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.

Things I have not had time to note

1. Speaking of elitist urbanism: This article from DNAInfo fairly dumbfounded me when I first read it. An independent grocery store in Ukrainian Village – Ashland just south of Division – wants to start selling liquor. The local neighborhood association is concerned, however, that alcohol might bring around unsavory characters. Or, well, not all alcohol:

A local grocer has been offered a liquor license with a twist: no mass market beers like Bud or Old Style and no cheap wines, either. [T]he deal that would allow him to sell only craft beers and higher-end wines….The restrictions are designed to ease fears by neighbors that the market could create alcohol-related problems.

so the government is mandating that the store only sell products that are too expensive for “problem” customers. I.e., poor people.

If this doesn’t strike you as obviously ridiculous, imagine if the shoe were on the other foot: if some community organization somewhere, like Uptown or UKRAINIAN VILLAGE TEN YEARS AGO, decided to fight gentrification by telling a liquor store that they could only sell cheap, mass-produced beer – no crafts, no local stuff, nothing small-batch or artisanal. (Of course, there would also have to be a ban on PBR.) If that happened, we would all shake our heads and say something like, “No, that’s just not how it works.” But when it comes to government-mandated class exclusivity, I guess it is!

More broadly, this is also an example of “local control” favoring a small set of provincial interests rather than a wider constituency of everyone who is affected by the decision. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that a majority of residents of this area are in favor of this policy, which I doubt. (The impetus for the special license was the East Village Association, which, if it is anything like every other neighborhood association ever, is not a representative sample of the people they ostensibly represent.) What about the people who work in the many service-sector jobs in Ukrainian Village, who may want to pick up a six pack of beer on their way home for $6.99 instead of $12.99? Or people whose commutes take them through the area? Or potential future residents? Why do none of them get a say? I’m a reasonably community-minded person, who believes that collective attachment to a place, and a collective culture, should matter in policy. But what deep spiritual attachment do the residents of the East Village have to craft beer and expensive wines that would justify this? Or – if we want to be credulous and take the crime angle seriously – exactly how much crime do the local police officials expect to be produced from a single liquor store at Ashland and Division? Have they walked around Division recently? Are they expecting drunk yuppies to start attacking innocent bystanders with their strollers?

It is certainly the EVA’s right to make requests of a neighborhood business, or to ask that there not be any liquor licenses in their area at all. It is also, of course, a business’ right to target their products to whatever slice of the income ladder they choose. But a compromise that involves making it illegal to sell products that are affordable to low-income people is pretty awful.

2. Yay suburban express buses! This article about the success of Pace’s BRT-ish highway-shoulder-riding express buses to downtown Chicago is pretty cool. The ridership is still pretty low – it’s quoted at 550 for the two routes – but they’re doubling the number of runs, so it sounds like it’ll probably keep rising. Plus, what a great way to give people who don’t live near Metra transit access to downtown! No wasting years in studies and trying to find hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new rail lines – just send those buses down the highway! Now the question is – or my question is – whether this (or BRT more broadly) could be a model for suburb-to-suburb transit as well. Cheap, easily changeable to meet new job clusters/transit demand, relatively fast. Might this be a pilot/replacement idea for Metra’s proposed suburb-to-suburb STAR line? Do other cities do this?




Questions for Richard Florida, one month late

1. Why, in these graphs, are we comparing wages minus housing costs to…housing costs? It’s certainly interesting that greater real estate prices are so positively correlated with white-collar wages that those workers end up with greater take-home income in high-housing-cost metros, even after subtracting those housing costs. But wouldn’t the better comparison – if your question is whether the concentration of college degree holders in certain metro areas is good for non-college degree holders in those same metros – be after-housing-cost wages for non-college degree holders versus the percentage of white-collar workers in the labor pool? Maybe the results would be the same; but it would be nice to see.

2. Even better, given that metro areas with high housing costs tend to be older cities with solid public transit systems, what do those graphs look like if you chart wages minus housing costs and minus transportation costs against the percentage of white-collar workers in the labor pool? As the Center for Neighborhood Technology has shown, including transportation costs in the “structural costs” of a given metro area gives a very different picture of the burden on low- and moderate-income families than looking at housing alone. (Of course, the tendency of elite cities to be transit-friendly isn’t necessarily inherent to the phenomenon of talent clustering – except that much of this conversation is about using urbanism to attract college-educated workers. Given that, it seems relevant whether the current urbanist model of lower transportation costs and higher housing costs does, on net, hurt blue-collar discretionary income.)

3. This is outside the immediate scope of your project, maybe, but how do these effects vary by metropolitan area? What is the relationship between talent clustering and blue-collar well-being, on the one hand, and restrictive zoning (which has been shown to artificially raise real estate prices), or economic segregation? Are there extremes where, even according to your original models, an increase in white-collar workers is good, economically, for blue-collar workers – say, in a very poor, tax-base-thin city like Detroit?

Answers, hopefully to come!

Yuppie Urbanism v. Egalitarian Urbanism

Via Whet Moser, an Urbanophile piece that asks: “Is Urbanism the New Trickle-Down Economics?”

That depends, it seems to me, on what we mean by the question. If we mean, “Do elites in the government use urbanist policies primarily for the benefit of other elites?”, then I think the answer is a clear yes. As Aaron Renn points out, much of the time politicians aren’t even pretending otherwise; investments in transit, bike lanes, or walkable design are explicitly pitched as bait for young people with college degrees and cultural and economic power. (Witness the incredibly stupid fight between Rahm Emanuel and the mayor of Seattle over whose bike lanes will poach the other’s tech workers.)

But that’s hardly a surprise. We could delete the word “urbanist” from the question and get the same answer. It is a given, here and nearly everywhere else, that governments are under outsized influence from the rich and powerful, defined broadly, and even policies that are ostensibly egalitarian or redistributionist rarely get enacted without partial or total cooptation. This is true in health care, this is true in taxes, this is true in urban policy. Our last great era of rethinking what cities should be – against which this one is often explicitly compared – involved even more blatant pro-elite bias (with elite, during the midcentury, having a more open racial component). Look at the history of the Chicago Housing Authority, which started as a basically socialist, redistributionist program and quickly devolved into government-enforced relocation and segregation of blacks, a story repeated in dozens of cities around the country; or the reign of Robert Moses in New York, and his exclusionary public works.

A better question, I think, is whether the current flavor of urbanism is inherently elitist – that is, whether the kind of urbanist policies promoted at The Atlantic Cities, or Streetsblog, are unprogressive even before being perverted by the political process. That’s a harder question, but I think the answer is no. Certainly, the aspects of urbanism that are most potentially redistributionist – radical liberalization of zoning laws, provision of city services, etc. – are not the ones with the greatest grassroots excitement. And a lot of urbanist causes célèbres, like bike lanes and urban farming, are fairly tangential to social justice.

But I think it’s hard to conclude that the standard basket of urbanist policies, taken as a whole, doesn’t have a strongly redistributionist bent. Two of its main effects – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the burden of transportation costs, especially on low-income households – are clearly progressive. (See the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index for details on the latter.)

The more interesting debate, which Renn sort of brushes up against without taking on directly, is whether the fact that urbanists tend to be culturally elite college-degree-holding types means that, inevitably, the more redistributionist parts of the policy basket won’t ever get enacted. It’s absolutely true, as he writes, that “with some notable exceptions, you don’t see social justice and equity issues front and center in the urbanists discussions outside of old-school community organizing/activism circles, groups that are almost totally distinct from Atlantic Cities style urbanism.” So we’re not getting any great political movement with the aim of urban economic justice.

But whether that fact dooms egalitarian urbanism depends in large part, it seems to me, on how successful yuppie urbanism is. If, on the one hand, the new urban ideology is applied in a limited, targeted way – if public transit investment goes mainly to pretty-looking but functionally useless streetcars in gentrifying downtown districts, rather than improving regional bus networks (and maybe trains in some metro areas); if politicians’ commitment to urban design is limited to sexy mixed-use development only in those same central areas they want to gentrify, rather than a complete overhaul of zoning and design standards across the region; if a few center-city bike lanes aren’t accompanied by a broader change in road construction guidelines to make walking and accessing public transit viable and safe; then early 21st century urbanism will have the same anti-egalitarian legacy as mid-20th century urbanism.

But if, instead, urbanists – out of pure self-righteous self-interest – win a kind of total ideological victory and manage to change the urban planning paradigm as fundamentally (or even half as fundamentally) as it was changed in the years after World War Two, and we get those improved regional bus networks, the liberalized zoning, the better design that allows for decreased dependence on cars and lower transportation costs, then the legacy will be quite different. The real challenge, of course, will be in those areas not where yuppie urbanism and egalitarian urbanism happen to coincide, but where they clash. Regional bus systems, and improved design guidelines in the ungentrified, and ungentrifiable, suburbs, may not get most urbanists to throw a party, but they’re clearly aligned with their ideological interests and don’t pose any kind of threat.

What does pose a clear threat to the professional class are policies more explicitly aimed at economically integrating neighborhoods: the dismantling of exclusionary zoning codes, the loosening of historic preservation districts, scattered-site public housing in non-poor neighborhoods, and so on. Those are the policies whose chances I would worry about most – and, unfortunately, they also seem to me to be the ones of greatest importance: reducing the burden of transportation costs on poor households is important, but economic segregation is the root of a number of cities’ most intractable problems, including crime and education.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that I’m not totally convinced that a broad political movement that did explicitly promote egalitarian urbanism would do much good, at least on the economic integration front. The lines of self-interest would basically pit the lower half of the economic spectrum against the upper half, and it doesn’t take a genius to put odds on that battle.

Speaking of Houston: Two Links

The Atlantic Cities has a longish essay on the limitations of “density” as a goal for urbanists, which attempts to answer some of the questions I posed about the value of density per se versus traditional, walkable urbanism that may be less dense. (I apologize for using the word “density” or “dense” three times in one sentence, but this is a blog, and you should expect subpar prose.) The upshot is that, at least from an environmental standpoint, what matters most is a sort of functional urbanism that allows a high level of non-car travel, rather than simply a high people-per-square-mile statistic. Not really addressed: social and economic justice. Worth reading nonetheless.

This paper from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute does take on the economic side of things, and purports to show that functional urbanism is, in fact, the best policy to promote transportation affordability. Not shocking. What I’m not sure if it covers–I haven’t read the whole thing yet–is how functional urbanism affects economic segregation, which is more of my interest. Read it here.

Is This The Densest Sprawl In The Country?

A veritable fiesta of posts today!

Going off my last one, I was poking around Houston on the NYT’s lovely Census maps and discovered this gem: Census Tract 421402, at the southwest corner of Renwick and Gulfton in Houston, with a population of 3,440 and a population density of 55,254. Fifty-five thousand! For comparison’s sake, that’s nearly the population density of Manhattan. And it looks like this:

The thing that jumps out at me right away is the land coverage of that tract (and the ones around it, which vary from about 18,000 ppsm to 37,000 ppsm); buildings cover a waaaaay bigger percentage of the land inside the arterial roads than they do in an average Chicago neighborhood, where there are small yards and alleys and so on. The other thing, obviously, is that we have reached Paris-level density with what appears to be highly pedestrian- and transit-unfriendly planning, not to mention–at least as far as one can tell from Google Streetview, and in my own fallible opinion–a certain lack of aesthetic charm.

In fact, we have Paris/Manhattan-level density–surrounded by Chicago/Brooklyn level density–with virtually no visible pedestrians in the area. An incredible achievement! Probably the tiny sidewalks smushed up against a major fast-moving thoroughfare play some role. Moreover, though there is a bus route nearby, it appears to come only every 20 minutes and stop entirely at about 9:00 pm.

This is interesting, I think, because it raises all sorts of questions about what constitutes a city, and what “urbanism” is about. It forces you to ask what exactly matters here: Does form matter more than density? Does this kind of auto-centric density promote social justice, in creating a more compact city that promotes physical proximity to jobs? Or is it an island of people packed into apartments because they can’t afford to live elsewhere, surrounded by sprawl that makes access to those jobs more difficult? What are the environmental tradeoffs: Does the energy saved by living frugally, as far as land goes, count more than the energy saved by replacing driving trips with walking and public transportation? What kind of community and human interaction, both locally and regionally, does this sort of city promote? (Worth noting that many of these questions are empirical and are not meant to be rhetorical. There are answers, I’m just not equipped to provide them.)

Even more fascinating is that this is actually a mixed-use community: right at the northeast corner of the tract is a commercial center that should be an easy walk for tens of thousands of people. Instead, judging by the street layout, I’m guessing pretty much everyone who goes there drives, and the ones who do walk certainly don’t have an easy or enjoyable time of it. So many urbanist boxes checked, and yet so far!

Much more to say about this, and maybe I will later. I leave you with a snapshot of a neighborhood in Chicago with the same population density, in Lakeview:

Things I Envy About Houston: Really? Really.

The Urbanophile for some reason has re-posted a six-month-old piece from Keep Houston Houston, a high-quality heterodox urbanist blog that I wish I saw linked to more places. In it, KHH makes a number of interesting claims about population density that I should really check out on some of the NYT’s Census maps (There are pockets of 20k+ people per square mile neighborhoods in HOUSTON? Denser, in other words, than pretty much every neighborhood in the Midwest outside of Chicago and Milwaukee?), but the broader and more important point is about the regionally (and locally) beneficial consequences of large municipal borders. While some sort of neighborhood-level responsiveness is important, of course, when there are no empowered political bodies at the regional level, you get a bunch of people pursuing their own (perceived or actual) provincial self-interests, which often includes things like exclusionary zoning and dumb economic development turf wars, and leads to a general failure to coordinate necessarily regional services like transportation between jurisdictions. Not to mention the waste involved in having dozens of administrative bodies each doing their own police departments and trash pickup, instead of one centralized body.

Anyway, one urbanist tendency is to look at the municipal borders of a place like Houston–which, at over 600 square miles, is twice the size of New York and nearly three times bigger than Chicago–and scoff at the travesty of sprawl. A better reaction would be to envy their much more rational form of political organization.

A Thought, Deserving of More Time Than I Will Give It Here

The timing of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ discovery of Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto is opportune, since I just re-read the book about a month ago. (The first time was in high school, for a research paper on the history of segregation in Chicago that was my first academic investigation into what appears to be my future career. Memories!) The book is an absolute tour de force, and one of those histories that fundamentally changes your understanding of how things came to be the way they are. That is to say, if you haven’t read it, you must.

One of the main themes–perhaps theme Number One–is white territoriality, both from a sort of traditionalist community-integrity sense and a capitalist economic-efficiency sense. (Or, in other words, a territoriality that spans the white class structure.) TNC picks out a passage that highlights what that territoriality looks like from the black side of the equation:

Unable to do anything to alter the plans that shaped their lives, Chicago’s blacks responded viscerally, charging the planners with conspiracy and reviving an old strain of nativism in response to their ethnic antagonists. The dimensions of the conspiracy varied. Some believed the “plan” was to drive all blacks out of the area between 12th and 63rd streets; others stretched the territory to be “reclaimed” by whites down to 67th. The same new governmental agencies and powers that frightened white ethnics similarly affected blacks – only the latter saw no communists or subversives. “Land-grabbing” realtors, bankers, businessmen. and institutions provided explanation enough.

There were as many reasons for the perceived conspiracy as there were villains: Blacks were to be pushed out of their desirable inner-city locations and herded to the outskirts of the city or to undesirable suburbs such as Robbins to make way for Loop workers (there was at least some truth to this – not all conspiracies were fantasies); the dispersal of black population was designed to dilute that community’s political strength; the use of eminent domain was intended to reduce black property owners to tenancy.
All of which leads me to say that one of my reactions to re-reading Hirsch’s book was to reconsider how I feel about the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, under which virtually all of the public housing in the city has been torn down to make way for mixed-income developments. (Or, as the case may be in this post-2008 market, vacant land.) The standard liberal line here, or so it seems, is that the Plan was fundamentally necessary to end a spectacularly failed policy of warehousing the poor, even if it has been inequitably carried out, so that many if not most people displaced by redevelopment haven’t seen their former public units replaced with new ones. That had pretty much been my opinion, too, and it may still turn out to be the right one; but considered in the greater context of Chicago’s long war over potentially valuable land, it’s very hard not to feel the ground shifting under your feet, so to speak. Is this not, actually, just another state-sponsored exile of the poor? Might doing nothing have been more just? Or, more compellingly, might there have been other options? Recently I saw a link to an article about the transformation of New York’s public housing; I need to go back and read that.

Transit, energy efficiency, yuppies

Is this post from the Freakonomics blog pretending to be more clever than it really is? Yes. Does it employ an annoying, I’m-pissing-off-both-sides-I-must-be-such-an-impish-devil angle? Yes. Must it die? Yes.

Its conceit is that, measured in terms of how much energy it takes to move a human body a given amount of space, public transit—especially buses—is not necessarily more energy efficient than private cars in contexts where it’s not used very much, and therefore spends most of its time running around half empty.  (This is, incidentally, ground that the Straight Dope covered more thoroughly years ago.)

“It is not clear that moving around large and largely empty vehicles is much of an improvement over moving around smaller ones. In fact,” our Freakonomics correspondent concludes, “it could be worse.”

This is not true. In fact, in the way of blog posts with cutesy counterintuitive ledes, the writer admits it’s not true somewhere towards the middle of the piece: if you include the energy spent building vehicles and infrastructure, even buses are more efficient than cars, and trains are much more efficient.

But even this misses the larger point, which is that public transportation doesn’t have to move people as far, because it allows people to live more densely, and therefore closer to work and stores.  It’s nice if it’s more efficient on a per-mile basis, but even when it’s not, you usually get fewer carbon emissions because people just don’t have to travel as many miles. If you’ve built a neighborhood that’s dense enough for people to walk to school or a corner store instead of driving, you’ve reduced the number of miles traveled even further.

Of course, if you build and run transit in such a way that you are not encouraging—or allowing—people to live more densely, you lose that benefit. This is why people like Ryan Avent are up in arms about laws that specifically prohibit people from building bigger apartment buildings, or even more tightly spaced houses, near public transportation when there’s demand for it. (Actually, he’s more upset about the economic consequences of that, as am I, but the causal idea is the same.)

Anyway, this reminds me of an insight somebody had—I forget where I read this—about the fact that most American public transit projects at the moment are either commuter-style light rail that goes way into the suburbs, or very short streetcars that circulate around a popular central district. Neither of these is ideal from a user perspective—the commuter rail is usually surrounded by a giant park and ride lot, and is useless for getting anywhere other than downtown; and no one is going to use a mile-long streetcar for anything, especially when the frequency is so low that you could walk to the end of the line before the next trolley came—but they’re even worse when you consider that they’re failing all the environmental tests, too. They don’t really encourage people to live densely, since the light rail just chases sprawl farther and farther away, and the streetcars are too short to be a primary mode of transportation; plus, because they’re so unuseful, they’re likely to spend much of their time running around mostly empty. (Consider that none of the seven commuter rail projects to open in the U.S. in the last ten years serve over 6,000 people a day, and three carry fewer than 2,000, even though on average they reach 30 miles outside of downtown. More traditional light rail systems are generally above that, but still have pathetic riders-per-mile numbers.)

It’s not hard to figure out why we’re building such nonsensical things, though: That’s where the middle class people live. With American cities moving towards a sort of donut-shaped geography of poverty—wealthy districts at the very center and in the suburbs, buffered by working class and poor urban districts and inner-ring suburbs—the political momentum for building the kind of tight but comprehensive in-city transit networks that are ideal from a user and environmental point of view is pretty limited. This is a major reason to be skeptical of urbanism as “creative class” catnip: It tends to skew planning away from what density and transit is actually good for, not to mention what is economically just.

(I feel the need to note, as a postscript, that on this count, the CTA deserves credit—its major projects, like BRT on Jeffrey, Western, and Ashland, are exactly the sort of mid-range workaday operations that will increase mobility and allow greater density outside (as well as inside) gentrified central districts. Neither wacky extensions to the suburbs, nor pointless circulators downtown, are among its shortcomings.)