Posts Tagged ‘urban planners’

18th February
2009
written by Sean Noble

David Brooks, a syndicated columnist based at the New York Times wrote an interesting piece, a version of which appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the Arizona Republic.   The Republic’s version was entitled “Americans dreaming of return to urban core.”  The original that ran in the New York Times was entitled “I Dream of Denver.”

Usually varying headlines don’t much change the tone of a piece, but these two headlines could not be more opposite.  Anyone who has spent more time than a layover in Denver knows that it is not a city that people move to for the “urban core.”  Denver is very similar to most post-WWII cities – spread out.

Brooks lays out how urban planners dream of a time when Americans will give up on suburban/exurban life and life in urban cores. Brooks writes:

You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.

The entirety of the remainder of the piece lays out why Americans and urban planners don’t see eye-to-eye.  In fact, his concluding paragraph is this:

The results may not satisfy those who dream of Holland, but there’s one other impressive result from the Pew survey. Americans may be gloomy and afraid, but they still have a clear vision of the good life. That’s one commodity never in short supply.

His point is that the majority of Americans view suburban or rural living as “the good life.”  Which is what makes the headline in the Republic so misleading.  The editors at the Republic may dream of more “urban dwelling” but it is not going to happen – at least not in my lifetime.

I am very familiar with the mindset of urban planners.  I spent nearly full-time for almost a year back in the late 90’s working with Governor Jane Hull’s Growing Smarter Commission.  I sat on three of the task force groups and spent innumerable hours driving all over the state participating in local meetings about growth in Arizona.

Sidebar:  It was on one of those trips that I learned that some people are natural runners, and others, like me, never will be.  I mistakenly agreed to accompany Steve Betts – now head of SunCor – for a “jog” one morning in Flagstaff.  About ½ mile into the run I thought I was going to have a heart attack because Steve was running at a near sprint while I was trying to keep up with him.  He graciously stopped, and I noticed he wasn’t even breathing heavy.  It was then that he told me he could run all day. I thought to myself, the only way I’d even attempt to run all day was if I was being chased by murderous thugs.  End sidebar.

The natural inclination of urban planners is to incentivize (read: force) people to live in very dense housing – preferably apartments or condos with no yards – and not own a car.  That may work in Manhattan, but it doesn’t in Phoenix.

I remember debating this issue with Sandy Bahr from the Sierra Club at a Valley Leadership forum.  This was during the time the Sierra Club was trying to pass a ballot initiative creating an urban growth boundary – essentially saying that cities would be prohibited from providing services to homes built outside the arbitrarily set boundary.  She argued that people “wanted” to live in a more dense, less car-dependent place and that developers were “forcing” people to live farther and farther out because that’s where they were building.  She completely ignored the basic economics of supply and demand.

Last time I checked, homebuilders were not putting a gun to people’s head saying that they HAD to live in a certain place. I pointed out to her that when my wife and I lived in D.C., we lived in a high-rise apartment and that for our daughter to “go out and play” we had to take the elevator 22 floors down, and walk down the street to a small patch of grass that was terrible misnamed a “park.”

When we moved back to Phoenix in 1998 we bought a house with a yard.  When we decided that our house was a little small to contain five children, we went on the prowl for a slightly larger house with a larger yard.  Talk about supply and demand!  We settled on a neighborhood even farther out and then discovered that we had to come back the next week for the “lottery” to get a lot.  On that Saturday morning we were one of 86 people vying for six lots that were going to be released that month. Somehow, we were drawn, and thus continued our dream: a house large enough for five kids, a yard they could play in and within our price range.  By the looks of it, that’s the dream of most Americans, urban planners be damned.