A Country of Cities

Coldplay may be wrong – just because we’re losing may in fact mean that we’re lost. We are at a crossroads as a nation, and currently, despite all the hope generated by President Obama, we’re not yet on the right path.

At the Federal level, one has to wonder if there is an Asphalt Lobby, because if there is, they must be partying like it’s 2008. The stimulus bill passed earlier in the year feeds rather than fixes our ill-conceived land use patterns, resulting in new “infrastructure” that runs the risk of being little more than a grab bag of roadway construction. The bill’s criteria mandate that projects, in order to qualify for federal funding, must be “shovel ready,” must be compliant with the existing regulatory regime including NEPA, and must be complete in two years after commencement. The much touted $8 billion of stimulus funds for high speed rail is negligible in terms of what is needed. Common estimates for high speed rail in the northeast corridor run $25-$30 billion. This sounds high until one considers that one third of the nation’s air traffic goes through New York, sitting on tarmacs behind turboprops unconscionably flying from Newark to Philadelphia. Nationwide, the needs are probably around $150 billion. This also sounds high, until you consider the checks we write to bail out banks, fund failing auto makers, and care for the human ailments – spanning from asthma to obesity – that result from urban sprawl.

And now we hear that the much more critical legislative vehicle for funding infrastructure, the “ISTEA” reauthorization scheduled for passage in 2010, has been delayed by the Administration. They have instead funded a stop gap measure for the next eighteen months, thereby allowing themselves room to maneuver on health care and cap-and-trade, particularly as a Congressional election year approaches. To be sure, these are worthwhile initiatives, but one wonders whether infrastructure will once again be postponed for future generations, forever misconceived as something that adds to rather than reduces Federal deficits.

Little of vision can come of this approach – no true high speed rail, no new power generation, no densification of our sprawling, anonymous national landscape.

And the most shocking part is that we’re being told that it’s OK.

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.

This is the first in a series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density. As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is an Executive Vice President of Related Companies, where he runs the design and planning operations for the firm’s extensive development portfolio. Chakrabarti also leads the design and planning efforts for the Hudson Rail Yards and Moynihan Station projects. Read more



10 Responses to “A Country of Cities”

  1. G.F. " Frank " Brown says:

    It would be hard to imagine a more to-the-point article.
    Excellent writing.

  2. Steve Bisson says:

    We plant trees, and trees plant us, since we belong to each other and we must coexist. (Joseph Beuys).

  3. Isis Spinola-Schwartz says:

    I very much like the vision of cities or “dense green urbanities surrounded by nothing but nature”. However, the truth is, even with the most idealized visions of the future, what we will end up with is combination of urbanity and sprawl. It is important to envision a more sustainable future, and to work towards that end. The work is just beginning, and this administration cannot change decades of economic and social policy in its first few months. I applaud what the Obama administration has done to date and hope more states will follow California’s path by creating measures such as AB32, promoting sustainable development.

  4. Mitch McEwen says:

    Thank you! This country is still recovering from that awful RAND white paper from WWII. The power of think tanks. Want to start one? Invite me.

    BTW, is it so hard to imagine a future in which automobile licenses would only be available to professional drivers? Safety, ecology, urbanism, service economy – all in one.

  5. Kaja says:

    The tears of joy for actually having a President Obama in office now seems to make our vision for the future blurry. Miraculously, everything will change now?
    Vishaan, I couldn’t agree more with you. I have been writing childish emails to the President for months now, asking him to be more aggressive and stop feeding the asphalt lobby. Instead we need innovation in infrastructure and we need the willingness to produce ‘shovel-worthy’ projects, and we need them in cities.Anyone ever bothered to look up the stimulus projects on this NYC map?
    http://gis.nyc.gov/doitt/nycitymap/
    the majority of dots refers to a refrigerators replacement program?! that’s it?

  6. This essay is both provocative and poetic. It dares us to think big and brave. We’ve been trained to be witty and skeptical. It’s a different time; the crisis presents an opportunity to work for a brave collective plan. I interviewed Eladio Dieste in 1995 in Uruguay, he said: “brick layers get excited and work harder when they understand the overall plan, they are just putting one brick after another like they’ve done all their lives, but when they work on these large brick surfaces I feel they hearts in it and it makes me work harder to give voice to their collective dignity”.

    A big idea like, a country of cities or public transportation from home to work, can transform every languid step into an energetic one and make the witty skeptic into a brave dignify one.

  7. Fran Gretes says:

    Vishaan,
    Well done! This is a skilfully crafted warning about the future of our urban environment. You’ve laid down the gauntlet and hopefully others will take action to parry the “Asphalt Lobbyists.”

  8. Eric Snyder says:

    We need to understand that the ship has been underway in the wrong direction for decades – since the construction of the Interstate system. It will take a long time to shift its course slightly, to say nothing of reversing course. Consider all who have their entire economic well-being dependent upon the old way – there will be no easy way to get their cooperation in the change we desparately need. The only thing that seems to work, in my experience, is a hit in the wallet.
    The change we seek will take decades. We need to focus on what immediate pieces we can change in the context of the larger goal.

  9. George R. Frantz, AICP says:

    Ah, yes, round up the usual suspect: the federal government.

    The fact is that the land use policies that have resulted in sprawl are the result of local decisionmaking and consumer choices, not federal decisions. And those decisions have been based on race and class and the pursuit of a bizarre, profligate phenomenon known as the American Way of Life.

    The American consumer has dug the hole we are in. Consumer choices at the local level are the reason behind white flight, and the reason why our cities have population densities so low as make any transportation alternative other than the automobile impossible without huge (federal government) subsidies except for in a few remote places.

    Only when attitudes at the local level change, and land use regulations that place a higher priority on the environment than the single-family detached home and homegeneous neighborhoods are scapped for more environmentally responsible and socially just ones will our cities start approaching anything close to sustainability.

  10. Robert says:

    Imagine not being able to go anywhere when the transit operators are on strike.

    Happens periodically in our major cities, and life is a mess until the strike is over.

    During these strikes, life in the suburbs and exurbs goes on normally for those who do not have to commute into the city to work.

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