The Urban Experiment

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Here’s what I’m wresting with: I’m finding this sort of change neither excites nor impresses me anymore. And I’m trying to figure out why.

I’m not a hater of new development at all. My reflex is to generally be very pro-development and pro-change. As I’ve said before, humans are always changing, and cities are just collections of humans. At a certain point, you have to roll with change, or you’ll make yourself miserable. So what is it, now, that is making me less and less enthusiastic about these kinds of new urban developments?

The Urban Experiment

Chuck Marohn is fond of calling the post-WWII era of American development “The Suburban Experiment.” I like and generally agree with his analysis, and have written about it before here. In the aftermath of our success winning a world war on two fronts, we endeavored very confidently to remake our society in a brand-new fashion. And we did so with a similar approach to the war effort: lavishly funded, centrally organized and efficiently managed. We had no patience anymore to let our places evolve gradually, nor for the outdated concept of local or regional character. We had the hubris and the money to instead build to a finished state, all at once, and to create the new America.

Of course, it was also built around the automobile, but that’s probably as much coincidence as anything. All human settlements are organized around the dominant mode of transportation at the time. The post-war boom era just happened to coincide with the car. The physical result is American suburbia as we’ve known it now for three generations.

But in retrospect, the most important change was this idea that the growth of our cities could be successfully planned like a massive military operation. All negative outcomes could be accounted for, collateral damage could be minimized and we could undertake it in giant surges. We could have housing for returning veterans and their families over here, housing for the poor over here, shops in another place and lots of highways in between to shuttle people back and forth. It’s easy to mock this approach now, but it must have seemed magical and inspiring at the time.

Today, we have a new emerging paradigm, which we might as well start calling “the Urban Experiment.” From a process and capital flow standpoint, it’s really no different than the Suburban Experiment. Large entities, sometimes international, invest millions of dollars to acquire properties and create “assemblages” of land. They do this hand in hand with local and sometimes State authorities. A master plan of sorts is devised by the powers-that-be (with a token effort at public input), and then giant capital flows move in to execute the plan in swift, efficient fashion. The target demographics are the college educated, the upwardly mobile, and the wealthy. The end result today looks and feels different—it’s an urban community, with an emphasis on walking, social spaces, and a “live, work, play” lifestyle. But the spirit is similar: we can build the ideal community to a finished state, all at once.

This new urban community has all the amenities desired by today’s young and creditworthy. There’s the Starbucks on the ground floor, the yoga studios and gyms, the trendy bars and restaurants with $10 beers and clever menus, co-working facilities, “playful” outdoor spaces, and an apartment with a nice view.

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