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