Traditional development patterns, based around people who walked, emerged through trial and error over thousands of years. Societies learned to build this way by innovating incrementally—expanding on what worked while abandoning what didn’t. The result is a resilient building form finely adapted to people, a pattern that repeats with eerie similarity across continents and cultures.Yes, but technocracy, and the hubris born of winning the war, or putting a man on the moon.
In contrast, our auto-based development pattern—cul-de-sacs feeding arterial roads emptying into highways—has nowhere near such a history of application and testing. While auto-based development is indeed efficient and orderly, it lacks the intuitive feedback inherent in all emergent systems. It is this unavoidable feedback loop—the pain that comes with failure, tested over centuries that included war and peace, feast and famine, drought and abundance—that makes the traditional development approach so strong and resilient.
After the Great Depression and World War II, Americans took the following lesson to heart: “As the world’s greatest nation, if we focus our energies and resources on an important endeavor, we can accomplish incredible things.” We had proven it. We proved it again and again in the decades that followed.That is, as long as continued invention and growth are possible. Otherwise, development is just another Ponzi scheme.
As we demobilized the military, we began ramping up a growth machine that would transform the continent. Among a population long deprived of excess, a national consensus took shape in support of auto-based suburban expansion. It seemed like a very American way to experience growth and opportunity while arresting the persistent problems of the city—or so we hoped. We expanded housing programs from the New Deal, added incentives for G.I.’s and others to buy new homes, and began building interstate highways that dramatically reshaped cities. Trade groups and professional organizations standardized the regulatory codes, insurance tables, and financing mechanisms to make it all work.
The early results seemed to confirm our theories. Not only did the economy grow rapidly but prosperity was widely shared. Every time we built a highway, bridge, or interchange and every time we ran a pipe out to a cornfield on the edge of town, we saw positive results. What my fellow Minnesotan Thomas Friedman would later call “the American recipe for success” was established: government financing of infrastructure plus incentives for homeownership equals sustained growth and prosperity. The American Dream.
Or the American myth. Local governments are starting to realize that this system doesn’t work. While it has historically provided federal and state governments with the economic growth they seek, it leaves cities responsible for maintaining vast expanses of roadways and huge service areas on a comparatively limited tax base. That works fine when everything is new and the cost of maintenance is low, but it quickly becomes impossible as systems age.That's creative destruction, or a life cycle. But the problem with reliance on Intelligent Design is that the creativity becomes codified, bureaucratized, sclerotic, or non-existent, and all that's left is the destruction.
What makes matters more desperate is that for auto-based development patterns aging is not graceful. While buildings in the traditional development style have a natural interdependency—they line up in a pattern, often share walls, their value is a function of the quality of the public space they front, and so forth—each auto-oriented building is, by design, totally independent. It will have its own parking. Many are fenced off from their neighbors or have ditches or berms in between. This is done, of course, to facilitate efficiency in construction. The result is that each failure becomes a random blight.
Auto-based development patterns follow a now familiar cycle of growth, stagnation, and then rapid decline. During the growth phase, when everything is shiny and new, the affluent move in and enjoy the prosperity of a place on the rise. But as those random failures emerge and things start to decline, those with the means to move on tend to do so, leaving behind cities of dwindling wealth.
We’re now two full generations into this experiment. Ferguson, Missouri, was one of those shiny new suburbs that expanded rapidly after World War II. As it has experienced the growth and decline typical of auto-oriented development, not only has it become much poorer but during the transition the municipality borrowed heavily and spent much of its fleeting wealth trying to maintain its position. Ferguson today is trapped: in 2013 it spent $800,000 paying interest on debt while being able to devote only $25,000 to sidewalk maintenance. There is a reason people in Ferguson might walk in the streets instead of on the sidewalks.That's apart from the cult of urban transgressivity. The challenge, which this advocate for New Urbanism engages incompletely, is to think about urban and suburban development as something other than another opportunity to identify and implement Best Practices.