Cities are weird and they make weird decisions. There is some sort of common sense amnesia that takes hold when a group of three or more city leaders come together to discuss growth. Someone should do some science on this phenomena. It’s probably not good.
I was on a call last week with a Downtown Manager in the Pacific Northwest to discuss some growth challenges her community is facing. It’s not a story that will shock you. People love the old downtown and the harbor it surrounds, they love the adjacent historic neighborhoods. The parts of the city that were built a long time ago are still everyone’s favorite.
She went on to tell me that they are seeing a lot of people move out of larger regional cities and look to her town to make a new home. They like the quiet, the small town atmosphere, the quaint downtown district and the sense of community they expect to find. They fall in love with the old historic part of the city and buy a house in a new subdivision outside of town.
This conversation started around parking if you can believe it. Actually, all these conversations start around parking. As more subdivisions get built, more people need cars to get to work and the grocery, more people drive downtown on evenings and weekends, the streets fill up with cars and the lots fill up as well. The downtown gets clogged with SUVs and it becomes a little less enjoyable for everyone. The town starts to become a victim of its own success, but does it have to be this way?
Everything good about this town, and all the towns like it, are negated by new subdivisions. Here was a compact, walkable community, that had a minimal environmental impact and residents in town could easily access all the surrounding natural features. So they built subdivisions? See, cities are weird.
It’s not growth that ruins cities, we just believe it does because we outlawed healthy growth. Growth doesn’t have to make a city worse, up until the 1940’s additional residents were a benefit. As more people arrived, a city got more skills, more trades, more diversity, more resiliency. New people were good, new development was positive. Growth wasn’t a bad word.
No wonder everyone hates growth now, for our entire lifetimes, it has all been bad. The only type of municipal growth any of us has every experienced has negatively impacted us. It’s not a surprise everyone is all NIMBY for LIFE. New subdivisions make cities worse. They eat up the landscape, the make the edges of town uglier, they push nature further aware, they bring more cars and sadly, the people that move to them will never fully incorporate into the existing community. It’s not growth though that is so bad, it’s sprawl growth, which has become all growth.
A city can grow without new subdivisions. It’s possible, I swear. The problem is that cities don’t build the type of housing residents want anymore. Instead, cities base their growth decisions on what mega-developers want to build. This is an outrageous way to go about running a city, but this is what economic development has convinced us. City leaders are told, if you want investment, you gotta appease investors. They look past what residents might want, look past what might benefit the community and instead, try and make corporate developers happy.
Subdivision developers are not the real investors though, they are more like mining companies. They acquire land as cheaply as possible, rip it up, toss together some cheap housing and sell it to the new locals. They are the middlemen, pulling out the as much profit as possible before selling to the new residents. These new residents are the real longterm investors and they get screwed. All the potential equity has been captured by an out of town developer by the time the houses hit the market. Don’t we want that money in the hands of locals instead?
This is the only housing option for most new residents. Houses in the historic neighborhoods don’t turn over often and have appreciated in value so much as to be unobtainable for most. New residents don’t have an option for quality housing stock, they are stuck with sprawl housing. They are stuck with a neighborhood that requires a car, which is cheaply built, which doesn’t lent itself to a sense of community, which exacerbates environmental issues, which doesn’t facilitate walkable school districts, which then brings about more sprawl commercial development and the cycle of bad growth continues.
This setup makes existing residents dislike new residents from the outset. It makes everyone hate growth. It might be a bad idea.
It’s not that people love subdivision, it’s that this is the only type of housing that has been built in the last 70 years, so that is what people are stuck with. Stop arguing that this is what people want, it’s what developers want, not residents. We have given up on building what residents want, even though it’s the best part of town in EVERY SINGLE TOWN.
Look at housing values across the country and the traditional walkable neighborhoods adjacent to healthy commercial districts are almost always the most desirable. They are more stable in terms of value, they foster a sense of community, they help give town an identity and provide people a sense of civic pride. Everyone would opt for these neighborhoods if they were more readily available. But since we stopped building them in the 50’s, the supply is a little low.
So my colleague explained that every new person that moved to her town was actually making her town worse. Why? How can this be? What sense does this make? Well, because nearly every new residents was moving to a subdivision. The new people were never going to be a part of the community. They would live on the edges, drive downtown for dinner, commute to some other town for work. They lifestyle they had envisioned when they first visited would never be theirs.
Cities are weird. Why is it that we stopped building the type of housing people love most? The type of neighborhoods where local ownership is so strong? Where a sense of community is rich, where attachment is high, where pride runs rampant.
Just because people buy in the suburbs, doesn’t mean they want suburban housing. If you only have AppleBees in your town, people are going to eat at AppleBees. It doesn’t mean they like it, or that they are horrible people, this is just the only dining option, so people will take it. When markets get manipulated, people end up consuming products they don’t like because they don’t have options. Housing is a market that has been incredibly manipulated.
In essence, it is impossible to build the type of housing people want and cities need, because cities have made it impossible. They have created a regulatory framework that only permits one type of development. Almost every town has decided subdivision development is the only type of housing development they will allow. A community doesn’t have to get worse as it grows, but if sprawl is the only type of growth allowed, that will always be the case.
Cities can grow without getting worse. They did it for a long time. Just take what already works and repeat it. Build more dense walkable neighborhoods adjacent to the existing ones. Toss a new commercial block in occasionally. Let locals be the owners and builders. Every town has done this once already. There is ZERO reason, attractive, dense, walkable neighborhoods can’t be built again. This might not be what developers want to build, but who gives a shit? It’s what residents deserve.
Consider how our cities were built. Land was divided into smaller parcels, someone came along and purchased those parcels and they built. One lot at a time, one house at a time. Main Street was built the same way. There were some design parameters, size, materials, scale, etc. This allowed cities to grow organically and owners to gain equity. It allowed cities to grow at a reasonable pace and it created aesthetically appealing blocks because the owners would want to build something they could be proud of.
Any city and all cities can experience healthy growth once again. The technology to build nice houses and not been lost to the mists of time. Cities don’t need to cater to developers anymore, they need to cater to residents, both existing and new. Cities need to make sure the housing they offer is the type that will make people happy and connected. The type of housing that will make the town stronger and healthier. Take what is best about what already exists and simply recreate it. There is no expiration date on constructing walkable neighborhoods. There is no moratorium on building new Main Streets. We know what works, we know what people like and what they value. We know what people want because they tell us every damn day with their wallets and with their choices. Give residents the type of development that will make them better residents. Give your city the type of development that will keep more money in town and will foster more affection. It’s a simple choice, build what works or build sprawl.