a country of cities
January 3, 2010, 3:28 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

This is a – rather long – excerpt from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s essay A Country of Cities on Urban Omnibus.

He lifts the velvet curtain on the elephant in the sustainability room:  change all the lightbulbs you like, swap out the insulation, carpool, do all these things and you still aren’t close to living sustainably if you live in a suburb.

I know it’s comfy, and it’s what you know, and mom and grandpa live there.  But let’s be honest, it is a bad invention originally based on the myth of going west, settlin’ all over the land, and eventually evolved into an idea of being entitled to expansion and space and consumption.  It also needs to be stated that, beside being a terrible use of resources, sprawl has led to really bad social lives for generations of people.

Chakrabarti’s argument sounds sneaky:  the suburb is subsidized heavily, like a welfare program for the middle class; and we should use the market to get away from irresponsible land use patterns and begin to build cities.  That’s the reverse of what we collectively believe in this culture!  We think the market made the suburb.  C is right, it didn’t.

I think it is unrealistic to expect the market to build cities like New York or Chicago.  Large livable cities are built with complex blends of public and private capital.  But Chakrabarti is right, the best place to start is to reverse the false belief systems that have for over three generations subsidized lifestyles that are unsustainable.

Here is the excerpt:

We are being told, in the end, that sprawl is just fine, that if we just weatherize our McMansions, drive hybrid Yukons, and change to fluorescent lightbulbs, our gluttonous use of land is legitimate. It is from Silicon Valley, where sprawl is high art, that progressives fuel the mentality that technology will save us from ourselves. (As an aside, one only need to look at the viral spread of this approach to the physical landscape of the Indian IT sector, where smart minds, office parks, and malls prevail.)

This tacit sanction of sprawl is of course politically deft. “Regionalists” have smartly framed the issue as planning for a United States now defined by a series of large regions in which some seventy percent of the populous reside. By uncritically granting legitimacy to the exurbs and suburbs, a true confrontation around land use policy can thus be avoided, as can concepts like urbanity, undeveloped nature, and loss of elections.

We would be wise to remember that the suburbs were a Federal creation – built out of a fear of race, as well as a nuclear arms race. White flight was synthetic, fueled by a set of policies intended to encourage the use of cars and discourage the use of cities.

Imagine instead that we had a market-based approach to the use of land, in which people pay for what economists call the negative externalities of their own behavior. This would mean no more subsidized highways, no more mortgage deductions, and no more free rides at the gas pump. People would have to pay for the congestion, the pollution, and the health care problems that they themselves create. In such a scenario, the suburbs would likely shrink, and the exurbs would likely atrophy altogether.

Imagine what would result. Imagine dense green urbanity, surrounded by nothing but nature. Imagine lanes of interstates reused for high speed rail. Imagine a healthy population that walks and bikes throughout their neighborhoods, and rides transit to their jobs. Imagine New Jersey as a nature preserve. Imagine being number one for takeoff.

Imagine a country of cities.

– from A Country of Cities by Vishaan Chakrabarti on Urban Omnibus

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