Our Self-Imposed Scarcity of Nice Places

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Scarcity Makes It Harder to Tell What Communities Really Want

None of this, by the way, means that there aren’t meaningful differences in preference between the kinds of communities the rich want and the kinds of communities the working classes want. Or that those differences shouldn’t be understood and honored. They should, largely through trial and error and learning from how people actually respond to spaces, once allowed to experience them.

There are also important differences in how different groups of people experience space. For example, women have different safety concerns than men in public, and people of color may experience the “natural surveillance” of eyes on the street differently than white people do. Single-family homes make sense for families, and not so much for other household arrangements. So design should always stem from actual community needs and preferences.

All I’m saying is that the existing distribution of places—who gets the option of walkable urbanism and who doesn’t, who gets safe streets and who doesn’t, who gets human-scale and missing-middle options and who doesn’t, who gets local shops and cafés and who doesn’t—does not give us an accurate picture of those needs and preferences. Rather, it primarily gives us a picture of artificial, enforced scarcity distorting the market.

Abundance as an Answer

You can play Mad Libs somewhere like Twitter with the phrase “[x] is gentrification,” where x is literally anything potentially nice. Streetlights that work? Sidewalk repair? And so forth. The reductio ad absurdum is that we, as a society, shouldn’t attempt to build nice things for the masses—even comparatively cheap nice things like sidewalks that don’t suck—because rich people will just end up hoarding the nice things. Nobody actually believes this in its starkest form, but people making an argument where that is the logical end point should examine their underlying assumptions a little more closely.

What is true: As long as there is a private market in real estate, comparatively desirable, unique, and scarce places will be bid up by those who can afford them. There are policies that can push back somewhat on this reality. We can create below-market-rate and/or social housing. Cities can ensure quality public amenities like neighborhood parks, street trees, and working streetlights are in every neighborhood, and not make public investment decisions on the basis of neighbors’ wealth or political influence. But short of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, there are limits to our ability to push against the realities of the market. What we can do, though, is create more of the nice stuff until the bar for “nice” simply moves higher.

This of course doesn’t apply to things that we, as a society, can’t financially sustain. A private country estate for everyone isn’t in the cards (even if that was basically the marketing pitch for suburbia).

But the good news about walkable urbanism and streets where you won’t get killed by a car: these things aren’t expensive to provide. They’re cheap to provide!

Neighborhood parks are a downright bargain. It’s stuff like NYC’s Little Island that isn’t.

When I spoke with the developer of Serenbe, an affluent community outside Atlanta being built on traditional town design principles, he told me that the public investment required to build in that way offers a 60% savings over conventional suburbia. Let me stress that: Urbanism is substantially cheaper to build than suburbia. (So why is Serenbe an affluent community? If you’ve been reading this far, you know the answer.)

Where we’ve allowed cheaper-to-build, cheaper-to-maintain, quality-of-life-enhancing things to become luxuries, that is on us. That is our failure, and it’s a failure brought about to a large extent by bad policy that tells us we can’t have nice things, because nice things are for the rich.

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