Neighborhoods

Robert S. Thau rst@ai.mit.edu
Sun, 28 Oct 2001 09:49:20 -0500 (EST)


 > The sprawl of America does not entirely reflect market demand
 > to live in the exurbs, but is partly the result of public 
 > policies affecting roads, infrastructure, utilities, zoning, 
 > crime, and education.

Ummm... I didn't think that was controversial.  After World War II,
many mixed-use neighborhoods of the type you describe were
deliberately destroyed by government action, in the form of
ill-conceived "urban renewal" projects, in which neighborhoods deemed
"dilapidated" by city planners --- regardless of what the residents
thought of them --- were taken by eminent domain, pulled down and
replaced by monolithic high-rise housing blocks.  Sometimes these were
government housing projects, and sometimes private developers were
involved (e.g., Boston's former West End, a mixed-used neighborhood
which was taken by eminent domain, and handed to a developer who
replaced it with a dozen or so apartment towers); either way, the
result was a sterile street environment with no life whatever.

The free market didn't have a whole lot to do with this, BTW; it was
classic central planning, on a model originally proposed by the French
architect Le Corbusier for the reconstruction of Moscow.  (When Lenin
didn't bite, he proposed pretty much the same thing for Paris,
including the demolition of huge swaths of the city in each case).

Jane Jacobs' classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was
written largely as a jeremiad against this style of urban renewal ---
see, for instance, her discussion of the West End.  Robert Caro's "The
Power Broker" also describes the political machinations behind urban
renewal, among many other subjects.  Both are good reads if you have
an interest in this sort of history.

Meanwhile, the construction of automotive suburbs was, at least,
encouraged by govetnment policies --- among others, the provision of
cheap mortgage loans through the FHA and veterans' assistance, and a
transportation policy centered on the construction of highways instead
of mass transit, which led to the construction of new, car-dependant
suburbs with population densities too low to sustain neighborhood
shops within walking distance of most homes.  Caro is a useful
reference here, too; see also "Asphalt Nation" by Jane Holtz Kay.
(Though neither says much about the promotion of the suburban ideal,
prewar, by such influential figures as Frank Lloyd Wright --- that's
always struck me as an odd omission, though you can find a lot of it,
maps and all, in books on Wright himself).

Building highways in the middle of the preexisting urban fabric, to
get people to those suburbs, didn't help mixed-use neighborhoods much
either --- for instance, the downward spiral of the South Bronx
started when Robert Moses, the power broker profiled in Caro's book,
hacked the cross-Bronx expressway right through the middle of it,
directly destroying some of the central streets, and creating an
environment unpleasant enough that anyone with the wherewithal to
leave, left.  Moses himself described the process as cutting through
the old neighborhoods with "a meat axe".

Incidentally, attempts to create mixed-use neighborhoods are actually
the current trendy thing in city planning, under the name "the new
urbanism".   (This does, as you noted, often require changing single
use zoning regulations in order to make the development even be
legal).  I've been to a few talks on the subject; one problem I've
seen discussed is that the planners are going for a mixed-income
profile in the residents, but find that difficult to achieve because
the demand for the units results in anyone below upper-middle-class
being simply priced out.

rst