As my friends and colleagues in the Congress for the New Urbanism left Buffalo last week, we received a parting shot from one Colin Dabkowski, news arts critic with the Buffalo News, in the form of an open letter. It left a rather sour note on what had otherwise been a pretty great week in a city I rather enjoyed.
Dabkowski indicates that “something rings hollow” in the CNU “rhetoric” and then goes on to single out Jeff Speck, in particular, with the following:
Speck espouses a theory of urban development he calls “urban triage,” a term that means infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.
In explaining that philosophy, Speck said cities need to “concentrate perfection” in certain neighborhoods, distribute money in a way that favors those neighborhoods and focus primarily on downtowns in an effort to increase the health and wealth of citizens.
In reading Dabkowski’s entire column, it is clear that he has an itch that wasn’t appropriately scratched during the particular sessions he attended. That’s unfortunate. Had he dug deeper, he most certainly would have found the conversation he was looking for. As it is, he badly misrepresented the soul and substance of an organization that Buffalo desperately needs.
Let’s get beyond Dabkowski’s ridiculous definition of “urban triage” and actually give the term some meaning.
Urban: of or relating to cities and the people who live in them
Triage: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success
We most often associate triage with a battlefield where few medics with scant resources are overwhelmed with large numbers of critical – and worthy – patients in a short period of time. The triage approach is meant to take the passion out of what is, in essence, a life and death decision. It is an acknowledgement that, while everyone is worthy, not everyone will live because there isn’t enough to go around. How should we deploy scarce resources to achieve the greatest good in such a stressful situation?
When it comes to cities, the triage decisions leaders face do not have the immediacy nor the life and death stakes of a battlefield. Nonetheless, this is an adult conversation. How does a city like Buffalo, which clearly has more needs than it will ever have resources, best deploy its limited assets? In Dabkowski’s article, he quotes Speck and provides a fairly good example of how most cities approach this situation.
“Most mayors, city managers and municipal planners feel a responsibility to their entire city,” Speck wrote in his book “Walkable City,” a follow-up to “Suburban Nation,” the so-called “Bible of New Urbanism” that he co-authored with Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek. “As a result, they tend to sprinkle the walkability fairy dust indiscriminately. They are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive.”
Here Speck is clearly right. Most public officials, most cities, are unable to make a hard call. They do not think strategically. They spread their resources out in a politically palatable way and, as a result, achieve minimal gains despite spending a lot of money. Speck is being polite when he says it is “lovely” for idealistic public officials to hold out hope for the entire city. If he were being blunt, he would simply call it “naïve”.
Note that Buffalo is doing urban triage today, although it is doing a poor job of it. I saw many areas that had been essentially abandoned by the public sector. Old malls, residential neighborhoods and industrial sites that are no longer maintained because they aren’t worthy of being maintained. Somehow the pre-CNU Buffalo has found a way to make these decisions.
Where the Dabkowski column becomes the most damaging is when he makes the following sanctimonious, and reactionary, leap.
Hence “urban triage,” a term that connotes a lack of concern for the human occupants of those neighborhoods deemed unworthy of infrastructure investments.
Again, this is an adult conversation that I realize can be difficult, but how did it get here? How did a sober conversation about budgets and resources become one about who is worthy and who is not?
First, let’s dispense with the "juvenile" notion that there is a “lack of concern.” I have called the human element the “social challenge of our generation,” something routinely echoed by my colleagues in the CNU. And second, let’s not pretend that the current approach – which I would characterize as a long, slow decline brought about by apathy, resistance to change and the reactionary rhetoric from those like Dabkowski – shows anything more than superficial concern for the fate of the people that live in Buffalo.
What is actually “beyond irresponsible” is to demonize this necessary conversation – which should be public – so that it slinks back into the shadows where it can be safely discussed behind closed doors, the continuous decline given the more pleasant veneer of “caring” for public consumption.
Now here is the reality of the New Urbanist conversation that everyone in attendance understood but Dabkowski, in his consternation, somehow didn’t pick up on: In Buffalo, as in every similar city in the United States today, the poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods are generally more financially productive than those that are occupied by the city’s wealthy and affluent. In short, as the city experiences a general decline, Buffalo’s poor are subsidizing Buffalo’s rich. They have been for decades.
So when someone like Jeff Speck talks about urban triage, he’s calling on local leaders to stop taking from the poor to subsidize the lifestyle choices of the rich and instead invest in improving those old, walkable neighborhoods that are already so financially productive. Not only would this make the city wealthier and more prosperous, it would dramatically improve the quality of life for the city’s most disadvantaged.
All this makes the last statement by Dabkowski all the more ridiculous:
While there was some talk about developing mixed-income neighborhoods, neither the New Urbanist manifestos nor anything I heard during the conference proposed a convincing or coherent strategy for accomplishing that on a grand scale.
Yes, they did. You reported on it. It is called “urban triage.” Stop pulling resources from your most productive places to subsidize auto-centric lifestyles and instead invest in incremental development throughout your core, productive neighborhoods.
Dear Buffalo, I want to like you. Really, I do. Let's get beyond "us versus them" and talk about how to build a great Buffalo for everyone.