We expanded housing programs from the New Deal, added incentives for G.I.’s and others to buy new homes, and began building interstate highways that dramatically reshaped cities. Trade groups and professional organizations standardized the regulatory codes, insurance tables, and financing mechanisms to make it all work.
The early results seemed to confirm our theories. Not only did the economy grow rapidly but prosperity was widely shared. Every time we built a highway, bridge, or interchange and every time we ran a pipe out to a cornfield on the edge of town, we saw positive results. What my fellow Minnesotan Thomas Friedman would later call “the American recipe for success” was established: government financing of infrastructure plus incentives for homeownership equals sustained growth and prosperity. The American Dream.
Or the American myth. Local governments are starting to realize that this system doesn’t work. While it has historically provided federal and state governments with the economic growth they seek, it leaves cities responsible for maintaining vast expanses of roadways and huge service areas on a comparatively limited tax base. That works fine when everything is new and the cost of maintenance is low, but it quickly becomes impossible as systems age.
We’re now two full generations into this experiment. Ferguson, Missouri, was one of those shiny new suburbs that expanded rapidly after World War II. As it has experienced the growth and decline typical of auto-oriented development, not only has it become much poorer but during the transition the municipality borrowed heavily and spent much of its fleeting wealth trying to maintain its position. Ferguson today is trapped: in 2013 it spent $800,000 paying interest on debt while being able to devote only $25,000 to sidewalk maintenance. There is a reason people in Ferguson might walk in the streets instead of on the sidewalks.
AARP has come up with a “Livability Index” searchable by Zip Code. My zip code scored 59 out of 100. That seems about right.
I don’t mean to be flippant or dismissive. I haven’t drilled down deep into how the scores were developed, and it appears that there’s much more useful information there that a summary score.
But a New Urbanist Crypto-Manifesto it ain’t.
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)