Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting out of Dodge

I have always believed that the American citizen wants the following: “The biggest house on the biggest lot that they can afford.” Simple isn’t it. And this is in complete sympathy with the fundamental law of good economics: “The market is supreme.”

Why then are we continually bombarded and chastised by do-gooders and New Urbanists who firmly believe that we are on the road to perdition and our just end by living in single family homes in the suburbs? In Joel Kotkin’s rebuke of two op-ed pieces in the New York Times touting the decline of the suburb HERE, he chastises their tenets as “more a matter of wishful thinking than fact.” Yes it is more than wishful thinking on both Chris Leinberger HERE and Louise Mozingo’s HERE part to believe (almost over-passionately), that they will be proved right and the “fringe suburb” and the suburb itself will go the way of the dinosaur.

In both of their arguments they blame the architecture not the economics. The blame the suburbs and the unenlightened, not the marketplace. And to use the excuse of climate change is just plain lazy thinking. And Ms. Mozingo, what the hell is pastoral capitalism? I must have missed that economics lecture. After reading both Leinberger’s and Mozingo’s diatribes I swear I have been pushed back to planning classes of 1970 when Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Vincent Scully’s musings on Le Corbusier’s fascistic views on urban redevelopment and Las Vegas chic were the rage, Edmund Bacon was required reading on Philadelphia, and Paolo Soleri’s dreams of human anthills were at museums of modern art. Save the world – go vertical.

The average American (and I’m sure far more than 50%) distrusts cities. They see criminals and civil discourse. They see danger and are fearful. They see uncontrolled costs, poor management and excessive tax burdens. Sure they go into the city centers during the day to the museums and to shop but they get out of Dodge before the sun sets. That’s one part of the problem with the current foreclosure issue, fear. Many took advantage of this opportunity to escape and then, combined with stupid lending practices and the collapse of the economy; these otherwise sane people were put in jeopardy.

Urban areas have higher concentrations of voters (obviously) and where there are voters there’s politicians handing out money. Billions of dollars flow into the cities - much without reason or control. So we now have Lexus cities that can’t afford to put gas in the tank. The most current gross excess is the high speed rail that is planned between dense urban areas while ignoring the suburbs it will fly through. Transit only functions both economically and operationally in higher density urban areas, thus to believe that density is good is to justify the outrageous cost per user that will saddle the general public - who live in the suburbs. The market thumbs their nose at these ideas.

EVERY land use is temporary. Every castle, hovel, office tower, office complex, stadium, single family housing tract is temporary, it is only a matter of time. Even the billion dollar cyclotron office building proposed by Apple will be knocked down some day. Every ring of urban growth “fringe” eventually becomes an inner ring of decayed housing ripe for redevelopment Cool Example.  I have planned residential communities on lands that were once insane asylums and office complexes (don’t read anything into that statement). Well planned money goes to where there is the best return; a new freeway interchange may affect thousands of acres and foster growth. A new sewer plant allows for more effective suburban planning, while also clearing up environmental problems.

And what is urban anyway? Every planner and politician has one idea and every home buyer and family has another. The debate is not an architectural one it’s a social issue. It is a debate on the automobile and its attendant demons; it’s an attack on the politics of these suburban residents, and it’s a reaction of their collective “thumbing of the nose” toward the academics.

Yes Virginia, believe in the market and the demographics.

Stay tuned . . . .

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