Livability urbanism v. general welfare urbanism

I think this piece by Richey Piiparinen at New Geography (via The Urbanophile) is mostly on point, although he commits the sloppy journalistic sin of declaring that Chicago is suffering from “record levels of violence,” which is not true by any metric and which is, in fact, so unsupported by any evidence that it makes you wonder whether anything in the entire piece was fact-checked.

Still, the backlash to what Piiparinen calls “livability urbanism” is a real thing, and on the whole a force for good, and plus it’s nice to see New Geography publishing something thoughtful. (When I read New Geography, which is less often than I used to, it frequently reminds me of Lionel Trilling’s quote about conservatism, which was that it was not really a coherent body of thought but rather an “irritable mental gesture.”)

I also think that part of the phenomenon that Piiparinen finds so frustrating – and which I’ve been turning over in my head recently – is the tendency of urbanists to conflate ways in which their preferred urban policies promote the general welfare, broadly defined (improved safety, reduced time commuting, reduced commuting costs, better access to jobs, fewer carbon emissions), and ways in which their preferred urban policies promote the creation of neighborhoods they think it would be fun to live in.  These are not the same thing. For example, the general welfare is promoted if a postwar suburb decides to make sure all its streets have sidewalks, and that buses come at least every 15 minutes on major routes during the day, and that denser apartment buildings will be allowed near major intersections. However, it has failed to create an environment, in all likelihood, that twentysomething liberal arts graduates will want to live in. On the other side, if Chicago declares Uptown an entertainment district, and gives subsidies to venues there and makes Broadway more attractive, he has probably increased the amount of fun that young educated people will have in the area (and increased the profits of those music venues), but the general quality of life of the people who live in the neighborhood is unlikely to change a tremendous amount.

What makes this conflation more devious is that many cities have decided that, in fact, they will improve the general welfare by making themselves fun places for educated twentysomethings, and thus sparking economic development. But it’s worth noting that this strategy has, as its end goal, something very different than just a direct application of urbanist principles to improve people’s lives. Where this kind of economic development is successful, the tendency is for zoning-restricted housing supply to cause a huge surge in housing prices, which leads to a rise in the area’s average income and quality of life – but with the downside that those benefits accrue to only the upper end of the class spectrum. Or, you know, gentrification. The economic and ethical problems with this approach are well explored.

But moreover, conflating urbanism with places twentysomethings think are fun ignores the fact that not everyone has the same ideal living arrangement. Some people – hell, most people, at least in this country – would like to live in a primarily single-family neighborhood where they can drive on wide, fast-moving streets and find parking easily. When we pretend that those things are incompatible with basic urbanist principles – because they’re the opposite of what’s considered hip – we, as urbanists, are telling the vast majority of Americans that we have nothing to offer them. If we kept in mind the distinction between “livability” urbanism and general welfare urbanism, that would be much less of a problem.

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