New Urbs

A New and Misleading Story of Small Town Revival

Small town New Mexico (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock)

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages.

For many people, the story of small towns outside the country’s major metropolitan areas is one of decline and disinvestment: businesses moving to more central or more populous locations, and factories and farms employing fewer people thanks to automation. As people move out, small businesses suffer from a reduced customer base—and now local retailers face even more competition from warehouse giants such as Amazon.

The causes of urban decline, especially among smaller cities, can seem obvious, but revival is less understood. But even the simple narrative of decline and revival can be misleading. For instance, the Rust Belt is regarded as a place in decline, where a lot of jobs have gone away, but a closer examination reveals that while many traditional industrial jobs have left cities, other sectors of the economy have become prominent, concentrating jobs in city centers while the employees live in more distant suburbs.

Revival is also more complicated. Take Columbus, Miss., a city recently profiled in a bestselling travelogue. A town of about 23,000 people in southeast Mississippi, its initial prosperity was based on labor-intensive manufacturing—there was a toilet seat factory, and mattress and textile plants, along with a U.S. Air Force base. Like in many other communities, the traditional factories closed, resulting in high unemployment and an empty downtown. But the state’s Congressional delegation was able to prevent the base’s closure, and the local community college worked with remaining employers to help residents get the skills demanded by today’s industries. Regionally, Columbus is located in the Golden Triangle, with Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville keeping young people in the area, along with the Mississippi University for Women (now coed).

By now Columbus is thriving, with multiple high-tech manufacturing concerns, including a helicopter factory, an unmanned aerial vehicle plant, and a Steel Dynamics mill. There are also hospitals and the universities themselves are important employers.

But there are signs that “revival” is not the best term for what’s happening in this part of the rural South. None of the major employers is “home-grown” and the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites. For readers of sites that promote fiscal sustainability, such as Strong Towns, this is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. How was the airport and megasite work paid for? Are they depending on growth and more factories coming in to sustain municipal budgets? Are they building places that generate a lot of tax revenue per square foot of property, or are they building miles of unneeded roads so WalMart can offer customers lots of free parking?

These are the sort of questions that are important for towns to ask themselves—and for journalists to be asking boosters. But too often the latter elite group of reporters ignores these key issues, making their work seem superficial. One recent prominent case of this missed opportunity is the multi-year journey of Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah.

* * *

Between 2012 and 2017, the two Fallows crisscrossed the United States in a light aircraft, reporting on urban revival. These stories, expanded and repackaged into a coherent narrative, have now been published in book form: Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America. The places they visited ranged in size from the 94 inhabitants of Uncertain, Tx., to the aforementioned small town of Columbus, Miss., to the over 800,000-strong metropolis of Columbus, Ohio.

According to the Fallows’s reporting, towns that appear to be in the midst of a revival certainly have some features in common. Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on—until they sound like a parody of once celebrated theorizing about the “creative class.”

Yet if these features are common to successful towns, it does not seem like they necessarily generate new growth. For all the places that have been revived, there are just as many places in the nation’s forgotten corners that continue to be mired in high unemployment and blight. Some small cities defy all expectations: Lynn, Mass. is a post-industrial city less than ten miles northeast of Boston. It has a commuter-rail station, comparatively cheap real estate, and the sort of old brick mill buildings million-dollar tech startups love to repurpose for their incubation. Despite being so close to the heart of one of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the United States—if not the world—Lynn’s economy persists in lagging behind. As far as most theorists of urban revival are concerned, Lynn ought to be full of entrepreneurs priced out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or the Seaport Innovation District. Instead, in Lynn one can buy a three-bedroom condo on the water for less than $400,000—possibly the only place in all of Massachusetts where that’s possible.

The Northeast seems to be full of similar counterexamples. The whole Knowledge Corridor—as the stretch of Interstate 91 between Brattleboro, Vt. and New Haven, Conn. has been branded—contains a higher-ed cluster that includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yale University, and the University of Hartford, with the University of Connecticut not too far away. These towns have microbreweries, community colleges, art scenes, and the whole nine yards. But they still have high unemployment, high levels of poverty, and the other signs of decline. One of the Knowledge Corridor cities, Springfield, Mass., even attracted a casino using Massachusetts’s expanded gaming law.

Perhaps the story of urban decline and revival is about more than statistics. Yes, residents and officials need to face their reality and stop pursuing economic development strategies around tax incentives and factories or big box retailers—and start supporting local entrepreneurs and adaptive reuse instead of demolition. But the most important thing seems to be loving the place. The real story of Our Towns is not one of economic incentives and kitschy art shops, of craft beer and land-grant universities, but of committing to a place and persevering to help overcome the obstacles.

As GK Chesterton wrote of a 19th-century workaday London district, “If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” As with Pimlico, so with Eastport, or Bend, or Lynn.

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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Vermont’s $10,000 Gamble

Stowe, Vermont (Don Land/Shutterstock)

The small state of Vermont usually makes the national news for producing progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and legalizing same-sex marriage.

But recently Vermont made the news for a different reason. Republican Governor Phil Scott (yes there are still Republicans in New England) signed a bill into law that will grant remote workers up to $10,000 to move to the state. According to the New York Times, the program will run for three years, with allocations of $125,000 for 2019 and 2021, and $250,000 in 2020.

Vermont is a very rural state and outside of the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and the capital, Montpelier, even what isn’t rural is still post-industrial. Towns like Springfield, Newport, and Rutland aren’t strictly mill towns or gateway cities like the kind found in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but there are similarities. Like other rural and post-industrial areas, young people are leaving, and while there are some people moving in, they are frequently middle-aged or retired.

And even where there are signs of life, there aren’t exactly many jobs available. Making artisanal cheese or opening a nanobrewery don’t require a large labor force.

By offering to compensate people for their moving expenses, the state hopes to attract people who are already employed and enjoy the Green Mountain landscape. They hope that the beauty and outdoor lifestyle will beckon the create class, so they won’t have to go through the expense and hassle of trying to lure a factory or some other industry.

The beauty of Vermont has certainly been attractive in the past. The influence of the Rockefeller and Billings families, for example, helped preserve Woodstock as a quintessential New England village, allowing them a brisk tourist trade, even if locals can no longer afford to live in town. The “sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria” brought the Von Trapp family to Stowe. Local legend has it that Thomas Watson, Jr. of IBM liked the skiing so much he had a facility located in Essex Junction, near Burlington, so as to shoehorn in some skiing around actual work.

Unfortunately, Vermont is not alone in offering deals for warm bodies. Buffalo, N.Y. will sell people houses for $1 if they agree to stay for at least five years. Numerous small towns throughout Italy, many of them just as picturesque as Vermont, if not more so, offer free homes and even castelli or other deals in order to get them occupied, maintained, and economically vibrant again.

Even if Vermont’s relocation program can outcompete the others and attract remote workers, the state’s leaders will still have to come up with ways to be more attractive for its own high school and college graduates.

If the state is willing to spend $500,000 over three years as part of a reimbursement program, perhaps they could offer a similar amount to promote entrepreneurship, reimbursing young people up to $10,000 to start a business.

One important thing the state could do is overhaul its approach to transportation. Currently, public transit is an afterthought because in the conventional thinking the state is too sparsely populated to make it work.

As a result, Vermont must balance the construction of ugly roads and parking lots against the preservation of the natural beauty that attracts the tourists. It would do no good to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.

Transportation in Vermont consists of two Amtrak services, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter trains, and an intercity bus service known as Vermont Translines. Extending the New York City-based Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington would not only make Burlington and the college town of Middlebury accessible by rail, it would likely make the service that much more financially viable. Further improvements would come from rerouting it so it could stop at Bennington and Manchester.

Another improvement Vermont could make is getting some kind of rail connection to Boston. This could be best be done with a route paralleling Vermont’s State Route 103 to Rutland and then sharing the track with the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington. This would bring tourists to Ludlow and Killington, connect entrepreneurs in Burlington and Boston, and make it much easier for me to visit my family in Rutland.

While plans have been floated for building a commuter rail network using diesel multiple units, the state could also get more bang for the bucks it spends on bus service. The bus network has three routes in the southwest of the state, and is expensive, slow, and only runs once a day. Considering the way younger people drive less and are buying fewer cars, making it easier to live in the state without a car would help attract them.

There are many steps Vermont can and should take to ensure that its $10,000 gamble doesn’t turn out to be a gimmick.

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

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Are Baby Boomers Excluding Millennials From Neighborhood Assocations?

A neighborhood meeting in Ann Arbor, 2013. (Wystan/Flickr)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Many Americans claim they want a strong local community, but few really want to work for it. Everyone at one point or another has a desire for human contact, friendship, sharing experiences, or just being in the thick of things. The realization that real community was largely lacking in the United States—and the revelation that bad urban design played a role in its decline—is one of the central starting points for the New Urbanism movement.

But it’s also worth looking at this issue as it manifests in the “back-to-the-city” movement, the recent demographic trend that has turned once declining urban places into hot real-estate markets. Is the phenomenon of city revitalization fulfilling its promise of better and stronger community ties, as people are lured to places like Brooklyn and Astoria (or Cambridge and Alameda)?

To older residents of these places, many of whom were “first-wave” gentrifiers back in the 1980s or earlier, newcomers to these neighborhoods are secretive, uncommunicative, and never shop at locally-owned stores. The apartment buildings of newer residents are just people warehouses whose occupants will be dispersed within a year or two.

There is some truth to this kind of criticism, even if it is not a new kind of argument. As far back as the 1960s, no less than Jane Jacobs expressed similar concerns about residents of new Greenwich Village apartment buildings in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—even though both she and her husband were newcomers there.

I have lived in my current apartment for three years and still barely know my neighbors. When I first moved to Boston in 2012, I moved six times in three years and some of my friends have experienced a similar lack of stability. While we do enjoy local restaurants when we can, it is true that my friends and I tend to shop at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or pharmacies and convenience stores like CVS—brands we recognize—rather than independent, local places. One of my current roommates even got his groceries through Amazon Fresh for a while.

One of the concepts from sociology that has come to influence how urbanists think about community is the “third place.” These are spaces and places that are neither homes nor workplaces, where people can gather: churches, libraries, bars, parks, cafes—even sidewalks and street corners. Knowing or at least recognizing people you see at the store or on the bus can build trust and social ties. Even such weak ties can be good for spreading important information or just doing simple favors like watching children, holding spare keys, and so on. A lot of young people aren’t making these ties and becoming an integral part of their communities and neighborhoods. Older residents assume this is because we’re internet-obsessed troglodytes who prefer using our dollars to further line Jeff Bezos’ pockets—and apparently we are just too lazy to show up to community meetings and shop at local stores.

This sort of argument, which I have heard from many quarters in six years of living in Boston, is just laughable. Many older people bought their houses at rock bottom prices in the 1970s and ‘80s, and reaped massive increases in equity—and their student loans were much smaller or nonexistent. They have the money and leisure time to shop at expensive local stores and go to community meetings. The problem is not young people who are supposedly disinterested in community, but our elders who are intent on keeping us out—and using their success and relative wealth to justify their stance.

Many neighborhood institutions simply don’t accommodate the needs of newcomers. Often, local stores offer a bewildering and changing array of hours, always arranging to be open when most people are at work or commuting to and from there. It’s not just local retailers, either. Branch libraries around here tend to be open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Unsurprisingly, librarians and small retailers are quick to complain about their lack of patronage. It’s perplexing that business owners in a place like Boston still think it’s the 1950s.

Longstanding neighborhood organizations don’t seem to recognize these issues. They are ostensibly supposed to represent local interests, especially ones that have an official or semi-official character within the city government, like making recommendations to municipal zoning and licensing boards.

In reality, neighborhood associations often seem devoted to sealing the area off from outside influence, especially new residents. There is an association in my Cambridge neighborhood. They have a website that has not been updated in over a year and similarly dormant social media accounts. Thus one cannot attend a meeting unless one already attends meetings. This is closer to the behavior of an unelected, unaccountable cabal rather than a group interested in being truly representative.

How can these associations claim to care about community when they refuse to allow all residents to participate in it?

Community requires social trust. People who refuse to see new neighbors as anything but a threat are preventing such trust from ever developing. Viewing all change as bad is also counterproductive, especially with how quickly yesterday’s disastrous project by a greedy developer from out-of-town can turn into a beloved town center. (In West Los Angeles, for example, a mall called the Westside Pavillion was fought for years and now people are worried about its closure changing the character of the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

Some people seem to want to preserve their neighborhoods in aspic, or maybe amber, given the property prices these days. But thy forget that not only are communities are constantly changing—they exist for far longer than a single human lifespan.

Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next. The attitude of hostility to newcomers, of excluding them from neighborhood life, will ensure that a sense of place dies with the current occupants. Young people will never develop an attachment to the place if they are not included in civic life or are driven out by rising rents; they will certainly never be able to raise families in places where housing is prohibitively expensive.

In the life of a community, even lifelong residents are ultimately temporary inhabitants. Their stories and traditions are more important than the buildings. If the sense of place they have created over the years is to survive and adapt to new realities, it must find a way to integrate and involve the next generation.

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

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Homeownership Does Not Guarantee Middle-Class Prosperity


Something has gone wrong with homeownership in America. Once the ladder to wealth, economic divides in real estate have increasingly become a driver of inequality, further entrenching political and economic privilege. Not only does this trend have knock on effects for the younger generation, but it’s not unique to the United States. The United Kingdom, Canada and possibly other countries are also feeling the shock of changing real estate markets.

On the surface, at least viewed from prosperous places, things look pretty good. According to Bloomberg, homeowners in some of America’s major coastal cities gain as much as $100 in wealth through equity each hour of the working day. Collectively, reports CNBC, U.S. homeowners are sitting on $5.4 trillion in property equity, the most ever reported.

And yet these gains are not realized equally across the country. For every suburb where 1950s starter homes once sold for less than $10,000 are now worth around $700,000, there are places like Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo, or Rochester, where many homes are basically worthless. In many areas, no matter how much money people invest in their homes, they are not sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity. In fact, since the Recession, the primary assets of millions of ordinary Americans have most likely lost value.

But what should be even more alarming than these troubling disparities is the underlying fragility of real-estate markets, and the increasing folly of government policies that promote suburban property development. Today’s trends are merely a symptom of a larger delusion—homeownership as the path to middle-class wealth and status—and have exposed it as the lie it always was.

* * *

Since World War II, the United States has suffered from a divergence in home values—but it is only recently that this reality began to affect the white middle class. The roots of the present crisis go back to the 1930s.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted at least one New Deal program that would work with private enterprise rather than against it, according to Kenneth T. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. The result was the Federal Housing Administration (later expanded by the GI Bill), which used the full faith and credit of the United States government to affect a revolution in banking and housebuilding. The effort not only standardized appraising across the country, it more or less invented the 30-year mortgage, imposed construction quality standards, and took much of the risk out of homebuilding and lending by guaranteeing mortgages and construction loans.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s program also helped segregate parts of the country not previously segregated—and strengthened such discrimination so that it persists in some cities well into this century. This shocking history is documented at length by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law. Basically, the FHA decided that they weren’t going to guarantee (or only partially guarantee) loans in places that didn’t meet their racial and aesthetic standards: Neighborhoods and suburbs that were both all white and “well-planned,” meaning that residences were all single-family homes, with commercial and industrial uses kept separate or out of the area altogether, had the easiest time getting loans. In fact, according to Rothstein, the FHA made developers like the Levitt brothers in New York—famous for the middle-class Levittowns that became the image of affordable postwar suburbia—put deed restrictions in their homes prohibiting their resale to a non-white person.

The result of these two policies together—government-subsidized risk and economic and racial segregation—was unsurprising.

Coupled with massive highway building, the suburbs mushroomed around cities and tens of thousands of white Americans bought new homes at prices that were cheaper than renting. City neighborhoods depopulated and the prewar building stock—with fewer renters and almost no possibility of loans—declined drastically in value and deteriorated in quality. Urban blight and the ghettoization of racial minorities in cities and away from opportunity was the direct result of federal policy, reinforced by zoning and a neighborhood’s own poverty. The people who owned those homes never saw their equity grow through the years. Even in cities that are experiencing growth in property values, Black neighborhoods rarely see any benefits. In Chicago, the city’s segregation is starkly shown on Google Maps: the North Side looks like Brooklyn, while the South Side looks like Detroit.

Washington has encouraged homeownership for decades. The result has been windfall profits for the few and an albatross of mortgage debt for the many. According to Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, in 2015 the federal government subsidized homeownership to the tune of $134 billion, $71 billion of which was through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. According to Jackson, these policies, which largely promote suburban development, are rooted in 19th-century views of cities as unhealthy and immoral.

Such policymaking was also driven by a belief that newer homes would foster better character: The trouble with slums and slum-dwellers wasn’t that they were desperately poor in an era of massive industrial upheaval, but that they lived in slum buildings. (According William Tucker in The Excluded Americans, so-called reformers like Jacob Riis were often motivated as much by a desire to prevent Jews and Catholics from immigrating to America compassion for the urban poor.) By the 1920s the justification for single-family homes had evolved from crude ethnic and religious stereotyping into a more recognizable narrative: One’s home still formed one’s character, only now homeownership would incubate the virtues of hard work, thrift, and industriousness instead of moralizing Protestantism.

A similar evolution took place in the United Kingdom, where in 1923 the Conservative MP Noel Skelton wrote a series on housing policy in The Spectator, later published under the title Constructive Conservatism. Skelton coined the phrase “property-owning democracy” and argued that homeownership would encourage people to be better citizens, who in addition to the economic justifications, would become invested in their community and country. Skelton’s ideal was made policy by Conservative governments throughout the 20th century, reaching its apogee during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, who popularized the idea of the property-owning democracy and introduced a right-to-buy policy where residents of council flats (apartments built under Labour governments and owned and maintained by local governments) could purchase them.

* * *

The century-long burst in homeownership on both sides of the Atlantic has had dire consequences. As John Myers, a co-founder of the pro-development group London YIMBY, put it, “Encouraging homeownership also makes it more difficult to get political support for more housebuilding.”

The people who own homes in this current boom cycle believe that allowing more homes to be built in their communities, especially apartments, could lower their property values and hence their net worth. As a result, San Francisco now has serious discussions about whether a coffee shop facade that’s just four years old qualifies for historic preservation, while affordable senior apartments get torpedoed by wealthy homeowners. The results do not sound like a recipe for good citizenship: Young people are prevented from forming families, small businesses are forced to relocate, and the working classes are condemned to either unthinkably long commutes or overcrowding. Or, in the parts of the country not enjoying a housing boom, small cities and towns face continuing deterioration and decline.

The irony is that homeownership isn’t even an unqualified good for the homeowner. Their property wealth is completely illiquid. They could be sitting on a million dollars worth of house, but not have the cash to pay the property tax. In the end, real estate speculation does not create wealth; it sets up a game of musical chairs—and we now know what happens when the music stops. Countries, communities, and cities are much healthier economically when their financial security doesn’t depend on the performance of one type asset—especially when the better the asset does, the worse off the larger society becomes.

Skelton, far more than the progressive reformers in the United States or his successors in Britain’s Conservative Party, saw this. His property-owning democracy wasn’t simply a nation of homeowners, but involved factory workers that became co-owners or profit-sharers in their factories, along with smallholdings and cooperatives for farmers. When he spoke of “property,” Skelton meant “capital.” This philosophy is thus much more similar to the distributism of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton than the tracts of ticky-tacky stretching away forever.

I doubt we will ever get the wealth we foolishly ploughed into postwar suburbs back. But we can at least pivot toward a recovery by changing laws to encourage people to save to build wealth, rather than rely on speculative equity in real estate.

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

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Self-Driving Cars and the Hostile Takeover of Our Streets

Last Sunday, Elaine Herzberg, a homeless woman in Arizona, became the first person to be killed by an autonomous vehicle. The sobering event was something of a watershed moment for a decade of fanfare surrounding the development of self-driving cars. Ride services and automakers should face increasing questions not only about the safety of AVs—the public must also reexamine the historically unprecedented priority now given to private automobiles in metropolitan areas.

The Uber-owned Volvo SUV that killed Herzberg in Tempe that evening held a person behind the wheel capable of taking control, and hit her near the intersection of two wide surface roads curving through a typical suburban landscape: to the east, an expanse of open space with trails and other recreational uses and to the west office parks stretching to the city line. It was a place one would expect to find deserted on a Sunday night, and not even the kind of environment that normally attracts homeless people. Nevertheless, Elaine Herzberg was there and “she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” as Temple Police Chief Sylvia Moir told reporters at a press conference following the incident.

We might ask Silicon Valley engineers what the point is of a self-driving car that’s supposed to be better than a human if it can’t “see” past the visual spectrum. (Some cars sold today, like the Audi A6 and the BMW 7 Series, have night vision systems, which are also available as aftermarket modifications). We might call for more regulation and oversight of the AV testing process, as CityLab, NPR, and others did.

We might do all that and more, but never focus on the real issue: Herzberg’s death, and the police assigning blame to her instead of the operator of the large vehicle moving 38 miles per hour, slightly exceeding the posted speed limit. Then there are any of the basic failures of AVs that wouldn’t allow them to pass a driving test—their inability to always stop at red lights, easily merge into traffic, navigate bridges or snow, get around without proper road markings, understand temporary cones and construction, avoid potholes, or deal with other unanticipated safety issues.

In truth, Herzberg’s death was little different from the other 30,000 or so deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists that will occur this year as a result of automobiles. A few years ago, Boston (which brands itself as “America’s walking city”) Mayor Marty Walsh, when asked about traffic fatalities in the city, remarked, “You have to understand, cars are going to hit you.” This attitude is also the attitude of many American mayors, despite the popularity of adopting Vision Zero programs aimed at reducing road deaths.

The conservative luminary Russell Kirk called cars “mechanical Jacobins.” While Kirk’s all-too-brief 1962 essay concerned the automobile’s effect on culture, the car has been at its most revolutionary in overturning common law, in exiling people to narrow or non-existent sidewalks and, in truly totalitarian fashion, running over all who resist. The Canadian Tory George Grant went so far as to assert that the “directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” I don’t entirely agree with this idea, but in the case of the automobile it is literally true.

As Hunter Oatman-Stanford argues, mass automobile ownership ushered in a revolution in law. Streets were once understood to be public spaces all had equal right to use and in the case of a crash the common law (following common sense) would assign liability to the operator of the heavier and faster vehicle. Since streets were public property, in cities children often played in them—so by 1930 more than 200,000 people had been killed by cars and most of the victims were children.

But the automakers looked at the rapidly expanding cemeteries and thought only of the how the negative publicity would affect sales. Taking swift action, they spent heavily on public relations and formed task forces and committees ostensibly designed to promote safety and responsible regulations. In fact they exiled people from the streets and overturned common law decisions: Now it would be up to the pedestrian or cyclist to avoid getting hit; pedestrians could be fined for walking against the lights or crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. When a car mounted the curb and crashed into a building—the building didn’t get out of the way in time, apparently—it would be written off as an unavoidable “accident.”

Today, the revolution of Kirk’s mechanical Jacobins continues unabated. Drivers still routinely murder children with virtual impunity. Across the country it has become all too common for drivers who kill people not to face any consequences, much less be charged with vehicular manslaughter. In Minnesota, for example, the Star-Tribune found that between 2010 and 2014, drivers crashed into pedestrians over 3,000 times, killing 95 people—but only 28 drivers were charged. In many cases involving a death, the driver wasn’t issued so much as a traffic ticket. In Atlanta, according to Aeon, a woman walking her three children home was charged with vehicular manslaughter and faced three years in prison for the death of her four-year-old son. The driver who hit them—a man blind in one eye, on painkillers, and with alcohol in his system—spent six months in jail for hit-and-run.

The technical issues involved in Herzberg’s death may or may not be solved by AV engineers—and even if they are, it won’t matter. The fundamental safety flaw in the automobile has never been human error, but the shared attitude of traffic engineers, automakers, politicians, and drivers: this is a culture that prioritizes the speed, convenience, and storage of automobiles over human lives, human flourishing, and human justice.

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

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The False Mirage of Eco-Cities

Songdo, South Korea. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belmont Partners issued a press release and it is telling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Don’t Blame Lack of Zoning Laws for Houston Floods

AMFPhotography /

The rain in Houston has barely stopped and the flood waters have yet to fully recede, but already a narrative has been created in the media, led by ProPublica, but with a lot of people and publications playing follow the leader, that blame the severity of Harvey’s impact on the region squarely on the city’s lack of zoning codes.

Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.

First things first: Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rain on Houston. According to the Los Angeles Times, the region received more rain in a few days than they normally get in a year. One of the meteorologists the Times interviewed said that it was over a trillion gallons of water and that the amount was unprecedented for the continental United States.

According to NOAA, only a handful of cities get more rain in a year than Harvey brought to Houston. No one could have planned for this devastation because no one ever anticipated it being a possibility. No storm drainage system in the country is built to handle that much rainfall in that little time.

As far as Houston’s lack of zoning goes, it’s a myth. Stephen Smith pointed out nine years ago that Houston’s lack of normal land-use zoning has not prevented the city government from mandating minimum-parking requirements, setbacks, minimum lot sizes and all the other thousand ills that flesh is heir to. More than that, the main difference in the built environment of Houston and other cities that have experienced the bulk of their growth in the automobile era (one is tempted to write Anthropocene) is that infill development is much easier.

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Tulsa all have downtowns with modern glass towers, acres of surface parking, subdivision after subdivision of single family detached residential on a hierarchy of streets feeding into a network of freeways.

Publications like ProPublica, Quartz, and Newsweek also have argued that zoning would have required developers to leave more of any given lot’s area as unpaved, preserving the wetlands and prairie that absorb water. But as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pointed out, the wetlands that were filled could have accommodated 0.02 to 0.1 percent of the rain Harvey brought.

Another fact that ProPublica’s narrative missed: Other cities, in addition to having zoning, have faced extreme flooding events from much less rain than Houston received this month. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, for example, severe flash floods result from as little as two inches of rain in 25 minutes and enormous storm drains have been built under the city to cope. How big are they? Big enough that around 1,000 people live in them. Hurricane Sandy caused major flooding in New York and New Jersey with just seven inches of rain, according to NASA.  

Moreover, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 92 percent of urban flooding takes place outside of designated floodplains, so restricting development within the floodplain is not effective. Flooding in cities around the country may not be as severe as that caused by Harvey, but urban flooding is still a national problem. Between 2007 and 2011, flooding in Cook County, Illinois, caused about $773 million in damage.

The relationship between impervious surface area and flooding seems to be very close, although the CNT found ambiguous evidence on this point. Only 10 of the 23 Cook County zip codes with the most flood insurance claims were also where the most impervious surface was. This is probably because they, like the people blaming building regulations for flooding, have got the short end of the stick: As two-thirds of the surface area in the typical American city is devoted to parking and roadway.

According to Charlie Gardner, around 20 percent of Downtown Houston is surface parking, while another 40 percent is devoted to streets—while in a typical city built before the 19th century, only about 15 percent of land would be devoted to roadway. This huge amount of urban land given over to asphalt dwarfs the amount of space available for housing and parks. Writing at Planetizen, Todd Litman calculates that as much as 4,000 square feet of land per automobile is given over to roadway and parking—that’s a lot of land consuming taxes instead of producing them. For comparison, according to Michael Lewyn, until 1998 the minimum lot size in Houston for a new home was 5,000 square feet. This is important because standard planning practices are based around retaining storm water on site, meaning that buildings need large green space foot prints to absorb water, but if the effect of such regulation is to separate buildings, then they could lead to more driving and hence more asphalt.  

Even then, geography matters: According to economist Phil Magness, some of the worst flooding, in terms of water volume, occurred in the rural areas along the Brazos River.

What lessons can we learn from Harvey? Geography and geology are important to how cities handle severe storms and sea level rise. More importantly, cities do not need historic storms to suffer from flooding and the 60 percent of a city’s surface area devoted to parking and roadway likely exacerbate flooding more than residential or commercial development. Compact, walkable cities of the types advocated by New Urbanists should be better able to deal with urban flooding.

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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How Federal Policy Holds Back Sustainable Economic Growth

Ben Schumin / Wikimedia Commons

There are few national solutions that can help all cities. There are, however, two federal policies holding back widespread business creation and concentrating economic power in fewer hands—overly restrictive intellectual-property law and housing regulation that promotes unsustainable sprawl.

Patents used to be difficult and expensive to enforce. One of the main reasons the film industry set up shop in Los Angeles (on the other side of the country from New York City with its legions of actors, producers, set designers, costume makers and all the various and sundry people needed for a major stage production or a film) is because easterner Thomas Edison owned many of the patents on filmmaking and he didn’t want to license the technology. So the moviemakers went to California, where they could skedaddle to Mexico in case Edison wanted to make trouble.

The Industrial Revolution came to the United States because Samuel Slater copied British weaving machinery. It came to Japan because Japanese entrepreneurs were able to copy American and British technology. Now the Chinese are copying American and Japanese technology. Many innovations also resulted from tinkering. Early automobile pioneers experimented with internal combustion engines they made themselves and a number of important figures in Silicon Valley were members of a group called the Homebrew Computer Club that built their own computers and shared skills and ideas.

But such tinkering is all but impossible now. According to Modern Farmer, intellectual-property law has been used to make it illegal for farmers to fix their tractors. Similarly, Barry Lynn has written in Washington Monthly about how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began applying antitrust law to businesses holding large numbers of patents. This allowed competitors to imitate and innovate. Since the policy was reversed in the 1980s, large companies have once again used patent control to suppress competition or patent troll small firms for millions of dollars.

Related rollbacks of antitrust enforcement across all sectors, according to Brian Feldman, have resulted in smaller, regional firms being absorbed by national and international ones. “While some new out-of-town owners kept large operations in St Louis, the city lost entire layers of expertise,” Feldman wrote. “Applying that lesson more broadly, when the citizens of St Louis . . . look at the decline of their local economies . . . their fates may be the result of decisions in Washington . . . to overturn antitrust laws passed by elected officials of both parties over the course of the twentieth century.”    

So Ross Douthat’s recent call to “Break Up the Liberal City” is partially right. There are monopolistic combinations at work in America, based in large cities, but they exist because of government policy. Another such concentration of power exists among homeowners. A few years ago the French economist Thomas Piketty argued that capitalism was in the midst of a crisis because of a lack of regulation resulting in increasing amounts of economic concentration in the hands of the one percent. Shortly afterwards Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Matthew Rognlie analyzed the data and found that virtually all of the increased returns on capital have gone to owners of housing.

In the 1970s, policies were designed to restrict housing construction and increase home values. This change correlates very well with the beginnings of wage stagnation, widening inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, and a million other factors. To put it bluntly, restrictive housing policies in places like Boston, New York, San Jose, and San Francisco cost the country about $1.6 trillion a year, according to economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti. The result, as Matt Yglesias puts it, is that “People go where land is cheap, not where their labor is valuable.”

Another major impact is from the policies that guide small towns. As Charles Marohn has shown, towns across the country have favored automobile-dependent development that relies on massive infrastructure investment. They go deeply into debt to build the infrastructure in order to attract big-box-store development, which doesn’t generate enough in taxes to pay for the costs of that infrastructure—and then they have to go deeper into debt to build more infrastructure to attract more sprawling development that still doesn’t pay for itself. This also applies to residential construction: According to a 2007 paper by Mark Obrinsky and Debra Stein of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, compact walkable neighborhoods produce more tax revenue while having lower infrastructure costs.

It is perhaps not surprising that, even within Boston’s orbit, Massachusetts cities and towns allow development that is dependent upon car usage, has made compact and walkable development illegal, and are increasingly reliant upon the state for funding to maintain roads and schools. In Iowa, a small city called Mount Union recently dissolved because it couldn’t pay its bills for a new sewer system and several cities and towns around the country have begun replacing paved roads with gravel or dirt ones to save on repair costs.

This is especially prevalent in places where local governments rely on sales taxes for revenue. The worst excesses of consumerism, viewed through such a lens, are a matter of life and death for such communities: Municipalities need people to buy disposable goods in vast quantities from retailers with poorly-paid workforces. Without enough sales or when labor costs get too high, City Hall will be bankrupt when WalMart moves to greener pastures. But City Hall will still go bankrupt sooner or later.

The policies adopted throughout this country to protect big, well-connected businesses from competition, to keep existing home values rising, and to promote economic development have destroyed local economies and the hard-earned wealth built up over decades. Revitalizing rural places and “interior” cities is not simply a question of jobs and infrastructure, but one of whether or not public policy allows for the creation of wealth and economic diversification.

Some aspects of the urban-rural divide will never be closed. Cities and small towns have different cultures because they are different places. More seriously, as cheap money dries up, businesses with good political connections will continue to evade antitrust laws. As deferred maintenance starts to show up, real trade-offs will have to be made. Some rural places may have to be abandoned, both because making them productive would consume too many resources and because the political pressure exerted by suburbs will result in their debts being subsidized by city production.

It’s not pretty, but recovery can only begin when we admit that we can’t borrow, build, or steal our way to prosperity.

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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Killing the City Won’t Save the Small Town

The urban-rural divide in this country is real and growing. The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been largely limited to a handful of metropolitan areas, especially the Boston-Washington corridor and the Pacific Coast. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston continue to set records for housing costs, according to The Economist, while Riverside, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, among others, still haven’t recovered from the crash. Moreover, according to Scott Beyer of Forbes, rural parts of the country are losing population and jobs. As Vishaan Chakrabarti pointed out in his book A Country of Cities, in 2012, 90 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product came from the three percent of the country inside metropolitan areas.

Moreover, according to Robert Leonard, resources within states are increasingly being directed to cities and state services are being centralized in them. This was certainly my experience growing up in Rutland, Vt., where it seemed like all the state’s money was spent on the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and Montpelier—to say nothing of now living in Boston, with the same spending complaints from rural Massachusetts. (Of course, I now appreciate that it may be a better use of state resources to spent $20 million rehabilitating a bridge between Boston and Cambridge that sees millions of trips a year as opposed to a bridge in Zoar, Mass., that sees a few hundred trips a year.)

Much worse for these places is the ongoing economic centralization of this country. Local businesses are absorbed by regional ones, which get bought by national ones, which get taken over by global ones. While supposedly delivering benefits from economic efficiency, this process limits innovation and competition while depriving communities of the benefits of ownership and exacerbating regional inequality.

Yet a glance at the writing on the rural-urban divide suggests that most of the people thinking about these things haven’t read their Santayana or even looked out the window recently. In Commonwealth magazine, Larry DiCara and Matt Waskiewicz suggested buying more food from Massachusetts’ farms, sending more urbanites to western Massachusetts as tourists, and establishing regular rail service between Boston and Springfield so people from the former can go live in the latter but continue to commute.

There’s nothing particularly bad about any of these ideas in and of themselves, but they have a glaring flaw as a solution to rural economic woes: They wouldn’t work. Vermont, upstate New York, northern New Hampshire, and Maine have been promoting themselves as tourism, agriculture, and bedroom communities for decades, to no avail (except coastal southern Maine, which is close enough to Boston to serve as a suburban bedroom community). The fact is, increases in agricultural productivity would mean that more purchases from in-state farms wouldn’t necessarily result in more jobs. Tourism-related jobs are seasonal, low paying and dead end.

Becoming a suburb is a similar dead-end economic strategy: The impact of comparatively wealthy Boston renters and buyers on the Springfield market would likely be catastrophic for Springfield natives. According to Governing, in 2012, 61.2 percent of renting households paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent and are considered cost burdened. According to Zillow (and it must be remembered that their data comes from people using their service), the median home price in Springfield is $139,900 and the median rent is $1,325. In Boston, the median home price is around $670,000 and the rent is $2,800—and fewer households are considered cost burdened, according to Governing. Springfield becoming a suburb of Boston would just move Boston’s gentrification and displacement issues west.

Another idea was recently offered by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column, arguing that “We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies—not as growth enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good.” Douthat advocates redistributing federal agencies, universities, non-profits and businesses to the “poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization” using a combination of confiscatory taxes with business credits. Unlike DiCara and Waskiewicz’s ideas, which were not bad in and of themselves, but would not produce the effect desired, Douthat’s could inadvertently lead to an economic death spiral.

If simply redistributing wealth and factories could make poor states wealthy and revive declining cities, one would expect it to have happened already. Poor, rural states have been heavily subsidized for decades, through agricultural-price supports, pork-barrel projects, military bases and other federal-works projects. But an economy is not simply a collection of discrete elements that can be rearranged at will, like furniture in a house. If that was the way things worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.

In Britain, central planners in the years after World War II thought along the same lines as Douthat. The Midlands city of Birmingham was a major industrial center, but it was more like Silicon Valley than Detroit. An ecosystem of small-industrial enterprises developed where new ones were constantly being started. Successful ones would, it is true, transplant themselves outside the city.

But after the war the planners looked at Birmingham’s 200-odd years of small business creation and forced businesses and people to move to poorer places and cities in need of revitalization. But all those small firms needed each other to survive. Birmingham was left dependent upon the automotive industry, which then collapsed in the 1970s.


To address the problem of the rural-urban divide, we have to understand what drives it. Why can some coastal cities seemingly do no wrong, while interior cities can’t seem to do anything right? Why do people and businesses pay huge amounts of money and endure massive tax bills, long commutes, a high cost of living, and the Yankees to crowd into the New York City area when they could move to places like Kansas—where land, taxes, food. and labor costs are cheap and the freeways empty?

Every New Urbanist has read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but few have read the books she wrote afterwards: The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. In these two books she argued that the first cities did not simply grow out of early farming villages, but have unique economic characteristics of their own. According to Jacobs, the driving forces of a city economy are trade and a process she called import replacement, where goods imported into the city are first copied and then improved upon by entrepreneurs, who proceed to export to other cities and settlements in order to acquire more imports. The process also helps develop the symbiotic ecosystem of flexible small producers that makes starting entirely new enterprises possible. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations she explored the implications of city economies for national economies, concluding that cities and the regions they generate are the drivers of all national development.

(It’s important to note that import replacement is different from the mercantilist notion of import substitution. Import replacement is a process of a city economy that applies to all goods, even ones imported domestically, while import substitution is a policy imposed by national governments.)

Even if one is skeptical of the import-replacement theory, economists like Ed Glaeser have demonstrated that clustering and startup rates play a huge role in economic growth. Or just remember Chakrabarti’s statistic: 90 percent of U.S. GDP comes from the three percent of land in metros. According to the American Enterprise Institute, in 2015 New York had a larger economy than Canada and the 20 largest metros produced twice the GDP of Japan.

What this means, according to Jacobs, is that rural places and regions experience real economic growth only insofar as they are connected to city economies. The distance doesn’t matter—farmers in Massachusetts can send their produce to restaurants in Boston or supermarkets in China. Cut off from city economies, a rural place will eventually decline into subsistence agriculture, losing the memory of many technologies. Then comes near hunter-gatherer status as subsistence exhausts the soil and results in bringing marginal land into production.

Even when connected to city economies, rural places can become economically unbalanced if they are outside city regions. Jacobs wrote that import replacement in cities “unleashes five great economic forces of expansion: city markets for new and different imports; abruptly increased city jobs; technology for increasing rural production and productivity; transplanted city work; city-generated capital.” But these can affect rural places separately and with catastrophic results. Changes in city markets can leave rural communities producing commodities no one wants; increases in city jobs can just depopulate rural places; increased productivity can result in massive unemployment; the arrival of transplanted businesses from cities can make rural places overly dependent upon one type of work; and city capital transferred to rural areas can subsidize them, but only for as long as the subsidies can be maintained.

All these forces are at work across the country today. Young people able to go to college leave because they can’t get jobs at home. Often there are just one or two factories left and people anxiously watch the news for signs of the future while local farmers meet with their member of Congress about price supports for their crops. To make matters worse, cities already are not producing enough work for their own residents, much less enough companies that can transplant their work. More worryingly, new business creation is at a 40-year low, according to CNN, which could indicate that time is running short, even for currently successful cities.

The best way to save rural places is to reactivate our cities, not destroy them.

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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From Chapels to Condos

Matthew M. Robare

At night it stands a silent and dark shadow against the glittering lights of Boston’s Back Bay, the only sound the almost riparian traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Yet step closer and one sees that the edifice is not merely vacant, but hollow—a Gothic Revival skeleton that has given up the ghost.

This was the Roman Catholic Holy Trinity Church in the South End. It was closed amid controversy and in 2008, the Archdiocese of Boston sold it to developers who planned to remake it into 33 luxury condominiums. Renderings show a gutted interior with a modernist glass and steel structure erupting out of the stonework like a skin disease.

The initial controversy was about more than an historic loss: a Traditional Latin Mass community was displaced, and there was a perception that the archdiocese wanted to sell valuable land to pay legal costs related to the sex-abuse scandal of the time.

But the closure of historic urban houses of worship has as much to do with demographic trends originating decades ago—and the challenges of maintaining a building after decades of deferred maintenance—as it did with any scandal or decline in attendance.

Churches are intimately tied to their neighborhoods, especially in areas built before mass automobile ownership. In America’s cities, these ties often remain. In the 19th century, the connection was even more pronounced, as people of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds settled together for mutual aid and protection in a challenging, sometimes corrupt and hostile, urban environment.

The ethnic parishes of Catholic immigrants, for example, formed a nucleus where the traditions of the old country were passed down. The younger generation was discouraged from intermarriage, and old languages were preserved, in some cases into the 21st century. Parishioners, suspicious of public education in a Protestant country, formed their own schools and started societies to promote temperance, provide medical care, and pay for funerals and pensions for widows and orphans. The first credit union in the United States, St. Mary’s Bank in Manchester, N.H., was organized by a Catholic parish priest.

Holy Trinity was no different. The first parochial school in New England was organized by the parish, said church historian Robert Sauer, while German immigrants who heard Holy Mass there brought Christmas trees and cards to America and helped found the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over its 164 years of existence, parishioners organized 22 religious sodalities and confraternities, an orphanage and old people’s home, charities devoted to the poor, Catholic missions around the world, and relief for the people of Germany and Austria after World War II.

Today, according to the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places, churches and religious buildings of all faiths continue to have an economic impact on their neighborhoods. Their research found that almost all have some sort of community-service programs, and most have at least four running concurrently. The same study estimated that in Philadelphia alone religious congregations contribute over $100 million to their community annually—about $144,000 per congregation. Most of that comes from measuring volunteer time as though it were paid labor, but they also provide space, staff, and direct financial support to neighborhood services. Sixty percent of churches surveyed had food pantries, and nearly as many hosted music performances and clothing donations. Over 40 percent had soup kitchens.

While these activities can result in some sidewalk presence, contributing to neighborhood vitality and putting eyes on the street, churches interact with their neighborhoods differently than shops, restaurants, and residences.

“They give a sense of refuge or respite,” said Sara Joy Proppe, founder of the Proximity Project, a Minnesota group that seeks to involve congregations in urban planning. She said that a research agency, the Barna Group, found that while millennials say they go to suburban megachurches for anonymity, many are also drawn to older churches.

“The more traditional churches are located in urban centers, on smaller lots,” Proppe explained. “They’re very grand, but it’s done in a way that’s compatible at the human scale. I think that by default they do in some ways … provide more community interaction.”

Set among shops and residences, a traditionally designed church provides variety in the streetscape. Ecclesiastical architecture, whether the opulent medievalism of a Ralph Adams Cram or the white-painted wooden buildings of New England’s older Congregationalist and Unitarian churches, has a different telos and origin than secular architecture. Indeed, for Catholics, churches are literally consecrated spaces, set apart from ordinary use.

A church too involved with the outside world can lose its sense of the sacred. In Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, TV screens flank the sanctuary, other televisions in the vestibule loudly advertise tours, and glass gift shops hawk their wares. Unless there is a special Mass, tourists wander between the pews, taking snapshots with their phones. Street noise can drown out the choir. Far from an oasis of calm, the church invites into its sanctum the bustle from outside.

But when a parish closes, even worldly activity ceases and the neighborhood is left with an unusually adorned building.

After its 2008 closure, Holy Trinity was surrounded by fencing. Stained-glass windows were replaced with plywood. Practically overnight a living relic of the neighborhood’s history was turned into blight. In many ways, however, the church had outlived its purpose. As Sauer recounts, in the 1930s—long before controversial liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s or white flight in the 1970s—German families began moving away to more upscale neighborhoods or suburbs. The Catholics who moved in—mainly African-Americans, Syrians, and poor whites of various ethnicities—attended the nearby Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Holy Trinity remained tied to German-Americans, but they ultimately joined other parishes, only making the long trip to the South End on special occasions. Before 1960s urban renewal destroyed the neighborhood, much of the old neighborhood had already left Holy Trinity.

While not mourned as much as that of Boston’s West End, urban renewal in the South End was no less destructive. According to Sauer, 700 families in the Castle Square neighborhood adjacent to Holy Trinity were displaced when the city bulldozed their homes in 1961. Also destroyed were the parish’s convent, schools, orphanage, and old-age home. While Castle Square was eventually rebuilt as public housing, another nearby section, New York Streets, was turned into superblocks designed to attract factories. They didn’t. As recently as 2012, there was little more than a few warehouses, a Chinese supermarket, and the Boston Herald printing plant.

A church closure not only deprives a neighborhood of numerous social benefits, but can rob it of its cultural and artistic heritage. A Catholic parish, for example, will be stripped of everything not totally immobile. Stained glass, altars, tabernacles, statues, candlesticks, crucifixes, communion rails, lamps, pews, and bells are removed. Some dioceses maintain warehouses to store the items in case they are needed by another church. A church demolition allows for even more ambitious dissolution: as Anatole Upart relates in Sacred Architecture, the front façade of Chicago’s Saint John of God Catholic Church was taken apart and rebuilt as part of Saint Raphael the Archangel in Old Mill Creek, Ill.

Catholic schools also contributed to social cohesion. According to the Rev. John A. Coleman S.J., neighborhoods in Chicago where parish schools remained open had 33 percent less crime than places where they closed. “It is not just the inner social capital of Catholic schools (discipline, parental involvement, teacher dedication) that counts but that this social capital has a spillover effect on neighborhoods,” he wrote in America.

“To tear them down would be to … lose established value,” said Kathy Kottaridis, the executive director of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that redevelops historic buildings in Boston. HBI once ran a program helping congregations keep their churches open with financial education and grant applications, but it was discontinued because simply maintaining buildings did not address declining attendance or overcome poor leadership. “It was pushing the boulder up the hill,” Kottaridis said.

But repurposing a historic church is challenging. Removing them from service opens them up to taxation, maintenance issues remain, and structures with landmark status might be required to go through extra design review or use historically accurate materials. Buildings not compliant with local codes have to be brought up to date—many churches need new heating systems, roof repairs, and updated electrical wiring. In cities like Boston, neighbors also have a large say in redevelopment plans.

Notwithstanding these challenges, historic churches across the Boston area have been repurposed for a variety of uses. The Massachusetts Preservation Coalition and the National Trust for Historic Preservation report that churches have been converted into theaters, affordable housing, market-rate apartments and condos, mixed-use buildings, commercial space, offices, schools, and community centers.

In Quebec, which is even more post-Christian than Boston, religious properties are being sold at “an alarming rate,” reported the Toronto Star. There are so many going on sale that projects that would likely not even be considered in the United States get the go-ahead. One church has been turned into an indoor miniature golf course, while another is now a rock-climbing gym, and a third has become the Quebec Circus School.

One thing most people agree on is that conversion to secular use is better than demolition.

thisarticleappears“If we don’t try to come up with plans to try to reuse these buildings … society would be poorer as a result,” Lyne Bernier, the chair of research on Canada’s urban heritage at the University of Quebec at Montreal told The Star.

“It’s a viewpoint that’s not strictly philosophical,” Kottaridis said.

And yet future generations may come to miss the stability their grandparents felt stifled by. They may one day lament, as Evelyn Waugh observed in the novel Brideshead Revisited, that “suddenly there wasn’t any chapel there anymore, just an oddly decorated room.”

Meanwhile, the preservation movement ensures that some church buildings will still be there, waiting for their next act.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

The Urban Home as Fortress

This house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, which belonged to lexicographer Joseph Worcester and won a preservation award, is almost completely hidden by a wall and a high hedge. (Matthew Robare)

The American dream used to involve a house on a green lot with a white picket fence out front. But increasingly many homeowners are opting for six-foot-tall privacy fences, completely screening their residences from the street. Taken singly, such a practice would be harmless eccentricity, but as a larger trend is indicative of the increasing isolation Americans experience from each other, as well as a blight on their neighborhoods.

Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass. runs west from Harvard Square towards Watertown. It’s known as Tory Row because before the American Revolution the few Massachusetts colonists who were Anglican gentry built their estates on it. During the Revolution they remained loyal to Britain and were largely forced to go to Canada. But some of the houses they left, as well as houses built by the later elite of Cambridge, still exist—and are sterling examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture. Or they would be if they could be seen.

Many of the houses along both sides of the street are hidden from view by tall privacy fences or dense plantings. The exceptions are a more recent-looking building which is home to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and a National Historic Site—a house that George Washington used as his military headquarters and that was later the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

It’s difficult to understand why. Sometimes it would appear that such fences are built against the noise of a busy road, but this is not the case with Brattle Street or other slow and quiet lanes. One house in the area has a four-foot fence in the front, but the street-facing windows are narrow and about six feet off the ground. They are eerily reminiscent of the embrasures or arrowslits of Medieval fortifications.

Some people have chosen to fence off their homes for security purposes. Anna Daniels of the San Diego Free Press wrote in 2013 that she and her husband built a fence in the front of their property to protect against theft and keep out hostile people asking for money. But this explanation again fails to satisfy in Cambridge, where crime is low and people almost never close the gates across the driveways anyway.

Another house on Brattle Street is hidden by a crumbling wall and overhanging plantings. (Matthew Robare)

According to Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune, front yard fences prevent neighborhood children from playing games and provide an “illusion of added security” while making “the streetscape look like a collection of mini-compounds rather than a community.”

Rather, the phenomenon seems to indicate a withdrawal from public life. A fence stops people from looking in, but it can also prevent people from looking out. One need not concern oneself with anything on the street if one cannot see it. Social ties born of proximity and place become irrelevant. There are few “third spaces” in the neighborhood of Brattle Street and even if there were more, the automobile allows the residents to avoid interaction with each other just as if there were none. A house ceases to be a castle and becomes its own self-contained universe.

Is an area of such kings of infinite space bound up in nutshells even still a neighborhood? Maybe not.

Modern houses in Cambridge, such as this one on Sparks Street, may not have high fences, but the narrow street-facing windows and massing still present an unfriendly face to neighbors. (Matthew Robare)

Again, all these walls might be harmless eccentricities, but they have consequences. For one thing, we are all deprived of the ability to view fine historic architecture and by replacing it with what amounts to a featureless curtain wall, the street is made boring. This discourages walking, encourages cars to speed and, as neuroscientist Colin Ellard wrote in Aeon in 2015, boredom increases stress, addiction, and disease, and decreases intellectual activity.

“The real risks of bad design might lie less in unhappy streets filled with unmotivated pedestrians, and more in the amassing of a population of urban citizens with epidemic levels of boredom,” Ellard wrote.

The uses of trees and bushes as privacy fences can also encroach on public life by actively taking away pedestrian space when property owners don’t take care of their plantings that face the street. Pedestrians should not be forced to step into the street because cedar trees or creeping vines are taking over the sidewalk.

In less wealthy neighborhoods than Brattle Street, such fencing not only prevents there being “eyes on the street,” (in Jane Jacobs’ famous phrase), but quickly attracts the signs of blight from graffiti and litter, making walking not only boring but potentially unpleasant or dangerous.

The interaction between buildings and street life are no less important in residential neighborhoods than they are in downtown and mixed-use districts. Liveliness might be a quality reserved for downtown, but that doesn’t mean all neighborhoods can’t be friendly and pleasant to walk through.

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

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


Why Ballparks Can’t Save Cities

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Baseball is a game of inches, but it is also a game of nostalgia. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore opened in the 1992 season it set off a wave of retro ballpark construction in the Major Leagues. The multipurpose “cookie-cutter” parks with their huge outfields and artificial turf (so they could be used for football in the offseason), with names like Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium, were obsolete and out of fashion overnight. As a result, after Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), the oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues is Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.

The retro parks are built only for baseball, on real grass, and use many of the materials and strange configurations of the old parks, such as exposed brick and jutting corners for weird bounces, like AT&T Park’s “Triples Alley”. The New York Mets’ new home, Citi Field, even recreated part of the facade of long vanished Ebbetts Field for its Jackie Robinson Rotunda.

A traditional ballpark has a personality of its own and, occasionally, its owner. When Bill Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s, he altered Municipal Stadium’s dimensions regularly to favor the Tribe. Braves Field in Boston was built with a huge outfield in order to increase the number of triples hit.

Baseball teams and their parks also end up reflecting their cities—after all, the reason old ballparks like Fenway have their quirks is because they were built to fit in city blocks and Boston has some strange streets. In a similar way, several writers believe that Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees as much because he couldn’t stomach Boston’s puritanical culture as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s money troubles.

Baseball has also brought cities together in a way not often seen in other sports. The 1968 Detroit Tigers were credited with calming the city after the race riot in 1967 and the unrest following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. The ’77 Yankees and 2013 Red Sox are similarly credited with bringing their cities together at difficult times. The strong emotional bond between a city and a team feed into a city’s sense of place.

Last year Rod Dreher visited Siena and wrote about how within the walls each contrade, or ward, competes with every other one in the annual Palio horse race. They all have their own hymns, yet all are set to the same tune, the same one for the whole city when competing with other cities. A similar thing happens with baseball teams—it becomes the city versus all comers instead of one faction among many. Things might be said to go from “my city” to “Our bleeping city”.

But all is not as it seems.

Baseball stadiums are expensive to build and urban property prices have always been high, especially considering the amount of parking needed to accommodate 40,000 people. As a result, teams want public financing, tax abatements, and all the other ills that crony capitalism promotes. Paid for with higher taxes, increased public indebtedness, and highway improvements, the retro ballparks were sold to city, county, and state governments as a form of economic development and urban regeneration.

None of that has happened. Not even with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which started the whole thing and cost taxpayers $282 million, according to Field of Schemes. According to Bloomberg in 2013, sports stadiums don’t fulfill development goals because they’re empty much of the time, the jobs they create are low-wage, and they divert spending on food and beverages from other businesses. In Baltimore, says Field of Schemes, the number of employers in the area fell between 1998 and 2013, while crime and unemployment were up.

Tim Chapin, an urban planning professor at Florida State University, told Bloomberg that Camden Yards had not saved downtown Baltimore or improved the poorer neighborhoods near downtown. Former Maryland legislator Julian Lapides said that the whole area was vacant on game days. “It’s a big hole in the center of the City.”

In that respect, stadium deals are no better than ordinary economic development funds. Back in December of 2012, the New York Times found that states and cities spend up to $80 billion a year on economic development incentives with nothing much to show for it in the way of stronger economies or more and better paying jobs.

The area around Camden Yards, however, is still better than some retro parks, such as Citi Field or Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which are entirely surrounded by parking. The real appeal of old ballparks (like Fenway and Wrigley) and the nostalgia for lost ones (like Ebbetts Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and others) comes from their history—many former ballparks have the location of home plate marked with a plaque, and Pirates fans still gather at the site of Forbes Field on the anniversary of Bill Mazerowski’s World Series-winning home run against the Yankees—and the way they were part of a neighborhood.

The area around Boston’s Fenway Park has seen a lot of changes come and go, but in addition to the new glass and steel luxury towers going up on Brookline Avenue, there are old warehouses (long-since converted into memorabilia stores and sports bars) and apartment buildings of similar age, their flaking brick facades and sagging wood floors belying their high rents. In Chicago, Wrigley Field gave its name to its neighborhood, Wrigleyville, which is still somewhat affordable and where people in neighboring houses can watch the game from their roofs.

Fenway and Wrigley prove two things: that neighborhoods can develop around ballparks, so long as the neighborhood isn’t torn down for parking and teams don’t need new ballparks every 30 years. But as long as team owners use threats to move a beloved team as emotional blackmail against an entire city—and public officials think can win votes on bad deals—sports franchises will continue to feast on public funds like a slugger on hanging sliders.

In life, like in baseball, sometimes the only thing to do is take the pitch because you can’t do anything useful with it.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Does Small, Local Retail Matter?

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Can communities support independent, local retailers while promoting economic development and downtown revitalization?

This was the key question at a panel on Death by Chains? in Providence, RI last week. The event was sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism New England Chapter, the R Street Institute, and The American Conservative.

One panelist suggested that ensuring a mix of businesses should take a backseat to general placemaking considerations. My relationship to retail is secondary, said Cliff Wood, the executive director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy. Now that we’re experiencing some success the chains are starting to knock on the door. Retail is in service to a larger mission.According to its website, the DPPC promotes revitalizing downtown Providence with pedestrian-friendly public spaces.

Kip Bergstrom, who has held a variety of positions in economic development in Connecticut, said that the United States was overbuilt for retail, with roughly 10 times the square feet per person than in Europe. However, he said there is a mismatch, because much of the supply is in the form of suburban malls and shopping centers, but the demand is for more traditional venues.

They’re looking for good urbanism, Bergstrom said. It’s not death by chain, it’s the death of the suburban shopping center.

But retail is part of placemaking.

Retail is the thing that makes a place interesting, Bergstrom said. Without retail you don’t have a place.

He said that the big challenge in retail was affordability. Not only are there currently not enough good urban spaces, but if all the development suddenly switched to good urbanism, it would still be expensive to build initially. He suggested that new retail developments should use well-paying chain retail to keep rents low for independent, local retail.

Arts consultant Margaret Bodell said that local businesses can, in a way create their own demand.

One of the things I see is that people want to be part of a community, she said. Supporting local businesses is what people want to do.

Anne Haynes of MassDevelopment, an economic development agency, agreed with this idea. Each store is a hub of community, she said. Most retail provides that.Haynes works with Massachusetts’ “gateway cities,” places that were once fairly prosperous industrial hubs, but have experienced disinvestment and increases in poverty, unemployment, and crime.

Bodell’s community-building efforts focus on using the arts to enhance business districts with nice store fronts and pop-up stores. The biggest obstacle she faces, she said, is getting landlords to allow experimental approaches.


Jonathan Coppage of the R Street Institute said that Washington has created barriers to the good urbanism Bergstrom spoke about.

There are significant obstacles for small developers trying to get off the ground because of the mixed-use nature, he said. When you have the organic mixture of uses—the federal government is not set up for that.

Coppage said that there were no federal loans or loan guarantees for mixed-use urban buildings unless they were around six or more stories or the developer could get a customized loan from a local bank—which is not likely. He said that there needed to be more adaptive institutions.

Bergstrom said that R. John Anderson, an architect and urbanist who promotes small-scale, incremental development, had developed a template for a one-story retail building with two 900 square foot stores that’s designed to be affordable from the beginning.

Why does small retail matter? asked Coppage.

I think that the most important thing about retail is the sense of creating your own destiny, Haynes said. When you see a chain store, you know that the decisions are not being made locally.

Bergstrom said that he did a lot of traveling and observed that non-chain stores make neighborhoods more unique. Upscale neighborhoods all look the same with the same high end chain stores, he said. It’s chic, but it’s generic chic.

People go to places when they want to be in those places, said Wood. There’s a ‘hereness’—people like where they are.

But the problem is that as neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.

Bergstrom described the problem as one of creating control rods for the nuclear reaction of neighborhood space.

Part of our agreements with cities to figure out how to be sustainable and support activity for the long term, Haynes said. It requires a person. We call it community engagement for economic development.

One of the things the panelists agreed on was the importance of ownership. Bergstrom said that one of the important things about the retail building template was that it was designed to be rent-to-own.

Wood said that there was an artists’ squat in Providence called AS 220 that managed to gain control of their building through sweat equity.

The clever thing they did was figure out how to be owners, he said.

John DiGiovanni, a member of the Harvard Square Business Association in Cambridge, Mass., said he wasn’t concerned with chains at all.

It’s all about place, he said. The successful spaces are about place and the businesses behind the door come and go.

If you can create you can participate in your community, Bodell said.

Another issue mentioned was the problem of vacancies. In some cities, businesses will move around but keep an empty location leased. Bergstrom called that practice restraint of trade and said that Rhode Island had created a kind of land value tax to punish landlords who keep properties vacant.

Peter Friedrichs, director of the Central Falls, RI Office of Planning and Economic Development, said that it was called the non-utilization tax and was about three times the typical property tax.

It’s an absolutely crucial tool, he said.

You can’t predict the market, Haynes said. The only thing you can depend on is a need for a diverse range of spaces.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice

Everyone who follows debates about urban planning already knows that sprawling cities build more housing and have lower housing costs. Yet last week Issi Romem, an economic analyst at BuildZoom, a company that helps people find and hire contractors, published an analysis of this phenomenon that sent urbanists reeling. It should not have done so. Romem’s data was not new and his analysis was flawed and misleading.

Romem also shows that cities have not been increasing in population density as much as the past. Again, this isn’t new. If anything, Romem understates what has happened: the largest cities in the United States in 1950 all began to experience population decline due to suburbanization in that decade and only New York City has exceeded its previous peak, while expensive, growing coastal cities like Boston and Washington, DC are still far off the densities and populations they had in the past.

While Romem’s data is indisputable, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Sprawl isn’t really as cheap as it seems. A network of tax breaks, financial guarantees, subsidies, and other chicanery keep parts of suburbia relatively inexpensive. Most notably, transportation costs are often excluded from the discussion of housing affordability, even though it’s hard to live anywhere without a way to get to work. For example, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has shown that the low density, car-dependent development that has typified American cities since World War II does not produce enough tax revenue to service the debt that cities took out to build the infrastructure needed for sprawl.

Romem compares the San Francisco and Atlanta metropolitan areas on affordability and the sprawling Peach City naturally beats out the more compact City by the Bay on housing costs, but if one includes transportation costs as a percentage of income, then Atlanta becomes less of a bargain, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T Index. A typical household in San Francisco, according to the measure, spends 50 percent of its income on housing and transportation, but a typical Atlanta household spends 54 percent of its income on the same costs.

This leads to what Romem calls the “land-use trilemma,” which presents the perceived trade-offs between more sprawl, doing nothing while letting expensive cities get more expensive, or liberalizing land use laws to allow more density. Much like C.S. Lewis’s trilemma, which was useful for Christian apologetics (but is usually ignored by more serious theologians and Biblical scholars), Romem’s trilemma is useful for the apologists of sprawl but falls apart upon examining his assumptions.

For instance, tucked away in a footnote, Romem writes that “Shifting from single family to multifamily housing involves a sacrifice in terms of living standards. The current wave of interest in micro-units takes the sacrifice of living standards to an extreme.” This is a load of tosh: last year a CBS affiliate in San Francisco did a story on a house in the Mission District where the rent was $1,800 a month (far less than the area’s average rent), but tenants were in bunk beds eight to a room and the house ultimately had 30 people in it. When compared with this living situation, even a 140 square foot micro-apartment one has to one’s self is going to be a major step up. Nor does an increase in density imply a shift from single family homes to large apartment buildings: the attached houses of the English Midlands are single family and have yards. Tokyo also achieves very high densities with detached single family houses, thanks to small sizes, small lots, and narrow streets.

A similar view of development underlines and undermines the trilemma. For example, Romem implies that development is a major intervention that happens on a neighborhood scale. He told Bloomberg‘s Patrick Clark, “No one is really thinking about tearing down single-family neighborhoods and putting up apartment buildings.”

But no urbanists really think that kind of demolition is necessary. There’s a wide spectrum between the Levittowns, archetypes of postwar sprawl, and Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City, once the densest neighborhood on the planet. Density can be added, as in the albeit extreme Mission bunkhouse example, by turning a single family house into a multifamily home. Apartments can be carved out in basements, second stories, and above garages. The principles of the New Urbanism suggest that such incremental development is healthier for cities, since property remains in the hands of smallholders instead of assembled into giant lots.

Some cities are improving the quality of life for seniors and housing young people with homeshares. Seniors in many cities face increased difficulties in staying in their homes because they have more house than they can take care of and are hit harder by increases in property taxes. These programs match young people with seniors and they pay a small rent while taking care of the house and keeping the older person engaged and active.

New Urbanism also presents an alternative to the trilemma by supporting the regeneration of small towns affected by deindustrialization. Many cities have older, traditional small towns with existing but dilapidated multifamily housing stock or downtown commercial or industrial blocks capable of being attractively renovated. New England in particular is home to many of them—towns like Southbridge, Mass and Woonsocket, R.I., or even Bridgeport, Conn. New Urbanist designs can also be applied to new development in expansive cities. Some big cities, especially outside the northeast and west coast, are surrounded by unincorporated land not subject to municipal zoning laws. A developer could build a denser, more urban neighborhood in these areas—which is exactly what’s happening in Toronto’s suburbs, according to Stephen J. Smith. The financing might be difficult, thanks to federal rules that, according to the Regional Plan Association, discourage the construction of small mixed-use buildings by capping how much commercial space they can have and promoting larger buildings.

Just as importantly, the land-use trilemma falls apart because realistically there is no alternative to allowing greater density. There are hard limits to the development pattern of American suburbia. The most discussed is commute time across metropolitan areas. According to Slate, longer commutes are associated with divorce, isolation, obesity, stress, neck and back pain, sleeplessness, and unhappiness. The conventional wisdom for dealing with long commutes has been to build bigger and faster streets and highways, but in the long term, this does not work. Several years ago Texas spent $2.8 billion to widen the congested Katy Freeway connecting Houston to its suburbs. At 23 lanes it is the widest highway in the world and Houston commute times have still increased, according to City Observatory. Metropolitan areas need not follow the standard pattern of a dense core—not that most American cities are dense by global standards—and dispersed suburbs, but could become more decentralized with pockets of higher density at certain points throughout a region, along the lines of Joel Garreau’s neglected “edge city” concept.

American cities need not face an ugly choice or a hard choice, but their leaders and citizens do need to make decisions based on the realities of market demand, high levels of public and personal indebtedness, and climate change.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Can Cooperative Businesses Save Communities?

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Nearly a decade after the beginning of the Great Recession, the economic recovery has been concentrated in a few sectors and a few places, mostly fields in technology and in coastal cities. Many Americans have been left behind in jobs with stagnating wages, while rising housing costs prevent them from moving. To stabilize their communities and rebuild the household wealth lost in the financial crisis, many Americans—particularly those in once decaying inner city neighborhoods—are turning to the model of co-operative businesses, which emphasize joint ownership by workers and democratic management.

James Razsa, a 32-year-old resident of the traditionally blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, is one of them. He’s a founding partner of Democracy Brewing, a co-op brewery currently raising money to start production.

“I’ve done a lot of unpleasant jobs,” he said. “Starbucks was where I started to understand that a lot of my co-workers were living in poverty. We were taking $2,000 in profit a day and sending it to people who had never been there.”

Starting a co-op was a way to have the best of both worlds, he said. He gets to do a job he loves and be a business owner.

Razsa isn’t alone, either.

The number of worker co-operatives in the United States has been growing for two decades, according to the Democracy at Work Institute, and employee-ownership advocacy organizations such as the Democracy Collaborative and the Surdna Foundation report surging interest since the financial crisis.

The Democracy Collaborative in particular has been at the forefront of a new model for Rust Belt cities struggling with growing poverty and unemployment, called the Cleveland Model from the city where it was first put into practice. The result, called the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, was launched in 2008. Evergreen partnered with local educational, healthcare, and charitable organizations to start worker co-ops to provide some of the millions of dollars worth of goods and services they need every year.

The model has since been taken to Rochester, New York, where the Democracy Collaborative helped develop the Market Driven Community Cooperatives Initiative. According to NextCity, Rochester’s anchor institutions collectively spend $1.7 billion a year on goods and services. Rochester’s initiative is focused on the city’s Northern Crescent neighborhoods, areas just outside the downtown where over 60 percent of the residents are living below the poverty line. The Evergreen Initiative also started in a high-poverty neighborhood, Greater University Circle.

The higher wages and shared ownership of co-ops have also helped them and their members stabilize and rebuild their communities.

“[We want to] create a space like an old public house,” Razsa said. “It was a place where you passed the hat or planned the next labor rebellion. Recreating that third space was important.”

Credit unions, essentially banks owned by their depositors, are also playing a role. Melissa Marquez, the CEO of the Genesee Cooperative Federal Credit Union, which is working with the MDCCI to provide small business loans to start up co-ops, said in an email that “Increased net worth (rather than equity stripping) increases stability for families and minorities in Rochester.”

In Britain the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society suspended mortgage payments during a miners’ strike so its members could keep their homes, according to The Catholic Herald. Then it demutualized and collapsed during the financial crisis, ending up nationalized in 2008.

Success is far from guaranteed. The Surdna Foundation report “Ours To Share,” published earlier this year, praised worker ownership in general as a way of increasing access to capital, building wealth, and maintaining productivity that’s as good as or better than conventionally owned and managed firms. But the report notes that there have been problems: for example, Evergreen’s businesses struggled to become profitable for several years, with no employees or consultants having experience in the types of businesses they were working with.

“Creating a local economy from the ground up, however, turns out to be a complex endeavor … first you have to create wealth in order to share it,” the report noted. According to the Democracy Collaborative’s report “Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale,” “Lack of business experience is a key barrier that limits startup and growth of worker co-ops. Many worker co-ops are initiated by workers who have relevant job and industry expertise, but lack business management experience.”

This is one area where Democracy Brewing is ahead of the game. Its board of directors features Jason Taggart, an experienced craft brewer at John Harvard’s Brewery and Alehouse in Cambridge, and Rob Evert, a co-executive director of Equal Exchange, a co-operatively owned cafe business. The business model also involves providing education and assistance to people interested in starting and running co-op businesses, Razsa said.

Another challenge is getting the start-up capital for businesses. Credit unions, for example, are limited in how much they can lend to small businesses and conventional sources aren’t always willing to see eye to eye.

Razsa said that Democracy Brewing had $400,000 in conventional start-up money lined up, but the rate of return the lender was demanding would have meant paying employees poverty wages. As a result they’re trying to raise the money through Kickstarter.  

Unfamiliarity with the model and a perceived lack of accountability lead traditional lenders to be skeptical and reluctant to lend to worker co-ops, according to the “Pathways to Scale” report. Marquez said that before lending to a co-op, Genesee reviewed incorporation papers to see who could make decisions. She added that members with more than a 10 percent stake in the co-op also signed on as personal guarantors. At the same time, Marquez said she looked at it as no different from lending to any other small business with more than one owner.

Earlier this year an Italian dairy co-op made international headlines when they couldn’t get a bank loan and so they sold bonds backed by the parmesan cheese they were making.

The continued economic uncertainty and lagging recovery in much of the country suggests that co-ops will continue to attract interest.

“People are very excited,” Razsa said. “We’re going to start their imaginations going.”

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


How to Bring Back Southbridge

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Southbridge, Mass., is one of dozens of New England mill towns that have fallen on hard times. These places were once prosperous, with traditional development built around walkable downtowns and streetcars. But today, the factories have closed and the downtowns are empty, thanks to economic collapse, antiquated zoning laws, and an automobile-centric transportation policy.

In many ways, Southbridge is typical of these towns. Its American Optical Company was once the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world; now, the town’s structures are falling apart and few businesses are left. But in Southbridge, whose population numbers about 16,000, one native son is working to revive his hometown one building at a time.

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

That outlook informs his work today. While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur. His company, Bellus Real Estate, works by buying distressed properties and renovating them. This style of small-scale development has low barriers to entry, is less disruptive to neighborhoods, and can produce a decent profit margin without ultra-luxury apartments or chain restaurants.

It also puts into practice many of the ideals of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to recover the traditional patterns of urban development that prevailed before World War II. This time-tested model is characterized by walkable communities and buildings with storefronts and street-level windows and doors. The contrast is especially striking with the nearly windowless concrete bunkers and shopping malls built in the middle of the last century.

Since starting in 2012—he had to delay closing on his first property until he turned 18—Foote has built up a portfolio of 60 properties. “What’s really remarkable is that he did this with no money,” says Ted Carman, a developer and consultant with Boston-based Concord Square Planning and Development.

When Foote started out, banks basically wouldn’t talk to him. They didn’t like lending money for real estate in an area like Southbridge, and they certainly didn’t like lending money to a 17-year-old. As a result, he had to raise money from other sources, such as his family and private investors. He initially asked 117 contacts before he found one willing to take the risk.

Foote then used historic-preservation grants and tax credits to help him get started, and as he’s built up a track record he’s been able to get money from local banks. Now he’s looking into crowdfunding for real estate, which was legalized recently, and he’s taken advantage of tax credits and grants to install solar arrays on the roofs of some of his buildings. “It doesn’t take a lot of money, it takes creativity,” Foote says. “We kept piggy-backing on our previous projects.”

His work benefits the whole town. Foote says there had been dozens of crimes, including assaults and even a murder, at three of the buildings he chose to renovate. In just those three buildings, his company has added $2.2 million in value, he says, worth about $40,000 in annual tax revenue to the town. Outside of downtown, the properties he purchased were all delinquent in taxes or water bills. He also hires local contractors to handle the renovations. “Interest rates are low, property values are low,” he says. “We saw an opportunity to buy cheap properties with cheap money and hire cheap people to renovate them.”

In keeping with New Urbanism, Foote also aims to reduce Southbridge’s reliance on automobiles. “It really appeals to have a walkable downtown,” he told a fall meeting of the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU-NE). “It reduces the need for anyone to have a car.”

Walkable development is much healthier for a city than the auto-oriented alternatives, according to Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates traditional development. Marohn wrote for TAC last year that “on a per-foot or per-acre basis, [traditional development] is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation.”

Marohn compares a city to an ecosystem. “Any time you look at a natural system, it benefits from small iterations,” he says. “You get systems that are far more optimized than if you take big leaps all at once. Traditional development is to suburban development as the Amazon rain forest is to a corn field.”

Many places in New England have still not learned that lesson, and continue to chase big-dollar projects. After Massachusetts passed a law legalizing casinos a few years ago, an $800 million gambling project was planned on 15 acres in Springfield, while a $1.7 billion project was planned for Everett’s waterfront. Even Boston isn’t immune to pie-in-the-sky projects, as its aborted attempt to host the 2024 Summer Olympics revealed.

Not only do casino projects and heavily subsidized corporate chases fail to rescue declining cities, but they can stoke backlash against development in general.  The result is that the well-financed and well-connected developers still get to do their large projects, but the less influential developers get stiffed.

Foote has faced his own challenges in Southbridge, such as preservationists who try to insist that he get “Certificates of Historical Accuracy” for his renovations, a process that can significantly increase costs. The building inspectors he’s worked with, on the other hand, would prefer he burn the buildings down. Marohn says inspectors around the country need to understand how to apply building codes to renovated buildings instead of expecting them to conform to new codes.

Neighbors have also been an issue. When Foote was renovating one downtown building for apartments, some people wanted him to make the apartments too big for transients but too small for families. The redevelopment of a former Raytheon site in the Boston suburb of Sudbury faced a similarly motivated challenge, as town officials demanded that most units built on the 50-acre property be restricted to people 55 and up to avoid increasing the school-age population.

One of the aims of CNU-NE is to encourage more people to become developers and build toward New Urbanism’s vision rather than succumbing to these pressures. “We need to chart a vision of development that speaks to … democratizing control of change in cities by reducing the amount of capital or power you have to have to make an individual or small group contribution,” say Seth Zeren, a member of CNU-NE’s board of directors and an urban-planner-turned-developer himself. “Essentially, it’s an argument for the petit bourgeois—small landlords, shopkeepers, etc. The bigger the buildings get, the fewer capitalists you’ll have; the bigger the experiments you make, the greater the returns at the top. There are plenty of examples from older urban contexts that you can have dynamic, dense, and economically prosperous cities with a majority of the city built of fine-grained urban buildings.”

Too many cities have become trapped by once-bitten, twice-shy neighbors and a failed philosophy of auto-centric urbanism. Small developers, whether real-estate entrepreneurs like Foote or Zeren’s petit bourgeois looking to get the most value from their assets, can be that needed force for local renewal.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


100 Years of Jane Jacobs Down, 100 Years to Go

It is difficult to write about the centennial of Jane Jacobs. For one thing, her influence on urbanism is unsurpassed and difficult to understate; for another, everyone has been writing something and so there’s a lot of overlap between pieces.

And yet, for all the encomiums and praise and think pieces in City Lab, Vox, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and even the New York Daily News, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that for all her intellectual influence, very little has changed about the American city and what has changed has been mostly cosmetic.

In the Boston area, for example, outdated zoning and building codes have created a process so complex that only professionals can navigate it and so long that only luxury buildings are profitable. The codes result in structures that encourage driving with parking minimums, setbacks that turn already wide streets into drag strips and use-separation that deadens them further.

And that’s ignoring the great architectural void in America right now: new buildings, even when they’re on the street, have patently horrible interaction with it. We continue to massive, whole block buildings with blank curtain walls, hypertrophic setbacks and useless lawns. As previously noted, Somerville’s Assembly Square development has produced a lot of giant parking garages and little else.

Charleston, South Carolina, has become a poster-child for the New Urbanism by creating restrictive architectural codes and figuring out clever ways to hide parking instead of helping people to become less dependent on it.

Many neighborhoods are still mired in a lack of activity. Downtown Crossing is vibrant during the day and almost deserted at night, Brighton Center, Roslindale and other neighborhoods have the opposite problem. The only people in the South End during the day appear to be dog walkers.

The dualistic level of activity has effectively prevented the development of “sidewalk ballet” streetlife in most neighborhoods, which has made it haerd for them to absorb newcomers. While Boston retains a fairly strong civil society, which can make up for the lack of street-life, those institutions are not attracting or even working to attract the young or newcomers.

Perhaps the only way Jacobs’ ideas have really been applied have been in the development of mixed-use buildings. Just about every new building in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville is mixed-use. However, what this usually means is a small portion of the street frontage goes to a retail use. Often they are tenanted to a chain company even before construction starts and sometimes they’re deed-restricted in an effort to not generate traffic. Unfortunately, the focus on retail ignores the just as important industrial and office uses vital to the health of the city.

Worse still, the lip service paid by officials and planners to Jacobsian ideas can lull citizens and activists into a false sense of security. It’s one thing for the mayor to talk about Vision Zero and mode shift, but Boston is falling behind in its bike commitments and the administration has been indifferent to transit issues.

Where Jacobs’ legacy has truly been transformative has been in her famous battle with Robert Moses. The organization and mobilization of entire neighborhoods to resist being destroyed for suburban motorists helped make today’s revival and renewal of American cities possible. It’s true that it has also contributed to the plague of NIMBY’s, eager to oppose anything and everything with cries of “Save our neighborhood!” but without Freeway Revolt there wouldn’t be much of anything left in Boston to even feel threatened.

The No Boston Olympics movement helped to derail a costly, condescending and absurd attempt to hand over control of the City to a shadowy and corrupt oligarchy, fully prepared to prevent Bostonians’ freedom of movement across their city and access to their parks, as well as using eminent domain to destroy an important business cluster in Widett Circle.

Similarly, residents of Allston have played a major role in keeping the Massachusetts Department of Transportation honest as it tries to rebuild Interstate 90 through the neighborhood. The Allston Interchange Task Force and People’s Pike have fought MassDoT every step of the way to get them to do a project that’s actually acknowledges the fact that this highway is in an urban neighborhood. While a lot of work remains ahead of them, they show no signs of giving up.

Perhaps, though, it’s appropriate that the recovery of our cities from urban renewal is taking so long. Cities are the products of centuries of tradition, economic evolution, and human use. Expecting them to recover instantly makes the same mistake of cataclysmic redevelopment that overthrew them in the first place. That organic tradition cannot be revived all at once: the only way to rebuild the city is to rebuild it brick by brick, building by building.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history. This post was originally published on

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus foundation.

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China Greenwashes Le Corbusier

Tianjin Eco-city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China can do better. It must do better.

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

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American Anarchist

Monday evening, in a standard Massachusetts Institute of Technology auditorium of muted colors and uncomfortable chairs, a wizened, stooped, silver-haired man in an ugly sweater held a packed house of nearly 300 people—most of them young, fashionably dressed, and capable of affording to attend one of the most prestigious private universities in the country—spellbound for about an hour and a half. That man was Noam Chomsky, and his subject was anarchism.

Chomsky has had an influential academic career in linguistics, but achieved celebrity status as a political philosopher and activist, beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War and continuing through today with the charges of imperialism he levels at American foreign policy, and the criticism he makes of capitalism, and the totalitarian strains he traces through both the left and the right.

He was introduced by Nathan Schneider, a journalist who covered the Occupy movement for The Nation, Harper’s, and the Boston Review. Schneider described how Occupy activists had a kind of “amnesia” about leftist activism, knowing little of the history and practices of previous generations of activists since few of them had any prior experience. Chomsky, Schneider said, represents that neglected tradition. He also pointed out that anarchism has been revived as a term of abuse, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) derided Tea Partiers as “anarchists,” and some Republicans have made the same charge against North Carolina union organizers.

The main body of Chomsky’s talk was an outline and definition of the anarchist intellectual tradition, which he said was centuries old, though “terms of political discourse are hardly ones of precision.” He continued, “that’s even more true of ‘anarchism.’ It resists any characterization.”

The main currents of anarchist thought were derived from classical liberal ideas that emerged in the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The central idea, Chomsky said, was that “institutions that constrain human development are illegitimate unless they can justify themselves.” Anarchists seek to challenge those institutions and dismantle the ones that cannot be justified, while creating new institutions from the ground up based on cooperation and benefits for the community. This tradition of libertarian socialism or anarcho-syndicalism was still alive, Chomsky claimed, despite challenges and suppression.

Paraphrasing the German-American anarchist Rudolf Rocker, Chomsky said that anarchism seeks to free labor from economic exploitation and society from ecclesiastical guardianship. This meant that workers struggle for their well-being and dignity—“for bread and roses,” as he put it—while rejecting the convention of working for others in exchange for money, which he described as a kind of slavery. The other opposition, to ecclesiastical guardianship, he explained as not necessarily an opposition to organized religion—he praised Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Christian anarchism of the Basque Country. Rather, Chomsky articulated an opposition to the idea that society should be regulated by an elite group, whether they are liberal technocrats, religious clerics, or corporate executives.

Chomsky also addressed some of the issues confronting anarchist activism, noting that while anarchists stand against the state, they often advocate for state coercion in order to protect people from “the savage beasts” of the capitalists, as he put it. Yet he saw this as not a contradiction, but a streak of pragmatism. “People live and suffer in this world, not one we imagine,” Chomsky explained. “It’s worth remembering that anarchists condemn really existing states instead of idealistic visions of governments ‘of, by and for the people.’”

He then connected the libertarian socialist tradition to currents in American thought, quoting the philosopher John Dewey as saying that “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, communication and transportation … workers should be the masters of their individual fates.” To Chomsky, “Dewey was American as apple pie.”

He contrasted Dewey’s critique of power with the ideals of the liberal/progressive tradition in the United States, noting that many of its leading lights, including Walter Lippmann, Samuel Huntington, and Woodrow Wilson, held extremely dim views of the majority of people, considering them dangerous, ignorant, and in need of control. Despite the historical tendency of elite groups of “ecclesiastical guardians,” like liberal technocrats or the Iranian Guardian Council to which he compared them, to seek control over society, he saw continued resistance. He finished his remarks on an optimistic note by pointing out that the anarchist critics of power are always recurring—during the English Civil War a “rabble” appeared that didn’t want to be ruled by either the king or Parliament—and that anarchism is like Marx’s old mole: always near the surface.

Throughout his talk Chomsky described how he became involved with anarchism. His extended family was involved in left-wing movements in Philadelphia and New York before World War II, and he spent time in New York’s Union Square, where many Leftists congregated—including Catalonian anarchists fleeing reprisals from Francisco Franco. He also pointed out that many working class people of the era were involved in high culture and were familiar with sympathetic poems such as Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which memorialized the Peterloo Massacre.

It was a theme he returned to with the first question, which was about contemporary engagement with the arts. He contrasted two films from 1954, On the Waterfront and Salt of the Earth. The former was about a worker standing up to a corrupt union, had a wide release, and starred Marlon Brando. The latter was about union workers on strike and was effectively banned in the United States.

“When people in power believe something firmly, that’s worth investigating,” Chomsky said.

Finally, he was asked about the growth of surveillance and the militarization of the police.

“The phenomenon itself shouldn’t be surprising—the scale was surprising—but the phenomenon itself is as American as apple pie,” Chomsky said. “You can be confident that any system of power is going to use technology against its enemy: the population. Power systems seek short-term domination and control, not security.”

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