Monday, July 27

Some clarifications about the meaning of urbanism

Ryan Advent makes an important clarification to an urbanist position that I wholeheartedly agree with:

"When urbanists like myself argue in favor of better policies, it is (generally) not with the belief that we all should or ever will live in very dense urban environments. Rather, I think that we should improve policy, and that the result will be slightly fewer living in low-density environments and slightly more people living in high-density environments. And it’s worth pointing out that “high-density” can mean many things — everything from Midtown Manhattan, to the walkable rowhouse neighborhoods in the District, to transit-oriented neighborhoods in places like Arlington where dense development around transit hubs rapidly gives way to detached but compact single-family homes. To the extent that any urbanist out there is arguing that everyone must live the condo and Whole Foods life, I’m ready to declare that they’re wrong."
Probably more than any other criticism, I hear that urbanism implies a certain lifestyle preference for denser urban living (cue techno music) over a simpler rural lifestyle (cue folk music). Seen this way, it becomes almost like a special interest group for young cultural creatives and empty-nesters pitted against families and those who work the land. This isn't what I hope to be conveying. Maybe if it means ditching the word urbanist, it would be worth it to clear up this confusion. I'd like to join with Ryan in countering this notion with a number of points:
  1. For decades, we have been imposing local, state, and federal regulations that encourage low over high density development. As a result it appears that the ratio of drivable, suburban choices to walkable, urban choices is way out of sync with the public's actual preferences. This skews market prices considerably. As a result, too many people are being forced into a suboptimal (according to their own preferences) living arrangements, especially those with less income. This could be called the Leinberger defense.

  2. It's not clear to me that we will be able to afford, as a society or as individual households, continuing the low-density living arrangements we now have, whatever our preferences may be. When oil prices spiked last summer, many people who were dependent on automobiles suffered, and everyone expects oil prices to rebound if the economy picks up. The highway trust fund is a sinking ship and will probably continue to not be solvent into the long-term. Our highway system is remarkably expensive to maintain, and it's unclear how we are going to expand it as we have been in perpetuity. Right now the government has been absorbing these costs with deficit spending, but that's obviously not sustainable into the future.

    And then there's the looming shadows of peak oil and global climate change. Preparing for anticipated economic realities is prudent and fair for the generations who will be following us. This could be called the Kunstler defense.

  3. Way back, I wrote a couple posts on how a movement known as agrarianism (think Wendell Berry) may actually overlap with urbanism to a significant degree. Encouraging vital cities is certainly one method for preserving farmland from rampant low-density growth. People have to live somewhere, and both of these branches of environmentalism share a common value of human flourishing.

    Many households choose to put pictures on their walls of bucolic settings or traditional city squares, but not so much the suburban subdivisions that lie in between. There is beauty in both the urban and rural form, and they depend upon each other in important ways. The same could be said for truly wild areas where the natural world can be displayed in a more lightly touched form.

  4. As I've written before, walkable urban environments are great places for families. If it weren't for the quality of public education and perceptions (often irrational) of safety, both of which are incidental to urban form itself, I think we would see a lot more families choosing to live in urban environments.
Hopefully, I've made it clear that at least my intentions are not to elevate one subculture or lifestyle or political base or familial pattern over any other.

3 comments:

Patrick said...

I really enjoyed your old posts about the intersection between urbanism and agrarianism. It seems we have a common enemy. I'd love to see more along these lines.

LH said...

"For decades, we have been imposing local, state, and federal regulations that encourage low over high density development. As a result it appears that the ratio of drivable, suburban choices to walkable, urban choices is way out of sync with the public's actual preferences. This skews market prices considerably. As a result, too many people are being forced into a suboptimal (according to their own preferences) living arrangements, especially those with less income."

Yes, yes, and yes. Combine diversifying demographics, the end of cheap oil, and the sub-prime meltdown, and you have huge imbalances between the mix of housing that will be demanded in the future and the mix of housing that currently exists. Not sure how much counter-balancing government intervention is needed directly related to housing - prices do adjust quite nicely, thank you very much, so eventually builders will want to build more multi-family stuff in high-density areas and less single-family stuff in low-density areas - but what the government can do is make sure it corrects any distortions that would prevent that from happening: letting gas stay too cheap, over-subsidizing new highway capacity, making it really hard from a regulatory standpoint to do infill development. Like you, I'm not saying high-density is better for everyone; I just want it to be priced and regulated right, vis a vis low-density.

Excellent post.

planning permits said...

Urbanism suggests an approach, which comprehends the city as a whole and contains a theory, which seeks to explain urban relations. Absolutely it is right that there is beauty in both the urban and rural form, and they depend upon each other in important ways.