Herriges Rezoned: Your City Isn’t Changing as Fast as You Think

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Lots of big, new buildings. Active construction sites. Plenty to disrupt day-to-day life. And, well, Amazon—so there you have it: the exception that proves the rule. Extremely rapid neighborhood change is usually associated with extremely unusual circumstances, such as an employer in the neighborhood that just so happens to be the world’s largest online retail company. 

Disruptive growth in U.S. cities is overwhelmingly concentrated in a very small handful of neighborhoods, and they fall into two types: fringe “greenfield” (i.e., formerly rural or undeveloped) areas, and urban infill neighborhoods with unusual characteristics that have caused the market to take off in a very localized area.

What Does It All Mean?

Whether this is good or bad news depends a lot on your frame of reference. If you’re a fan of dense urban neighborhoods and rooting for the wholesale abandonment of the suburbs—or at least their mass redevelopment into something vibrant, walkable and eco-friendly—you’re likely to be disappointed. The momentum is not there. The people are not there. America is full of places whose population would have to grow tenfold to achieve the kind of urban density where high-quality transit, for example, is viable. Simple math dictates that few of them will do that. Odds are, half of the buildings that will exist in 2059 are already with us.

If you’re a homeowner in a “no-build” (or almost-never-build) neighborhood, and stability is something you prize, it might be a pretty good deal for you. It’s not nearly so clear, though, that it’s a good deal for our cities and towns.

Funneling neighborhood change to a small number of locations magnifies its impacts in that handful of locations. Sometimes this takes the form of gentrification, in the many senses of that controversial word. It can also be a powerful inducement to land speculation, particularly when the actions of local governments serve (intentionally or unintentionally) to manipulate and distort land prices.

Our zoning codes and other building regulations serve to freeze most other neighborhoods in suspended animation, which prevents market signals from functioning. This comes at a cost to the economic resilience of our cities.

To be clear: By “market signals,” I don’t mean the whims of developers. I mean the process by which people vote with their feet and move to places they want to be. This process requires that successful places be able to make room for new arrivals, and that unsuccessful places receive the feedback—in the form of people leaving and revenues dwindling—that they need to adapt and evolve. When they can’t, all of our cities become less prosperous and productive, and their inhabitants’ individual needs and aspirations are less well served.

It also has profound implications for two things we care a lot about at Strong Towns: financial sustainability and resilience. We’ve built far too much infrastructure in this country. And much of it is not being used to anywhere near capacity. The rational response to this predicament is to stop expanding outward, and to free up millions of individuals to make the millions of small investments that will make better use of the places—buildings, roads, pipes, and so forth—that we’ve already got, and which we’re mostly stuck with.

The good news for someone who cares about that goal is this: it’s clear that the vast majority of places could tolerate a whole lot more incremental change without betraying the residents who liked it just the way it was when they moved in.

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