Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: Tale of Two Valencias

A Tale of Two Valencias: Reposted from last year's DMN Book Club Blog

In his book The Next 100 Million, author Joel Kotkin repeatedly extols a masterplanned community 30-miles north of Los Angeles as his utopia, how he foresees we will all be living in 2050. The problem is I don't want to live that way. I like being in the middle of the action, around other people. Judging by the demand-driven higher cost of living in most cities, I do not appear to be alone.

He also likes to cite Los Angeles as the premier "polycentric" model of urban growth, that all Sun Belt cities are similar, and that this is in fact a new phenomenon. However, the only thing different about his polycentric city is how spread out and definable (or undefinable) those centers are. In Los Angeles, there are excellent, walkable downtowns outside of Los Angeles such as Santa Monica and Pasadena.

In contrast, he uses downtowns that in his estimation are expensive, quaint, or historic as a foil for this new Disneyland. The only problem is those cities that are defined about a central downtown all have many intricate hierarchies and centers of gravity within them. All cities of a certain size are polycentric. They just so happen to blend together much more seamlessly than those neatly divided by natural or man-made barriers such as highways. The distinction lacks subtlety or nuance.

He even writes that downtown didn't appear in modern lexicon until the last hundred years. It is no coincidence the rise of the term coincided with the process of its very cannibalization. Does Rome, where I once lived and studied urban morphology, have a center? Sort of, but like all cities where the passage of time has made all growth seem incremental and organic, it is an amalgamation of many interconnected neighborhoods, all wanting to be a part of the city as something greater than the sum of its parts, have their own character, their own intricate bonds of community and thriving local economies.

The problem is that Sun Belt cities like Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix, all once monocentric by his definition, have become closer to zero-centric due to their vast decentralization, lacking definable cores of varying scales. Where is the downtown Pasadena or Santa Monica? The placeless city is that where its whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Valencia, California is just one of those many centers orbiting around downtown L.A., perfectly blending rural character with urban amenity as he puts it. Because of this rural meets urban compromise, each person that moves there, marketed to about the rural ambience, degrades the very commodity they are marketing. On the other hand with traditional urban development, that which is about qualitative growth rather than quantitative, each new resident adds to the community thereby increasing its most marketable trait. After spending much of the book bashing European city form, the irony of a transplanted European developer attempting to recreate the familiar village clusters of his youth is apparently lost on the author.

Furthermore, Valencia is also much higher than the median income or housing price, is a subsidized masterplanned community (which often have much stricter homeowners association policies - talk about controlling the way you live), and also not immune to the fluctuations of the housing bubble (the average home price fell from 680K to half that in two years).

Kotkin says this is how you will live. We probably can't afford it even if we would like to stretch the Woodlands from Sea to shining Sea; his way on the highway, I suppose.

On the other hand, I look towards Valencia, Spain as an exceptional model for living and urban development. There, you will find all of the suburban centers such as Torrent, Betera, Lliria, and the delightfully named Bonanza are interconnected through the regional highway and mass transit system, none of which are much bigger than what comfortable human walking distance to the transit center will allow and the highways as a Locally Undesirable Land Use delicately avoid severing neighborhood ecosystems.

Within these Spanish suburban centers of gravity, a visitor or prospective homeowner will find a full array of neighborhood density types and housing choice. Furthermore, in between each is not the anonymous landscape of rooftops and decaying strip centers, but productive agricultural land, the best of rural and urban, rather than a diluted compromise. They are the product of real market forces at work, every day needs of humans and are much closer to realizing actual self-sufficiency than typical American suburbs.