Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Fall of the Suburbs?

Cities are a product of time. They are the molds in which men's lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time: habits and values carry over beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation: then, in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum. 
By the diversity of its time-structures, the city in part escapes the tyranny of a single present, and the monotony of a future that consists in repeating only a single beat heard in the past. Through its social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results which, neither in volume nor in quality, could be achieved by any single piece.
-Lewis Mumford - Introduction to The Culture of Cities

In the debate between the virtues of the city versus the suburbs, a typical defender of our great urban centers might look upon these words of the great writer-philosopher Lewis Mumford rhapsodizing the city, as a mission statement for his or her cause.

With the dichotomy between left/right political ideologies tearing this nation apart, words like Mumford's probably appeal more to the left than the right, as demographically speaking, big cities, and those  who believe in them, traditionally have been populated by people of a liberal bent compared to the suburbs.

Enter Charles Marohn, a city planner with a background in civil engineering, and an avowed conservative Republican from Brainerd, Minnesota.

According to a MINNPOST article from earlier this month, Marohn came to the conclusion that the way we have come to design communities since the mid-twentieth century is a dead end, after saving the skin of a small community whose sewer line was compromised during the building of a highway. The community could not afford to rebuild its sewer so Marohn came up with a plan to not only fix the sewer but expand it, paving the way for further development (or urban sprawl if  you prefer), down the road. To some, the promise of growth for growth's sake is an aphrodisiac, signalling jobs and economic opportunity. Marohn's plan appealed to the federal government who paid the lion's share of the cost of the project, while the small community would kick in a fraction of what the original project would have cost them had Marohn not brought in the Feds.

Still, that chunk of money was more than the bedroom community could afford and in time not only were they faced with having to pay off their share of the project, but were also stuck with the repair bills when the system inevitably malfunctioned. The piece quotes Marohn as saying:
I bought them time, but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.
It dawned on him that while the construction of residential communities built far from cities and their economic base, may create temporary economic opportunities, but once those communities are built, they are unable to generate enough new revenue to sustain themselves.

Quoting from the article:
It’s a perspective that has led Marohn to conclude that the nation’s 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure — because it is economically unsustainable. That is, the lack of density does not produce tax revenue necessary to cover current services, let alone the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing those services. And because suburbs were built as fully developed places, they don’t have the flexibility to adapt, to become more dense in response to fiscal realities.
There you have it, nothing more than bottom line common sense, in the true spirit of conservative laissez-faire economics, with some social Darwinism thrown in for good measure. Distant suburbs and more distant exurbs according to Charles Marohn, should be allowed to die, as they are too weak to survive.

Could this issue become a common ground between liberals and conservatives in this country? I hardly think so. So entrenched are a significant number of Americans who live in abject fear of the city and all that entails, so enamored of the automobile are these folks, and so bought into the myth of the quasi "country life" found in the land beyond the airport, it's hard to imagine many dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites buying into Marohn's ideas. As he describes it, his is a voice crying out in the wilderness.

That's not for lack of trying. Marohn created his website, Strong Towns back in 2008 and regularly tours the country preaching his notion that communities with any chance of long term economic growth, need to evolve slowly, rather than be built as ready-made communities. Just like Jane Jacobs, Marohn believes that the traditional wisdom of building cities that existed for millennia still works, while the new systems which have evolved since the end of World War II, simply put, do not.

You can read the mission statement of Strong Towns here.

A must read for anyone interested in the future of the city, Marohn is truly a man after my own heart.

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