Friday, May 31, 2013

The Justification for Civic Amenities

A loyal reader (it’s a required duty for younger sisters) recently emailed me with a question.  She provided a link to a National Public Radio story on the history of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  She asked my thoughts on the question posed by the article, whether a major amenity like the Gateway Arch justified the removal of 40 blocks of aging urban fabric.

I don’t know the entire history of the Gateway Arch, so my answer isn’t definitive.  But based on what I know, my answer is “almost assuredly not”.  Although that doesn’t mean that projects like the Gateway Arch are never justified.

How many people lived in the demolition area and the relocations that were forced upon them for the Gateway Arch are key variables in my answer.  The era of the Arch was also the era of Robert Moses.

And the era of Robert Moses was the era of large housing projects.  It was a time when we had convinced ourselves that “towers in the park” were a better housing solution for lower income people than the messy, urban streets on which they then lived.  Time proved that the idea was deeply flawed.  And the shortcomings were nowhere more evident than in St. Louis.

If the relocations required for the Gateway Arch resulted in projects like Pruitt-Igoe, then the Arch couldn’t have been justified.  Even if the neighborhoods that were removed for the Arch were raggedy and in need of work, they could never have been as poor a living situation as the projects of St. Louis quickly became.

This isn’t to deny that the Arch had value, both as a monument to civic spirit and as a tourist attraction.  Indeed, I rankle at the description in the article of the Arch as non-utilitarian.  Although some have more than others, virtually every public work has some utility, whether in providing a place to enjoy nature, attracting tourists, or carrying away sewage.  But it’s nearly impossible to argue that the value of the Arch could have exceeded the value of the neighborhoods lost.

But that doesn’t mean that projects like the Arch can never be justified.  Like so many decisions in the public realm, it’s a matter of benefit and cost.  Prepare cautious, reasonable estimates of the likely benefits, such as the ticket sales and increased tourism from the Gateway Arch.  Compare those to cautious, reasonable estimates of the cost of relocations, including the value of severed social capital.  And a benefit/cost decision can be made.  And some projects will be justified.  But probably not the Arch.

It’s much like the discussion of sports stadiums that I put forth a few months back.  Sports stadiums, and Gateway Arches, have value.  But proponents tend to exaggerate the benefits, which leads to poor decision-making.  And in the case of the Arch, I suspect that proponents, seduced by the “tower in the park” vision of housing projects, also underestimated the human costs.

Some may question how I can call for people to make the best decisions with the information at hand and also condemn the Gateway Arch relocations.  Weren’t the public housing projects of the time the best available concept?  Is there a difference between the conviction during the 1960s about the value of public housing and my arguments of today about urbanism?  Is it fair to condemn one in hindsight while promoting the other?

But there is a key difference between the “tower in the park” and urbanism.  The tower in the park was a wholly invented theory about how people should live.  According to Tom Wolfe, it began in an act of revulsion over the violence of World War I.  It had no basis in how people like to live.

On the other hand, urbanism is very much about people really do live.  It’s based in a look back as what land uses worked well, before we were sidetracked by the tower in the park and its successor theories.  And that’s a huge difference.

Is my Gateway Arch answer definitive?  Heck, no.  I’ve read little about the Arch, nor have I visited it.  I’ve never even set foot in Missouri.  But my sister asked an interesting question and I answered as best I could with the knowledge I have.  If someone has a more informed opinion, feel free to jump in.  I’m always willing to be educated.

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

(Note: Photo is from the NPR article.)

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