Notes From Babel

Saving Cleveland—And the Rest of America’s Declining Urban Centers

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I meant to link this a couple weeks ago when I first watched it—Drew Carey teams up with Reason to create a short documentary on how Cleveland, once one of America’s great urban centers, has become a shell of what it once was.  The series is called Reason Saves Cleveland.

Speaking of solutions to our urban dilemmas, I also just finished James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.  Although peppered with invectives against sprawl and capitalism, Kunstler’s book seems to suggest that Kunstler is neither wholesale in favor of urban planning nor wholesale opposed to capitalism.  The automobile is indeed the cause of sprawl and the drastic change in the design of our urban centers—I might not lament this as much as Kunstler, but I do have to admit I like many aspects of older cities and smaller towns.  But there are two observations about this I find much more interesting than the old “for” or “against” positions on sprawl:

First, one should not blame automobiles, or understate the value they have added to our lives.  When Henry Ford started pumping hundreds of thousands of affordable, mass-produced Model T’s into the marketplace, no one could have imagined how this would have changed the look and feel of future cities.  No one would have realized that the mass-produced car would have led to cities where pedestrians, to paraphrase Kunstler, feel like so many bugs about to be squished by giants.

Second, to lament the look-and-feel of today’s big cities and sprawled-out suburbs need not mean that one has to be for onerous smart-growth policies, or for razing the ticky-tacky Agrestics of the country and chasing their bewildered inhabitants back into the dirty, impoverished cities from whence they came.  In fact, those who lean towards free-market approaches—and who thus reflexively object to implementation of “smart growth” policies—might be startled to learn that when it comes to town and city planning, sprawl is not the natural, free choice of a free-market.  Instead, zoning and land use regulations governing set-backs, street widths, lot sizes, etc. all cause cities to tend toward the “sprawl” that new urbanists love to hate.  Many of these policies even start at the top—at the federal government, tied to spending bills that require states to adopt them and impose them on cities in order to get lavish federal subsidies.

Thus, free-marketeers and localists may have the right premise: let’s let the people choose.  But they may not be right to suggest that the people already have chosen, and that they’ve chosen “sprawl.”

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm

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