Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Urban development versus Suburban development has been an issue that, while I know little about, has become increasingly "on my radar." It seems as though quite a few of the problems we face (crumbling infrastructure, rising government costs, environmental pollution etc.) could all be solved if we moved away from government subsidies of suburbs, allowed more mixed commercial/residential living and started to gear government programs toward urban living.

This article I read talks about Chicago, which lost some 200,000 people over the last ten years, and how exodus from the city center has affected the city:

On the South and West Sides in particular, the shrinkage has left vast empty lots, miles of broad streets. The lots are yielding little or no taxes, yet the streets running by them must be maintained. Public transit options are reduced because there are fewer folk around to ride the buses and rails. There is less of everything--and what there is can be expensive--when there aren't as many people around to support it.

Matthew Yglesias talks about this far more often than I, particularly with an eye on DC and the areas around it.

I grew up in the 'burbs. In Los Angeles, I lived in an exurb (Lomita) which was so far from downtown that I don't think I'd ever BEEN downtown until I was in my twenties. I grew up where the only restaurants were chain style restaurants and the opening of a McDonalds down the street (a two story! With a fish tank! and bullet proof glass for cashiers!!) was a memorable highlight. When we moved to San Diego, my dad worked about four exits from downtown, but we lived in Fallbrook--as north as you could go and still be in San Diego County. With no public transportation, it took him almost an hour each way for work. That's ten hours a week sitting in his car, polluting the air, to drive to a house that was too big for our family to begin with (four bedroom, two and a half baths with an unfinished basement).

As anathema as this is to say, Europe has, for a long time, managed to live in dense urban centers. You can live in an apartment and walk to farmers markets, grocery stores, bars, coffee shops and Churches. The cities feel like "homes" as well--something I can't say for the vast tracts of identical homes sprawling across every flat piece of land left in America.

I've lived in tract homes in Killeen, TX and in Sierra Vista, AZ. I felt oddly "at home" and simultaneously alien in both of them. I could walk into anyone's house and know where their bathroom was without asking, know what lighting would be used without looking up and know the layout of the bedrooms without a tour--because they were all built by the same people, equally shoddy and equally ill equipped to deal with the regional differences in environment.

Maybe we should amend the "American Dream" from the post-World War II ideal of a house with a white picket fence to something less harmful. Maybe the American Dream should be to be part of a local community where "home" extends beyond our front door to our neighbors (next door and below), to the grocery store at the corner, to the local pub and the cities we are a part of. Instead of isolated pockets and individual families, urban development would allow us to integrate our individual cells into a cohesive whole which would be less damaging to the future and help cut down on the budgetary problems we have today.


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