Suburbs Should Not Be Subsidized

ubsidizing suburbs is like subsidizing junk food, cigarettes, and bad movies. I don’t know why I threw in bad movies. But it works for me.

Some people want houses, yards, and driveways. People want easy access for cars. People don’t want to be friends with their neighbors. These people don’t need community in their neighborhoods, because, bluntly, they have Facebook. There are legitimate reasons for all of this and they are completely free to live how they want.

But these rights should never have imposed on the cities. Detroit is a mess because it’s spliced up by highways. The one highway cutting through Grand Rapids has ruined its surrounding neighborhoods. Who wants to be right next to a highway? Half the buildings in Grand Rapids, now, are parking garages. Boring wastes of space, still better than flat parking lots, mind you, but still boring and generating no revenue. Once a city is built for a car the city dies. Except LA. But LA has some weird mystical gods protecting it.  Cities, in general, are not meant for cars. They are meant for people.

And these rights shouldn’t impose economically on everyone else who chooses to live differently. Complaining about taxes? A lot of our tax money goes to supporting suburban developments, because the infrastructure of them is so spread out and inefficient that it costs more to build and keep homes and establishments in that way.

Before we even think about New Urbanism and bike lanes, we need to face the fact that our set-up here is unfair and silly. You are free to make choices that negatively affect other people, such as smoking in their presence, but it’s taking freedom a little too far when everyone has to pay money out of their pocket so that those choices, the ones that NEGATIVELY effect other people, are still possible. We have got to stop this now. Let’s have true free market here and stop holding up places that would fail otherwise. (Because a Logan’s Roadhouse in the middle of nowhere does not make any sense.) Let’s let them fail. Let’s build a new home for ourselves.

New Grand Rapids Neighborhood Grabs Smart Growth Philosophy..Sort of

I was driving down 44th street today. It’s a boulevard that I don’t frequent much. I associate it with condo developments without sidewalks…not a place I want to be. But I almost slammed on my brakes today when I drove past Cobblestone At The Ravine.

Whoa! You look like Seaside!

I did two Michigan left turns so I could go into this new development. The houses/condos were set close to the road with no garages in sight. There was a large grassy median. The houses were actually attractive. Some of them already had residents, though the development was clearly new.  A little girl was riding her bike, watching me press my nose to the window in awe of her living space.

It’s actually happening. Sure, the shared playground has a “private space” sign and this development is in the middle of nowhere and not necessarily affordable to everyone, but something is visually changing about architecture. Planning that makes sense. Finally!

I find the blurb about these non-burbs really funny: “a new neighborhood that blends the best of yesterday with all the benefits and advantages of today! This imaginative and inviting new community offers you a real sense of arrival… of knowing you’re home even before you reach your front door. Conveniently located on the corner of 44th St. and Shaffer Ave., you’ll find that Cobblestone at the Ravines focuses on not only how you live, but where you live. Homeowners and their families will enjoy a casual recreational lifestyle within the community. Stretch out by the pool in summer or splash around in the fabulous spray park. Chat with neighbors while your children enjoy the play areas. Or start your day with a fast-paced walk or an easy jog along one of the quiet streets that wind throughout the community.”

Very interesting!

The Best-Laid Plans: O'Toole's Scheme at Generalizing Planning

The Best-Laid Plans by Randal O’Toole argues that the planning field in America is inefficient and ineffective: O’Toole tells us it’s simply not necessary.

His first focus is on something he knows well: Forest Planning. He spends the first 50 pages detailing how forestry planning does not work, and makes some great points: how can one predict tree growth, lumber prices, and demand in the years to come? How can one predict forest fires?  Being unfamiliar with the lumber industry, I took this chapter with more than a grain of salt.

Now I’m reading the second chapter, which is focused on urban planning. He rails against urban planners for over-simplifying and generalizing neighborhoods and uses and for having personal agendas without concern to the complex needs of the community; and he also accuses planners of fabricating and misusing statistics to get what they want.

One of his biggest examples was his claim that planners have stated that obesity is caused by sprawl. He writes that obesity has a correlation, not a causation, with sprawl, and that low income is a much larger and proven factor in obesity rates. I would never argue this. You have seen my many posts on walkability and fitness and how my own city living has caused my weightloss. But I would never claim that urban sprawl CAUSED obesity. I don’t think any planner with half a brain would claim this.

In effect, O’Toole is generalizing urban planners and making rash claims about them, while he argues that they generalize and make rash claims.

Another argument of his that bothered me was about community. He mocks Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, for taking the fall of bowling leagues and steady rate of actual bowling to mean a decrease in community among Americans.  “It never occured to him  that people might be bowling with families and friends,” O’Toole writes. Wam, bam. Sticking the knife in Putnam’s argument. He ignores the fact that Putnam has followed up Bowling Alone with Better Together, a book full of stories of how communities have pulled together and started successful programs to solve their community’s specific problems.

He also fails to realize that of course families and friends hang out and go bowling, all the time, especially in suburbs, because suburbs were meant to isolate and idolize the nuclear family.

I whole-heartedly agree with O’Toole that community can happen in a strong way in suburbs, and he’s right that large cities have no neighborly relations (living in the Gold Coast for three months is my proof, you may be able to poke a hole in this).  He says public transit isn’t right for every area, that the strict New Urbanist guidelines put on development will be destructive in the long run. Again, truth to that. But shouldn’t Americans have a choice? I think we’d both ask this question. Shouldn’t a person be able to choose the bus over the car? Shouldn’t someone be able to walk to a store, or a church, or anything? If a planner sees people walking on the side of busy streets that have no sidewalks, why wouldn’t the planner just put sidewalks there?

I am not being clear if I totally agree or disagree with O’Toole. It’s because he has some good arguments, and a good new perspective on planning. I think he’s right: too much money and time go into failed governmental plans. It’s wasting our tax dollars. I’ve always been okay with raising taxes if it meant bettering the life of those who have no means to, but I never considered in detail how the government may be ill-spending tax money. It’s an important issue. It’s still not about getting the lowest taxes possible–it’s more about how little we know about how little planners know what they’re doing with the widespread, federal plans for a diverse, complex nation.

I just got a little bit more supportive of small government. Shouldn’t be a surprise with my LiveLittle motto, I guess!

Ugly America–Time to Reevaluate

We are forced to nod in agreement when someone says “If I want to live this way and do these things and I have the money to do it, hell, why shouldn’t I?”  What can we say to this?  If people can afford to live in mansion-like new houses with big lawns and ample garage space for their nice cars, why shouldn’t they?

Someone actually asked this in my class last semester. This has become an American mantra. Every part of our system bows down to what is affordable. We can’t even donate money to causes without fundraisers to give us some sort of entertainment in return.

But can we reconsider what we want from life a second?  Why do we love Europe so much? Why is it every college girl’s dream to visit it?  The sense of history?  The beauty of the towns? Why not make that a reality in America? Why do we feel this need to get away every few months?  We should be building places we want to be, inside and out. Americans love DIY home improvement, but beyond their front yards, it is generally assumed that nothing can be done. I don’t think anyone really loves driving that much, unless they are joyriding with their friends. I don’t see why we are fiercely defending this way of life when it is killing thousands of people in car accidents a day.

And as a second blow to our mantra, we are starting to not have the money to do what we want anymore. Our economy, within our communities, is based on services. We don’t produce goods anymore. Other countries do that. All we can do is create tourist destinations and make money off people from the suburbs and developments who don’t know they hate their neighborhoods. Holland, Michigan’s main source of revenue is from tourists at Tulip Time. Thus, the downtown 8th street has become cutesy and is teetering off the edge of realistic living space. People don’t see this area as a legitimate place to live.

What is legitimate then? Developers tell us we want to live in houses that have easier access to cars than to people, away from businesses and away from poor people. People either want a big city or the big country. Suburbia in some ways was an effort to squish the two together. But it sucks. Rural land just sits there–farms don’t really exist in America anymore. Not in any pleasant sense, at least.  Where do you really want to live, and why? Why do we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter? Most of us need community. We need people, beyond family and church. We want a role in society. What is society anyhow?

The question isn’t if you have the money to get what you want, it’s about the want–what’s your real dream?