I was pondering yet again the many challenges we presently face that are rooted in our urban renaissance, and how vexing it is that something generally perceived as a net-positive can still carry with it no shortage of downsides and externalities.To wit, the peace dividend that created The America That Worked(TM).
In short, no scheme, no policy, no market trend, no infrastructure deployed will correct everything absolutely. They all contribute. Hopefully positively, but always incrementally. And always, it seems, with some element of negative consequence or concurrence caught up in their wake.
Fortunately…Some of that exurban expansion was strictly emergent, and some of it was at the urging of Wise Experts. Similarly, emergence played a big role in the exodus from the cities, but expertise gave us urban renewal.
We could expand outward! Glorious greenfields awaited!
That land was far from everyone’s job. And friends. And stores. And churches. No one wanted to be so far away.
We created majestic freeways to whisk our young men and their families around, as easy as those short walks and trolley rides of yesteryear!
Every new resident and the car they brought with them made that experience incrementally worse for everyone.
With all our newfound prosperity, we could finally clean up our slummy cities with new, public housing!
Urban renewal’s destruction of struggling but functioning neighborhoods also destroyed functioning micro economies, severed social support networks, and further concentrated poverty.
There's a recent Strong Towns post identifying potentially serious difficulties with the Suburban Experiment that gives insufficient credence to emergence.
There are two differences between the Traditional Development Pattern and the Suburban Experiment that we find significant and critical. First, in the traditional approach, development happens incrementally over time. Things start small and then mature in phases. For the suburban approach, we tend to work in large steps with grand designs.The cookie-cutter aspect of suburban development, however, is itself an emerged phenomenon. Yes, any subdivision is predictably homogeneous these days, and any major crossroad, whether in New Hampshire or New Mexico, looks a lot like any other major crossroad. But the idea of a small number of similar houses began with Levittown, the McDonald's idea began with one California drive-in that bought a lot of milk-shake makers, and Best Western Motels simply offered comparable accommodations among a number of otherwise independent motelliers, long before Holiday Inn or Red Roof Inn came up with standard designs.
Economies of scale is a modern ethic that, combined with our perceived affluence, supersedes the more bootstrapping mindset of incrementalism.
The second difference is closely related. With the traditional approach, all development is on a continuum of improvement. It starts incremental and it is always seeking the energy to move to the next level of advancement. With our post-War Suburban Experiment, we build everything to a finished state. No additional improvement is anticipated or even desired.
That shift in mindset is really important. When your ethic is to build things to a finished state, the tendency is to demand the highest quality you can hope to experience. That means that even cities that are struggling financially are often weighed down by regulation and bureaucracy that ensures "quality construction". Lost is the notion of bootstrapping -- doing what you can with what you have available -- and with it the notion of widespread upward mobility.
Perhaps the installed bases of standardized housing or standardized food or standardized lodging bring with them impediments to further improvement. On the other hand, aren't the downwardly mobile crossroads and suburbs saddled with earlier iterations of what looked like standard practice?
Thus there will be incremental improvement, and occasionally, those increments will prove disruptive.