Monday, July 9, 2012

The Changing Location of New Housing – Part 3

In my first two posts on urban/suburban demographic trends (Part 1 and Part 2), I wrote about studies on whether people and homes are moving from the suburbs back into the cities and justifications that would explain the trend.  Quick summary: A movement downtown seems to be happening, although the conclusion likely won’t be confirmed until the economy is again running well.

I’m pleased that the urban cores are likely gaining ground.  But I have a nagging concern that we’re not asking the right question for the North Bay.   If we phrase the discussion in North Bay terms, the ongoing discussion is about whether people are returning to San Francisco and Oakland.  If they are, that’s great.  It implies improving urban vitality and more lifestyles that are sustainable.

But my real concern, and the concern of this blog, is about bringing the desirable features of urban life to North Bay communities, which a debate about building permits or population growth in the urban cores doesn’t really address.

To be clear, I don’t want Petaluma, Sonoma, or Sebastopol to become like San Francisco.  San Francisco is a lovely place, but so is Petaluma.  I don’t want the latter to lose its unique charm.

But I want some of the key attributes of urban life, the easy walkability, the ready access to markets for daily shopping, the convenient transit, to be enhanced for North Bay residents.  And I want people who desire that lifestyle in the North Bay to have that option.  It’s increasing clear that urban cores offer most sustainable lifestyles.  My hope is that some of that sustainability can be brought to the North Bay without harming the character of the communities.

I believe it’s possible.  But I don’t see how increasing population in San Francisco advances that goal.

Emily Badger and Mark Strozier, although addressing a slightly different question, helped to illuminate the key point of my uneasiness and to foster another level of understanding.

Badger, writing in Atlantic Cities, describes her upbringing in an urban Chicago neighborhood, where she learned to be a snob about urban life.  “The city was innately virtuous because it had different kinds of people and more museums and a Chinatown. And if you were not willing to go through the occasional weapons inspection to win access to all of that, then clearly your priorities were wrong.”

Today, she’s living in Alexandria, Virginia and agonizing over whether she’s been subverted into living in a suburb.  She runs through rationales for arguing that Alexandria isn’t a suburb such as its founding before Washington, D.C. (how can a place be a suburb if it existed before the place to which it is “sub”?), the ready access to transit, and the absence of an Applebee’s.  She ultimately decides that city-living is about risk-taking.  As Alexandria doesn’t require risks, it must be a suburb.

Her article was entertaining and thought-provoking until the conclusion, which seemed facile and unsatisfying.  How can gun checks to be emblematic of a good place to live?

Strozier, writing for The Polis, felt the same and offered an effective reconsideration.  He had undergone a relocation similar to Badger’s, moving from Brooklyn to Tarrytown, New York to accommodate a growing family.  He was now also wondering if he was living in a suburb.

He decides that the question is moot, that the urban/suburban divide isn’t meaningful in the 21st century.  With poverty and diversity moving to the suburbs and with single-family homes no longer the sole residential unit in the suburbs, the hard line between urban and suburban land uses is disappearing.  (Only yesterday, the New York Times reported that the number of poor living in the suburbs had increased from 11.3 million in 2000 to 18.9 million in 2010.)

Furthermore, he argues that the key distinguishing feature between land uses is now human scale, the thing that makes cities walkable and the absence of which makes most suburbs drivable.  Many places that might have previously been considered suburbs have a human scale, Tarrytown and Alexandria included.  So Strozier decided that both he and Badger lived in human-scale communities and that neither had any reason to apologize.

Strozier gets it right.  I began using the walkable urban/drivable suburban distinction only a short time ago.  I don’t intend to stop using it.  It’s good shorthand.  But it’s also limited.  The key distinction between communities isn’t whether they’re “urban”; it’s whether they’re sized to us or to our cars.

As Strozier points out, the key to “walkable urban” isn’t that a place is walkable, but that there is an incentive to walk.  That, faced with a four-block trip to buy milk, the first choice is walking shoes, not car keys.  Most drivable suburbs are walkable, if one is willing to endure being a puny human being in an environment where cars hold sway.  That isn’t what is meant by “walkable urban.”   For a community to be walkable, walking must be the reasonable, comfortable choice.

Strozier’s comment points the way to the distinction that I was trying to find.  Human-scale communities are those that encourage walking.  And not only walking, but also biking and the use of transit.  Any form of transportation that doesn’t start by wrapping us in 3,000 pounds of steel and plastic, isolated from our fellow citizens.

So, the walkable urban versus drivable suburban divide can be better expressed as a foot-bike-transit friendly versus car friendly divide.

And yet that doesn’t catch the full range of possibilities either.  There is another type of community, the dense urban settings where seventy stories of glass condominiums remove residents from a connection to the street.  Indeed, the towering buildings put streets into such perpetual shadows that the streets cease to be interesting places.

So, led by the musings of Badger and Strozier, I’ve come to a new way to think about communities.  Foot-bike-transit friendly equals human-scale equals a place I want to live.  Car-elevator friendly equals not human-scaled.

Foot-bike-transit friendly becomes the sweet spot, the midpoint between horizontal sprawl and vertical sprawl.

Is it a perfect delineation?  Probably not.  But it provides a deeper level of insight than urban versus suburban.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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