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Towards a More Inclusive Urbanism

Urbanist discourse tends to presuppose a level of affluence and capacity that is not present in most cities and towns.
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Late last month, New Urbs web editor Addison Del Mastro asked a thought-provoking question on Twitter:

“What can urbanism really say about classically urban places facing steep, long-term decline?”

It is truly an excellent question, and it got me thinking about what “urbanism” actually means today, and what it could mean for the legacy cities located in America’s industrial heartland in the future.

Urbanism, and its related neologism, urbanist, is one of those words whose meaning is a bit fuzzy. I consider myself to be one, and I find common cause with many others who describe themselves as such. In a nation whose default cultural orientation on nearly every urban policy issue is toward more low-density development, more separated land uses, more highway lanes, more ugly architecture, and more social and economic segregation, we need more urbanists.

But we need wise and effective urbanists. We need people who are capable of convincing and persuading others to do their part to improve the way our urban places are planned, designed, and built. We need people who can work with others to make our urban places better.

What we don’t need are foolish and ineffective urbanists. We don’t need people who make the self-indulgent mistake of believing that aggressively badgering and hectoring others or belittling the places that they live, in a quest to demonstrate ideological purity, will make our urban places better.

We don’t need what I have described as urbanist virtue signaling—where urbanists act as theoretical and pedantic puritans who care more about aggressively demonstrating their theological purity and rooting out heretics, rather than actively making places better.

And this gets me to the heart of what I see as a major challenge for urbanism today, particularly as it relates to urban places that have faced, and may still be facing, steep, long-term decline.

Today, there is an unmistakable strain of elitism that permeates many urbanist discussions about planning and public policy issues. It can tend toward snobbery, especially when it comes to housing and land use issues (reflexive disdain for single-family housing is particularly common). But even more frequently, it is (often unintentionally) dismissive of disinvested and economically challenged places.

The most widely read and disseminated urbanist thinking around urban design and public policy has little or nothing to say about heavily disinvested places. It is written mostly by, and for, people who live in economically successful places.

There is no reason that it has to be this way. It certainly could have a lot to say about heavily disinvested places, but it doesn’t. Instead, it revolves around the economically successful places where the most influential writers and media outlets reside. It is written by and for the front-row people who inhabit the front-row places that Chris Arnade discusses in his excellent book, Dignity

Consequently, most urbanist discourse, and the public policy issues upon which it focuses most heavily, presupposes a level of affluence and community development capacity that is simply not present in most cities and towns, including places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit—which are quite large.

Urbanism and urbanists focus heavily on topics like gentrification, stratospheric housing prices, rent control, NIMBY-ism, single-family zoning, and rail transit that, to one degree or another, are often not live or pressing issues in many places in urban America.

I am not arguing that these are not important issues to people in many places. I am not saying that we shouldn’t continue to talk about them or think about them. I am simply suggesting that they are not very pressing or important to people in many other places.

These topics, by and large, are further up the pyramid on Maslow’s hierarchy of urban development needs. Many urban places struggle with issues that are much closer to the base of the pyramid.

What is lacking is what my friend and colleague, Pete Saunders, describes as “Rust Belt Urbanism,” an urbanism that can speak to and focus on the authenticity, resilience, and affordability of older industrial cities, while also squarely acknowledging their cultural, economic, and social challenges.

Here are two examples of challenges that are live issues in many of America’s back-row legacy cities, which do not filter up very much into the front-row urban policy discourse.

The first challenge involves weak real estate markets. Most urbanist discussions are about the challenges that places with overheated real estate markets face. Rents are too high. There is too much demand, even at current prices. People are looking for a fire extinguisher.

But when your real estate market is undervalued and weak, and your assets are underwater, a fire extinguisher is the wrong tool for the wrong disaster.

In weak markets, development of nearly any type, whether residential or commercial, becomes difficult-to-nearly-impossible. There is too little demand, even at current prices. This is a constant struggle in many urban neighborhoods, and even across entire cities, in the Great Lakes region.

In these markets, it is often very difficult to make the financials pencil out for any type of real estate project, whether it is new construction (sales prices/rents/lease rates are too low to turn a profit) or renovation of existing buildings. Even for projects which appear to be potentially profitable, it becomes a Herculean task for developers to build their capital stack. It is not uncommon for a developer to have to cobble together a dozen or more funding sources just to make a project happen. All but the most committed, creative, and audacious developers just stick to the more prosperous suburbs.

The challenge in these markets does not revolve around the fallout from too much prosperity, too much development, and too much neighborhood change. The challenge revolves around too little prosperity, too little development, and not enough neighborhood change.

A second challenge involves the implementation of urbanist best-practices in land use, zoning, architecture, and urban design.

Let me say from the outset that I am a proponent of zoning code reform that less heavily regulates use and more heavily regulates urban form. I am a proponent of more robust urban design standards that create walkable and traditional-looking urban places. I like buildings that are not set back from the sidewalk. I like as little surface parking as possible.

But having said that, I am not an academic. I am not a theoretician. I am a practitioner. I am a pragmatist. And I am here to tell you that many of these principles, important as they are, and as much as I believe in them, are very difficult to implement in places with weak real estate markets.

In many urban neighborhoods, there is a very real-world trade-off that must be navigated between what an urbanist would consider bad urban design and no development at all. You might think this is not the way that it should be. I agree. It doesn’t seem fair that more prosperous places should have a greater ability to require better looking architecture and urban design than less prosperous ones. But that is often the way it is.

Many disinvested places are desperate for development of any kind. There are neighborhoods that have seen nothing but closed stores, vacant buildings, demolished houses, and empty lots for years and even decades.

The fact of the matter is that they often have very little leverage to require what an urbanist would see as good urban design, because the real estate market is so weak. Each extra requirement on a developer, whether that is additional windows and a different garage configuration on a new house, or a masonry façade and a different parking lot configuration on a new store, is going to add complexity, uncertainty, and most likely, cost, to the development process.

Now, I didn’t say that these places have no leverage. I said that they often have very little. Many economically challenged places believe and perceive (often correctly) that if they want development, they may have to settle for less than the ideal from an urban design standpoint. They often find themselves in situations where they feel like they have to take it or leave it.

A lot of people will argue that there are plenty of low-cost best practices in urban design that can be adopted and codified by these places, and that is true. Weak-market cities shouldn’t hide behind the fact of their weak market and use it as an excuse for rejecting traditional and time-honored urban design principles.

But there is a very real (and completely justified) fear in these places that if they are perceived as being too strict and burdensome with their zoning and urban design requirements, the developer will simply walk away and build whatever they were going to build there in the nearest suburban jurisdiction, where either the design standards are more lax, or where the profits will be far higher.

A place like the Akron suburb of Hudson, Ohio (median household income $129,000) can get away with forcing a developer to build a McDonald’s that would fit in colonial New England. It can get away with making people put windows in their sheds and requiring them to be cladded with siding that matches their house.

But in many weak-market cities and neighborhoods, it becomes far more difficult to push for more stringent design requirements. It is not impossible, but it is difficult, time consuming, fraught with risk, and potentially a hardship for low- and moderate-income residents. The weaker the market, the harder it is.

In many urban neighborhoods, the predominantly low-income and working-class residents are understandably so eager for new housing, jobs, retail, and investment of any kind, that they are not going to care much about setbacks, fenestration, or parking requirements.

People in these places are practical. If there is any risk that overly aggressive zoning regulations or urban design requirements could drive potential development away, they are going to err on the side of less aggressive ones. They will always see a less than architecturally ideal house or store that is actually built as far superior to an ideally designed one that never actually will be.

What many urbanists would see as pedestrian or vulgar—a stand-alone Chipotle or Tim Horton’s, surrounded by surface parking, for example—is often greeted with open arms. There are no long and tortured debates about architectural fineries or chain retail versus local retail (there is often no retail). These are the types of academic discussions that upper-middle class people in more economically prosperous locales have the luxury of indulging in.

We need an urbanism that acknowledges these realities. We need one that meets these places where they are and acknowledges the often less-than-ideal situations that they currently find themselves in. We need an urbanism that identifies creative and workable solutions to help them overcome the challenges that are associated with weak real estate markets, in order to create better looking, better functioning urban places. The people in places like Flint and Youngstown deserve them every bit as much as the people in Berkeley and Cambridge.

I am not arguing for an either/or urbanism that ignores strong-market places or weak-market places. I am advocating for a both/and urbanism that recognizes the ways in which places in the nation’s midsection have been hollowed out by the consolidation of nearly every type of economic activity, as wealth, prestige, and power has transferred from many places to just a few. Many of these places are going to continue to struggle for the foreseeable future, no matter how much they do right at the local level, due to global and national economic realities that are bigger than any of them.

But, in the meantime, let’s at least develop an urbanism that can provide the creative ideas to help them to do what they can at the local level. This is a big country with a lot of different places and a lot of real estate market diversity. It is time that urbanists started thinking about all of it.

Jason Segedy is the director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban planning field for the past 25 years, and is an avid writer on urban planning and development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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