In the same USA Today 30 years special in which Marc Andreessen gave his dire warning in my last post, Andres Duany, not a man of the left, talks about the urban future. Global warming will not be prevented, he says [which is just as well with me, as I’ve advocated adaptation]. We will see a lot of retrofitting, planting of gardens in the yards that we do have [there will still be yards for many; New Urbanism is not about high-rise], and the function and authority of local government will be one of the biggest issues. Perhaps we can even begin to think about it systematically.
Taking the two articles together, it seems to me that these urban changes will be driven by the less affluent. And there will be a lot more of the less affluent. I think you’ll see a lot more bicycles trying to commute to work, not because it’s cool and hip and trendy, but for economic reasons. And many will choose these ‘living small’ options because they cannot afford anything else. In the past the growth of suburbia was driven by the more affluent; the new retrofitted suburbia will be driven by the less affluent. The more affluent will continue to be able to maintain the traditional single family house on a large lot; and new tracts will be built of that kind. What they need to be stopped from doing is not building and moving into such tracts, but ramping up the local regulatory state [actually, city and county hall] so that no one else can have the kind of house that they could afford.
Personally I’m fine with keeping pockets of density within a half mile of transit hubs – of which there need to be a lot more – and let the spaces within be filled with lower density. The New Urbanist life style will not replace the old suburban life style; it will grow up alongside it for those who find it more convenient [people without kids] and people who can afford nothing more luxurious [a lot of working families with kids, which is what we have to start preparing for], and those who might aspire to a larger home later, but prefer saving money to leverage at this point in their lives.
And of course, the ‘agrarian urbanism’ Duany talks about will not be engaged in by high rise apartment dwellers. You need dirt to do that.
And we have written a fair bit about the function and authority of local government in this blog. The rub is that housing is often held as an investment, and it tends to derive its value, unlike agricultural land, not from how you use it but from how your neighbors are forbidden to use theirs. The issue is, what rights does a deed to land give you to use it, more than mere ‘permission’? And, as Duany says, “unless people are willing to live in compact communities, . . . environmentalists can’t stop nature from being overrun by development.” Of course, instead of trying to save all of nature via greenbelts and ‘growth boundaries’, we could confine ourselves just to saving the best bits. This would keep the price of residential land down. A just society, from my point of view, is ‘over-entitled’, if not outright over-built, in both housing of low density and of high density, and particularly of housing open to families. This keeps the price of land from being excessive.
We live in interesting times, but it will be the less affluent, in the future, who will be the pioneers of new styles of life; and that is a change from the past.