Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Centrist versus Decentrist – The Future of American Growth

I apologize right up front that this posting may be a bit disjointed – but the following bits are my initial thoughts in an rough attempt to get my arms around the subject of where growth will occur in the United States during the next fifty years. It is a personal view – but based on a lot of experience.

There are today two broad schools of thought on American growth. The first says we must return to the cities (use force if necessary), reuse and revitalize our urban centers, densify, and above all use transit to make this all happen. These are what I call Urban Centrists. The second school is certain that most of the new growth necessary to absorb the next 100 million Americans has to be in the outlying suburbs and small towns across the country. These are the Rural Decentrists.

I am a Rural Decentrist.

The growth of suburban and urban areas since the end of World War II has continued to feed this discussion to the point of rabid reaction and political leveraging. These schools have had their champions and buzz words. To mention a few: Transit Oriented Design (TOD), Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND), Edge Cities, New Urbanism, Neo-Traditional, Sustainable Development, Penturbia (the 5th Internal American Migration), Satellite Towns (a Cold War remainder?), Greenbelt Communities, and one of the most curiously recent, New Pedestrianism. Billions of dollars have been spent and made in each camp promoting and building their view, like Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin one hundred years ago, of the Utopian community.

Each has their intrinsic value and success stories. The neighborhoods and villages built and reconstructed on the New Urbanist model are excellent examples of low density, mixed-use neighborhoods; their long term viability is yet to be determined. But it is safe to say they are very expensive and, for some, elitist in their maturity. These concepts are strong — their execution expensive.

Decentrist neighborhoods tend to be sprawling (there is that word) and are areas of growth connected to existing communities and towns. They are more affordable, adaptable, and accessible to more people. While not paradigms of planning in their choc-a-block layouts and executions they meet the most important need – demand. And yes this can lead to excess (witness the current housing mess), but the community designs are not the reason for their collapse.

The fundamental flaw of each school is that old bugaboo, the marketplace. People can only rent or buy what they can afford (except the last few years). As land values increase (usually closer to urban centers) the costs to develop and build increase, sometimes substantially. The result is higher and higher housing costs. To counter this affect either units get smaller, densities rise, heights increase, or they become too expensive. The increase in price directly affects who buys and where. While the European model works (the expensive and really nice housing is downtown) for Paris, London and other old-world cities I suggest, quite strongly, that that is not the traditional American model.

The American housing model and its attendant marketplace is unforgiving – look at the current rates of foreclosures. Many foreclosures were based on the attempt to subvert the marketplace with political incentives (tax rebates, subsidies, and outright grants), others through fraud and deceit. I do not include those that face foreclosure due to illness and job loss — the market already includes these difficulties in its traditional model.

The rural decentrist model begins with a significantly lower basis in the land cost (land costs within a few miles of Urban Growth Boundaries can be 10% of the inside land values). Approval costs are less, utilities are significantly easier to build and the costs of labor - lower. No matter how loudly the centrist school stomps their collective feet; they cannot come close to offering the same competitive product to the marketplace. The urban areas do offer a more diverse society, more arts, more distractions, finer stores, restaurants, and even more and better opportunities for employment — but it is not a moral issue.

To attribute and/or apply a moral aspect to this growth is just wrong. This castigation continues to appear in articles and even books that espouse one form of development as intellectually and morally superior to others. Phooey. There is good development and bad development; there is profitable development and there is unprofitable. The marketplace takes care of the bad and unprofitable in a very unforgiving manner. Developers with high standards. imagination, and community spirit will continue to develop excellent projects no matter where they are located. And there will also be a lot of junk foisted on the public covered with sustainable green neo-traditional transit oriented worker’s housing labels (SGNTTO&WH).

There are state and national efforts to change how we grow through political muscle and legislation. These regulations fight the marketplace and its simple needs. They will become very costly and take revenues from more important community needs. I suggest a time-out, a sideline breather — put your hands on your knees and take a breath.

Off to Chicago tomorrow for a presentation and book signing in Park Forest, Illinois. Talk with ya’all next week.

Stay tuned . . . .

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