Monday, September 26, 2016

Paying attention to the suburban development behind the curtain

Source: Business Insider
As the presidential candidates confront each other in the first so-called debate of 2016, Cedar Rapids and other towns along the Cedar River worry about flooding, and the country ponders gun violence in Houston and Seattle as well as two more police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa.

My first-year class on The Future of the City is reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek and Jeff Speck (North Point, 2010). For many of them it's their first exposure to critical appraisals of the suburban model of development. One of my first-year students, Dominic Parker from St. Louis, asked why, if suburban sprawl "is as big of a problem as it seems, then why am I just (now) hearing an uproar about it?" I first said it was partly because people tend to see the suburban model of development as part of the natural order of things, as opposed to (what it is in reality) a created situation.

More importantly, the suburban model of development is an important component, though certainly not the sole cause, of problems on which we do focus. The two worst floods in Cedar Rapids history have been 2008 and 2016; this "new normal" is exacerbated by climate change and loss of open land, to both of which the suburban development pattern is a major contributor. Analysis of police shootings tend to put primary responsibility either on the police (for being racist or overreacting to tense situations) or on the victims (for being disorderly and dangerous punks). Without denying individual responsibility, why are there high crime areas, isolated from economic opportunity, into which police are repeatedly thrust, thereby exacerbating the probability of violent confrontation?

It's jarring to hear the candidates debate at the same time that the river is bearing down on Cedar Rapids. The grass-roots efforts by hundreds of Cedar Rapidians this past weekend to protect their fellow citizens' homes and businesses speak to the best potential of our common life. The candidates just don't. Clinton is no visionary, and has a fondness for national programs that will at best nibble at the edges of problems; though the few moments in the debate where the public had a chance to be illuminated were hers. I wish she had more answers like hers on urban crime and fewer attempts to match Trump as an insult comic. Trump, whose campaign has been a toxic stew of racial innuendo, vacuous comments and personal insults, has nothing to recommend himself to anyone who cares about our common life.

Can any good come out of this dispiriting election campaign? Will it cause Americans at last to take a long look at our ongoing political divisions? And if they do, will the answer be to retreat to a private life? Or will we look around and see the potential for our neighbors--all of them, white and black and Latino, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and nones--to deal with our problems at the local level?

Cindy Hadish, "'In God's Hands:' Czech Village, New Bohemia Prepare for 2016 Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa," Homegrown Iowan, 25 September 2016,
Ben Kaplan, "Photos from New Bohemia Prep,"Corridor Urbanism, 25 September 2016,
Charles Marohn, "It's Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop," Strong Towns, 25 July 2016,
Bruce Nesmith, "Gleanings from the New Urbanism," Holy Mountain, 19 April 2013,


  1. Takes me back to Urban Ethics at North Central. I think your question about which response society takes cries out for an examination of communitarianism.

  2. Takes me back to Urban Ethics at North Central. I think your question about which response society takes cries out for an examination of communitarianism.


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