Livable Cities and Political Choices

People need to stop thinking about cities as bundles of technical problems that the planners must solve for them and to start thinking about the different ways that they would live in different types of cities, says Charles Siegel.

The conventional wisdom says that we need strict planning to build pedestrian- and transit-oriented neighborhoods and regions. Yet the anti-freeway movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the anti-sprawl movement of recent decades were successful because they treated urban design as a political issue - not as a technical problems that the planners should solve for us.

For my book, Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices, I researched the political choices underlying urban design by using a thought experiment that looks at how cities would be designed if they were built with three different limits on the automobile, assuming that residents prefer low densities.

A Car-Free City
The first ideal type I identified is a ban on automobiles for personal transportation in the city, which could give us neighborhoods like the streetcar suburbs that were popular in America a century ago. Because Americans are wealthier now, virtually everyone who wanted to could live in neighborhoods like the streetcar suburbs where the minority of Americans who were middle-class lived before World War I.

These streetcar suburbs were a high point of American urban design. They had free-standing houses with small front yards and adequate backyards. There were shopping and trolley lines within easy walking distance of homes, with apartments above the shops on the main streets. Stores offered delivery of groceries and other heavy goods.

This postcard picture of a streetcar suburb before World War I shows that streetcar suburbs were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than today's automobile-oriented suburbs. Shopping and public transportation were a five-minute walk away.

Compare this model with the suburbs we have in America today. Neighborhoods like the streetcar suburbs would be quieter and safer for children than today's suburbia because they have no cars. They would be more neighborly because people would walk to local shopping and parks and meet their neighbors along the way. They would be healthier because people would get regular exercise from walking and bicycling.

Transportation would be about equally convenient, because shopping, services, and public transit would be within easy walking distance of homes, and because distances would be much shorter in this more compact city.

A City that Tames the Automobile
As a second ideal type, to illustrate the effect of a different limit on automobile use, consider a city with a speed limit of 12 mph to 15 mph for private vehicles, about the same speed a bicycle. This limit would let people use cars for local trips - for example, for hauling groceries home - but people would use higher speed rail transit for longer trips.

Bicycles and small electric vehicles similar to golf carts could travel along with the automobiles in the main traffic lanes. Shopping streets would be quieter and safer for pedestrians than they are in today's cities. Residential streets could make traffic even slower, as the woonerfs in the Netherlands do, so they would be safe places for children to play.

Because private vehicles are slow, public transportation would be used for almost all commuting and regional shopping. Businesses would naturally tend to cluster around transit nodes, because most employees and customers would come by transit. Again, transportation would be about as convenient as in today's cities, because there would be shopping near homes, and because distances would be shorter in this more compact city.

Suburbia that Works
As a third ideal type, consider a city with an even looser limit on automobile use, a speed limit of 25 or 30 miles per hour. If the city had a relatively high-speed commuter rail system, people could all live in houses with two-car garages on quarter-acre lots, as they do in today's suburbia.

But the region as a whole would be very different from suburbia. With no freeways or high-speed arterials, most commuting would shift to rail, so development would tend to cluster around the rail stations. Instead of freeway-oriented regional shopping malls, the city would have mixed-use shopping and office complexes (with plenty of parking) at rail stations – though there would also be some districts zoned to accommodate automobile-oriented big-box shopping.

This model is not at all radical: It is how our cities would have developed after World War II if we had decided to promote suburbanization by building rapid commuter rail systems rather than freeways.

This ideal type represents a deliberate, responsible political choice of today's suburban way of life: it would let everyone live in suburbia without blighting the entire region with freeways and traffic, and without blighting the earth with global warming.

Urban Design and Way of Life
The point of the thought experiment should be clear even from this incomplete summary: These different political choices create cities with different ways of life.

A 30 mile per hour speed limit would promote a way of life that focuses on private satisfactions. People would have houses on large lots and several cars for each family.

A ban on automobiles would promote a way of life that focuses on public goods rather than on private satisfactions. People would live on smaller lots and without automobiles in order to have a city that is quieter, safer, and more neighborly.

Within the framework of this political decision, people can also make individual decisions about how they want to live. These three models assume that people prefer low densities, as many Americans do. The results would be very different if people preferred dense urban neighborhoods, as many Europeans do.

People should make these decisions for themselves, because they are decisions about what sort of lives people want to live. The decision about limiting automobile use should be a political choice, because it is a decision about the public realm. The decision about what sort of housing to live in should be an individual choice.

These key decisions about urban design are not technical decisions that should be made by planners. They are human decisions that should be made by us all.

Affluence and Choice
We ignore the human choices underlying any urban design because city planning has not caught up with the immense change in the American economy that occurred during the twentieth century, the change from a scarcity economy to an affluent economy.

In 1900, the average American's income was not much higher than what we now define as the poverty level. Many workers lived in tenements where there were no windows in the inner rooms, where all the families on a floor shared one toilet, and where you put a washtub on the kitchen floor to take a bath.

In 2000, the average American's income was more than seven times as great as it had been a century earlier (after correcting for inflation). Most workers today live in suburban tract homes where each adult needs a car because you drive every time you leave the house - and this expense is an economic burden for many Americans.

In the early twentieth century, it made sense to hand over decision making to planners who had the technical knowledge needed to provide people with basic necessities of a decent life. For example, early city planners developed idealistic proposals for "workers housing" that looked sterile and impersonal but that at least got workers out of the slums and gave each family a bit of sunshine and a private bathroom.

Today, we have far more choice because we are so much wealthier. Workers could plausibly choose to live in comfortable apartments, in row houses, in streetcar suburbs, or in sprawl suburbs. These choices involve trade-offs and decisions about the good life that people should make for themselves. It no longer makes sense to let the planners make the fundamental decisions about how our cities should be built.

Transforming Our Cities
Our thinking about planning has begun to change. When city planners built freeways during the 1950s, everyone believed that the decision about whether a freeway was needed was a technical question that the planners should decide by doing studies of projected demand. But when citizens began to oppose freeway construction during the 1960s, they talked about the freeways' effects on the "quality of life." By asking this qualitative question, by asking whether it is good to live in cities built around freeways, they changed the decision about the freeway from a technical question decided by the planners into a political question that should be decided democratically.

This example shows that we can make the fundamental political decisions about what sorts of cities we want to live in if we think about different urban designs in concrete, human terms, if we think about the ways of life that they imply.

This does not mean that we can do without planners. City planners are obviously needed to design the public transportation systems for any of three of the ideal types in our thought experiment - and to design many other details of these cities.

In fact, city planners were among the first to talk about limiting freeway construction, because they were the first to learn the facts about the subject. But there was a big difference between the city planners who built the freeways, who wanted to solve technical transportation problems for a passive public, and the city planners who opposed the freeways by talking about their effect on the quality of life, making freeway construction into a political issue.

We need to go beyond the anti-freeway and anti-sprawl movements, which just aim at stopping destructive developments, and to take positive political steps to make our cities more livable and more sustainable.

City planners understand the changes that are needed: We should build new public transportation infrastructure with pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods around the stations. City planners also know that needed changes are often blocked by angry NIMBYs.

At the deepest level, the problem is that most people think of themselves as clients of the planners, that their only role in the political process is to demand that the planners provide them with more housing, better neighborhoods, more transportation, easier parking, and more environmental protections.

This conventional view of city planning is part of our conventional view of the economy as a whole. The decisions are made by organizations that have the needed technical expertise, and ordinary people are consumers whose only role is to demand more for themselves.

People need to stop thinking about cities as bundles of technical problems that the planners must solve for them and to start thinking about the different ways that they would live in different types of cities.

The New Urbanists have taken a step in the right direction by organizing charrettes: People who are against a development when they hear an abstract factoid about it are often in favor of the development when they go to a charrette and work on drawings of what it could actually look like.

People will stop acting as consumers making demands of the planners and will start acting as citizens who can govern themselves, if they think in this concrete way about cities, regions, and the overall economy - if they recognize that urban design helps to determine how they live, and that they could live better by living more simply.


Charles Siegel's most recent book is Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices. He has written articles and books about a variety of subjects, including economic growth, architecture, child care, and the history of philosophy. He is also a political activist who works on local city planning issues in Berkeley, California.

Comments

Comments

Planners shouldn't make all the decisions

I agree with that point, Charles. Planners should be at the service of residents and elected officials who are informed about what is best for their community and what is best for our environment.

You provide for three different scenarios of living. A neighbor of mine articulated the issue similarly- that there should be options for where people live. For some, the density of the city works for their lifestyle, for others, detached lots of the suburbs featuring nearby shopping centers work, and for others, the country works because they want the peace of wide open spaces.

Right now, we have the bleeding of sprawl subdivisions and McMansions into all of these three. Retaining the unique characteristics of various living options is very important.

Also, I will repeat a couple of points from my previous posts. One, I think that reigning in the building lobby and large corporate builders is critical. If they didn't have so much power, they wouldn't get away with building sprawl subdivisions on every corner. And, if the materials and labor they built their homes and shopping centers with were of high quality (durable materials, skilled labor) and priced at their full cost (such as the cost of vinyl manufacture on our environment), their cost of doing business would rise dramatically- as it should.

Secondly, people have to work at building community. I lived in a streetcar suburb in a large city where I could walk everywhere. None of my neighbors ever reached out to me and there was no real community- people didn't say hello on the streets really, and there were mostly "cliques" of people who stuck with their own. The neighborhood may have included a lot of renters and I lived on an end lot, but...You can have community anywhere as long as people prioritize it through reaching out to their neighbors.

Hope to read your book.

The problem with elected

The problem with elected officials is how they can shift their direction with any little storm that blows through. Sometimes you need employed bureaucrats versus elected politicians to move forward, their ability to adhere to goals is easier than a politician who is concerned about reelection. With the rule, the right choice and the hard choice are sometimes the same, in mind this is very important to maintain the right direction. Otherwise your community would end up spending more money by "fixing" what was previously thought to be correct.

great thoughts as well as a

great thoughts as well as a great conversation here. i am also following the people who said.how they can shift their direction with any little storm that blows through. Sometimes you need employed bureaucrats versus elected politicians to move forward, their ability to adhere to goals is easier than a politician who is concerned about reelection. With the rule, the right choice and the hard choice are sometimes the same, in mind this is very important to maintain the right direction. Otherwise your community would end up spending more money by "fixing" what was previously thought to be correct.i am also confused like him.

Curbing buses also

Charles,

In addition to controls re automobiles, a sustainable city or suburb wouldn't have belching buses either. I'd rather be stuck behind a low emission car than a diesel bus!

So, the buses need to be clean burning or replaced by electric trolley.

I'll read it, but this overview is unclear

It no longer makes sense to let the planners make the fundamental decisions about how our cities should be built.

I can’t think of a single city where this actually happens. Is there a real life example of a U.S. city that is currently being planned using a top-down approach? And who exactly are “the planners”? USDOT officials? State DOT’s? MPO’s? Local Planning Depts? Real Estate developers and their subdivision and site planners? And what are the “fundamental decisions?” Infrastructure type and placement? Zoning?

This sounds like an interesting read, but it is a bit unclear exactly what ideas Charles is proposing here. He mentions the charette as a “step in the right direction”. Agreed. Charettes are catching on nationwide as a sort of mediation process that has proven to be effective in many cases. However, charette practitioners – notably Andres Duany – have been recently pointing out the limitations of charettes. Duany noted in an interview last week that some of the world’s best cities were planned using a top-down approach – Paris, Rome, Singapore or Manhattan’s grid. Whether or not you agree with a top-down approach (I don’t) isn’t it fair to say that we’ve had mixed results with both forms of planning? Is top-down vs. bottom-up the real problem? The forces that create American cities are complex. Federal infrastructure funding, local and state land use laws, capital markets, demographics, local politics, climate – each of these play a key role in city building. Reforms are needed in multiple areas to remove development barriers that distort real estate markets before true individual choice can even happen.

American cities already have General Planning processes organized around the “bottom-up” approach advocated by Charles. I’m curious to know what specific changes he would make to these processes in order to move city planning to a more political process – as he suggests is needed.

In 1900, the average American's income was not much higher than what we now define as the poverty level. Many workers lived in tenements where there were no windows in the inner rooms, where all the families on a floor shared one toilet, and where you put a washtub on the kitchen floor to take a bath.

This may be a quibble but it’s indicative I think of what might be a misunderstanding of real estate markets. Tenements were prevalent in 1900 not because Americans had lower incomes, but because there were no building codes to regulate them. Likewise, many Americans today don’t live in conventional suburbs because they are seven-times wealthier, but mostly because land-use codes and decades of freeway building have distorted the market, resulting in a disproportionate share of the housing stock to be in the sprawl format.

Thanks For The Comments On Unplanning

Thanks to the people who commented. I have been on vacation without access to the internet. I didn't know this article was up yet, and I just happened to see it a minute ago.

In response to the comments, I will only say that this article is a brief and incomplete summary of one chapter of the book - a chapter which is a thought experiment that makes a theoretical point about the relationship between planning and individual and political choice. The book also includes a chapter with policy recommendations. And it includes a number of chapters with a history of city planning that shows that modernism damaged our cities, that the New Urbanism has begun to undo the damage, and that we need to subordinate planning to political choice in order to fully undo the damage.

I have made the book available for people to read on the web, for those who don't want to buy it. I recommend starting with the preview of the book, which is a brief summary that will give you an overview of the book's entire argument. The preview is at http://www.preservenet.com/unplanning/UnplanningPreview.html

If you read it, I would also be interested to see you enter a customer review on amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Unplanning-Livable-Cities-Political-Choices/dp/097...

Thanks to Nikos Salingaros and Michael Lewyn for the reviews that they have already entered. Allow me to quote from Prof. Salingaros' review: "A wonderful little book.... I recommend this book to every planner and every person interested in the future of American cities."

Charles Siegel

Sounds interesting

I've seen some unsolicited positive commentary on your book, Charles. I enjoy your regular thoughtful commentary on this site, as well. The stack of books here is growing, but I will be sure to add yours to it!

appreciation

Many critiques of late 20th-century patterns of American suburban development focus on planning; critics of sprawl tend to argue that if only we had more regional comprehensive planning, we would have fewer of the negative side effects of sprawl. On the other hand, critics of the anti-sprawl movement tend to demonize "planning" as a kind of all-purpose scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
Siegel argues that technocratic planning reforms are unlikely to significantly reshape American cities and suburbs. Instead, Americans should realize that how we build our neighborhoods is fundamentally a political choice. A city with high speed limits and buildings situated far away from wide streets will be a city oriented around cars, while a city with lower traffic speeds, parking lots behind or below stores, and narrower streets will be less so.
The author states his case clearly; however, one weakness in this book is that it assumes readers already share his anti-sprawl views. So readers who don't begin with such preconceptions should probably read other critiques of sprawl (such as books by James Howard Kunstler or Andres Duany ) to understand where Siegel is coming from.

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