Earlier today I found myself being promoted an initiative called Strong Towns that wishes to encourage higher density zoning and a focus on pedestrian-friendly towns that reduce sprawl and make life much more difficult for those of us who use the auto to travel. Despite the fact that the people in this group and I are on very different sides of a cultural debate, I did not find their logic to be offensive but rather that it neglected some very important aspects in human behavior that make their thoughts very unlikely to be practiced, regardless of the financial rewards for so doing. I would like to take at least some time today to discuss the problem faced when it comes to urban infrastructure and the way that growing civic indebtedness will likely crush the middle option that characterizes so much of contemporary development between the extremes of urban and rural, which has the benefit of at least making our cultural divide all the more plain.
I am no stranger to concerns about matters of infrastructure and development , but there are some very good arguments to suggest that contemporary approaches to development are deeply mistaken. A great deal of contemporary development adopts one of the following sets of approaches. Wide roads with cul-de-sacs and plenty of greenway space create suburban neighbors of fairly low density that require maintenance for a large amount of roads as well as sewage and water pipes and fiber optic cables for high speed internet and the like. Zoning laws prohibit the mixture of residential and commercial uses, so on the outskirts of towns a large number of big box businesses have large amounts of parking for commuters and malls and office parks are surrounded by large amounts of frequently empty parking lots. Likewise, the building of new developments usually does not include upgrading the roads people take to and from their jobs, making gridlock on the roads and highways a nightmare (something, it should be noted, that the strong towns movement does nothing to help).
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the motivation of those who want to build “strong towns” is to counteract the popularity of driving. Instead of automobile-friendly arterial routes, their goal is to build pedestrian friendly cities where people can walk a few blocks from their home or apartment to whatever businesses they need. At least on the part of the people writing the blog entries (if not writing the comments) there appears at least to be no hostility towards those in rural parts, but rather there is a recognition that suburbs are likely not sustainable development when it comes time to replace roads or sewage pipes, because the tax value of such properties is rarely enough to repay for the price of the infrastructure of such low density but high-infrastructure areas. Needless to say, most of the people I have seen applauding the “strong town” movement are those who want cities like those of Europe.
Unfortunately, my own response to that model is one of unmixed horror. If I wanted to live in a city like NYC or like Europe’s dense megacities, I would do so. I have no interest in that, however. I don’t like living surrounded by people, with no space or privacy, having to be around others walking on foot in massive crowds or going on public transportation. That way of living has no appeal for me whatsoever. I suspect as well, given the behavior of Americans with regards to their housing choices, that a lot of other people in this country do not want to live like that as well. There are some people who might be fond of living in a several-story apartment building on top of first-floor store fronts, who do not mind that it is a nightmare driving or parking in a city, prohibitively expensive as well as unsafe from the threat of theft, but I am not the kind of person who is comfortable in enforced closeness with strangers who think differently and behave differently from I do. I want my peace and quiet and plenty of space to my own where I do not feel any kind of pressure towards intimacy with those whom I am not particularly comfortable around. I feel that to be a fairly common tendency as well.
What does this mean, though? There are several possible ways that the people who support “strong towns” could respond. They could serve as cassandras as failing economies and finances lead cities to abandon their suburbs and contract to their profitable but unpleasant inner core and as jobs flee to rural areas unencumbered by urban political agendas. They could attempt to coerce political improvement to make cities more pedestrian friendly and more hostile to drivers until those who want to drive find places to live and work outside cities where they are not forced to subsidize money-losing public transportation. In either case, whether or not the intent is just to inform or if there is a goal of coercing political change in towns, the end result is likely to be cities and rural areas that are even less connected to each other and less in sympathy with each other. For the present, cities have sought political power and numbers by expanding to take in suburbs of people who want dispersion but also convenience, and whose dual preferences will likely make many cities and towns financially insolvent and unable to fulfill their end of the social contract to provide free infrastructure to such residents. When that is no longer sustainable and is given up, the result will be a decision as to whether someone wants to be rural and somewhat remote or crowded into densely populated inner cities. I know which of those two options I prefer.
 See, for example: