Friday, February 2, 2007
What makes a building an historic landmark? What if the “history” contains painful memories, such as those of America’s history of racial segregation? The conflicting emotions in the African American community over the preservation of places associated with black history –- segregated schoolhouses, sharecropper cabins, burial grounds for enslaved people, etc. –- were the subject of a fascinating article this week in the Christian Science Monitor.
A growing number of African Americans are working to preserve such sites, especially when they serve to educate about the past. The National Organization of Minority Architects held this summer in Memphis a conference on the preservation of historical sites associated with African American history. The federal government, states, and private organizations can encourage conservation efforts by using plaques, tours, and other programs to keep alive the role that places and buildings can play in educating the public about the lessons of our past.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Say that residents of a town outside a big city don’t want new housing developments built near them; development would bring unwanted traffic and change the quiet character of the town, they say. If one is skeptical of such an argument, what does one call it?
“NIMBY” is perhaps the most overused term in land use policy debates, even though the term itself is only a few decades old. It makes sense to complain of a “not in my backyard” syndrome to snicker at objections over LULUs (“locally unwanted land uses”) such as a factory, a bus station, or a halfway house. One might say that it’s human nature not to want such distinct land uses near one’s back yard.
But the broader phenomenon of objections to development in general raises more serious policy issues. The desire to preserve the quiet “character” of a town deserves a term that is distinct from NIMBY. Alternative acronyms (here’s a list) might include BANANA (“build absolutely nothing near anyone”) and CAVE people (“citizens against virtually everything”), but these imply nutty extremism.
The more nuanced nature of the topic justifies a divergence from the practice of cute acronyms. One term that comes close is the “raise the drawbridge” phenomenon, used to refer to citizens who are already inside a preferred area (those who have already, say, built their A-frame on the Oregon coast) and who now want to raise a legal drawbridge to keep others out. But, to me, even this term focuses on an implication of individual selfishness that fails to capture the larger social effects of the anti-development phenomenon. For example, one town’s rejection of new housing development is likely to push the pressure for development elsewhere (just as localities jostle with their neighbors to discourage the homeless).
Here’s a proposed new term: “Drawbridge Protectionism.” This term refers to the desire of citizens to keep new development away from the community, in order to preserve “character,” avoid traffic, simplify planning and taxation, increase home values in the community by legally limiting the supply, and push other complications of a changing world to other, less-well-organized jurisdictions. Some of these goals may be more laudable than others.
Doesn’t “drawbridge protectionism” mix concepts? Yes it does, and this is part of my point. After all, drawbridge protectionism addresses one of the most important domestic issues facing the United States in the 21st century. It deserves a little complexity.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Here’s a second day of thoughts on the arguments defending suburban sprawl and the auto-dependent culture, set forth by Reason Foundation authors Balaker & Staley. One of the most interesting statistics they cite is that the average home lot size has in fact fallen from 1970 to today. This may be true (I found Census figures stating that while the median lot size of a new house has shrunk noticeably since 1976, the “average” is almost unchanged –- evidence of a growing number of really large new lots), but one wonders about the relevance of using 1970 as a starting point in an assessment of sprawl. What about, say, 1920, when widespread auto usage was just starting? Cities were certainly denser, but many more people lived on spacious farms.
The smaller-lot-size argument is also hard to reconcile with the oft-cited statistic that while the Chicago metro area barely increased in population from 1970 to 1990, its square-mile “footprint” grew by a stunning 24 percent (Or was it 46%? See the debate between the anti-sprawl National Governors Association and the Heritage Foundation). Perhaps the significant shift from apartments to single-family homes simply isn’t reflected in the statistics about the size of the typical new home lot. But even though the Chicago area clearly has expanded relative to its population, no one can deny that there still are a lot more acres of corn in Illinois than there are acres of subdivisions.
Selective use of statistics should be viewed with a skeptical eye, especially with such an amorphous topic as suburban sprawl.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Is suburban sprawl the destiny for all affluent cultures? A growing number of market-oriented commentators argue that spreading suburbs are less the manifestations of subsidized highways and corporate greed, and more the result of a natural human desire for a big house and the personal freedom afforded by automobile travel. A new entry in the pro-suburban camp is "The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It," by Reason magazine contributors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley (I'll let you try to figure out the title). A commentary appears here.
Some of their more interesting numbers concern the supposed rejection of sprawl in other countries, especially Europe. While it is true that public transportation and density have been more common elsewhere, these features may have been the result more of necessity than of preference. Wherever people become more affluent, they tend to buy cars more often, ride the train less, and look more favorably upon a house outside the city and a road-borne commute.
Balaker and Staley also score some easy points by deflating some of anti-sprawl's more hyperbolic and over-heated claims. No, America is not being paved over with asphalt, and we're not running out of farmland. And no, driving less isn't likely to do much about global warming; other sources of pollution (including power plants that create the electricity that runs your computer right now) are far greater culprits. Indeed, modernity-fueled growth, including more asphalt roads in health-care-starved countries, might help poor people in climate-change-vulnerable countries more than rising temperatures may harm them. It's food for thought.