Introduction to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s “A Country of Cities” #3
October 7, 2014
#3 Why Cities Are Good
I am in the final stages of reviewing what I consider the most important chapters in Vishaan Chakrabarti’s important new work, “A Country of Cities.” They make a strong case for city life because if we were “to better invest the hundreds of billions of tax dollars we currently spend each year on sprawl, our cities could unleash a new era of progressive and prosperous stewardship of our nation and our planet.” Inasmuch as I agree with Mr. Chakrabarti’s contention, based on my own experience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I was enormously relieved and pleased to read an editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal entitled “New development should lead to more.” The bulk of the editorial concerned the opening of an upscale apartment development and was a description of the amenities, etc., in the development. What caught my eye, however, was the final paragraph of the editorial and I wanted to share it with you because it, in effect, endorses essentially what Mr. Chakrabarti is advocating.
“The opening of the Link Apartments Brookstown brings us one step closer to fulfilling the promises associated with the ballpark. What’s next?…When the ballpark was first proposed, it was part of a grandiose scheme that included restaurants, apartments and condos, shops, an office building, and perhaps even a movie theater and hotel. The economic recession brought most of this development to a halt, though the city stuck it out and helped complete the ballpark itself, which has been an economic boon. We watched and waited for more development in the area, and were delighted when ground was broken for the Link apartments. This will bring more residents eager for further development that could stretch all the way to downtown. The story’s not over yet. There’s more to be done in this area.”
What caught my eye was the word “shops.” One of the problems of living in downtown in most cities that have experienced a flight to the suburbs is that there is scant infrastructure convenient to new apartment complexes close to the center city, unless the critical mass of new downtown residents is sufficient to justify the investment in such things as food markets, cleaning establishments, hardware stores, beauty shops, barbers, financial services, clothing stores, etc., etc. What has to be done is to build, in effect, a neighborhood, either in the complex itself, or within walking distance. One of the great attractions of living downtown, and certainly something Mr. Chakrabarti advocates, is walking to places. A single apartment building, regardless of its amenities, will not, by itself, contribute substantially to improving the quality of life in a city. People have to find living in the center city convenient, especially if they want to give up driving everywhere. The older folks I have talked to are generally quite well off and could easily afford a luxury apartment. But it is no luxury to have to get into your car and drive out of the city proper to a shopping center to get the essentials of daily life.
Developers are well aware of all this, but the level of investment (to create a neighborhood) is such that a profitable return cannot be assured unless there is equal commitment by those who would likely build the infrastructure and the demographics are such that if a neighborhood was built, enough people would move in. Nonetheless, Winston-Salem, a city of arts and innovation, has made a good start and the vitality of the downtown, spotty though it may be, is evident. As the Journal predicts, “The story is not over yet.”