The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Conforming Uses: Links I Like and the Things I Say About Them

(Note: beginning today, I’m introducing some new format ideas that will hopefully put the blog on a more interesting and dynamic trajectory, and at a minimum increase the frequency of  content.  Let’s see what happens. – Pete)

I read.  A lot.  But I’m a grazing reader, meaning I grab articles from here, there, and everywhere, without much attention given to who wrote what.  I often remember the good ideas and bad ideas that I come across, but I could do a better job of offering acknowledgement.  And with that, I bring you Conforming Uses.

Last week, Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities wrote up an interview with Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs.  I just finished the book myself, and came away thinking the book had an unfortunately provocative and ultimately incorrect title.  The author herself says:

“It’s not that every single suburb in America is going to vaporize. My thesis is that there are a lot of reasons why the suburbs were poorly planned and poorly designed and are making millions of people really unhappy. That’s happening. Those people are looking for and moving into different kinds of options.” 

 It’s probably more accurate (but less sexy) to say that there’s a growing disconnect between what the suburbs have to offer (single-family homes, malls and office parks, connected by highways) and what people are seeking (greater multi-nodal access, diversity of housing types, greater sense of community).  Things haven’t completely flipped in the mindset of the American public yet, but preferences are changing.

Gallagher also mentions what she sees as the suburban type that will weather the shift — the “urban burb”:

“So a big part of the future will be “urban burbs.” Suburbs that are adapting or already exist in this fashion. Where they have a walkable downtown, a pleasant place to take a stroll and bump into people, and where it’s possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.”

I think she’s right about this.  Here in the Chicago area the so-called “urban burbs” would include inner ring suburbs that have excellent public transit access, walkable downtowns or town centers located on commuter rail lines, and a mixture of housing types that appeal to all types of buyers and renters.  If you’ve kept up on what I’ve written about my Big Theory of American Development you might recognize the urban burbs suburban development from what I’ve called the Streetcar, Recreational and Levittown periods through about 1965.  After then, when America enter what I call the Split Level period, we see the more contemporary development that is pretty closely associated with the single-family Valhalla that is the suburbs of our minds, and is less adaptable to shifts in preferences.  Look for more on this when I complete that series.

Readers here will know that I’ve written extensively about my hometown of Detroit.  The Motor City’s bankruptcy filing has certainly taken center stage in recent weeks, and feeds into the general perception that the city is dysfunctional on all fronts.  But there is indeed investment happening in the D.  I came across this site some time ago that looks at the 7.2 square mile area of Detroit that includes Downtown, Midtown, New Center, Woodbridge, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Rivertown and Corktown, and examines the influx of residents and jobs there.  It’s an interesting counterpoint to Detroit’s general narrative.  Is it right?  Is it sustainable?  It’s definitely open to question.

Finally, Richard Longworth wrote an intriguing piece looking at what we’ve learned and what’s been achieved since Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington 50 years ago.

Longworth sees the Civil Rights Movement as achieving its legal aims:

“Fifty years on, what’s been achieved?

On the legal side, quite a lot. Much remains to be done, no matter what the Supreme Court may think. Discrimination, in voting and other areas, abides. The nation still struggles to define equal opportunity. As the Trayvon Martin case showed, race remains America’s great unsolved issue.

But African-Americans vote everywhere and can turn to the courts to protect that right. Jim Crow is dead: the obscenities of that era – the lynchings, the divided buses, the whites-only fountains and entrances, the Klan and its terror, the culture of degradation – are mostly history. In the North, legal residential segregation has ended and workplaces, once all white, integrated long ago.”

But he argues that legal victories cannot take the place of the moral ones that are needed to lift up those still left behind:

“Economically, the civil rights revolution turned out to be a middle-class revolution, enabling the educated and skilled to escape the ghettoes. The less educated and less skilled were left behind. Their old jobs vanished. For them, new jobs didn’t exist. So they stayed where they were, the first generation in what has become an underclass of the urban poor, beset by the crime and pathologies that have defaced otherwise prosperous cities like Chicago, and have doomed cities like Detroit.

As the sociologist William Julius Wilson has written, these people are in the ghetto because they’re black, but they stay there because they’re poor. Increasingly, they’re being joined by new ghettoes, mostly white this time, by other workers equally left behind.”

Honestly, I remember being in college in 1983 talking about the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, and attending a panel discussion about the next steps of the Civil Rights Movement.  I made the comment then: “the laws have been changed, but the hearts and minds of the general public will take much longer to change.” And when everyone is working to secure their own economic future and interests in an unstable economic environment, changing hearts and minds is very difficult to do.

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