Thursday, August 18, 2011

Missed the Linkages, Now What?

I just caught this article, but it is excellent, on the forgotten North St. Louis, the area where Pruitt-Igoe once stood in all its infamy, and why forgetting it is a big mistake. The pictures tell the story alone, but I'll let you go read it as well.

College Hill neighborhood - STL

O'Fallon neighborhood - STL
images via NextSTL.

It tells a bigger story of urban decay and here is why, how it happened. This is a big, broad, complex story, but I'll try to reduce it into staccato-like soundbites.

First, we fell in love with Keynesianism post-depression, war spending, highway building, suburban construction, all subsidized, but damn did it feel good. A positive spirit once again fueled the American people fresh off hard won victories abroad.

However, in this world all highways were good highways and all highways meant spending, jobs, and economic development. We never thought about the ramifications beyond those immediate, nor about long-term operations and maintenance. Those positive ramifications mirrored those of the streetcar. New transportation technology allowed new housing immediately outside of the industrial urban squalor.

In this world, city was bad, not the socio-economic conditions of the time. Throw that baby out with the bathwater. The growth was not incremental nor organic, but cannibalistic and parasitic.

Cars and roads availed land further and further out from city center to be repositioned from worthless (beyond ag or nature - ie not so worthless) to viable, at least in terms of real estate speculation. The highways made this happen. This also meant that tax base fled the city in droves abandoning schools of the inner cities while making the schools of the outer reaches not just viable but desirable.

On the flip side, we're left with beautiful historic schools in urban cores either completely empty, ramshackled, or closed in favor of new warehouse looking things as if that was the problem. The poor educational opportunities only further accelerated the decline of these areas.

On top of this, as I've written here extensively, the highways through urban cores systemically destroyed the fine-grained interconnectivity of urban places. This might sound like planning gibberish, but the concepts of centrality, convergence, and spatial integration, all sides of the same cube, are what drives demand. So if you undercut demand, while maintaining supply, you're going to end up with empty, depressed places, beginning a vicious downward spiral.

For an example closer to home, examine the Fair Park area and its surrounding neighborhoods when you sever a place from its lifelines. Two of the neighborhoods, err zip codes, register among the 10 roughest, most crime ridden in the country.

The spiral works both ways, depending on which direction your level of integration is going. Is a place becoming more? or less connected?

The public sector is largely responsible for spatial integration, the road networks, the mass transit systems, etc. These have to be complex, they have to be highly interconnected, and they must not compromise local connectivity.

The private market, the citizens largely build their own accommodation. Integration begets accommodation. Accommodation can be anything from housing, to restaurants, a hotel, or even a bus shelter. The integration in this case would be the bus stop intersecting with the pedestrian network at the particular bus stop. People showing up and using said bus stop creates its own demand for accommodation in the way of shelter from the conditions.

A quick diagram, sans arrows to represent that this spirals up in terms of growth and demand AND supply, or it spirals down in decay. What we see when we're left with the disaster porn of Detroit or St. Louis or Fair Park is this process frozen in motion in front of our eyes each day.

Picture this three-dimensionally, either rising with new people or falling with people leaving.

And it is the fault of transportation agencies and public officials who don't understand how city's work in this way. But instead, only understand bastardized Keynesianism run amok by way of FREE MONEY! as they systematically undercut the primary demand driver of our historic urban cores, and in many cases, undermined their own cities in favor of suburban communities outside of city boundaries (created so as to not pay taxes in those cities they leach from).

This is the reason for Nathaniel Baum-Snow of Brown University's study of intracity highways and the associated 18% drop in city populations per construction of intracity highway segment. Robbing Peter, the core city, and paying Paul, the new suburban community at the edge. Unfortunately, Paul is very sick because he got used to all that free candy. Now he's diabetic and on dialysis, the expensive life preserving process of sprawl that we're all underwriting.