From the New Yorker, 01/14/08
One of our readers commented on a post from last week, “Some Policies for the Next City,” acknowledging our get-rid-of-the-cars suggestions as “delightfully draconian.” We take this as a high compliment – as the data on our threatened world become clearer and clearer, as gas prices and food costs soar, as our credit economy flutters to the floor like a house of cards, and as our politicians and leaders (of all stripes, I note) continue to offer very little leadership in what increasingly appears to be a time of very great need, draconian is looking better and better.
Our reader suggests that we need to manage suburban development, not ban it, by limiting lot sizes and minimizing auto trip lengths. Fair enough – we grew up in the suburbs, and know and love them well. In truth, though, we have been trying to manage suburban development for many, many decades, and I note without much progress, and especially as to sustainability.
A good read in this regard is Prof. Robert Bruegmann’s book of 2005, “Sprawl: a compact history.” Bob, who is a friend and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes thoughtfully about the sprawling nature of cities throughout urban history, and in particular looks at the history of suburbs and suburban sprawl in the U.S. He concludes that cities, and suburbs, are extremely complex organisms, and are perhaps unshapeable by any force except individual desire and received cultural signals about what is valuable and what is right. Maybe a bit of draconian can help.
Our reader’s comment further suggests that we need to find ways to accommodate short-trip auto use (“allowing Al Gore to finish paving his driveway at his new house”), we need to push for greater density in suburbs and cities alike, and we need to plan for residential development teamed with transit (even buses – eew), and places of employment within a 10 mile circle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could even get this far as a matter of public policy? Bravo, dear reader, and Godspeed. Let’s get this done right away. Even the bus part…
But the one thing that our reader offered that touched a chord is the observation that if people in our region are commuting to Washington from Pennsylvania, it may be because they were priced out of the closer-in suburbs. This seems quite correct, and one of the issues facing the next city, an issue that is very troubling and very complex, is how to provide housing for the market while insuring affordable housing as well.
Trying to tell folks to lead more modest lives is a true fool’s errand. Live with less, live smaller, live more lightly, and more affordably: hah! Perhaps only the presence of a real calamity could have this impact on our population. Wait – this is a real calamity…
So if the city, or suburb, becomes more dense, more ‘nodal,’ because of declining car use and the increased presence of transit, and these places are seen as increasingly valuable economically and socially, how do we insure the widest range of housing for all? Does this remain a matter for statutory regulation, economic carrots and sticks, and development sanctions, (which is how we deal with affordable housing today)?
Questions without answers.