nimbly avoiding the usual bipolar political wrangles, Marohn espouses an economic philosophy which can sound vaguely libertarian, while obviously in the service of a kind of communitarian/Catholic vision.

And it’s working. As membership in Strong Towns continued to grow since its founding in 2008, Marohn noticed he was building a very diverse coalition—big city and small town, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. It is a movement of common-sensical citizens who simply care about their town’s well-being and are not completely hag-ridden by ideological fixations.

Rather than offering the usual prescriptions, he and his colleagues challenge audiences to think carefully about buzzwords like gentrification, sprawl, smart growth, and something Marohn calls “the infrastructure cult.”

The new anthology from Strong Towns, with pieces from several contributors in addition to Marohn, touches on these topics and others, such as the rise of suburban poverty, why engineers should not design streets, democratizing the economy, and a call to end routine traffic stops. Like all of the writing from Strong Towns, these articles represent some of the best localist, non-technical social innovation happening today.

Marohn’s original focus on making our towns “strong” now clearly extends to more than fiscal strength. For example, he and his colleagues have begun to talk about community wealth-building as one factor that is important in creating a good or just town.

And yet there is no Strong Towns methodology—which is part of the method—beyond their stress on the incremental, small experiment-based, fine-grained, bottom-up approach to development. Suddenly Chicago planner Daniel Burnham’s oft-quoted advice, “Make no small plans,” seems out of date. Today, a Strong Towns response might be “Big plans: that’s the problem, Dan.”

Drawing on thinkers like Nicholas Nassim Taleb and economist Tomas Sedlacek, Marohn invites his members to think out loud with him about how to make our places anti-fragile—and why the growth economy turns out to be the debt economy. There are no easy answers. But Strong Towns is brilliant at asking questions you won’t hear asked anywhere else.

Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.

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The Best Urban Planning Book Is a Century Old

Quadrangle Housing, Hampstead Garden Suburb (Julian Osley/

Andres Duany, the architect whose work is perhaps most closely associated with the New Urbanism movement in the United States, once described Raymond Unwin’s 1909 book, Town Planning in Practice, as “the best planning manual available.” For its aesthetic guidance, the quality of its writing, and the unique perspective of its time, it would be difficult to disagree.

The towns and cities of Unwin’s era—the late Victorian and Edwardian periods (1880-1910)—were often developed with an intense focus on efficient land use. Necessity drove this priority, but it also paid dividends in both beauty and practicality. The urbanism of the time also had another unique quality: it reflected the dizzying impacts of modern industry—including mass production, mass transportation, and commercial wealth—on the free-form traditions of town-building that Europe and its diaspora had refined since classical antiquity. For a better understanding of how modern town-building might incorporate the wisdom of the past, there is no more important period to study. And it would be hard to find a more thorough and clear introduction than Unwin’s century-old Town Planning.

Unwin’s 416-page volume is the product of a unique moment in planning history. Its timing endows it with a valuable perspective from which we may reflect on our own moment in the urban tradition. In Britain, where Unwin lived and wrote, and in the United States as well, the upheaval that had characterized urban growth in the late Victorian period was suddenly becoming subject to much greater analysis, criticism, and—importantly—law. Unwin’s work sought to influence the new and growing web of legal devices that played a key role in the transformation that was taking place. As Unwin was writing, governments were assuming greater powers over land development; reformers were pursuing cooperative organizations and founding garden cities; and a confident cohort of planners was fashioning new theories and approaches with an eye toward shaping a less accidental urban future. (Unwin himself was instrumental in developing the Hampstead Garden Suburb outside London.)

World War I had not yet shattered the idealism that prevailed in the West about the human ability to invent its way out of trouble. Unwin’s Town Planning is a snapshot of this cacophonous moment: his vision of urbanism is steeped in the beauty of old Europe and the possibilities of turn-of-the-century wealth; his critiques reflect an incredulous reaction to the ugliness of the pollution and poverty that characterized the darker side of urbanism at the same time.

Early in Town Planning, Unwin offers an extensive and detailed series of case studies of urbanism in the Western tradition—a survey of historical planning practices all the way up to those of his own time. This background establishes a context for the rest of the book.

Village Street in Dunster, Somersetshire.

He begins with the Italian colonies of ancient Greece, and the influence of Hippodamus, the first famous planner of the classical world. Unwin writes that Hippodamus sought to impose regularity on the Greek tendency to follow the contours of the land. He offers the gridded layout of Selinus in Sicily as a prime example of this influence. Unwin also includes examples from the classical East, including the Colonnade at Palmyra and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. He discusses the forums of Rome and Pompeii, and the layouts of imperial towns on the Roman Empire’s western frontier. He explores examples of towns from medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy, and the City Beautiful era; and addresses a project from his own time with a discussion of Philadelphia’s Parisian-style plan for Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Unwin’s series of case studies provide a sophisticated treatment of Western European cultural traditions and their expression through the urban form. The takeaway is not just a familiarity with the immense variety of urban forms within the broader tradition of European urbanism, but a recognition that urbanism is a social art, approachable in many ways, any one of which requires an intuitive understanding of human nature. That is to say, it is also not a strict science, as many 20th-century planners would naively insist.

In this vein, Unwin proceeds to address an interesting divergence between towns with plans that could be characterized as formal—those developed along regular grids with symmetrical parcels—and those with what may be called informal styles, which appear to have grown more incrementally, in deference to the contours of the land and the particular needs of individual sites:

It is true that the beauty of wild nature is usually informal in the sense in which we have used the term, but this does not mean that it is the result of chance, or of freedom from restraint. On the contrary, the forms which we find beautiful in wild nature are the result, so far as we know, of obedience the most perfect to laws the most complex, so much so that we may call the forms inevitable.

Unwin’s focus on a handful of specific design elements forms Town Planning’s most relevant contribution to the current conversation about real-estate development. These factors remain the salient characteristics of urban environments: compactness and variety. In America, they can be found in small towns and in large cities; in the forgotten, working-class neighborhoods of the Rust Belt; in the 1920s Gatsby suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey; in the mining towns of the old West; and in the most exclusive blocks of New York’s Upper East Side. Yet their absence from most neighborhoods built since 1945 is still manifest in the broken aesthetics and frayed social bonds of so many American communities. Often, these elements exist in older communities as a legacy of earlier times, but a failure of zoning to provide for their establishment in growing neighborhoods lies at the heart of their declining role in an expanding percentage of our communities. In regions that have largely developed since the postwar era, these elements may not exist much at all.

It is reasonable to presume that the relative compactness of historical towns and cities was in large part a byproduct of their intrinsic pedestrianism. That is to say, the most valuable land was that within walking distance of existing activities; and this consideration drove property owners to make the most intensive use of parcels within those limits. But Unwin addresses the shaping of compactness in at least one additional way that might not be evident to modern readers, particularly in North America: one of the main factors driving compact urbanism in the pre-modern era, Unwin notes, was the city wall. He writes:

Many ancient towns derive exceptional beauty from their enclosure by ramparts or walls. To this enclosure is due in no small measure the careful use of every yard of building space within the wall which has led to much of their picturesque effect. To this is due also the absence of that irregular fringe of half-developed suburb and half-spoiled country which forms such a hideous and depressing girdle around modern growing towns.

Unwin’s citation of compactness as a cause of not only practical but aesthetic benefits is astute. Still today, and far beyond the footprints of Europe’s walled cities, a disproportionate share of the world’s most photogenic urbanism, from San Francisco to Bodrum, Turkey—is located on narrow islands or peninsulas, where topography has created the physical equivalent of a defensive fortification. In light of this role of constraint in the development of compactness, Unwin advocates for a legal stand-in—the dedication of open space where construction will be off limits:

A certain concentration and grouping of buildings is necessary to produce the special beauties of the town, and this is inconsistent with the scattering of buildings which results from each one being isolated in its own patch of garden; but it is not inconsistent with the grouping of buildings in certain places and the provision of large parks or gardens in other places. If we are to produce really satisfactory town effects combined with the degree of open space now thought advisable, we must work on the principle of grouping our buildings and combining our open spaces, having areas fairly closely built upon, surrounded by others of open space, rather than that of scattering and indefinitely mixing our building and our spaces.

This is essentially a case for the establishment of greenbelts through local land-use planning.

In addition to definite growth boundaries, Unwin identifies another element of compactness: the well-defined town center. He describes an urban tradition dating from classical antiquity, in which public buildings are concentrated in a single, geographic space. This arrangement is practical, but it also has aesthetic value, creating a manifest concentration of important buildings that provides an identifiable core. The town center typically took shape around the agora, or public market, in the Greek world; or at the crossroads adjacent to the forum in Roman urbanism. By medieval times, Christians had replaced the classical assortment of pagan temples with a church or a cathedral; the adjacent spaces typically formed the center of European towns and cities, a pattern which persisted through the Renaissance and on down through the rise of industry. Then railroad stations were placed at the center of cities.

The arrangement of buildings to serve as vista terminations or create a sense of enclosure was frequently intentional. From this tradition of evolving public spaces, Unwin generalizes the concept of a place: a term used in French that shares its roots with the terms plaza, piazza, or platz; and that is echoed in the marketplace or the grassy commons of the English-speaking world. Unwin writes:

A place then, in the sense in which we wish to use the word, should be an enclosed space. The sense of enclosure is essential to the idea; not the complete enclosure of a continuous ring of buildings, like a quadrangle, for example; but a general sense of enclosure resulting from a fairly continuous frame of buildings, the breaks in which are small in relative extent and not too obvious. If we examine a series of ancient places we shall see that, whether from accident or design, the entrances into them are usually so arranged that they break the frame of buildings very little, if at all.

Compactness gives rise to variety, another essential element of urbanism, because in dense settings myriad activities are forced together; and the nature of commerce drives the increasing specialization and organic solidarity (to borrow a concept from Emile Durkheim), among participants in urban marketplaces. Accordingly, in traditional towns and cities, and in the absence of land-use zoning, a rich diversity of vital activities develops, logically, in overlapping space. This phenomenon characterized the blocks around classical forums and medieval cathedrals, much as it would the town centers of England and the British Empire (including many older towns and cities of the Colonial American eastern seaboard), and the Main Streets of middle America and the old West. All these compact loci shared the elements of public and religious spaces, as well as commercial and residential ones, within walking distance—and sight—of one another. In the absence of motor vehicles, this arrangement made a great deal of obvious sense.

Town Planning also addresses the basic elements of urban site plans and how an aesthetic approach to urbanism might inform the regulation of private development. This aspect of Unwin’s work offers a valuable snapshot of the legal and regulatory conflicts that were percolating at the time of his writing, as well as the technical dimensions and rules of thumb that were being considered as best practices in actual developments.

For all of the detail Unwin provides in this aspect of his work—including recommendations about lot coverage ratios, building massing, and other elements of construction that have long been included in codes—he remains quite conservative about the implementation of public dictates for the development of individual sites. In fact, Unwin seems somewhat torn on the prescriptive potential of planning, often supporting it in principle as a logical response to excesses of industrial urbanism, while voicing a deep skepticism about the potential to develop general rules that could be applied to achieve good results across a range of similar yet unique building sites.

Many examples in this part of Town Planning draw on the textbook Hampstead Garden Suburb project, outside London, whose planning Unwin helped to lead. Often, however, the elements of good urbanism that Unwin identified have been difficult to bring forth through the web of regulations that have been promulgated in the years since Town Planning was published. In his treatment of regulatory devices, Unwin seems to foresee the potential for this conflict. And if there is an overarching theme to Town Planning, it is the loss of the factors that once gave towns their character; and the question of how these might be recreated in the modern, industrial world.

In keeping with its physical, artistic approach to the subject, Town Planning is a visually compelling book. Its oversized pages are beautifully typeset and generously peppered with well-chosen photographs, drawings, and maps. Though not a comprehensive reference book, Town Planning contains a wealth of visual resources that planners, architects, and land-use attorneys might repurpose to illustrate the timeless spatial concepts of their own work. The same material constitutes a broad selection of the urban imagery and cartography of the early 20th century. Likewise, Unwin’s prose is clear, concise, and generally quite interesting; but the sheer quantity of examples that he offers can sometimes exceed what is strictly necessary to illustrate a concept. In this way, too, it resembles a reference book: its prose is more expansive, at times, than selective; and a reader who is not searching for a specific example may find that he or she has reached a point of diminishing returns before reaching the end of a chapter.

Dismantling some of the errors of more recent approaches to planning—especially the artificial separation of compatible uses, the centrality of traffic engineering, and the elimination of coherent town centers—requires us to look back to a time when the traditional art of town-building was still being practiced. It requires us to study the time-tested methods of incorporating the knowledge and wisdom of that tradition into the physical layout of neighborhoods. As today’s urbanists work to recover the art of planning, Unwin’s era remains uniquely instructive.

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

Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack

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A Traditional Christmas Needs a Real Downtown


The Christmas season is once again upon us. For many, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But as our culture continues to squeeze the most out of the holiday, many of us have seen it become a relentless rat race. Presents need to be bought, pageants need to be held, dinners must be cooked, and cards have to be sent.

The saving grace of this onslaught of tasks is that Christmas music is back on the radio, in stores, and pretty much anywhere that has a PA system. Many of these songs were written during the immediate postwar period of optimism, cultural unity, and thriving Main Street economics. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas mentions all the classic signs of the holiday—the carols, the bells, the snow—but the first thing it portrays is “the five and ten (variety store) glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow.” The song then conveys the excitement of Christmas as toys appear “in every store.”

It’s clear that the role of these local shops and their front window displays goes far beyond shopping. They not only provide all the toys needed for presents and gifts (the entire third verse of the song) but are an essential part—if not the most central aspect—of the holiday ambiance.

Think about how that compares to our experience today. Once a rarity, “toys in every store” was a telling change in the season. Now corporate drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS are constantly flooded with cheap plastic molds designed to placate your child while you wait to pick up your prescription.

At one time, the seasonal arrival of toys was a careful decision made by small businesses. Because these shops were often housed in humble downtown buildings, they didn’t have the shelf space to keep toys all year. These small shops would go out of their way to get into the spirit of Christmas and give customers a truly inspired experience that made shopping feel special.

Today, however, we’ve lost this unique part of the season. Whether it’s the constant sale of toys at our big retailers, or the year-round availability of holiday products through the internet, there is nothing actually special about shopping at Christmas. And it’s not just the experience we’ve lost—there is now less joy in the products that we buy. Every gift from a big-box store is tainted with the knowledge that it is one of a million copies, while “artisan” gifts brought from small shops are so profligate with campiness (organic blueberry goat’s milk soap) that buying them becomes a smug competition in who can spend the most money on the oddest item.

The very layout of the typical auto-centric American suburb also quietly kills the spirit of Christmas. Everything leading up to the holiday has become stressful and hectic, while still being glum and uninspired. The mall and the big-box stores feel even more depressing around the holidays, as you walk through an expanse of parked cars in the cold and snow. There’s no reward for your misery: Target and Wal-Mart still feel the same when you get inside, except that they’re probably more crowded. You’ve been here a thousand times before and you’ll be back next Tuesday to return the gifts you didn’t want and pick up toilet paper. This cheerless shopping experience is underpinned by the knowledge that your dollars are not staying in the community but are being vacuumed out to Wall Street.

While the parade of lights that so many suburban communities put up are nice, they lack real community engagement. You don’t get out or talk to anyone—you just sit in your car and look at the lights. Soon, we’ll probably have light tours done in virtual reality, so you don’t even have to leave your couch.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no magic panacea for rampant consumerism, but we can make our shopping experience meaningful again by focusing on developing our walkable, traditional downtown areas.

The architectural beauty and community space found in classic American downtowns is far superior to what we build now. Streets lined with structures designed to last centuries highlight traditions of generations past. This connection to history is an essential part of creating a community, especially during Christmas when old buildings are made to sparkle and shimmer, sharing the holiday cheer as they have for decades.

But it’s not just about history and tradition. Classic cities are built for humans and beget human interactions. So while you’re busy with holiday shopping and appointments, you’ll be out walking among other people, following the advice of A Holly Jolly Christmas as you “say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”

The traditional cities that are sung about in our Christmas music don’t just highlight the spirit of the holiday, they create it. They make us take things slower. They get us walking amidst the lights and decorations on the buildings. They put us on the street, interacting with the other people enjoying the Christmas atmosphere. They are part of the season itself—free and welcoming to all.

For so many families around the country, Christmas is still rooted in tradition. Whether it be meals, songs, events, or the simple act of being together, it is a time where we turn our eyes to our family and acquaintances. Many people work hard to instill their Christmas traditions in their children. Why not ask the same thing of our cities? Do we want our children to associate Christmas with spending hours at the mall or lazily clicking through Amazon? Or do we want them to realize that our physical structures can be part of their heritage and have a lasting impact for generations?

As we deemphasize the role of the cityscape in our lives, we remain giddy about decorating our own houses with images of traditional community. People spend hundreds of dollars on ceramic models of Christmas villages with corner stores, decorated public squares, and open-air Christmas markets. They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots. Imagine how ghastly a ceramic model of WalMart or Toys ‘R Us would look perched upon a piano at Christmas time. Yet these are the buildings our city governments often support with generous tax credits.

Some conservatives will dismiss these reactions to the contemporary retail landscape as mere nostalgia: Big-box stores are good and in keeping with the creative destruction of capitalism. Likewise, they might claim that our downtowns fail because they aren’t competitive, and traditionally patterned cities are “not what the market wants.” Such naysayers appear tone deaf to the idea that conservatism might also balance these concerns with the preservation of beauty, place, or tradition.

There is no question that our built environment underscores the idea that as a community feast day, Christmas is no longer important. Our poorly constructed cities are encouraged to overconsume, while the lack of quality public space has eroded our sense of community. The charm of Christmas now only lives in black-and-white movies, where it harkens back to a time and place that people have forgotten how to build. We’ve lost the “Main Street” that made it possible to frame public celebrations and holidays. Is Christmas now limited to plastic trees and lights in the front yard that we put up haphazardly because it’s the social norm?

As you run your errands this holiday season, pay attention to your surroundings. Ask yourself if these built environments are really emblematic of the “greatest nation on earth” or if they serve the purpose of interests—Wall Street and global corporations—not in line with your own best interests and those of your community. We vote with our pocketbooks. If enough of us reject the seeming enticements of the malls and strip centers, we can restore a more humane holiday season. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cold parking lots, and sterile big-box stores, you might again have a place where you can tell that it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Matthias Leyrer lives in Mankato, Minn. He has also written at Strong Towns and his blog,

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City Regulatory Hurdles Favor Big Developers, Not the Little Guy

Credit: John Sanphillippo

When it comes to land use policy, we have a collection of rules, regulations, social expectations, and a cost structure that reinforces and mandates a very specific set of arrangements.

Here’s one example of how these things shape our lives. A family in a town I visited bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it into a Portuguese bakery and brewpub. They thought they’d have to retrofit the interior of the building to meet health and safety standards for such an establishment. Turns out the cost of bringing the landscape around the outside of the building up to code was their primary impediment.

Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on-site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought-tolerant native plantings…it’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.

I’ve heard many officials and professionals get very derisive in their assessment of such efforts: “Oh, they were idiots. They didn’t do their homework before they started their project. What? They thought they could just do whatever they want with the place? There are rules you know.” These are precisely the same individuals who butter their bread each day with impact fees and billable hours. They have no skin in the game.

Meanwhile, the space has been pressed in to service as a printing shop for the family’s specialty advertising business. It’s a productive and profitable use of the existing space that doesn’t require structural changes or special regulatory approval. But it’s significantly lower down on the economic food chain, creates less taxable revenue, employs far fewer people, and does nothing to activate the town’s social or cultural life. And if anything were to happen to the building it wouldn’t be cost effective to rebuild so the lot would most likely remain vacant. There are plenty of empty parcels all around that attest to this reality.

Here’s an example of the kinds of things that are now required in order to open a new business. Each element of the design is based on an accumulation of amendments to the code over many decades. Individually it’s impossible to argue against each of the particulars. Do you really want to deprive people in wheelchairs of the basic civil right of public accommodation? Do you really want the place to catch fire and burn? Do you want a barren landscape that’s bereft of vegetation?

Consider the example of the gas station and an automated car wash pictured above.

And here’s the larger context. Can you spot the human? Look closely. She’s there. All our collective legislation to make individual establishments achieve specific goals are in direct conflict with the larger development pattern, which is also institutionally mandated. There is zero chance that any of these laws and procedures will be changed in my lifetime. However, it’s highly likely that before I die this gas station will close and the property will work its way down to a series of lesser uses until it remains vacant. After fifteen years the building will be fully amortized for tax purposes and the corporation that operates it will probably move on. That’s just good business. And before I shuffle off this mortal coil the cost of maintaining the road and associated sewer and water infrastructure will outstrip this town’s tax revenue—especially after the disposable chain businesses close down.

I was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods through incremental small-scale development. A young woman had just bought a century-old bank building for $50,000. It was a Roman temple made of carved stone, elegant wood, stained glass windows, and beautiful tile work. The place was enormous. But it had worked its way down the value chain for decades as Detroit declined.

While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people—a few dozen actual humans—occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment, this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety. Fortunately, the woman he called was in the meeting at the time and talked him down.

One of the side conversations included an exploration of how to activate the space without doing the kinds of things the building code required. There was already a kitchen in the back of the building from when the place had been a Chinese restaurant. But the current rules required a long list of upgrades, including a $20,000 fire-suppressing hood for the stove and new ADA-compliant bathrooms. It could all be done, but at a price point that would grossly exceed both the purchase price of the building and any conceivable cash flow the business might generate.

One workaround was to have a certified and inspected food truck park in the back alley and deliver food into the building for temporary events. ADA portable toilets could be rented as needed. The building—now called Bank Suey—has continued along these lines as a rental hall for pop-up events while the owner waits for the value of the neighborhood to increase enough to justify the required investment in physical upgrades. It’s not a bad plan, but it’s going to be awhile, folks.

I noticed an array of cell phone antennas on the roof of a nearby building. Rent on those things generates serious revenue—far more than what these empty buildings are likely to collect from commercial or residential tenants. Too bad Bank Suey isn’t taller.

On a walking tour of town officials and development consultants pointed to empty buildings and described all the things that could be done to bring them back to productive activity: open up the blank walls and re-install windows, incubate all kinds of new businesses, paint, outdoor seating. I rolled my eyes. None of those things make any economic sense given the regulatory hurdles involved and the likely negative return on the upfront investment. I’ve seen this scenario play out many times before.

The buildings that most appeal to me are the anonymous blank inscrutable structures that could quietly contain storage facilities or a non-retail live/work space under the radar without attracting the attention of officialdom. If the inhabitants were really discrete they might be able to carry on unmolested for a number of years. Meanwhile, the usual big-money developers might buy enough of the neighboring buildings and vacant land—with the accompanying subsidies and tax breaks—to rapidly transform Main Street at a much higher economic level. There’s no in-between. You either get permanent stagnation or massive redevelopment. Baby steps are essentially illegal. “Hold, wait, and do nothing” works for the little guy.

The same officials who decry this kind of obstructionist “land-banking” that gums up the works of their revitalization dreams do exactly nothing for small-scale operators who run straight into the buzz saw of multiple opaque unresponsive bureaucracies and inspectors hungry for violations. The only tool they have to offer is loans to bring things up to code. That’s a great plan if you want to go into a huge amount of debt and declare bankruptcy in a couple of years. No thanks.

There are all sorts of things individuals can and should do at a low price point without much debt to build up their personal household economies and contribute to a better community. But this ain’t it. Mind the gap.

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

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Why Amazon Won’t Save Your Struggling Town

When e-commerce giant Amazon announced that it would be searching for a location for a second headquarters—and bringing as many as 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to a lucky city—it set off a stunning chain of events. The scene was not unlike that of the classic film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where a group of ordinary people lose all their moral sense as they race for a hidden fortune buried under a big “W.”

It’s the stuff of dreams for economic development agencies, so it’s not surprising that, according to Reuters, Amazon received 238 proposals from across the United States, Canada and Mexico. According to Amazon, they intend their second headquarters to be similar to their main offices in Seattle: around eight million square feet, 33 buildings, $25 billion in wages paid to employees and $43 million for the public-transportation system.

These are big numbers and if it were just Amazon or a few cities looking to use these kinds of incentive policies, it would be no big deal. But it isn’t: Every city and state in the country seeks to attract established businesses to relocate with a variety of incentives, normally without any regard for the cost. Some of these packages result in such eye-popping numbers that one is forced to question if anyone in municipal government can do math at all.

Over the summer, Apple, which is not only the most highly valued company at the moment, but of all time—and is sitting on another record $200 billion in cash reserves—announced plans to build a $1.3 billion data center in Iowa. Reuters reports that a combination of state and municipal incentives there is worth about $208 million. According to CNBC, 50 permanent jobs will be created. Do the math. $208 million divided by 50 positions results in a cost of $4.2 million per job. If you have a job making the GDP per capita every year, about $56,000, $4.2 million is what you would make after 74 years. There’s no way so few jobs will ever justify that much foregone tax revenue, especially if the new facility is a greenfield project that will need new infrastructure and other services.

Similarly, the Chinese company Foxconn got a $3 billion incentive package from Wisconsin for promising to create between 3,000 and 13,000 manufacturing jobs. That’s a cost per job of between $1 million and $230,769. According to CNN, Wisconsin won’t break even on the deal for 25 years.

All of these incentive deals—and most economic development agencies around the country—operate under the fallacy that growth can be bought. There’s this idea that it’s all a matter of building factories, widening roads, lowering taxes, and suppressing unions. But if that was the case, more economically stagnant places would be reaping the rewards of public spending.

Writing in City Lab a few years ago, Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander looked at how economic incentives related to state performance and found no relationship. “Our biggest takeaway: there is virtually no association between economic development incentives and any measure of economic performance,” Florida wrote.

They reviewed other studies that found that companies that received incentives grew more slowly and tended to overestimate employment growth by almost 30 jobs. In a post on the topic from this year, Florida reported on the research of Timothy Bartik, who found further evidence that such public spending is ineffective and wasteful. According to Florida, Bartik found that states don’t target their incentives well, passing over industries that would produce local benefits and giving away too much upfront, instead of tying them to performance.

As Joe Cortwright of City Observatory points out, the sense of competition between localities is a facade. When big corporations move or set up branches, they make those decisions based on their needs and plans, but they use the idea that they’re considering multiple places to squeeze out the most subsidies. For example, the subsidy-tracking website Good Jobs First found that Amazon has received about $250 million in breaks and handouts to build the warehouses it needs to make rapid deliveries.

Ultimately, true economic development cannot be bought. As Judith Schwartz explained in Pacific Standard, studies have found that when businesses are brought in with incentives, 90 percent of corporate spending still happens out of state. This attenuates local economic development by reducing the opportunity for the people supposedly benefitting from development to learn the skills of running the larger enterprise. In some cases, companies have received tens of millions in tax abatements or subsidies without providing anything more than a few part-time retail jobs.

For example, over a 15-year period, Bass Pro Shops received over $1 billion in subsidies from state and local governments while its competitor Cabela’s took in about $551 million, according to CityLab. One study found that they produced no net increase in jobs, while several stores fell below sales projections, defaulting on their bonds and forcing the cities to pay.

Moreover, as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns has shown, cities that buy jobs (whether they’re high-paying ones like Amazon engineers or low paying ones in a WalMart) are forgoing the property taxes they need to keep schools open and pipes and roads in good repair. Meanwhile the income taxes paid by the employees or sales taxes generated by retail stores normally go to the state or county.

The sad truth is that the money being given to these wealthy corporations is not money in the bank, but money towns have borrowed or will do without in taxes, so it’s not a question of what they could otherwise spend it on. The only way to turn things around is by the trial and error, with small proprietors using existing resources to their utmost.

In our small towns and less regarded cities, we have to solve our problems ourselves, instead of fooling ourselves that Amazon, Tesla, or President Trump will solve them for us.

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

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

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The Yelp Index of Economic Growth

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Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Using Yelp to Track Economic Growth

The advent of big data, in the form of massive databases augmented with crowd-sourced information, adds a new dimension to our ability to track and measure local economies. One of the most exciting sources is Yelp, which tracks and publishes user reviews of millions of businesses. Yelp has just introduced its new “local economic outlook” which rates cities and neighborhoods based on their “economic opportunity.” The rankings are based on Yelp’s extensive data, and are summarized in the form of national rankings of cities (and a parallel rankings of the top 50 neighborhoods). [Read more…]

—Joe Cortright, City Observatory

How Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander Unlock 21st Century Problems

Those in the land-use planning and development business know the stories of urban renewal damage, the failure of modern urban projects like Pruitt-Igoe, and the consequences of suburban sprawl. Most are are familiar with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, both of which have been influential in urban planning, architecture, and other fields.

But something was going on at a deeper level that underlay the dysfunction Jacobs and Alexander fought from the 1960s onward. Cities Alive by Michael Mehaffy examines Jacobs and Alexander together to get at the root philosophical problems that created erroneous thinking in city building in the 20th Century, continuing to the present day. [Read more…]

—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square

The Disruption That’s Putting Bikeshare Into a Higher Gear

A couple of months ago, silver bikes with bright orange wheel rims began appearing around Washington, D.C. One here and one there, like someone had left their new toy unattended while they ran inside to grab a cup of coffee. These are Mobikes, one of four companies (two of which are Chinese) that are pushing the dockless bikesharing phenomenon in the nation’s capital. Unlike the traditional systems that require users to pick up a bike at a fixed station and drop it off at another station at their destination, dockless bikes have a rear-wheel horseshoe locking system allows riders to park the bikes anywhere they want, essentially a car2go for bikes. The GPS-enabled bikes are usually unlocked with two taps on a smart phone app. [Read more…]

—T.R. Goldman, Politico Magazine

Bill Gates’ Smart City in Arizona Is Not Smart, Not a City, and Has Little to Do With Bill Gates

Here are some things you should know about the smart city Bill Gates is building in Phoenix. It’s not a city, nor is it “smart,” nor does the Microsoft founder appear to be involved in any meaningful way. And when outlets like CNBC say it’s in Phoenix, well … the plot of land in question is some 40 miles west of Phoenix, on the western edge of the metropolis’s westernmost suburb…. What’s happening in Buckeye looks much more like the foolish past of the American city than its future. The state of Arizona is working on a long-deferred dream to build a new highway, Interstate 11, to connect Phoenix to Las Vegas. It would run right through this arid valley, putting those parcels along a big transportation corridor. The project was singled out as a “boondoggle” by public interest groups, who noted that ridership predictions for highways are routinely inflated. [Read more…]

—Henry Grabar, Slate

Why the Ideas of Jane Jacobs Are Still Vital

Vital Little Plans collects for the first time Jacobs’s interviews, speeches, talks and short pieces of journalism – and there is much in this lucid and persuasive anthology that resonates today. In her essay “Downtown Is for People”, from 1958, she criticises the lack of variety in cities: “Notice that when a new building goes up, the kind of ground-floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant.” Later, bemoaning the primacy of buildings over people, she writes: “The logic of the projects is the logic of egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting ‘See what I made!’” This could well apply to London’s current skyline, with its Walkie Talkie building, Cheesegrater and Gherkin – a VIP cocktail party guarded by corporate bouncers. [Read more…]

—Chris Hall, The Guardian

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