A Country of Cities: Highway, Houses, and Hedges

September 11, 2014

Part 2 of a commentary on Vishaan Chakrabarti’s  “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America

A close friend of mine who lives in one of America’s largest cities, after reading Part 1 of my commentary on Vishaan Chakrabarti’s new and important book, “A Country of Cities,” said, “I didn’t know there was such a big problem.”  His comment was not surprising and Chakrabarti addresses it in the opening pages of his book.

“…Our reckless subsidization of suburban spread is arguably the leading cause of our most pressing challenges (as a nation). from foreclosures to unemployment, to unfunded schools, to spiraling health-care costs, to climate change, to oil wars.   Yet this overarching issue never surfaces in the national discourse.  In election after election, our presidential candidates rarely utter the words “city” or “suburbs” in their speeches, as if the way in which Americans live is irrelevant to the state of the union.

If our elected officials aren’t talking about it, then it follows that the contribution cities make to our national wellbeing and their potential to contribute even more simply goes unnoticed.  To elevate the issue to a debate must begin with a convincing demonstration that cities can solve this imposing list of national problems and an acknowledgement that those solutions require substantial change in our current policies and attitudes.  The latter may prove difficult because the root cause of all our problems is a disengaged body politic.   The former can be implemented only if Americans overcome their resistance to change and preference for the status quo (as indicated by polls and voter turnout) and find new determination to take the steps to put the country “back on the right track.”

Chakrabarti claims that by “removing the legal, economic, and moralizing incentives for (urban) sprawl…we can realize a more prosperous, more sustainable, and more equitable nation.”  In the next four commentaries, we will examine the new paradigm he proposes.   But, first, we need to better understand the problems that have triggered his “manifesto for an urban America.”

A quick glance at a map of the United States clearly reveals that there is a lot of near-vacant land in our country.  It is difficult, then, to ascribe much importance to the fact that “sprawl” may be a problem    That is, until you realize that 90 percent of our national gross domestic product (GDP) and 86 percent of the nation’s jobs are generated on three percent of the land.   The fact is that the jobs are in the cities and the rural areas suffer from underemployment and out-migration of the young, exacerbating the disparity between those who must make their living off the land and those who don’t.

At the same time that cities are the “nation’s essential economic engines,” Chakrabarti claims “cities have become too expensive because of the limited spaces for people and businesses to inhabit.”   This limitation in a country with vast open spaces is defined by overregulation, the cost of space in cities and the length of commute.   For almost 70 percent of our population, the nation does not seem so “vast” when they are stuck in traffic.   There have been many innovative attempts to ameliorate this imbalance, some successful, some not, but the problem remains, due in part to not only to over-regulation of new development but also, perversely, to lack of regulation limiting sprawl.   Height and use restrictions have their constituencies and it will require that urban planners move more aggressively to demonstrate that mixed-use construction does not have to deteriorate the quality of life in urban America.  There can be little doubt that “living above the store” is a more efficient use of land, but it has little appeal in modern America.   However, if placed within a context of an 80 story building in which the first 15 floors are commercial and rest residential, perhaps the image changes sufficiently to resemble a neighborhood.   Add a school, even a church, as well as the ordinary amenities of a neighborhood and perhaps the appeal grows stronger.   The point is, it is more efficient to go up than out.

The problem with “rampant land consumption” around cities is that it has quadrupled since 1945 and is increasing at about twice the rate of population growth.   This growth in land use has been accompanied since 1950 by a steady increase in the sizes of houses in the suburbs at the same time as the number of people per household has been steadily decreasing, thus dramatically increasing the per unit cost of providing essential services to new subdivisions.   The size of a parking lot surrounding a new shopping mall doesn’t shrink just because the family size has shrunk from 2.55 five years ago to 2.1 today.  The net result, in Chakrabarti’s terms, is that, over all, we use more energy, resources, and land to house Americans today.  To continue that pattern is unsustainable when we factor in climate change and the lack of mass transit systems as commutes grow longer and longer.

A robust mass transit system requires a density of 30 dwelling per acre and up.  The problem inherent is that as long as local government keep approving subdivisions with less than 30 dwellings per acre, the likelihood of having unsubsidized mass transit systems is remote.   Governments will have to abandon their propensity to approve more and more subdivisions of single family homes and, instead, encourage construction of multi-family dwellings close to mass transit.   Fortunately, many of our largest cities have recognized that the time has come to begin the shift.   However, an “anti-urban” bias, discussed below, which may contribute to the resistance to favor mass transit or the construction of high-rise apartment buildings,  is caused, again, in part, by the subsidization of housing through our tax code.   It makes economic sense, on one level, to enjoy seven years or more of interest write-off, which enables a home purchaser to get more house for his or her buck and spread the cost until the value of equity build-up really kicks in.   Recent experience has shown that there is substantial risk to investing in housing when there are economic downturns.  Nonetheless, any change in this subsidy for single family housing is politically unpopular and highly unlikely.

While land use by a growing but changing suburban demographic and the lack of sustainable mass transit systems in all but our largest cities place increasing demands on resources, there are many other problems that must be faced before America will become a “Country of Cities.”    There is the question of how cities can reduce the income disparity between those who can afford to enjoy city life and those who must deal with the less attractive features.   Chakrabarti deals with these issues in latter sections of the book, but, for this commentary, I want to end with how Chakrabarti deals with what has popularly become known as “The American Dream.”   He traces the origin of this “dream” in entertaining detail, but I believe it can be condensed into “home ownership” and “My kids are going to do better than I have.”   There is, in my opinion, considerable truth in these expectations.  Home ownership hovers around 65 percent, going up or down for a host of factors, and incomes of the next generation have increased, for another set of factors, and not necessarily uniformly.   That much is fact.  But part of Chakarbarti’s manifesto rests on the now-acknowledged fact that the next generation is not likely to experience the same upward mobility as their parents in the same way.   The demographics are clear.   Young people are living with their parents longer.   Family formations are taking place later and later.   The average age for marriage is up to 28 and the postponement of children is more normal.   There is also a growing suspicion that investment in housing may not be the gravy train it was perceived to be, unless the timing of a sale can be controlled.   Technological changes have made living spaces more efficient, requiring less space.  And there is a greater appreciation of urban living as providing an appealing lifestyle.   Lastly, as urban affordability, public safety, and schools continue to improve,  Chakrabarti says, “young people will most likely choose to remain in cities to raise their families.”   Although my exposure to young families choosing to live in cities is limited, I can testify that the elementary school next to the high-rise residential building my daughter lives in has a long list of parents who want their children schooled there.

Nonetheless, despite the trends, there remains a cultural bias against city living.  Chakrabarti calls it an “anti-urban” bias and my wife and I have experienced it first hand from those who expressed concern for our safety when we  choose to live in Adams Morgan, one of the most eclectic neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.    This “anti-urban” bias exists in part because of pop culture, especially those movies in the forties that glamorized life in the “country.”  Yet, as noted, this bias is changing.  American cities are growing faster than their suburban counterparts for the first time since 1920, says Chakrabarti,  quoting the Wall Street Journal, and there has been a steady decline in the number of shopping malls under construction.   This section of the book is worth the price alone because it documents the mythological character of the American dream and it candidly acknowledges that the gap between our reality today and a County of Cities is vast.

Next:  Why cities are good.

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