Sunday, July 26, 2009

I remember traffic jams

There have been a number of stories lately about cities undergoing "planned shrinkage": mostly in Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Flint and Youngstown, where the population has been declining precipitously and in response, city governments have begun "landbanking," keeping abandoned and foreclosed properties instead of selling them at auction. This is a sensible response to a situation where, Planetizen blogger John Kromer writes, "no one expects postindustrial cities to return to the population levels that existed at mid-twentieth century."

On the other hand, why not? It's true that the factories that once drew people to these cities have mostly gone out of business, but the fact is that these towns have three very important things: water, the relics of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and a climate where large numbers of people can survive without air conditioning.

This is more than can be said for, well, most of the South and Southwest. California's Central Valley is drying up, and the Colorado River is in for some trouble. The sprawling exurbs have been the worst hit by rising gas prices. Everyone expects energy costs to rise, and that will have a huge effect the large elderly populations in Florida, Arizona and Southern California. California is already seeing its population growth slow.

If I were President... No, wait, I understand that it's hard for the President to change the country's direction much more than he is right now. If I were Dictator, I would figure out which parts of the country are really sustainable given current trends. Not moronic extrapolations of past trends, but what we can realistically expect in the future. I would divide the country up into at least two zones.

In the "least sustainable" zone, all subsidies for housing, jobs and transportation would immediately cease, and a radical plan would be put into place. The walkable cores of every town that has one would be preserved for a sustainable population level, and all abandoned or foreclosed structures in the sprawling exurbs would be dismantled and salvaged.

In the "most sustainable" zone, any plans to shrink sprawly areas would continue, but walkable urban areas would be strengthened and enlarged to make room for the migrants and refugees from Scottsdale and Orlando. Money saved by not funding highway expansion in LA could instead be spent on buses in Ohio.

Of course, I'm not the Dictator, or even the President. That's probably a good thing. But I hope that the President and his advisors are thinking about things like this. And I hope that the next time transit and livable streets advocates report on things like transit shortfalls, highway widenings and planned shrinkage, we can connect them to other environmental issues like water and the effects (not just the causes) of energy shortages and climate change.


crzwdjk said...

I know everyone loves to pick on LA, but it's actually not that awful sustainability-wise. Yes, there's the issue of water, but a lot of that has to with a legacy of poor planning: LA flushes most of its rainfall out to sea as quickly as possible while importing the same amount of water from elsewhere. It's really places like Phoenix and Las Vegas you should be worried about, with a much harsher climate, much less local water, and a completely unsustainable local economy. In fact, I suspect that much of the growth of Phoenix and Las Vegas is actually from people looking for an affordable alternative to California.

Cap'n Transit said...

Very interesting, Arcady, but let's not get stuck on LA. I mentioned one bad highway widening in LA, but the problems are more with the rest of Southern California, like the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. Of course these areas are to some degree dependent on LA.

More importantly, I think that Houston and Miami are in the same league of unsustainability as Las Vegas and Phoenix at their current sizes. And again, it's not so much those cities as their vast, sprawling exurbs.

crzwdjk said...

Yes, definitely. I think that, while everyone loves to pick on LA as an example of automotive sprawl, it's actually becoming an example of how that sort of sprawl-oriented city has a path to something better and more sustainable. The transformation is happening, if somewhat slowly, though the housing crisis is likely to accelerate it as it will do far more damage to places like the Inland Empire. And of course there's LA's plans of rapid transit expansion.

As for Houston: one interesting thing is that it is often held up as an example of the free market with no zoning laws. Which is of course not actually true: they still have parking minimums. So Houston is really an example of what you get if people can build whatever they want, as long as it has a giant parking lot around it. And even then, they have a pretty successful light rail line.

Anonymous said...

Very very interesting...
Yes, definitely. I think that, while everyone loves to pick on LA as an example of automotive sprawl, it's actually becoming an example of how that sort of sprawl-oriented city has a path to something better and more sustainable.....

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