Monday, January 7, 2013

Are We Sure It Shouldn’t Be Now?

It’s Monday morning and the holidays are officially behind us.  Children are back in school and most decorations have been returned to the attic for another eleven months.  It’s time to look ahead at urbanism in 2013.

I recently spoke with a friend who has tried his hand at urbanist development and hopes to do so again.  He commented that a particular city “was waiting for the economy to improve before refocusing on downtown redevelopment.”

I recognize the attitude.  I’ve had it myself.  The thinking is that urbanism is a future necessity, but that we still have time to move that direction.  That we should have working toward a more urbanist world for the past decade or two, but another few months or years of foot-dragging, while unfortunate, can be accommodated.

I’m not sure anymore.  It’s possible that the time when urbanism is essential has arrived.  And that waiting until the economy recovers is a fool’s errand.

Those who have followed this blog have read various reasons why we should be pursuing increased urbanism.  Because we’ve suppressed urbanism for decades by ill-conceived public policies.  Because there are people who prefer an urbanist life and deserve a reasonable opportunity to live that lifestyle.  Because diminishing petroleum reserves will force changes in transportation options.  Because climate change will be lessened with a more urbanism lifestyle.  Because there is increasing evidence that public health improves as urbanism grows.

All of those reasons remain valid and all have some degree of urgency attached.  But a different reason may have now pushed its way to the front of the line, especially in a time of ongoing economic duress.  That reason is the StrongTowns hypothesis.  The StrongTowns folks argue that we’ve already built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain.  That the burden of the infrastructure maintenance deficit is an anchor on the economy.  And that a principal course of action to redress the problem is urbanism.

I still retain a trace of hesitancy about the StrongTowns hypothesis.  It fits the facts remarkably well, but is so startling and far-reaching in its implications that a lingering bit of skepticism is appropriate.

However, the credibility of the hypothesis is sufficiently high that we should all be thinking about it.  It would be irresponsible to blindly proceeding with new and expensive infrastructure requiring ongoing and as yet unfunded maintenance without pondering the StrongTowns hypothesis.

Furthermore, every day brings news of more people buying into the hypothesis.  As Canadian Jesse Paulson writes on Twitter, “Canada's costs of replacing roads in fair to very poor condition: $7,325 per household!  We've built too many roads, eh!”

Meanwhile, Calgary has hired a planning director who brings an occasionally overboard but always enthusiastic endorsement of urbanism.  Among his quotes, "The best places to visit have the worst traffic. Who in here has gone on vacation in Houston?"  And "Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. ... We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk."

Also, the EPA reports that infill development is increasing across the U.S. 

The tide may be turning, with additional support flowing toward urbanism.  But tides often turn with agonizing slowness.  And every bit of new infrastructure, especially that which will require unfunded maintenance, has the potential to create a burden that will bedevil our economic health for years.

It’s likely that we can no longer delay our move toward urbanism.  Waiting to do so until the economy improves may be like waiting for Godot.

This is a good time to note that Charles Marohn of StrongTowns will make a presentation via the internet to Petaluma Urban Chat on the evening of Tuesday, February 12.  He was originally scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, January 8, but will be spreading the StrongTowns word in Pennsylvania, so asked to delay his presentation by a month.  Everyone is encouraged to join us that evening.

Petaluma Urban Chat will still meet tomorrow, Tuesday January 8, 5:30pm, at the Aqus Café in Petaluma.  We’ll continue our discussion of the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet in preparation for Marohn’s February presentation.  Please take a look at the booklet and then enter the conversation.

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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