My youthful preference for cities was sociological and aesthetic with a soupçon of Club of Rome Limits to Growth. That was enough to make me fertile soil for Chuck Marohn’s message of the suburban Ponzi scheme in the Curbside Chat; sprawl didn’t pay for itself but traditional development did. With that a farm boy from Minnesota said to the entire world that the mightiest, wealthiest, most technologically advanced empire in all of history had feet of clay. The American Way of Life which was proclaimed “non-negotiable” was a chimera in more than one way: it was both illusory and monstrous.
Was it hubristic to believe that a few dozen studies of post war auto-oriented design, a comparison of a taco joint to a block of mediocre buildings, and an anecdote about a small town being encouraged to double down on a waste water system it already couldn’t afford was sufficient to call out the American Dream? Not if you’re right. It’s amusing to listen to the humble Midwesterner project on to his own true believers the hubris he fears in his own message, even going so far as to call himself…I mean members of his own movement…”idiots” if they believe they know the solutions to the problems we face today.
Yes, I agree that our current situation is more of a predicament than a problem and that what we have before us are responses and not solutions. But I do know what we ought to do in the broadest sense, at least here in my corner of the world, facing the predicaments we are facing. And I am not an idiot. In greater Springfield we have a population growing at a snail’s pace and dozens of traditional, walkable city centers and neighborhoods which are underpopulated and underutilized. They already have the infrastructure to satisfy the needs of our citizenry for decades and decades without any more horizontal expansion.
Of course, not only do I know it, Chuck knows it too. To listen to him you’d almost believe that he doesn’t believe his own message here. But as he continuously carries on about “the magic of the incremental” it’s important to understand that he really doesn’t believe in the absolute hegemony of small scale developments, though perhaps he thinks he does. I can give 2 examples from this place (Western Massachusetts) of small scale, incremental plans that he would be four square against.
1) Now that technology has replaced toll takers on the Massachusetts Turnpike there is a movement to add an exit and an entrance along the 30 mile stretch between Westfield and Lee. The cost wouldn’t amount to a blip in the Mass DOT’s budget, but it would open up hundreds of miles of roads and thousands of acres of greenfield to auto oriented development in a region, as I have already stated, with minimal population growth.
2)The South End neighborhood is slowly, and incrementally in tiny chunks transforming from a traditional walkable neighborhood to a car centered place. One by one, hotels, car dealers, and fast food joints are purchasing traditional buildings, knocking them down, adding parking lots, and constructing buildings with stroad type set backs. The developers are making money, and unlike the Taco John’s model, the tax impact on the city has been positive, at least in the short run.
Hey, these are small, incremental bets, but based on the auto oriented model. So you’re in favor of them, right Chuck? Or do you have the hubris to claim that you know better?! I know I know better…but that makes me an idiot, right?
On the other hand we have MGM. A huge “silver bullet” project if ever there was one. But not all silver bullets are of the same caliber: The enormous highway viaduct separating the downtown from the river? Horrible! the enormous urban renewal district north of downtown? Disposable. But a half a dozen projects enumerated here? Spectacular. My city exists as it does because of the ultimate silver “bullet” project (quite literally) and preserved its regional preeminence by yet another.* Under the circumstances which go well beyond this one community’s ability to control (the legalization and proliferation of casino gambling for example), the city is leveraging this HUGE project to repair, restore, or redesign 3 downtown parks and miles of sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure; this mega project has shown a respect for the scale existing of the downtown and is designed to encourage walkability in a way that none of the small scale projects have over the last 30 years with the exception of those restricted by the demands of historic preservation.
*(A public-private partnership to build a bridge across the Connecticut to regain the regional pre-eminence lost to Northampton)
If you’re asking me, do I know the best way to communicate to my neighbors the critical nature of the decisions we are making regarding traditional versus auto oriented development? No, I don’t. Which plans in the short term will serve as the best exemplars of traditional development? “Tampoco”. But that is not the same as pretending I don’t know what the broader choices are and what the correct answers are. I do.
I do get, though, that other parts of the world might be dealing with different issues and people might be positing ridiculous “solutions”: massive, brand new hugely expensive high speed rail projects connecting no place to nowhere in hopes that things will densify on either end. Here, though, we’re just taking already existing rights of way and infrastructure, and used rolling stock to double or triple connectivity to New Haven and New York City: Not high speed, not maglev, just some old trains adding 17, 12, and 2 trains a day at distances of 30, 60 and 100 miles respectively.
To me, and probably to you, smart, small, and incremental. But to people who view rail as a relic it’s an ill conceived reversal, and a governmental white elephant; why not just a couple more lanes to Interstate 91? It’s incremental! “Use the rest of the $ saved not improving Springfield’s rail connectivity to fix the potholes on my street!?”
We know better. You know better. THAT’S a stupid argument. To say so only demonstrates hubris if you’re wrong. And you’re not wrong.
As I’ve said before, Paris was a big idea, and it was a good one. Did Robert Moses draw inspiration from Haussmann? Probably. But Haussmann was right and Moses was wrong. Yes, smaller bets pose less risk than larger ones, and there are things we know, and things we don’t know. Of course knowing which is which is key. It is pretending the difference doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist that is idiotic.