Saturday, March 21, 2020

Post #1: Midwestern Urbanism: What’s the point?


I believe that every blog should exist for a reason and have a distinctive focus that relates to that reason. In this first blog posting on the Midwest Urbanism site, I will explain that reason and the focus that future blog postings will follow and provide a general outline of the kinds of topics that you (the reader) can expect to see. I will also give you an overview of my background in case you are wondering why you should take my opinions seriously. Unfortunately, all of this means that this initial blog may be somewhat lengthy and dull -- I promise future posts will be more succinct and (hopefully) more lively.


Why does this blog exist?

It is my contention that cities are under growing pressure to change. Of course, cities are always changing -- demographics are shifting, old structures are deteriorating, and new structures are being built. But for the past 50 or 60 years, cities have been changing in a way that has been remarkably consistent across the country, and to a somewhat lesser extent, around the world. For lack of a better term, I’m going to refer to this current path of city development as “auto focused suburbanization.” And yes, there are some exceptions to this development pattern, but it has been so ubiquitous that many people assume that this pattern is somehow the natural order of things or that it exists because it is the most rational form of development as determined by the free market system that dominates western culture.

Balderdash. Throughout history, cities have always evolved to meet the needs of the society at that time -- economic needs, social needs, environmental needs and technological needs. The problem is that this evolution takes place so slowly that it is virtually invisible to the members of any given generation. It is only visible in hindsight when you examine a long span of history. But at some point, the economic, social, environmental or technological reasons for a particular urban form change, which in turn leads to the development of a new urban form. What I am going to argue is that we are at an inflection point in history. Our current form -- auto focused suburbanization -- is based on the societal needs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. We have extended it another 40 years, well past its useful life. Times have changed and our cities need to change as well.

This blog exists because I intend to be an advocate for a new urban form. Throughout history, cities have been pushed to change by forces beyond their control and that change has often been traumatic and disruptive. There are always influential citizens who argue against change, often because they have a vested interest in the status quo, but also because change is hard. Eventually the forces of change win out and the urban form adjusts, but the pace of that change and the quality of that adjustment may determine urban “winners” and “losers” for that particular era. In addition, change often happens through a process of trial and error, with the “error” part of that process being particularly painful. As an advocate, I hope to provide support that will smooth the path for change, minimize equity issues, and provide ideas that I hope will reduce the “error” quotient associated with that change.

What I will not advocate for is a blind return to some fondly remembered past urban form. While we certainly can learn from the past, I believe that we need to define a new urban form that is different from anything that existed in the past.


My Focus

There is quite a lot being written about our urban form and the need for change. Much of it is focused on the larger metropolitan areas on the east and west coasts. As you might have guessed from the name, I intend to focus on mid-sized, Midwestern cities. I think that the ideas generated for New York City, Washington D.C., San Francisco or Los Angeles are often not directly applicable to Kansas City, Des Moines or Indianapolis. So I hope to write about ideas that I think are applicable in a Midwestern setting of 500,000 or 2 million, and let others worry about the coastal “mega-cities” of 5 million or 10 million or 20 million.

This focus is driven by the fact that the midwest is what I know and love. I was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska and have lived for the past 40+ years in the Kansas City area. And although I have traveled to cities all across the county, I have never seriously considered moving outside of the midwest.

But it is also driven by the belief that midwestern cities are an undervalued resource in this country. Omaha or Oklahoma City may not have gorgeous weather and scenic beaches of San Diego or the educational resources and high-tech buzz of Boston, but they have more to offer than many people realize and they don’t have many of the problems that threaten to make life in many large cities almost intolerable for all but the very affluent.


The Case for Change

Any advocate for change runs the risk of being written off as a hysterical prophet of doom, wildly exaggerating a few minor trends into apocalyptic forecasts. I am aware of that possibility. But when I look at what is happening across our country and around the world, I think it cannot be characterized as a “minor trend.” In fact, I think there are numerous, interrelated trends all pushing our society -- and the resulting physical form of our cities -- in generally the same direction. It is these trends and the associated impact on our cities that I hope to explore in upcoming posts. Below is a brief synopsis of a few of the primary issues that I think are particularly significant:

Demographic Change For a variety of reasons, household characteristics have changed substantially from 40 or 50 years ago when the suburban boom was at its peak. This is not a short-term trend or a temporary phenomenon, it is real and long-lasting. We are older, we are having fewer children, we are more likely to live alone, and our social relationships have changed. We need to shape our cities with this “new normal” in mind, not some idealized “Leave It To Beaver” family from the past.

Generational Shifts It is always dangerous to generalize about an entire generation of people -- there is simply too much diversity within a generation to make most statements very useful. But I think there have been shifts in the underlying values and priorities between the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and now Gen Z that are changing, and will continue to change, our society and ultimately our cities. Our current urban form was largely the product of the Baby Boomer generation but as that generation moves out of positions of power and into retirement, the void is going to be filled by younger people with a different point of view.

Dysfunctional Transportation
The automobile has given us an unprecedented amount of personal freedom and flexibility. The cost, however, has been enormous, although much of that cost is hidden from view. How exactly do you put a price on the 40,000 lives that are lost annually to traffic accidents? Or what psychological price are we paying for a transportation system that is so frustrating that “road rage” has become a normal part of big city life? As useful as the car has been, it is time that we define a new way forward for personal transportation that blends new and old technologies into multiple transportation options rather than a one-solution-fits-all approach.

Personal Economic Stress  We live in a capitalist society where there are economic winners and losers, but one of the strengths of this county has always been the belief that hard work will lead to a better economic position and at least a reasonably comfortable life. Much of our urban growth, in fact, has been fueled by the rising middle class of the post war years and a pretty convincing argument can be made that objectively American households are better off than ever before. When it comes to personal feelings of economic well-being, however, perception is reality, and I believe there is a growing perception that the economic deck is stacked against the middle class. This perception will inevitably have an impact on urban form and on the operational decisions that cities make.

Governmental Economic Stress  I doubt there has ever been a time when city leaders felt they had all the financial resources that they needed, but today’s leaders are facing increasingly difficult choices between growing needs and stagnant or even dwindling resources. As a case in point, few cities maintain their physical infrastructure -- streets, water lines, sewer lines and public buildings -- to the degree that they should. Consequently, those physical assets are literally crumbling under their feet during a time of growing anti-tax sentiment and declining trust in government leadership. In many states, this distrust has led to state laws which restrict the degree to which local governments can raise local property and sales taxes regardless of how clear the need might be. Thus, many cities are being squeezed between rising costs and a very limited ability to raise revenue.

Environmental Concerns Regardless of your personal beliefs on the issue of climate change, I think there is a growing perception (particularly among millennials and Gen Z) that this is a defining issue for the future that will have ripple effects across our society. Again, perception is reality so it isn’t really about assigning blame or quantifying future impacts, cities are going to have to take concrete steps to reduce their collective carbon footprint or face a growing backlash from their citizenry. The challenge, I think, will be to shape the response in a truly meaningful way. The real issue is not about mandating another inch or two of insulation in new buildings or installing more charging stations for electric vehicles, but rather about building an urban form that gives people the ability to make comprehensive changes in their lifestyle without huge sacrifices in personal comfort, safety and convenience.


Again, I will be going into greater detail on all of these topics (and more) in the future.


About Me

I have worked as a professional planner, in both the public and private sectors, for over 40 years and I have been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners for over 35 years. During that time, I have been involved in long-range planning, special projects planning, current planning, code writing, code enforcement, and planning technology (GIS and permitting systems).

For much of my professional career, I was employed by the City of Overland Park, Kansas -- a suburban community of nearly 200,000 people in the Kansas City metro area. My most recent job title was Manager of Strategic Planning; a position which gave me time to do some big-picture thinking and to research the trends which I discussed above. I recently retired, thus giving me the time to write this blog, but I plan to stay active in the planning profession.

I would appreciate feedback from anyone reading my posts. Please leave a comment below or you can reach me at doug@midwesturbanism.com. Feel free to agree or disagree with what I write, offer suggestions, ask questions, or suggest places that you think I should visit or topics that I should address.

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