It hasn’t been long since you heard someone use the phrase “new normal.” I spent part of Tuesday thinking about the degree to which our environment is unfamiliar: Convergence of economic globalization, an aging population, climate change, increasing racial earnings and educational gaps, fiscal stress.

“New normal” plays the role of euphemestic placeholder in this environment, thanks to the dynamic nature of these challenges. What is continually becoming new can’t really become normal. But what’s this to do with land use or redevelopment?

In 1816, transporting goods across land in early America cost an equivalent amount to shipping it from Boston to London. The comparative relationship tilted settlement and trade distinctly toward waterways; construction of the Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed a loop that connected four corners of a developing America. Between 1850 and 1970, at least five of the ten largest U.S. cities were located on this trade circuit.

Waterways remained critical as arteries to transport commodities and other inputs for trade and commerce; they also provided the doorway through which most entered frontier towns. Over time, comparative pricing and relationships to rivers changed – railroads, then cars and trucks, airplanes, and digital thoroughfares provided radically cheaper modes of overland movement. In each case, the use of urban land shifted based on how prices and values mixed.

Now, due to the change factors I listed to start, we are charting glimpses of how prices are changing in the modern environment. Joe Minicozzi’s widely distributed brief on the clear advantage of denser development is a good example of how we’re learning the ropes of a new pricing structure. As discussed at length in this forum and others, the framework for legal (zoning and planning), capital (lending) and taxation in most markets lags behind, but that will prove a temporary condition.

What does fallow land cost us in road rights of way, instead of its use to grow biomass? How can the networks and relationships that make cities powerful be best supported with built form? How and why can industrial and other uses be integrated in a denser pattern that leverages existing infrastructure? When will taxpayers reach a tipping point in our tolerance of subsidizing parking inventory? Effective local and regional transitions will demand answering these kinds of questions, community by community, strong town by strong town. Fortunately, as with so many challenges, history offers us guidance.

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