urban planning

The Boutique City Conundrum

Everyone in America wants their town to hit the list of the top five places to live in the U.S. – with clean streets, amazing mixed-use housing, and an easy walk to the corner grocery – but what many developers are not asking in the process is, “At what cost?”

A few days ago, I watched a special on Portland’s city planning process from the past several decades. Portland’s government has used something called an “urban growth boundary” to foster development within the city’s existing limits, rather than encouraging ever greater sprawl and suburbanization. Outside the boundary, local farms can flourish off the nutrient-rich land and sell their products to eager city residents. The boundary guarantees that these farmers are staying put, as it protects both the land and well-being of these rural entities. Portland’s model is focused upon a belief that both the urban dweller and the farmer are essential for the flourishing of local culture, and that undercutting the value of healthy land and healthy farms will undercut the city itself. The model is increasingly trendy, but still quite rare.

In a typical metropolitan growth pattern, as cities expand past their original boundaries, farmers are often the first pushed out. Developers see farmland as ready ground for new housing, strip malls, or major roads and are willing to offer high stakes to obtain it. Cities and their surrounding suburbs can span for hours of driving time.

For example, take Washington, D.C., with its surrounding suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland, or Los Angeles and its expansive outskirts. To support these models, intricate highway systems, high speed transit, and massive infrastructure are necessary. Commuters may spend hours driving to work and returning home each day, and often those who work within the actual city’s boundaries have little concern for the city’s well-being, and certainly no say in its government.

Meanwhile, with an urban growth boundary, urban and rural do not mix. Beyond the boundary, one will find farms, along with forested and other “protected” lands. Inside the boundary, one will find urban development-buildings, homes, sewer and water systems, power lines, and industrial complexes. Cities with urban growth boundaries exist as single units rather than suburban centers, and often have much more dense populations than other metropolitan models. Rather than encouraging outward growth, urban growth boundaries encourage cities to grow deeper and more concentrated. With this model in play, things like freestanding single family housing and mall-style shopping become rare and unsustainable. So the restaurants get better, the apartments more beautiful, and the wares more exciting. Meanwhile, prices per square foot of space and even the cost of commodities can grow substantially with increased demand and competition.

Portland’s urban growth model is an interesting one, and certainly the city has transformed from disorganized and disconnected to upscale and appealing. Over the past few decades, Portland has transformed into a bustling boutique city of sorts, enabling its citizens easy access to high-end amenities and great local wares. Today Portland is often considered one of the best places to live in the country, and boasts an amazing waterfront park. However, this model can come at a steep price.

While the urban economy is booming and business couldn’t be better, many low and mid-income residents claim that for them, the growth is unsustainable. The hour-long television special on Portland also featured a woman who had moved several times in the last decade due to rising housing prices, and was now considering yet another move as her current landlord was demanding an additional hundred dollars per month.

While to some a little bit more money might not be a big deal, to others it means tapping fictitious bank accounts. Gentrification, while often of little concern to those with padded bank accounts or posh jobs, is a real concern for many city residents. As families are forced out of their homes, they must choose new neighborhoods further from transportation routes, good schools, and the very vibrant local culture that claims ability to uplift and empower them and their children. Planning expert Joel Kotkin’s writing captures these concerns quite well in his 2006 article “Urban Legend” (PDF download):

Boutique cities, like a high-end specialty merchandiser, have little use for the general run of the working and middle class, whose needs are assigned to the domain of Target, Wal-Mart and other suburban merchandisers. Indeed, if the makers of the boutique city worry about anything besides themselves, it is usually not the disappearance of this hardworking middle class, but how to deal with the potential threat represented by the alienated underclass, with its potential for lethal mayhem. Many denizens of these environments do not see the city as a place that holds their commitments, but only one locale that, for a period of time or a particular season, seizes their fancy.

Kotkin’s article comes with a bite – especially for anti-suburbia advocates like me. His work suggests that easy answers, “let’s uplift the poor by making cities vibrant places to live” urban renewal is often easier said than done. We need to make fewer global generalizations and focus more upon sustainable local outcomes. Kotkin’s piece suggests that truly refining and renewing America’s cities, or any country’s cities for that matter, in a way that is sustainable involves a long hard look at cities’ populations, and their specific needs and attributes. While one model might work for New York, that same model is not necessarily going to (and probably will not) work for Chicago. Similarly, a push for a trendier, greener, smarter city – the barking chant of today’s planning elites – might not appeal to the urban dweller who is barely feeding his/her children, balancing major credit debt, and managing multiple jobs.

A sustainable approach to urban development will view cities less as economic engines and more as communities, taking into account the interests of all, rather than a select few. It will consider how people, environment, business, and infrastructure all work together to build a comprehensive whole.

Author Wendell Berry captures these tensions and concerns of community in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community“:

A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes – or it makes itself harmoniously a part of – its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and nonhuman. And to extend Saint Paul’s famous metaphor by only a little, a healthy community is like a body, for its members mutually support and serve one another.

As Berry suggests, communities only work when people start living for something much greater than themselves.

Suburban slums?

From Miller-McCune: The Slumming of Suburbia.

To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience – dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers – while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.

Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones – sometimes called “demographic inversion” – will continue for decades.

“Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they’re tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan.