In cities across the nation, we’re currently faced with a heated debate on growth and the need for improved infrastructure to facilitate “future development”. Arguments on promoting regionalism vs. localism are a mainstay and bonds are passed to widen streets in communities to mitigate traffic flow with the hope of speculative tax revenue to one day pay for the long term costs of roads. I was struck by a recent mantra by groups opposed to making existing infrastructure more productive, dismissing urbanism and multi-modal transit options as a novelty or worse, a UN conspiracy labeled “Agenda 21”. One critic argued, “Just Fix the Streets” without understanding that there is no money available to do this…we’re still paying for roads we built 20 years ago that promised future development that never came. What really amazed me was the lack of understanding many voiced in favor of our modern car-centric, sprawling development…a network that was completely brought about by massive government intervention and subsidization. The free market would never have created something so wasteful and inefficient on its own. An example I gave recently was the following:
If you wanted to develop a small bakery in your neighborhood, you would not be able to due to zoning restrictions brought about by local government separating basic uses (homes here, business there). This is the first step in deconstructing pedestrian oriented environments. It’s no longer the industrial revolution, yet we still base much of our land use on the ideas of separating factories from homes.
Next, let’s say you finally discover a plot of land where you can build your own bakery. Before you even begin construction, the local government will require you to use at least 40% of your private land for free parking. No if’s, and’s, or but’s…you’ve just been told by the government what to do with your property and your valuable retail shelf space has been truncated with the slash of a pen. Now, let’s extrapolate this out to hundreds of other businesses who own private land and are forced to provide everyone free parking. At some point, the system has been sufficiently gamed to where it no longer makes sense to walk.
You just drive, my business will make sure you have a free parking spot.
Next, let’s say you want to save money by living above your business and operating on the ground floor. Again, this option has been regulated out of existence, further promoting auto-centric development because now you have to live in the residence zone, and work in the business zone.
So far, we’ve separated land uses by great distances, required private property owners to ensure their land was split in half for free parking, and cut off the potential for live/work environments. It’s fairly difficult to justify pedestrian-oriented development at this point. For what it’s worth, we’d been allowed to do all of these things for hundreds of years prior to government intervention and our communities did fine. In fact, many of the problems we face today are related to our need to try and manage the unsustainable nature of suburban sprawl. From the subprime mortgage crises to constant highway/tollroad development (which we can’t afford to maintain), we’re continually having to accommodate an unnatural development pattern.
Okay, we’re not done yet. Now that we’ve separated uses and incentivized cars over other modes of transit, your bakery is going to have a harder time competing because now the all-in-one store can do away with your business model. Since everyone is now driving, it’s inconvenient to hop from one store to the next…you might as well mix the bakery, with the farmers market, and the butcher, and the pharmacy. Voila, small business can barely compete while the multi-national box store can now offer loaves of bread for pennies and chalk it up as a loss leader. Hey, that’s the free market working…except, the market was completely dominated by government intervention throughout the chain and we’re not even close to being finished. Also, though we’re saving a dollar on bread, the social fabric of our community is beginning to erode because the Super Target doesn’t seem to want to pay for the local school’s baseball uniforms, but Joe’s Deli, which is no longer around, was always supporting the team. If you don’t believe that’s the case, you don’t own a small business. As a local restaurant owner, I can tell you firsthand that we’re asked for and give out donations to neighborhood fundraisers (PTA’s, girl/boy scouts, soccer teams, chess clubs, etc.) on a weekly basis. Head to any community silent auction and you’ll see nothing but local products being offered as prizes…Home Depot and Tom Thumb are surprisingly absent.
Notice, 2/3rd’s of this lot is for free parking.
Now let’s look at the land itself that we’re developing on today. A 250 foot block on a classic Main Street in any downtown would have contained ten commercial buildings built next to each other (saving on distances for utilities, and creating greater energy efficiency) with retail establishments on the first floor, service related businesses on the second floor, and space for business owners to live on third and fourth floors. Now, thanks to zoning and more, we can fit roughly 2 to 3 businesses on that same plot of land, and they’re separated by more free parking that isn’t really free. This is why your average suburban block will only contain a fast food chain, a gas station, and an auto parts store. Small businesses can be developed in shopping strips that are tied to large chain retailers, but once that chain decides to move on (from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart), then your business will die a slow death as your customers move on to the next, larger strip two miles down the road. Oh, and the city is going to be on the hook to pay for the tear down of the old, now closed, big box store because no other shop can take residence in the space.
You wouldn’t be allowed to build this today if you wanted to.
We haven’t even begun to touch suburban housing. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created which subsidized middle class families moves to the newly developed suburbs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage loan program provided over eleven million low-cost mortgages after WWII. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, only insured homes of a typical type and size – generally new single-family suburban construction. Furthermore, a home insured by the FHA was required to be of a certain size and quality desired by those of above-average means, to guarantee quick resale of the home. FHA did not support renovations of already-existing homes, construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. These policies led to deterioration of the urban housing stock and disinvestment in existing urban housing.
Alright, we still have the Federal Highway program and a host of other government interventions that sufficiently tore apart pedestrian oriented environments that existed naturally for hundreds of years in favor of heavily subsidized (from the oil pumped out of the ground to the GM badge on the grill) auto dependency. Sadly, it was only in your grandparents generation when you could have opened that bakery at the end of the block, lived on the top floor, while the community walked by and picked up a loaf of bread.
A counter to this unproductive land use development is the Better Block project, which looks at existing, non-performing land, and temporarily transforms places into desirable, active, neighborhood destinations that take into account an entire community regardless of age, or ethnicity, and creates as many invitations as possible for people to interact, play, work, and grow together. When these places are successful, they naturally produce greater economics, promote health, and allow for manageable sustained growth. The fundamentals for a good Better Block use what has known to work in great places for generations and applies those ideas rapidly.