How we've blown up our cities

Fellow Minnesotan Charles Marohn, a recovering professional engineer, blogs today on some of the changing ways that we Americans build places.

It is striking how the path of our economic development and the path of our physical development are so similar.

In the age of Hamilton, we certainly had planning. Thomas Jefferson not only planned the layout of places like the University of Virgina but influenced the design of Pierre L’Enfant in his layout of Washington D.C. All of our cities and towns were planned in stunning detail, but not with the blunt instrument of zoning. They were planned with local economics by developers and town fathers (my apologies to our female readers for that term, however accurate it may be) using locally-adapted pattern books. There was government, to be sure, but it was hyper-local and economically very efficient.

As our productive capacity grew through the industrial revolution, our economics and our cities likewise became “industrialized”. Where the social inequities and economic distortions of industrialization created the conditions that made the Great Depression “great”, they also made parts of many of our cities undesirable to live in. The season we’ve just passed through always has a tinge of Charles Dickens for me and its visions of tenement housing under skies clouded with coal smoke. These were places one needed to escape, and so it should be no surprise that, as government began to operate in the realm of economics, it marshaled our capacities to create a different living arrangement (the suburbs).

The inability of this economic system to sustain itself is no surprise to readers of this blog. The Ponzi-scheme nature of the suburban development pattern is financially not sustainable. The need for ever-increasing rates of growth is not reality. What is interesting is how, when this breakdown became apparent in the 1970’s (especially with the energy crisis and the high rates of inflation), shifting from “government influencing the economy” to “the economy influencing the government” created a condition where we took our financially non-viable living pattern and gave it steroids. We kept the same arrangement but replaced government programs and regulations with incentives, financial deregulation and bailouts.

In retrospect, we can see how we’ve blown up our economy. We’ve likewise blown up our cities, making them financially fragile to the point where few, if any, can financially sustain the systems they have created.

I have been thinking about the ways engineers and planners look at the world differently.  How we look at the problems and solutions and the state of nature.  I don’t have that quite worked out yet (I’ll let you know here when I do), but this fits into that idea of the economy as a problem for government to solve, or government as a problem for the economy to solve.  Or how it’s not.  Maybe we just need to let each do what they do well and stop messing both up….

Marohn was inspired, he says, by a book by Anatole Kaletsky, Capitalism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy in the Aftermath of Crisis. Sounds like a nice bit of light reading for the new year.


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