Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: Co-opted American Dream and the Rise of Guerrilla Urbanism

Another from the Book Club Blog from 2010:

The Co-opted American Dream and the Rise of Guerrilla Urbanism

One of the fundamental tenets behind Kotkin's ideology is the acceptance of sprawl as the result of expressed preferences within a free market. That decentralization is evidence of a larger, natural democratizing force and that it is unquestionably positive in all contexts. However, when held up to closer scrutiny one wonders if he is being willfully deceitful or completely ignorant of the forces that created suburbia?

Somehow, 14,000 years of human organization and patterns of civilization are the anomaly and it is the last fifty that are normal. Only the cities of the Sun Belt are the true, proud American cities. Cities around the world and throughout history are remarkably similar despite differing cultures, materials, beliefs, and building technologies because they are determined by human emotion, needs, and wants. Cities are the physical embodiment of economies, which are, in turn, at the mercy of emotional ebbs and flows of populations. They must be designed and built to enable the inter-connectivity and exchange of goods, ideas, skills, services, and genes, the things we want and need, through the most efficient means possible. To this day, the most efficient connection is still that which can be made comfortably and enjoyably by foot. However, as I will show in this post, that is often implausible if not entirely illegal.

The problem related to Kotkin's text is that our Jeffersonian principles are indeed what set us apart. Because of them, we will very likely continue to attract immigration from an ever changing global hotspot. There I agree, but if we can't even properly define the American Dream, that of upward mobility, of possibility, and real freedom of choice instead of an elaborate ponzi scheme played out on American real estate, then we can hardly rely on our supposed genetic superiority to which he refers (there I don't agree). My recollection of AP history coursework is a little hazy, but I don't recall the Revolutionary or Civil Wars being waged in the name of home ownership, picket fences, and a three-car garage.

The intrinsic "wiring" he refers to had nothing to do with the current geographic landscape of our cities. Rather the urban (or anti-urban) genotype was written to produce nothing but suburbia. This is the myth of choice in the American marketplace. From generic and complex Euclidean zoning, to tax incentives for new home construction, to artificially low gas prices, to road construction that is only paid in half by gas taxes and user fees, the difference comprised of subsidies to ensure more "growth," more spending, rather than actual value creation.

It produces one general physical form, meaning one way of life, and we are reacting negatively to it. While it might be the preference of some, forcing everyone into that way of life distorts markets, ensures traumatic "bubbles," and is utterly unsustainable. As more and more households discover they are now "underwater," with transportation costs are eating up an increasingly large chunk of our paychecks, and massive infrastructural deficits, the result of the suburban experiment has been increased class stratification. His ideal is proving to be anti-democratic in practice, no matter how good it sounds in theory.

If this presupposed reality was actually market-driven, would we have to break the law to get walkable, sociable, people-friendly places as Go Oak Cliff and the Better Block project artfully showed by breaking almost a dozen city ordinances?

Meanwhile we are left with all this stuff, boatloads of household and public debt, and no place to go.