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Tipping Points for Ideological Urbanists

2013 July 6
by Brice Maryman

There are going to be tipping points: thresholds where we decide that the rutted road we’ve been traveling has, inadvertently, led us astray. Last week certainly saw some cultural tipping points. But recent readings on two fronts in the built environment have us thinking that interesting new constituencies are coalescing around some interesting themes that will reset past assumptions to strategically position us for the future.

More Constrained Ex-Urban Growth
The limitless sprawl of various American urban areas into surrounding farms and resource lands has long been derided for its impacts to the environment (deforestation, species loss, polluted waterways, etc), but more recently, fiscal conservatives like Charles Marohn of Strong Towns have been giving the financial model supporting this type of growth pattern a serious, well-argued drubbing. This week, Charles began digging deeper with a series called Dumb Money. It is wonky, but fantastic.

The hard-nosed fiscal analysis by Strong Towns, based in the heartland, resonates well with the coastal capitalists who read Fast Company. Covering a  new report from Smart Growth America, FC reports that the smart growth model, by concentrating growth and capital, has a higher return on investment and offers better economic resilience.

It finds, on average, that smart growth costs 38% less in upfront infrastructure (roads, water, sewers, libraries, and so on). For example, Champaign, Illinois, concluded that smart growth could save $52 million, or 42%, over 20 years.

Then, the report looks at the relative cost of services like fire, police, and ambulances. It finds a 10% saving, on average. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, worked out that a “smart growth neighborhood” would cost a quarter of a conventional one.

Accelerating this more constrained growth condition may be the loss of one of the economic drivers for the sprawling suburban housing market: the mortgage interest tax deduction, or, as Streetsblog recently called it, The Granddaddy of Sprawl Subsidies. In recent budget negotiations in Washington, repealing this deduction has found resonance across party lines, so we may soon be seeing it disappear from our tax forms.

[ The white pinpoints (cities) are where the federal mortgage interest deduction is helping people the least. However, the feds are helping the suburbs sprawl. Image: Pew Center on the States ]

The white pinpoints (cities) are where the federal mortgage interest deduction is helping people the least. However, the feds are helping the suburbs sprawl. Image: Pew Center on the States.

 Less Constrained Urban Growth

The opposite ideological flip is happening amongst progressive environmental urbanists. Influenced by more libertarian-leaning writers like Edward Glaeser, writers like Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning have recently been calling for “less-regulated urbanism” that would “allow taller buildings, which would accommodate dramatically more people, office space, and shops in the most efficient and desirable locations: close to city centers.”

Sightline’s most recent exploration of how excessive(?) regulations create less-desirable built environments focuses on parking. First, Alan unpacks the perverse parking economics along his Seattle single-family street:

The net effect—one mandatory off-street parking space plus one car-less household—is a one-space reduction of parking supply on my block. Repeat: my obligatory driveway and garage deprive the universe of one on-street slot. This is ironic, but it’s only the tip of the irony iceberg where car-storage is concerned.

If I did own a car to keep in my garage, the net effect would no longer be a net reduction. It would be zero. My driveway subtracts one on-street space; my garage adds it back. Think about that for a while. The 4.6 million single-family houses in cities across the Northwest, and tens of millions more elsewhere, are each required to have at least one off-street parking space. Yet many of these city rules add no net parking spaces to their cities’ supplies. Worse, if you’ve ever narrowly escaped a car backing out of a garage, or almost backed into someone while you were driving, you can quickly grasp the fact that all these millions of mandated off-street parking spaces turn sidewalks into danger zones, especially for children and the disabled.

Then Sightline contributor Alyse Nelson provides a wide-ranging photo essay, entitled Ugly by Law, about the aesthetic impacts of parking lots on the built landscape. Warning: you can’t un-see some of these things.


Brice Maryman is an ideological urbanist landscape architect with SvR Design.

Photo of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood celebrating the passage of the Washington State gay marriage bill, Nov. 6, 2012, by Dan Bertolet.