There are three truths that the current recession is forcing American cities and towns to come to grips with.
- The development pattern we have adopted, particularly in suburban, exurban and rural areas, costs the public more to sustain long-term than it generates in tax revenue.
- The ability of the federal and state governments to subsidize the development pattern of suburban, exurban and rural areas is waning. Relying on government transfer payments to maintain the current development pattern is not a viable long-term strategy.
- Each community in America currently has millions of dollars of infrastructure that must be maintained.
These truths are ultimately going to force us collectively to ponder changes to our pattern of development. A new approach will inevitably seek to make better use of current infrastructure investments, to squeeze more value out of public dollars we have already spent and are committed to spend on maintenance. While we can do some very sensible things to reduce costs, undoubtedly we are going to have to talk about the ‘D’ word:
Americans generally hate density, and for good reason. For the most part we have done a terrible job of designing the world that surrounds us. It is harsh, sterile and disjointed. As Americans, we use the public realm for utility and instead focus on our own private spaces. We then try and acquire as much buffer from the rest of the world as we can. That is the essence of our development model post-WW II.
The thought of eliminating the buffers and then squishing the remaining harshness down so it confronts our own private spaces directly is disconcerting. The thought of mandating widespread adoption of the densest parts of our development pattern - the apartment buildings and low-end condo units that we relegate, through zoning, to the most unappealing portions of our community - makes me sick. I think Americans will give up their guns before they give up their suburban lots in exchange for apartments.
So what do we do? How do we address the three facts I started this post with? The answer can be found in places like Target Field and its immediate environs.
(If you did not read Monday's posting about Target Field, go back and do it now. Especially if you are inclined to be anti-public-funding-for-stadiums. We're not having a debate here about public funding. I do want to have a conversation about public space.)
I'm a country guy. Grew up on a small farm in rural Minnesota. Currently live in sprawl-America. I've opted for an American dream that is far from urban. But as I sit in Target Field and look around, I'm in awe. This is amazing public space. And not just the field and the stadium. The plazas, the statues, the convergence of transportation options, the nearby social gathering places.....it is some absolutely beautiful design. It is comfortable, enjoyable space.
I'm going to point out one brilliant thing - a small design feature that many people will miss - that typifies the point I am making. The plaza between the Target Center and Target Field is bordered by a parking ramp. It is a big, ugly, featureless structure. Totally functional with no aesthetic value. Not the kind of place you would want if you are creating a vibrant hub of activity. So what did they do?
As you can see, they put this screen mesh kind of thing up to "block" the view. It moves in the breeze and, when the sun went down, they shined some colored lights on it to give it this wave effect. Simple. Probably costs very little, but does a tremendous job of adding to the public realm that exists around this site. Instead of an interface with a harsh, sterile parking garage, the sense-of-place is enhanced.
Readers of this blog have seen this before, albeit on a different scale.
Anyone who has been to Paris, or Venice, or Chicago or the historic areas of many of our small towns has seen the amazing places that can be built when some simple design principles are used. If America is to transition to a prosperous future, our zealous devotion to horizontal infrastructure needs to be tempered with an understanding of the value of vertical infrastructure. If we must live more efficiently (and undoubtedly we must), then we need to build places worth living in.
That fact is an essential part of a Strong Towns approach.
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