Durable Growth

A city trying to rediscover happiness

Historic Buffalo

Historic Buffalo

Leo Tolstoy’s most famous quote may be “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  (For those who haven’t studied Russian literature, it’s the first line in “Anna Karenina”.)

In the forty years since I first read that line, I’ve found it to be usually true.  Indeed, it often pops into my head when observing families both happy and unhappy.

However, its reverse may be true for U.S. cities.  There is a multitude of ways that cities can be successful and happy.  But many unhappy U.S. cities are surprisingly similar in their unhappiness.

To review the path to today’s discontent, many U.S. cities were founded in early 20th century or before.  Their original configuration was organized around walkability, supplemented with the occasional horse-drawn buggy or drayage wagon.  Even the advent of intracity public transit didn’t greatly affect the city layout.  (As Jeff Speck and others often note, a transit trip always begins and ends with walks.)

The advent of the mass-produced automobile in the 1920s put a little pressure on the city, but the Great Depression deferred the explosion.

It was only after World War II that the massive change came.  The final horses were put out to pasture, transit was largely abandoned, and we turned our cities over to the automobile and its parking lots, ever-widening streets, strip malls, and sprawl.

Which brings us to today, with the many costs of our automobile obsession accumulating out of control.  Climate change is peering at us over the horizon, public health is being affected by the car-culture, and we can’t afford to maintain all the stuff we built.  It’s a sad state of affairs.

Many cities recognize the problem and are trying to find solutions, often through a form of urbanism.  But it’s hard to back out of a 70-year-old cul-de-sac, especially when it’s all that most residents have ever known.

Admittedly, this history doesn’t pertain to every U.S. city.  But if you live in a city that was founded anytime before 1920, there’s more than a grain of truth in this summary.

Which brings us to Buffalo, New York, a place that had peaks of success that towered over its rivals and valleys of despair that remain legendary.  Buffalo is also a place that is now trying to find a successful future in the half-forgotten successes of its past, largely through a turn to urbanism.

Buffalo will be the 2014 host of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU 22).  At CNU 21, a newly-produced film about Buffalo was shown to kickoff the twelve-month buildup to CNU 22.  I’m unsure if the film was produced solely for CNU, but it might as well have been.  With crystal clarity, Buffalo hits all the notes in the urbanist anthem.  Buffalo will be a fine host city for CNU 22.

If your schedule allows twelve minutes, watch “Buffalo, America’s Best Designed City”.  It’s a tourism film, but a tourism film with a moral.  And if your schedule allows another ten minutes, think about what your city and Buffalo have in common and if your city is doing as much as Buffalo to restore its vitality.

Schedule Note

The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be a joint meeting with City Repair Petaluma.  To accommodate the larger group, we’ll meet at the Petaluma Arts Center.  (A voluntary $5 donation to the Arts Center is suggested for each attendee.)

We’ll view a City Repair video entitled “Transforming Space into Place” and discuss if the City Repair concept can be brought to Petaluma.  You can look at the City Repair website for an advance look at the model.

The meeting date will be Tuesday, November 12.  We’ll begin assembling and mingling at the Arts Center at 5:30.  The program will begin at 6:00.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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