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.

Racism in Urban Planning

When driving through a city, people will say an area is blighted when they see houses that aren’t spiffy and a lot of black people walking around.

Taking my own advice from my “Reclaim your surroundings” post, I looked at my city in a new way and realized that this isn’t the case. These neighborhoods don’t need to be New Urbanised or even revitalized. At least not in the way we’d want to do it as planners or architects. When I drive up Eastern to Franklin, Hall, and Wealthy, I see people honking at each other out of greeting, people walking, people talking on street corners, people saying hi to each other. It’s a habit to look at this and say “oh they’re walking because they can’t afford a car.” But in reality, they are living a life I keep dreaming and writing about on this blog. Taking the bus. Walking places. These aren’t negative things.

Grand Rapids is still pretty segregated. I think there is racism on both sides. There are two different cultures going on. The white culture looks at old houses and wants to repaint them and make the neighborhood artsy and gentrified. Is it really necessary?  I’m not saying stay in your suburbs. Oh gosh, no. I got lost in a suburb section last night while driving home from work. Horrifying.

Are suburbs the new projects?

Gran Torino Illustrates Good Neighborship

I finally saw Gran Torino last weekend, after refusing to see it in Chicago with my friends. I never had any idea what it was about.


Aside from the fake-sounding dialogue and the way-too-blunt Christ-figure scene, I enjoyed its message. I enjoyed Clint’s character, too. He is incredibly racist but good to his neighbors by accident. His kids encourage him to move to a “community” but he wants to stay in his crumbling neighborhood, which his kids call the ghetto. When there’s trouble at the Hmong house next door, he comes out with a gun and intimidates the gangsters away. He has the teenager next door work for him. He sits on his porch and watches the neighborhood, ready to interfere when something goes wrong. He puts the public eye back into neighborhoods and respect back into the youngsters. And all of it was either forced on him or by accident.

Maybe Clint wanted to achieve this inherent sense of community in Walt. People that age remember what it was like to be a part of a neighborhood. The baby boomers simply want to get as far away as possible from intense problems that community has to deal with. We call the police when neighbors are too loud instead of talking to them ourselves. We turn inward, live passive aggressively, and repress.

With the climax scene, it becomes apparent that the best way to put criminals in jail is to provide witnesses to their crimes. This involves actually being around. Sticking your head out the window when you hear raised voices.

Jane Jacobs would be so proud of Walt from Gran Torino. In even the broken neighborhood featured in this movie, the people who live in it salvage a livable life.

You're Speeding in a Residential Area, but It's Not Entirely Your Fault

I drove to the library in downtown Grand Rapids today. I was going 29 miles per hour and the speed limit was 30 miles per hour. But I kept slamming on the brakes. I felt like I was going so fast!

Then I realized why–thanks to 9th grade Science Class. Downtowns’ buildings are always closer to the street. You can walk right into these buildings from the sidewalks usually. I’m used to buildings being set back 10-50 feet from the road. Frame of reference! Ever notice, on the highway, how things far away pass by you slower than things very close?

I’d always wondered why planners started putting buildings so far back and increasing front yard length. It does make it more comfortable for the cars to go faster. It makes the driver’s perceived risk much lower, so they feel more comfortable driving faster. And the faster a car goes, the more deadly and frequent accidents involving that car will be.

Wide roads, far-away points of reference, many lanes: obeying speed limits has never been so hard for us, when our townships create mini-highways instead of streets.

Maybe Suburbs Aren't So Bad

Well, I’m living in the suburbs again. Well, on the edge of suburbs. No more downtown-smalltown. I’m actually loving it. My area is really walkable–we live in a neighborhood of Grand Rapids called Alger Heights, with a main-street-esque area where you can enter the stores/restaurants from the front. There is a great ice cream place, too. The store owners on Eastern and Alger take care of their stores. It’s too bad the grocery store couldn’t stay afloat.

I just took a walk around the residential streets. I do this a lot–I run most days but I like to walk in the evenings. I actually avoid the Alger Heights main street when I walk. I don’t like taking walks in commercial areas. I like walking by houses and saying hello to other walkers, watching kids play. I also go through the cemetery and the nearby park sometimes. All these areas are preferable to a commercial district. Too many cars, I guess.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with not wanting to stroll through commercial areas. I think my preference is shared my many and is also telling. Suburbs aren’t a bad thing. But they’ve gone too far. When developments have all new houses, no trees, and no sidewalks, there’s a problem. Residential streets should be near commercial streets in a structured pattern, not going on forever and ever. Places lose identity this way. My neighborhood is Alger Heights because of the Eastern and Alger commercial district. If that weren’t there, we’d just be southeast Grand Rapids. Not a place where people want to be.

That’s what it’s about–creating places people want to be.