What Have Cities *Actually* Accomplished in the Past 100 Years?


Back to my ancestors for a moment. They could effectively buy a piece of property, and do as they wished with it immediately. This was true on the farm, and If they had lived in the city itself, this was also true. There was no central authority to appeal to if someone wanted to build an apartment building next to a single-family house. Some neighborhoods could deed-restrict themselves through private agreement to only single-family houses if they so desired (and some did). And it’s true that some reformers didn’t like this more chaotic, messy approach to city-building. The reformers found it to be ugly, too unpredictable, and perhaps ill-fit for the new urban upper-middle class. Developers and reformers like JC Nichols in KC wrote often about what was wrong with this, and that we needed planned neighborhoods and cities. His book, The Community Builders Handbook, is the culmination of his thinking on the topic, and many of his contemporaries.

So I come back to this question: What of the actual results of our modern efforts?? We’ve had 100 years of increasingly-managed cities. Zoning codes and development processes just get bigger and more complicated. What is that actually doing for us?

When we face issues or challenges today, the typical responses are to take complex, siloed, and centralized systems and make them ever more complex, siloed, and centralized. Our systems tend to feed themselves, and politicians tend to enjoy creating sound-bite promises of how they can “fix” whatever ails us. And yet, we have housing issues that are spiraling out of control virtually everywhere, more neighborhoods declining than improving, a wealth gap that is widening, and environmental issues that seem daunting. A hundred years of professional management of cities has given us this, and for many the present situation seems hopeless.

We all know the definition of insanity. Why would we believe that doubling or tripling down on our current systems and approaches is the answer?

Perhaps it’s past time for us to take a couple steps back, and re-examine our entire foundational belief systems as they relate to cities, development, and the management of change. It’s entirely possible our professional approaches are not as wise as we think they are, nor are we any less fallible than our predecessors. Perhaps we can learn an awful lot from my great-great-grandparents’ generation.

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