Durable Growth

CNU 22: Unfairly sniping at those who highlight the need for hard decisions

Old County Hall in Buffalo

Old County Hall in Buffalo

The 70th anniversary of D-Day, the landing of the Allied troops in Normandy, was a couple of weeks ago.  It was one more opportunity to marvel at the fortitude of the young men who jumped into the surf and waded toward the shore as bullets flew and friends fell.

But even as the attention of 1944 turned toward Normandy, the world was filled with other injustices and obscenities.  Elsewhere in France, the citizens suffered under Nazi rule.  In Germany, the concentrations camps continued their ghastly business.  And in Russia, still an erstwhile ally for another year, the autocracy that was to throw the world into four decades of cold war was strengthening its grip.

And yet, despite those continuing tragedies elsewhere in the world, few second-guessed the strategic decision of Eisenhower, Montgomery, and the other Allied commanders or the political judgment of Roosevelt, Churchill, and the other Allied leaders to focus on Normandy.

It was understood that the liberation of Europe had to start somewhere.  That to attack at multiple locations would be a foolish waste of resources and lives.

So if Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and the others choose Normandy to be that place, then the free world would accept that judgment and await updates from the beaches.

Undoubtedly, there were naysayers and critics of strategy in the days before June 6, 1944, but they were quickly forgotten in the days after the landing, as the forces of history showed the irrelevance of their supercilious chatter.

This short historical detour had unexpected relevance CNU 22, the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  A call for strategic use of resources, similar to the Eisenhower/Roosevelt decisions although without the free world immediately hanging in the balance, unexpectedly came under attack.

A day before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Jeff Speck took the CNU 22 stage and spoke about the need to build more walkable communities.  Near the end of this talk, Speck noted that our communities, although walkability retrofits are needed in many locations, lack the resources to tackle all possible walkability improvements at one time.

Therefore, community leaders must make tough decisions about where and how to deploy the limited resources for the greatest initial benefit, with the goal that the increasing prosperity from better functioning communities can flow to more and more civic needs.

Speck calls this resource allocation “urban triage”.  Urban triage is the walkable urban equivalent of focusing military forces on the Atlantic Ocean beaches of Normandy rather than simultaneously dispatching divisions to the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

(Lest anyone misunderstand my analogy, I’m not suggesting that Speck is the modern equivalent of Roosevelt or Eisenhower.  Instead, Speck is calling for our Mayors, City Councils, and City Managers to be the Roosevelts and Eisenhowers of our time, to make the tough decisions about the allocation of scarce resources to the places where those resources can do the most good.

Speck is also calling upon us to be good citizens, to participate in discussions about resource allocations, and then to accept the decisions with grace and not to respond with facile and distracting sideline critiques.)

However, the strategic wisdom of Speck’s urban triage was quickly overwhelmed by a flood of vitriol as first Buffalo News columnist Colin Dabkowskiand then City Labs writer Mark Byrnes twisted the concept of urban triage to pretend that that is an urbanist justification for allocating resources to more affluent neighborhoods.

Urban triage is nothing of the sort.  It is nothing more than how Speck defines it, the allocation of resources to where they can do the most good.

It is true that sometimes, perhaps more times than we’d like, the resource allocation is directed to more well-to-do neighborhoods.  But the reasons behind those allocation results have nothing to do with urbanist philosophy and everything to do with the political and financial realities of our world.

Today, some of the neighborhoods where a few resources can make a big difference are affluent neighborhoods.  But many of those neighborhoods weren’t as well-to-do two decades ago when urbanists began pointing to the coming demographic move toward urban lifestyles.  Had the resources been immediately dispatched to support walkability, they would have been going into less-affluent neighborhoods, which urbanists would have cheered.

But instead, we chose at a government level to ignore the urbanist call.  But even as we did so, the market followed the predictions of the urbanists and private money moved into the neighborhoods at which the urbanists were pointing.

Urbanists never called for money to flow into affluent neighborhoods.  They called for money to flow into potentially walkable neighborhoods and those neighborhoods became more affluent during the decades that the urbanists’ calls went unheeded.

And then there’s the reality that construction financing is more easily secured for ideas with which lenders feel comfortable.  Byrnes specifically notes the story of a Buffalo urbanist developer who tried to succeed with affordable housing but was forced by marketplace realities to turn his focus downtown.  That financial reality harms the less-affluent neighborhoods, but is unrelated to urbanism.

To twist these facts of our political and financial world into an indictment of urbanism is little more than killing the messenger.

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns also responded to the controversy with a spirited and effective defense of the urban triage concept, including the observation that sometimes the neighborhoods that are in need of urban interventions are productive places whose resources are being diverted to support financially unsustainable sprawl elsewhere.  Marohn called for the resources to remain at home, especially when they can serve critical urban needs.

In your time permits, I suggest also reading the comments under the Marohn article.  Dabkowski, perhaps seeing the wisdom of those who disagreed with him, tried to claim a victory because he had spurred discussion.

Once again, Dabkowski was trying desperately to pound a square peg into a round hole.  Sprawl proponents aren’t interested in discussions, they’re interested in easy answers, even if the answers are disastrously wrong.

Climate change a concern?  Let pseudo-scientists use arbitrary and capricious endpoints to make statistically invalid arguments that the earth is actually cooling and then dismiss climate change.

Perhaps Strong Towns is making a good case that sprawl is undermining municipal finances?  Listen to someone rant about government inefficiency and decide that the problem is the government workers, not the land-use model.

Wondering if the urbanists are right about demographics trending toward a more urban world?  Let a local columnist deride urbanists as elitists and go back to sleep.

Dabkowski played into the hands of those who want simple answers without concern for accuracy.  There is no worthiness in that approach.  All there is another delay in the progress of the inevitable.

Urbanists want to bring the benefits of urbanism to all, just as the Allies wanted to free all of Europe from tyranny, but urbanists rightly insist that the effort must focus on the urbanist equivalent of the beaches of Normandy.  Imputing false motivations to the tough decisions is unjust.

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.

1 comment to CNU 22: Unfairly sniping at those who highlight the need for hard decisions

  • Do people actaully like to drive a lot– on congested roadways burning expensive fuel? Or do they just put up with it for the sake of other amenities their long commutes provide?I strongly suspect the latter.Have you ever tried to carry books home from the library from a one mile walk? Or multiple bags of groceries on public transportation? Have you ever had to wait an hour for it because you missed your stop? Have you been unable to find work because of the tiny walking range you have, and the insane commute times most non-urban transit requires?You ever walk a few miles in the rain? Or the summer sun? I have, and believe me, you appreciate cars when you learn to drive late in life and aren’t in a dense city. ANd some of us hate the city, hate the squalor and noise and being forced to be packed next to people you dislike when they aren’t actively robbing you. They hate having to pay thousands of dollars a month for a shoebox with no yard and hallways that smell of urine.If there’s one every few blocks instead of 25 on one block, this problem is reduced a great deal. The people also tend to be from the neighborhood.Doesn’t change anything that the drunks are local instead of regional. And I’m sure you’d like to be woken up every morning at 6 AM because the hardware store is unloading off of the truck in the back.I’m tired of yuppie clueless urban theorists who think people like to live in cities. For most of our history the rich escaped the cities by summering and owning houses in the country, and a lot of american policy was to get sick and destitute people out of the city to healthy and quiet rural areas. The kind of density to make a walkable neighborhood simply does not exist outside of cities due to the need to find work in walkable range too. I lived this in the suburbs-you have no idea how hard it is to find work when you have an effective radius of five miles, and can only extend this by one to two hour bus rides. I will appreciate urban planners when they stop with the windy theoretical BS like Rod lists. That gives us things like the Bauhaus, which we live to regret. If one of them can seriously sit down and relate how hard it is to make walkable developments that aren’t hyperdense urban locations, then I take them seriously.