Monday, February 14, 2011

Urban acupuncture and the American Dream

We now live in the Century of the City, so called because last year the global human population counter rolled over the 50 percent mark – More than half the world's people now live in urban areas.

But in the U.S., the 21st century will also have to be the Century of the Suburb – the re-imagined suburb. That's particularly true in Sun Belt cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, Orlando, etc., where such a large proportion of land is given over to postwar suburban development. In coming years we'll have to decide how to, as Georgia Tech architect and author Ellen Dunham-Jones puts it, re-inhabit, retrofit and re-green those areas.

The imperatives are economic, environmental and demographic.

1. Carbon and greenhouse gases. If we're to avoid creating even more damaging and destructive changes in the world's climate (increasing droughts, floods, snow or burning heat, depending on where you are) for our kids and grandkids to deal with, then an excellent way to shrink U.S. production of greenhouse gases is to reduce how much people drive.

Even for people who insist on believing that all the world's climate scientists (who compete with one another and back-bite as avidly as any other professionals) have joined to perpetuate a worldwide hoax, there are other excellent reasons to reduce the U.S. driving habits: the cost to households and businesses of higher fuel prices, not to mention driving itself, with transportation taking an average 19 percent of U.S. household income; depending on other countries for our fuel; air pollution; the vast cost of building and maintaining roads and streets to accommodate ever-more driving.

2. Demographics. Population realities are converging to favor urban/multifamily/higher density development. Gen Y (aka the Millennials) have a clear preference, at least at this stage in their lives, for urban environments. Meantime, many aging boomers will be selling their houses and moving into condos or apartments. Many of them will also have to give up driving due to infirmity, illness or eyesight, so they'll be looking for neighborhoods where they can walk to stores and medical offices.

3. The emerging obesity epidemic. Driving more means exercising less. Human beings haven't suddenly lost their ability to have will power. We have structural issues that are making us fat. One of them is that we don't walk much anymore, because we have to drive.

4. Suburbs on the brink. Many of the postwar suburban neighborhoods (and by "suburban" I mean low-density, auto-oriented neighborhoods or towns carved up into single-use zones) are fading. To be sure, many thrive and will continue to, even as the market for single-family houses stagnates through oversupply (see item 2, above). But already, many cities including Charlotte are puzzling over fixes for dead or dying enclosed malls, derelict strip centers and big box stores, and neighborhoods with dwindling property values and rising crime and social problems.

I was privileged to spend Saturday moderating a conference in Raleigh, sponsored by the N.C. State College of Design, looking at the problem of, and opportunities for, inner-ring suburbs – which generally means those built in the late 1940s through the 1960s.

The clear consensus was that cities and metro areas will have to learn how to encourage more development closer to their core, and to build more transit lines. Some tidbits from some of the speakers:

• William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis (he joked about "India-No-Place") gave a definition of "sustainable" that I liked: "Stuff that endures." He said the first-tier suburbs are "the place where blight can either be stopped or spread farther out." He used a term I love: "urban acupuncture," which he attributed to Brazil's Jaime Lerner, a former mayor (Curitiba) and state (Parana) governor. The idea is to be strategic with well-placed interventions that help heal the surrounding area.

"Progress is not always new," he reminded the crowd. Other advice: Eradicate ugliness, and "multiply picnics." Finally, he offered a pertinent quote from Ernest Hemingway that I intend to repeat often: "making strong the broken places."

• Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia, author of "Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities," showed how, when looked at based on 30-year amortization, streetcars are a cheaper form of mass transit than buses. "The cost of buying buses, this year, is cheaper," he said. But long-term, building and operating streetcars is cheaper for transit systems. He showed slides of old streetcar rails popping out of the pavement (no, he didn't have a photo of the one on North Tryon Street) "wanting so much to be used."

• Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech, co-author of "Retrofitting Suburbia," noted that "nobody is plowing down existing neighborhoods" but instead there are opportunities to build infill, especially on what she called "underperforming asphalt." It requires creativity and innovative ways of developing, she said.

Wrap-up speaker Patrick Phillips, CEO of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, made the point that close-in neighborhoods can have a great appeal due to their proximity to employment centers and to transit options – unlike far-flung “exurbs,” he said, many of which are seeing high rates of foreclosures in the recession. And he used some research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, looking at Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, that showed that when transportation costs are figured in, exurban areas that look most "affordable" are, in fact, the least affordable. (See "Penny Wise, Pound Fuelish.")

The wrapup? Marvin Malecha, dean of the NCSU College of Design, took aim at today's use of "the American Dream" to mean a house in the suburbs. Come on, he said, isn't there in fact a different dream that we all have? "The real American Dream," he said, "is that our children will be OK."


Anonymous said...

Charlotte has a lot of "underperforming asphalt" in commercially zoned land lining its thoroughfares. Trouble is, NIMBY's will battle converting these "grayfields" into mixed-use infill, due to the negative perceptions of multi-family.

To overcome these perceptions, planners need to tackle the design and layout of apartments. If designed as insular complexes, multi-family is usually not a sustainable neighbor. But if designed as walkable extensions of their larger neighborhoods, apartments will actually generate less traffic per person and higher rents per square foot than their single-family counterparts.

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

The American Dream: half an acre, one and a half cars, two and a half kids. It started in the 1950's when the American economy was booming following WWII. Every generation since has tried to outdo the last and get their dream as well, but there's a secret to this dream, the cumulative cost. The 1950's were a different era and all the nostalgia in the world will not bring those days back because the world economic situation at that time was unique.

The '50's created urban flight with cheap land to be had in the suburbs and cheap cars/oil to be used to get from the suburbs to the jobs at the factories and office buildings in the city. Property ownership, once a thing for wealthy people, suddenly became a viable prospect for the vast middle class. Two expensive urban modes of transportation were developed to cope with the urban exodus: regional rail service and multi-lane freeways. Although there have been economic recessions since the post-war boom, it has usually involved minor lifestyle changes such as driving one's car less or living at home with your parents for a few extra years before buying a house.

60 years later, Americans have now become entrenched in a needlessly expensive lifestyle where the best option for most middle class Americans is owning small piece of land and a mortgage and requires the use of a vehicle to get to and from their job as well as everything else. This lifestyle flows into what is considered a "living wage" and employers have to compensate their employees for these expenses to remain competitive in the United States.

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

This is a major reason why 'Made in America' usually involves a heftier price tag. American workers are expensive and they are expensive in large part because their living and transportation expenses are abnormally high compared to other advanced westernized countries.

According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Labor Survey the average American spends 17.6% of their adjusted gross income (AGI) on transportation and 34.1% of their AGI on housing. When wages have to be high enough that 50% of it can go toward housing and transportation it is no wonder that low and lower middle class employers in non-service industries had to go overseas and now increasing employers in service industries have been able to 'outsource' overseas as well.

There are obviously a plethora of reasons why industries find it cheaper to operate in other countries. Cost of labor is merely one of these reasons. But if America could lower the cost of labor even moderately, it should be enough to bring back a non-insignificant portion of these employers. The solution? A focus on new-urbanism with an eye toward how cities used to be built, not physically, but conceptually. We need to redefine the American Dream in a way that favors job growth and retention by lowering the cost of labor to a manageable level.

Anonymous said...

I'm not disagreeing that America's housing choices may be changing (or have to change), but this column does lead to several questions. Recently the Observer has really pushed for low income housing in the 'burbs, especially far out 'burbs. Why would you be fighting so hard for this, if those suburbs are so car dependent and create problems such as obesity and greenhouse gases? Also, editorials repeatedly hint that you would prefer to return to some sort of diversity based school assignment plan. You have not been supportive of neighborhood schools, which of course mean more walking/less driving. How does school assignment fit into the concerns expressed in this column?

Anonymous said...

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...Start your own business and pay them "living wages" comrade. I thought so.

Tim Collie said...

Breanainn Seaghdha comments are pure comedy.

The wrath of socialism wanting to box everyone along Soviet style apartments on a rail line are nauseating.

The economy is going to bounce back. The American dream hasn't changed. 90% of Americans turn 30 and want a yard to bbq in and play ball with their kids. #nevergoingaway

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

If I'm so wrong, why is it that in the 1950's and 60's a single income earner without a college degree could support an entire family with a house in the suburbs without an absurdly high debt to equity ratio. But today it takes two income earners with college degrees and maxed out credit cards to enjoy the same lifestyle?

If employees are making just as much or more money, why is it in 1960, executive pay was 30 times the average employee salary and in 2009 it was 300 times the average employee salary?

Tim Collie, I'm not saying that people don't want the house and the bbq's, I'm saying our country has driven itself into an existence that is incapable of supporting that desire. There are only so many wage earners and credit cards a family can acquire before one of two things has to happen: Increase wages or decrease the cost of living.

Many Americans lived in so-called soviet style housing on a rail line prior to world war 2. It made factory workers affordable and kept people employed. It is actually more capitalist than anything.

Kristen said...

You did a great job moderating. I also hate I forgot that quote from Marvin Malecha at the end on the American Dream in my recap. My Wolfpack pride was showing throw there ;).

Boulder Acupuncturist said...

thank you. interesting article