Durable Growth

Link-Fest: Why urbanism?

College Town near Iowa State campus in Ames. Iowa

College Town near Iowa State campus in Ames. Iowa

In my last post, I wrote about making adjustments in the content of these posts.  My goal was to reduce my time spent in writing and editing, while hopefully still encouraging readers to advocate for a more urbanist future.  A regular correspondent wrote to ask if he was correct in deciding that I wasn’t “cutting back”.

It was a reasonable question, but not one with an easy answer.  I responded, “If you want three posts per week in which I try to dig into an urbanist topic as deeply as I can, consistent with the inherent limits of thousand-word posts, not leaving new readers behind, and my own intellectual shortcomings, then yes, I’m cutting back.

“If you’re satisfied with three posts per week, even if they have a different blend of content, including more actionable items and greater reliance on the writings of others, then no, I’m not cutting back.”

I left it to him to answer his question.

Okay, enough about my life and my blogging commitment.  Onward to making the world an environmentally better, more financially stable place for the generations to follow.

I’ve picked the name Link-Fest for the posts in which I rely heavily on links.  I find it evocative of what I want to do, although a bit corny.  It’ll work for now.

My first Link-Fest will take looks from different angles at why urbanism matters.

When I started this blog, my primary reason for promoting walkable urbanism was market preference.  In increasing numbers, people such as me were interested in living in walkable urban settings, but the land-use process was largely rigged to deny them the option.  I thought that sucked and wrote so.

But I quickly learned that there were other, equally good reasons to be an urbanist.  Slowing climate change was a big one, as was the perilous state of municipal finances as called out by StrongTowns.

Market preference, climate change, and municipal finances have remained my big three, but there are many more good reasons in a second tier, with public health, water conservation, and child development among them.  On the last, I remain impressed by findings that children raised in urban settings are generally more intelligent and better problem solvers that their suburban and rural equivalents.

The links below take a harder look at several of these points.

Market Preference: A few years back, much made of the preference of young, unattached millennials to live in urban settings, with many using that fact as proof that drivable suburbia was dying.  Thus, the defenders of drivable suburbia pounced when updated demographics began showing that millennials, as they found partners and began families, also began returning to drivable suburban homes.  The drivable suburban advocates claimed that the market preference for walkable urbanism was a myth.

Not so fast, writes Alec Appelbaum in CityLab.  While agreeing that millennials are moving to suburbs, perhaps for affordability or for schools, he notes that there is no evidence that they want the drivable version of suburbia.  He describes how many suburbs are aggressively opposing the multifamily housing that is essential to the core of walkable urban places.  The opposition is often on grounds that verge on racism or demonize the poor.

(It’s possible I’m naïve, but I haven’t noticed the racist component of the argument in the North Bay, but agree that fear of the poor often plays a role in project opposition.)

I didn’t find that Appelbaum buttons up his case well, but he provides the pieces to construct a do-it-yourself argument that we won’t know whether millennials really want car-dependent single-family homes until we provide the full range of market options.  It’s possible that what they want is walkable, transit-friendly housing in the heart of medium-size towns.  It’s an option we need to offer.

The Shortcomings of Drivable Suburbia: Borrowing liberally from James Howard Kunstler and “Suburban Nation”, sources which he should have acknowledged more clearly, Abalashov, writing in Likewise a Blog, gives reasons why millennials may not be in love with drivable suburbia.  (If the link doesn’t work, this Google search should fill the need.)

Although Abalashov doesn’t break much new ground, he covers familiar ground with fresh eyes and an entertaining approach, delivering the moral outrage of Kunstler without the anger and sarcasm into which Kunstler often slides.

Alabashov describes the genesis of drivable suburbia as “an interdependent constellation of misanthropic zoning rules, building codes, and planning guidelines”, complains that “low-density streets don’t need to be so wide that one almost can’t see his opposite neighbour’s house because of the intervening curvature of the Earth”, and describes the architectural details intended to hide the lack of soul in suburbia as a “neurotic potpourri of superficial ornamentation”.

How can one not be entertained with wordplay like that?

The Sufficiency of Property Taxes: StrongTowns made their bones by arguing that property tax collections aren’t sufficient to cover the cost of the infrastructure we’ve built.  They test the hypothesis in so many ways that it’s fully credible.  But the individual case studies, representing land uses that aren’t prevalent in many suburbs, can sometimes feel underwhelming.

Using the explicit data of Iowa property tax bills, the writer of My Mapstory Blog tries to fill the gap.

With mapping software and a trip into the costs of street repairs and replacement, the writer shows that property taxes are only covering 60 percent of the cost of the street in front of a typical residential home in Ames, Iowa.  When the costs of street elements that don’t front lots, such as intersections, are included, the coverage drops to 40 percent.

It’s good stuff and will hopefully silence a few more of the naysayers who refuse to see the StrongTowns truths.

(I visited Ames a few years back.  It was where I realized that college urbanism was a distinct flavor of urbanism.  The photo above is from the College Town neighborhood adjoining the Iowa State campus.)

The Vacuity of the Suburbs: Returning to the shortfalls of suburbia, a recent photo exhibit by Mimi Plumb portrayed the frequent emptiness of suburbia in the 1970s.  A more complete examination of her exploration of suburbia can be seen on her website.

Although many of the photos portray a world that was far bleaker than anything I remember from my youth, several are direct hits on the memories of my roots, a connection that isn’t surprising because the photographer and I share those roots.

For seventh and eighth grades, Mimi and I were schoolmates at our newly opened intermediate school.  I remember her quite well, although I don’t believe we ever spoke.  She was among the ruling elite of the newly maturing girls at Foothill Intermediate.

As a tall, skinny, glass-wearing, scholastically capable but socially awkward classmate, I could only watch in wonder as Mimi and her peers established their regime.  Anyone who has ever wondered how royalty spontaneously arose out of early egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes need only look at what happens among girls between the sixth and seventh grades.

I’m not saying that Mimi was mean to the lesser girls, only that she held shared dominion.  I truly have no memory of how she used her power, being more concerned with the bullying on my side of the gender divide.  Even after all these years, I have no idea if Pugsley was responsible for the smoke bomb in Grant Taylor’s locker.

(For those wondering, Pugsley wasn’t his given name.  He had adopted the full moniker of Pugsley Aloysius Twinkletoes Denver as a protest against life in the suburbs, a conceit that his fellow students and all but one teacher allowed him.)

As a sign that junior high is long over, I emailed Plumb to say hello across the half-century old social divide and to congratulate her on her photographic successes.  Thus far, she hasn’t replied.  Hmmm, perhaps the divide remains.

Urban Places as Sources of Life Knowledge: It’s not only children who learn better in urban settings.  Raccoons do the same.  Writer Jude Isabella, in a post published in Nautilus describes the efforts by Toronto to find a garbage can that would be safe from raccoon intrusion, a search that has proved surprisingly difficult.

As Isabella quotes one raccoon observer, “If they’re in a greatly enriched and cognitively demanding environment and if there are a bunch of traits that are more demanded by a city environment, they could all be enhanced together.”

If raccoons can intellectually thrive in urban places, imagine how children could do.

This post ran long, a tendency I need to conquer, but this type of content is what I’m seeking with my Link-Fests.  I had fun with the compilation and the writing.  I hope it also met your needs.

With the regional Bay Area 2040 plan getting underway, it seems a good time to ponder the role of regional governments.  I’ll tackle the subject in my next post.

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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