I did not come to urbanism as a theorist or as an intellectual. I came to urbanism as someone who felt compelled to save a single place; a place it turns out that doesn’t always look like being saved. In 17 months it will be 30 years that I’ve made my home in downtown Springfield. I have witnessed many false dawns, been sold many bottles, cans, and tubes of urban Renaissance snake oil and what I bring to the discussion is lived experience.
In America we give too much respect to lived experience and not enough to theoretical, intellectual understanding. My nephew fought in the Iraq war. I have read a great deal about that part of the world. If he and I were having an argument about policy in the Middle East in the eyes of most “Muricans” he would win any argument by merely prefacing his assertion with “I fought in Iraq and…” He doesn’t know anything about Iraq. Couldn’t tell you the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, wouldn’t know what a Kurd was, has no idea about the CIA’s involvement in placing Saddam Hussein in power, doesn’t know why the United States supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, etc, etc. and he could say: “I fought in Iraq and the people there love it when outsiders kill their children” or “I fought in Iraq and oil had nothing to do with our invasion” or “I fought in Iraq and Saddam was definitely behind September 11th” and many people would give his assertions merit because he drove a truck in Bagdad.
My experiences regarding urbanism were given shape and context by James Howard Kunstler first, then William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, and most recently Chuck Marohn. Chuck is not just the heart and soul of Strongtowns, he is its face, its head, and its brain. As a movement it has morphed and expanded but at its core is the concept of the Growth Ponzi Scheme and the un-sustainability of the post war suburban model of development.
When James Howard Kunstler decries the arrangement of the Target store and the Walmart in the “satellite belt of urban detritus” outside his old hometown it is because the inability “to see one from the other due to the curvature of the Earth” is a spiritual problem, an emotional and psychological problem. Humans need enclosure, we want street walls to protect us, and the curb cut between the Walmart and the Chuck E Cheese is not a noble enough cause for our young men and women to fight and die for in the deserts of a strange continent!
Chuck comes at the same issue mathematically, and not aesthetically. He appreciates the engineering of the curb cut between the Walmart and the Chuck E Cheese. He likes driving to Target to buy Cheese Doodles…or at least (Diet?) Mountain Dew; but the numbers don’t pencil out. The asphalt, the curbing, the water mains, the sewer pipes, and everything else in the horizontal development pattern don’t pay for themselves, that’s all. Chuck doesn’t even go all “Peak Oil” in the Curbside Chat and only hints at the idea of “Limits to Growth”.
I posit that the core of the Strongtowns message is the idea of the traditional, walkable community: a place which minimizes infrastructural expenses relative to productivity such that plowing back a reasonable amount of those gains for maintaining the infrastructure upon which those gains depend is sustainable. Everything else in the Strongtowns message follows from that core message, that core belief.
Full confession; I’m a believer.
But there is an ancillary piece of the Strongtowns message which, to me, is being accepted as corollary to the primary message which demands much greater scrutiny and it is that there is an inverse relationship between governmental regulation and bureaucracy, and Strongtowns’ outcomes. To be clear, of course there is greater difficulty in building a place which minimizes infrastructural expenses relative to productivity such that plowing back a reasonable amount of those gains for maintaining the infrastructure upon which those gains depend is sustainable when regulations demand that you do the opposite. But that isn’t regulation in general, that is the content of the regulation.
Last week’s Strongtowns’ podcast about Detroit between Chuck and Johnny Sanphillippo may have been a “debate” about many things, but arguing the role of government was not one of them. There was consensus that that government is best which governs least, bottom up is better than top down, and that experts should shut up and let the people on the ground make the decisions.
Ok. Sounds good. Maybe.
It’s interesting though. Name a place in the world outside the United States infamous for its bureaucracy, its tedious requirements that every “i” be dotted and every “t” crossed before doing this or that. Hint: “Britain” wants to leave “that place” in part because it wants freedom from that meddling bureaucracy.
Ding, ding, ding, ding! Did you say Europe? Of course you did. And is there an industrialized part of the world more Strong-townsy? Perhaps the least Strong-townsy part of Europe is England, and they want out!
What about here in the United States? What region has the most Strong-townsy, dense, walkable, places? The northeast. What part of the U.S. does Chuck reference as being the most obstructed by governmental red tape? Ditto. Interesting. What place comes next? Portland maybe? A well known bastion of conservative, laissez faire “keep the gubmint outta my Medicare” type of place for sure! Have you heard of the urban growth boundary?
Name some non-Strong-townsy places: Houston, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Lib-tard havens if ever there were any.
Yes, for me, a socialist ideologue, this could all represent nothing more than confirmation bias; correlation is not causation; post hoc ergo propter hoc;I know you are but what am I.
There are a lot of moving parts in this thing that we call the pattern of human development. Maybe strong governmental control and regulation are antithetical to a Strongtowns outcome. It is weird though that the regional correlation appears to be the inverse.
I’ve made clear in a number of recent posts that I don’t care about process, it’s about outcomes. To paraphrase myself, if Jane Jacobs had been fighting a grassroots campaign for greater urban access to highways and Robert Moses had used top down bureaucratic arm twisting to impose improved public transit and walkability then Moses would have been right and Jacobs wrong. Europe’s cities were bombed out after WWII and they rebuilt them following traditional patterns of urban development. In the United States many, many places all over the country, Brainerd MN, for example, had established these same patterns of development but chose to destroy what they had to build something different.
In one part of the country though, the oldest part, a very liberal, bureaucratic, top down part of the country, this didn’t occur in so thorough a manner: the northeast. In one other part of the country, a very new, very dynamic part of the country, but also very liberal and very heavily bureaucratic, growth was heavily regulated within an urban boundary and the outcome was very Strong-townsy: Portland.
(Brainerd then and now)
I make no claim that anything here is conclusive, but I do call on Chuck and others in the movement to take a serious look at this. Are regulation and bureaucracy the problem or are bad regulation and bad bureaucracy the problem? If you formulated the Strongtowns’ idea but you came at it from a particularly conservative philosophical bent might it not be that that philosophical prejudice is creating a bias in your viewpoint?
Sure, you could just look for reasons that I’m wrong, ways to confirm your previously held believe, we all do that. Or you could drill down on this a little. Europe, New England, Portland, in many ways they embody the ends you want, not perfection to be sure, but certainly closer to the ideal than zoning free Houston or Wild, Wild, (mid) West “oversight free” Detroit.
Maybe it deserves some looking in to.