Neighborhoods Were Never Meant to Be Unchanging

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This doesn’t mean nothing remains the same. Many buildings do endure. Cities do and did lay down permanent templates around which to grow, such as gridded street patterns and public squares. Many have made forward-thinking provision for centerpieces, like grand public parks. But within these templates, flux is the norm.

Nor is the constancy of change just a matter of population growth. The island of Manhattan had more residents in 1900 than it has today. The population peaked in 1910 at 2.3 million, and has seen ups and downs since then, but nobody would suggest that neighborhood transformation stopped or even much slowed after 1910.

The Ideology of “Permanence”

If you were born in the mid-20th century and are in your old age now, on the other hand, you’ve seen the world change just as staggeringly as your grandparents did. From television to computers to smartphones; the space program and cheap, ubiquitous air travel; robotic surgery and genetic engineering.

And yet through all of that, there’s a good chance the physical environment of the place you live may not have changed very much at all.

What’s more, there’s a good chance you don’t even recognize that as strange.

In this regard, the Suburban Experiment represented a truly massive paradigm change. Whole neighborhoods were built under the explicit assumption that they would not evolve, and under legal restrictions ensuring as much. This wasn’t something that merely happened as a natural economic or cultural evolution: this was an explicit ideological shift, explicitly articulated by some of its earliest proponents.

J.C. Nichols is a prime example. The legendary Kansas City developer is one of the forefathers of the Suburban Experiment. Beginning in 1906 and continuing in stages until 1950, Nichols created the Country Club district of Kansas City. He borrowed ideas from earlier planned suburbs like Riverside, Illinois (1869), and Roland Park, Maryland (1893).

Nichols’s real innovation was not in design, but salesmanship. More than any other figure, J.C. Nichols sold the ideology of the suburban experiment to his buyers. Here are excerpts from a speech given by Nichols to the National Association of Real Estate Boards in 1948, titled “Planning For Permanence”:

Here are the assurances we must give future generations: That children can be born, reared, and still live in the neighborhood of their forefathers. That the home, the most precious possession in life – the real heritage of a free people – will have permanent value, and desirable, healthful and inspiring surroundings for many generations; low depreciation charges; loan companies well-secured with longtime loans; where homes will grow old graciously.

To provide these assurances, Nichols urged that every physical detail of a neighborhood be meticulously planned and closely managed:

The slight wedging in of an incongruous, injurious use may be so small in the beginning that it may be unnoticed, and yet through the years its expansion may destroy the values of a large residential area. Legally binding private restrictive covenants should control residential areas…. Power of enforcement should rest in the homeowners as well as in the developer. Such restrictions should control the use of the property, setbacks, free space, architectural design, minimum costs, or minimum number of square feet in each home, and many other matters. These restrictions become the sturdy, protective pillars of home areas. 

You can hear in Nichols’s words the echo of ideas that were altering society at large. The mid century was the era of scientific high modernism, the belief that the world could be rationally ordered and optimized for human flourishing.

Nichols also pioneered the consumer orientation toward cities that began to replace a civic orientation. When you bought a home from J.C. Nichols, you were explicitly buying the neighborhood as a product. It was a bundle of amenities that were part of the sales pitch and the financial value proposition. (It’s worth noting that one of the amenities was exclusion. All the homes in the Country Club District had racist deed restrictions prohibiting their sale to non-white buyers, in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated such covenants in 1948.)

You can hear more than a few echoes of Nichols in those today who oppose development or zoning changes in their neighborhoods, such as his concern with the threat of “incongruous, injurious uses” that might degrade a place’s value. You can scarcely attend a public hearing on a development proposal in an American city without hearing someone testify to a version of, “I bought in this neighborhood because I liked its character. If I wanted to live somewhere with x, I would have bought a home there.” The “character” of a place, in this reckoning, is an amenity the speaker has purchased and is therefore entitled to the continuing enjoyment of.

Maybe in a world of infinite land and instantaneous transport, this would be a tenable proposition. In the world we live in, though, it soon comes into conflict with the forces that bear upon cities, ensuring that they will change, whether we like it or not.

Nichols believed that that change could be channeled and ultimately controlled:

Municipalities, counties, and public utilities should be able to plan and invest with assurance of long-time stability. Yes, particularly our downtown business areas, so important to all our cities should have permanent residential trade areas and civic patterns upon which to plan and depend. I am not one of those that predict a great exodus from our large cities. 

He said this in 1948. The exodus was already underway. Over the decades to come, millions of Americans saw their neighborhoods deteriorate into blight and poverty.

Today, millions more Americans face a different problem: neighborhoods and whole cities that have become ossified enclaves not of poverty, but of wealth. These are places where children cannot dream of ever returning to live in their hometown, where restaurants close because they cannot find workers who can afford to live nearby, where schools cannot hire enough teachers or bus drivers.

Many of these places were built along lines very close to those Nichols advocates in his speech: their physical character enshrined in law or deed restriction, guaranteed to never change, and that fact explicitly advertised to prospective buyers as a perk. Our cities have, since World War II and accelerating in the 21st century, become dominated by “no-build zones,” where virtually no new construction can occur.

Where the social fabric is tearing at the seams, the immutability of the physical fabric is part of the reason.

It’s Time to Retire the Concept of “Built Out”

We need to return to the paradigm that built both turn-of-the-century Brainerd and turn-of-the-century New York, and tens of thousands of places in between. That paradigm is that the places we live in are never finished.

A town or even a neighborhood needs to be in constant flux to meet the shifting needs of the shifting group of humans in it. This includes population growth and sometimes shrinkage, for reasons that—we need the humility to accept—are largely outside the control of local leaders. It also includes changes in what we need or want out of our shared and private spaces.

This process can only produce resilience if it is not managed from above. Not by planners with maps, not by master developers, but, crucially, also not by simple democratic majority or participatory committee (read: Homeowners’ Association) if the end result is to be the same state of rigid stasis. The number of decision makers must be many, not few.

Jane Jacobs wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” That means we actually need to be free to do the creating, not just vote on it.

A city is a living thing: it’s our human habitat. And creation, in the living world, is never a one-time act. It’s an endless process.

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