Retrofitting Suburbia

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf
(via Matt Yglesias)

Matt adds, "One thing I wish she emphasized more, however, is the legal impediments
to this kind of adaptation. I think a lot of people will look at her
presentation and say “if transforming these uses is so great, why don’t
developers/businessmen/’the market’ do it on their own.” And a big part
of the answer is that the prevailing land use regulations don’t permit
it."

So, Urban specialists and academics know how suburbia should be retrofitted, but localities aren't doing it. Why not? Why aren't we building more walkable downtowns and losing the empty parking lots?

It's a bigger problem than simply restrictive and outdating land use laws. Local planning boards and town councils aren't thinking long term. They just want more ratables. Unless there is a very organized and powerful group of local citizens who halt bad planning, town governments are going to let any asshole developer build ugly shopping centers or drive through Wendy's in order to bring in more tax money. Often the guys on the planning boards are the contractors that will later be hired to build the shopping center. There are mind boggling conflicts of interest going on.

Also, the people who serve on these planning boards aren't watching TED talks. Very often, local officials are small business owners in town or the guys who volunteer for everything. There is little long term planning.

Local politics slow down these efforts to redesign suburban down towns.

16 thoughts on “Retrofitting Suburbia

  1. Local planning boards, generally, do what is most “profitable” for the town, i.e., whatever maximizes the excess of property tax revenue over municipal expenses (for infrastructure, education, etc.) Suburban developers seek to build the most profitable projects, so that their lenders can be repaid and their children can eat. There isn’t any need to call anyone an “asshole” or to assert corruption when people engage in simple, profit-motivated behavior.
    If local citizens want higher property taxes in order to save the planet or enhance the development of social capital or whatever, they should definitely vote for that. I’m not holding my breath.

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  2. I didn’t watch the talk, but I don’t see what is wrong with going slow and letting one or two areas try this stuff first. Long term planning by thoughtful urban planners basically destroyed the largest urban retail area in Pittsburgh. Thirty years later, it is being rebuilt as a smaller version of the typical suburban big box development. The first round of “urban redevelopment” did such a good job of driving away people that Target and Home Depot can find sufficient ground to build stores.

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  3. There isn’t any need to call anyone an “asshole” or to assert corruption when people engage in simple, profit-motivated behavior.
    No. Local developers and politicians are assholes. Our local politicians pick development plans based on what they can claim credit for and what they can get campaign contributions for. Most of them, at least based on what they say in the paper, aren’t even self-aware enough to consider this corruption.
    Tax-paying businesses get shoved aside for non-profit developments that elected officials can put their names on the sides of or “for-profit” businesses that are subsidized because they are run by connected assholes or because they sound cooler than whatever might actually make money.

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  4. Anyway, Pittsburgh development politics seems to be a massive experiment to see how best to create something to piss off communists and libertarians at the same time. Using public money to bring Lord & Taylor to downtown only to see it close soon after, because there are already two department stores nearby, is the kind of thing you only do because renting a billboard that says, “I may be clueless, but I can win an election” is too creative.

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  5. Pittsburgh (or NYC) presents a totally different case from the typical suburban town. In a big city, the marginal property tax revenues versus marginal municipal expenditures associated with any single project aren’t enough to affect anyone’s property tax bill. In large cities, therefore, the politicians will seek to maximize not municipal net revenues but campaign contributions. The ideal land use regimen for big city pols is one in which no development is permitted as of right, but everything requires multiple waivers, thus ensuring the developers constantly make campaign contributions. To appeal to the voters, the politicians mostly make symbolic gestures, like denouncing the PLO and handguns.
    In suburban towns, election campaigns aren’t that expensive, and the voters just want to keep their taxes down. Nobody expects the mayor of Westport or Glen Ridge to have a position on the Mideast.

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  6. Nobody running for office in Pittsburgh will mention the PLO much and gun control only started appearing the past several years. But, Pittsburgh is closer in population to many suburbs than it is to NYC.

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  7. re: developers and assholes
    Developers interests are in lining their own pockets, rather than doing what’s right for the entire community. Perhaps crass self-interest doesn’t have mean assholicness, but I’ve seen some pretty assholic behavior from these guys as they pursue their self interest. They can afford hot shot lawyers that bully townspeople and intimidate local politicians. One guy around here hired a thug lawyer to threaten any resident who challenged his plans to build monstrosities.
    The only communities that are doing this enlightened planning are extremely wealthy communities that can hire professionals to come up with long term planning goals and to push back against the local bullies.

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  8. And even then, the local bullies are probably defrauding a subcontractor instead of the residents of the town.

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  9. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. . . . Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens.”
    I, for one, would prefer to live in the average suburban subdivision, built by a man entirely dedicated to making money, than to live in a housing project, built by local housing bureaucrats who affect to operate for the public good. Remember, the parts of New York City that aesthetes and urban aficionados most love, brownstone New York, was built in the robber baron era entirely by unregulated private enterprise. Calling the men who built those brownstones “assholes” doesn’t advance the analysis.

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  10. I have no idea who built the brownstones wouldn’t know where to find the parts of NYC where the brownstones are. I don’t think I’ve seen them except on TV showes. I would also rather live in the average suburban subdivision than a housing project, though I’m only guessing as I’ve never lived in a suburb or a housing project.
    However, you are engaging in definitional slight of hand. The housing bureaucrats still set design parameters for the suburban subdivision and a developer still builds the housing project. The fact that the housing project is usually much shittier than you’d expect for the amount spent just show how developers (and bureaucrats) will try to dump all over anyone they see is powerless to resist or not smart enough to realize they are being cheated. That behavior can be adequately described much more briefly by the word “asshole.”
    Someone with the skill and knowledge to coordinating builders is called a contractor. The developer is the person whose skill involves lining-up permission, money, and politicians. Unless they are sinking their own capital to a much greater extent than happened during the boom years, they are just lobbyists. As such, they are in a business where they have to be assholes or they will be out competed by somebody who is one.

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  11. That was probably a bit harsh. How about, being a developer is among the professions which best utilize the talents that are disproportionately found in assholes.

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  12. “I, for one, would prefer to live in the average suburban subdivision, built by a man entirely dedicated to making money, than to live in a housing project, built by local housing bureaucrats who affect to operate for the public good.”
    But there are also plenty of wonderful and planned communities that haven’t degenerated into slums and have continued to retain their value and their beauty. In Manhattan, there’s Sunnyside Gardens in Queens; I believe Elanor Roosevelt was somehow involved with that project. Here’s what it looks like now. There’s also Seaside, Florida and many other New Urbanist projects.
    But I was merely answering Matt’s question about why suburban areas aren’t doing more of the enlightened planning that was described in the TED talk. I thought it had a lot to do with local politics.

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  13. but, I also think part of the reasons that TED ideas aren’t implemented is that planning and theory (I.e. TED) don’t translate practically. The lack of translation might be the result of structural barriers produced by local politics, but they might also result from people not actually wanting what what the planners think they’ll want. People often seem bad at that when their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.

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  14. but they might also result from people not actually wanting what what the planners think they’ll want.
    Or they don’t trust the idea of planning,* at least in the sense that TED uses it. I live in a walkable, transit dense** neighborhood. It was built that way because transit was how people got to work when most of it was built. It has stayed that way because house prices never dropped to the point where somebody could replan the neighborhood (i.e. public housing, freeway, etc.).
    *I don’t disagree with y81 about urban planners and local politicians.

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  15. I could probably have been more explicit. I mean that, while I am happy to in that type of neighborhood, I wouldn’t believe a planner who said they could recreate it in 2010.

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