Durable Growth

Stories from CNU 23: The insulating effect of cars and the forces behind gentrification

Architectural detail on Adolphus Hotel

Architectural detail on Adolphus Hotel

The Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds update I had hoped to deliver today hasn’t yet come to pass.  Instead, I’ll continue reporting about ideas that caught my attention at the recently completed 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.   This will be my third summary, with previous posts here and here, of moments from CNU 23 that educated, inspired, or challenged me.  As before, I’ll add my own elucidation and comment.

So that I don’t raise expectations too high, the Fairgrounds update won’t be major news, but will be a step in the right direction.  And it will hopefully open the door for participation by readers.

Cars as Psychological Separators: I’ve often written about the corrosive effects of automobiles on urban settings, how they facilitate a hopscotch pattern of development that undermines walkability.

But Andres Duany opened my eyes to another aspect of the damage that cars can do.  In his words, “Cars permit psychological separation.”

He’s right.  Imagine a troubled neighborhood between your home and the places you work and/or shop.  If you walk, bike, or even ride a bus through the distressed neighborhood, you’re interacting with the businesses and people there and you’re likely to become invested.  You begin caring that it becomes a better place, perhaps becoming willing to participate in efforts to make changes.

But if you travel through the neighborhood in a car, you roll up the windows, lock the doors, shake your head, and wonder why someone else doesn’t do something.

Cars can be wonderful things, granting freedoms that were unknown a century ago.  But when they psychologically separate us from our neighbors and our communities, they begin to destroy us.

The Design of Convenience Stores: In another quote from Duany, “A 7-Eleven has the real estate value of a small nuclear power plant.”

Once again, he’s right.  Most of us would love to live a few doors from a cute neighborhood grocery store with a selection of fresh produce and needed sundries.  But we’d recoil at the thought of living a few doors from a 7-Eleven.  We wouldn’t be alone in those responses, so the real estate values would reflect our responses.

But walkability requires those small stores and other neighborhood assets.  Therefore, design matters.  I’m not suggesting that Southland Corp. can’t own neighborhood stores, but only that it’s essential to have design standards that prevent cookie-cutter 7-Elevens from destroying neighborhood values in the name of walkability.

For walkability to work, we need our walkable places to feel like “our” places, not the places that major corporations choose to impose on us.

Gentrification as Pent-Up Demand for Walkable Places: Chris Leinberger was part of a team that was a last-minute replacement for scheduled plenary speaker Jan Gehl.  I was disappointed not to hear Gehl, a long-time leading edge thinker about returning the human scale to urban settings, but Leinberger of Smart Growth American and other urbanist groups was a more than acceptable replacement.

Indeed, Leinberger may have offered the single comment that most affected my urbanist thinking.

Gentrification is a troublesome subject for urbanists.  On one hand, increased investment in urban places is a good thing.  On the other hand, gentrification often results in current residents being forced to relocate.  “Gentrification without displacement” has become a growing mantra, but it’s a difficult goal in many settings.

Leinberger cut through the haze by noting that gentrification represents nothing more than a desire of more folks for walkable locations, including the reclaiming of walkable locations that were abandoned a generation earlier.  And that the sharp increases in property values that usually accompany gentrification, and that often result in displacement, are an indication of the pent-up demand for walkability.

Thus, gentrification and the resulting displacement are signs of a free market pushing back against ill-conceived policies that have for too long encouraged sprawl and discouraged walkable urbanism.

So if you’re someone who has opposed gentrification because of the impacts on current residents, may I suggest that you instead focus your efforts on advocating for more walkable places?  It’s likely that you’ll do more to help those about whom you’re concerned while also making your community a stronger place.  Plus, it’s better for your mental health to be for something than against something.

A note about the photo.  It’s an architectural detail from the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, a grand, old, and reportedly haunted hotel in the heart of downtown that served as the headquarters for CNU 23.

I hope that the next post can be the Fairgrounds update.  Failing that, I’ll offer another few CNU 23 snippets.

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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