Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Urbanism CLEF

The social movement we call urbanism is a forest with several species of trees. At the risk of losing the concept of the forest, analyzing it at the tree level can help explain how different urbanist assumptions can lead to quite different policy conclusions.

We should start by identifying what is this "urbanism" of which we speak? Fortunately, a serious thinker from California--Dave Alden, who writes the blog Where Do We Go from Here?--spent most of last winter pondering this very question, so we don't have to. Here is what he came up with (SOURCE: Dave Alden, "Is There Such a Thing as Bad Urbanism?" Where Do We Go from Here?, 15 February 2015):
(1) The study, promotion, and implementation of development concepts for settings that are significantly denser in residential, working, and commercial opportunities than rural or suburban locations.

(2) The advocacy of concepts for (1) that meet beneficial goals such as improved walkability, reduced energy consumption, stronger social networks, more stable municipal finances, or other identified positive outcomes. 
In what became a ten-part series that is well worth reading, Alden explored some of the different questions that urbanism answers, including "How do we create settings in which more people walk, resulting in improved public health, less traffic, and fewer auto emissions?... How do we preserve nearby farmlands, encouraging the farm-to-table movement and reducing the transportation costs of produce?... How do we address the increasing crisis in municipal budgets?... What can we do about the risk of climate change, which may well be driven by carbon emissions?" (See the full list here.) My attempt here to parse urbanism owes much to his approach, although the specific content is different.

I see four species of urbanist trees. These are not, of course, hard and fast categories.

Dairy Queen on 16th St NE is a summer gathering place in the Mound View neighborhood
Some advocate urbanism out of concern for Community. We believe that urbanist design brings people together, making all our lives better. As Aristotle wrote 2400 years ago, the polis "comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well." Ray Oldenburg (The Great Good Place, DaCapo, 1999) calls for more of the sorts of neighborhood business he calls "third places." The Presbyterian writer Eric O. Jacobsen, whose book The Space Between (Baker Academic, 2012) I regularly quote, argues for urbanist design from a Biblical perspective in which God calls us to be neighbors to each other. People isolated in pockets of poverty have particularly suffered in the era of sprawl, and stand to benefit from urbanism if it re-integrates them into the community. (See Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast [Penguin, 2013], for the story of how Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway slashed through a black neighborhood leaving a particularly awful pocket of poverty in its wake.) I'd also put James Howard Kunstler in this category, particularly as he critiques the way suburban sprawl, "the Happy Motoring Society" and the bad architecture he regularly pans separate people and make them less happy.

Celebrating Bike-to-Work Week on 3rd Ave SE, May 2014
Others advocate urbanism because it allows for choices of Lifestyle. A sprawled metropolis virtually requires people to drive wherever they want to go, such that they wind up spending a lot of time in their cars. They'd like a city designed so that people could walk or bike to places instead. Better transit would make owning a car optional--a choice that many people would make, but that others could freely not choose, at substantial savings to themselves. This is the core of the argument Jeff Speck, for example, makes in Walkable City (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012). Walking and biking would get us more exercise, and help to support those third places. Less driving at high speeds means fewer deaths from car-related crashes.

Prairie near the Indian Creek Nature Center, Otis Rd SE
Many people are urbanists for Environmental reasons. Suburban sprawl puts pavement where there used to be open land. This threatens natural places, and makes them harder to get to. Species are crowded out of habitats, because people have squeezed them and because predators can't be tolerated. (Three decades ago I marveled that my uncle could shoot deer out the front door of his cabin in Idaho. Now I regularly see them on my front lawn a mile from downtown Cedar Rapids.) All that driving pollutes the air, and carbon emissions contribute to climate change. Using oil to run cars requires more of it be extracted, often in environmentally-sensitive areas.

1st Avenue West at the edge of town (2013)
Finally, there are Fiscal  reasons to be an urbanist. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns has developed an important critique of the impact of suburban sprawl on government finances. Building new roads or widening old ones can spur auto-oriented development that provides cash flow for strapped governments. But the tax revenues from the new development aren't enough over time to pay for the infrastructure the city has built for them. Marohn calls this "the Growth Ponzi Scheme," and like all Ponzi schemes eventually it reaches a limit and breaks down. In the meantime we have empty old big box stores, and the wreckage of post-industrial Detroit, to serve as warning signs. There are other reasons for fiscal stress on governments, of course, but the demands of suburban sprawl account for a major portion of that stress.

[No doubt there are other classifications of urbanism. And I'm not sure where historical preservationists, for one, fit into this. But Community-Lifestyle-Environmental-Fiscal forms an acronym that is not only clever, but musical!]

So what difference do the different species make? Let's think about bike lanes.
Protected bike lane on 3rd Av SE

There are a lot of reasons for urbanists of every species to like bike lanes. C: Getting people out of their cars brings them together, which strengthens the community. L: Bike lanes help make cautious bikers feel safer, giving them a genuine alternative to getting places by car. E: Bicycles do not produce exhaust or run on oil. F: A city dense enough for people to bike to work, school and shop is more fiscally sustainable. So urbanists are likely to be in agreement that bike lanes are good, and we should have more of them.

Now let's get out of our heads and into the political process. Urbanists quickly find that some citizens support bike lanes, others hate them, and a significant middle chunk is willing to support our bike lanes in exchange for our support for their project (say, widening a road through a commercial strip, or subsidizing the reconstruction of a failing mall). Do we go for it or not? "L" urbanists who prioritize the bike infrastructure might well accept the political compromises needed to get them done. "F" urbanists would call it logrolling, and worry that the city was getting further into the financial soup.

Here's another, which finds me at war with myself:
                                                 Land use plan for the area around the Highway 100 extension.                                                         (This poster can be seen in greater detail on page 85 of Envision CR)

As a Strong Towns member, the "F" urbanist in me shudders at the $200+ million my state is spending to extend Route 100 around the western side of the city ("to accommodate future growth," as depicted in the diagram above). My inner "E" urbanist is disturbed by further expansion into open land by a city that is already the opposite of dense. At the same time, the city's planning document, EnvisionCR, calls for the new development to be human-scaled and walkable, particularly the orange sections in the diagram, which intrigues the "C" which is at the root of my urbanism. (See the quotes at the top of the blog.)  Assuming a developer appears who is willing to do it, this could get very interesting. Expensive, but interesting.

SEE ALSO: "Gleanings from the New Urbanism," 19 April 2013,

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't call it an acronym, but that won't prevent me from employing it.


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