I awoke at 4:30 a.m. this morning from a frightening dream, my heart pounding. In the dream, I was trying to catch up to my wife, who was running, far ahead of me, with a crowd of other people toward doors leading from what I think was a huge gymnasium. Everyone was in a panic because a huge tornado was fast approaching. I called out to my wife, but the noise of the tornado and the crowd was too loud; she couldn’t hear me. That’s when I awoke. There was more background to the dream, before seeing the tornado. But that’s not what I am writing about here; maybe another time.
It is now 5:28 a.m. and I will write on a subject about which I have passionate feelings but in which I have little formal education: urban planning. Despite my lack of formal education in the discipline, though, I believe I am about as qualified as anyone else to write about urban planning. Borrowing from Noam Chomsky’s position about why he, a linguist, is qualified to write and speak about politics, and adapting it for my own purposes, I feel qualified to write about urban planning for several reasons:
- I have lived in an urban environment and continue to do so to this day;
- I read about urban planning and experience on a not-infrequent basis, absorbing ideas on the matter from others who study the subject more deeply than I;
- Those who study urban planning more deeply than I are not possessed of powers of understanding any more magical than my own;
- I am sufficiently intelligent to appreciate the challenges of creating satisfying urban environments, and;
- I think, daily, about many things that matter to me.
With that as a backdrop, here’s what I am thinking at the moment.
The problems that accompany urban sprawl are legendary. Ready availability of automobiles helped create sprawl, sending people further and further away from places they work. People move, in clusters, further away from where they work. Commerce in the form of grocery stores, gas stations, banks, ad infinitum, follows them. Roads built to carry traffic loads to and from these clusters become clogged as more clusters sprout further and further out.
The attractions of moving away from the central city have been legion: lower population density, lower cost housing, which is newer and more modern than existing housing, etc., etc. It seems to me that developers involved in the progression away from the urban core, aided by politicians and others who set urban policy, have tended to intentionally segregate residential areas from business and commercial areas. At the same time, in cities like Dallas and Houston and many others, paid too little attention to encouraging the development of public transportation; public movement by car was the assumed “best route” to take.
Major traffic arteries into and out of residential areas became appropriate places to segregate business and commerce. Getting to them required either a car or the willingness to risk life and limb by crossing heavy traffic at intersections designed with little thought to their appropriateness for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Public policies contributed to sprawl by making it easier and cheaper and more attractive to leave crumbling city cores than to repair them and make them serve people better. Expenditures were directed toward transportation infrastructure to widen roads that became congested with traffic, rather than to create alternatives to roads through better and more efficient public transportation. Newly widened roads then made it easier to go further and further out with under-designed roads that would then need widening as they became congested. And when that happened, the cycle began again.
As people fled the urban core to the suburbs, the core became less and less affluent. “Close-in” began to mean “down-and-out.” Poor people formed the core of the core. And it was in the suburbs at the fringes of the urban area that money began to collect. What were once relatively impoverished communities whose agricultural tax base could not support city amenities become flush; they became cities in their own right, in some cases. But many of their residents still had to make that awful commute back to the core.
It is now obvious (to some) that public policies that encouraged exodus did not work well. Policies that rewarded low-density residential development that required massive expenditures on infrastructure for roads, water, sewer, etc. began to seem outdated. Though it has by no means diminished the rush to build far, far from the urban core, the relatively recent emphasis toward more residential development in downtown areas has shown the appeal of “downtown” living.
Living in “downtown” areas allows a lifestyle in which one doesn’t spend a large part of the day in the car. Residential and commercial and business developments are becoming more integrated; there is a great deal of appeal in being able to walk to restaurants and grocery stores and banks. Properly planned, higher density does not mean choking congestion and noise. There is a growing awareness of the need for increased density to make cities livable; density is what makes a city what it is.
But even a cursory look at this new urbanism reveals something else. Developers in the new urban core are in it for the money; that’s all they’re after. And their developments are expensive. Very expensive. The people who were left at the core when the more affluent left now find themselves squeezed out.
I predict that, as the flashy new suburbs age and the urban core rebirth as something new and edgy and attractive continues, the core will once again be home to the affluent. But now, it will be exclusively the affluent who can live there. And as the suburbs age, the less affluent will migrate to live in the less dense, but decaying, suburbs.
Unconstrained capitalism operates on the premise that value is entirely a monetary matter. Until we devise a means to inject morality, empathy, and caring into the mix, capitalism will be its own worst enemy. It will continue to create its own enemies through the practice of building up the fortunate-few at the expense of the unfortunate-many. And the unfortunate-many will rise up to demand justice. They may repeatedly fail, again and again, but I think they will eventually prevail. When that happens, I think “socialism” will no longer be an ugly concept but, instead, what democracy is really all about.