Picking Winners in The Walkable City

Cabrini Green High Rise

Cabrini Green High Rise

Resources don’t distribute evenly in cities. Public schools are funded by property taxes, so places with expensive property get better-funded schools.  Only so many houses can sit by the beach or near a public transit line. Neighborhoods will, by necessity, sort themselves into rich and poor based on the cost of property. People sort themselves by ethnicity, and the poorer less enfranchised people will have less power to influence the city governments to spend resources on them. City governments have to decide what they want to do about this. Do they want to put wind in the sales of the neighborhoods that are sailing upward or do they want to try and make the distribution more equitable?

Modern Urbanism has a lot to say about how to make cities and communities more viable. One strong conviction is that making places more walkable can break up segregation, bring wealth into communities, buoy local businesses and make the people in those communities healthier, but it’s not free.Most of the U.S. built in the last hundred years was built for sprawl. Huge highways, oversized lanes, and miles of free parking. These things are direct impediments to walkability and all the benefits it brings. To renovate these streets comes with infrastructure costs. So when deciding how to spend city resources, it’s important to think about what planners and mayors want to get done and what the best way to do it is. In Walkable City, Jeff Speck argues that mayors are too haphazard in how they spread out these resources. He talks about how sprinkling investment like “fairy dust” on a large number of different neighborhoods dilutes their effectiveness. He instead lobbies for cities to focus on the areas where the improvements have the potential to have the most effect.

So far so good, but how do we figure out what areas have the most potential?  Here we veer off the track of the new urbanism’s walkable cities, bringing about a more equitable city. Speck advocates starting with the rich downtowns as the logical places to dump all fairy dust, he even employs that Reaganism beloved by pro-business lobbies everywhere, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Ugh… No.  People’s incomes and health are not boats on a stream. In the U.S. we have a yawning gap in the distribution of wealth power and influence. The difference between income is trivial compared to real differences in wealth.

If you tell me that downtowns should get improvements because they have the most potential for walkability, fine. If you pick those winners for their density because they’re most likely to help the most people, I can get behind that. But don’t pretend a city’s wealth trickles down.

Take the example of Cabrini Green, the only Chicago housing project that was near the city’s center. Most of its employment opportunities were slowly choked to death by mismanagement, corruption and a lack of upkeep. It stood as a dysfunctional failure from the time of Richard J. Daley’s empire until the regime of Richard M. Daley (his son) who sold those residents out as soon as the land around them became valuable. When the tide rose, the people of Cabrini Green didn’t get lifted up they got shipped out or merely drowned.

The message of Walkable City is progressive and it also so eminently reasonable and well argued. It should be celebrated, not just by lefties but by anyone looking for ways to build prosperous cities in the U.S. or abroad. But, I need to call out this appeal to the “new day in America” crowd that sours the ending. American Cities need this manual for more walkable cities, not to make some more money for the folks at the top of the pyramid but for everyone. We can’t keep hoping that the wealthy will eventually let some crumbs fall off their table, we need to take steps to make a richer, healthier, more sustainable and more equitable world for everyone.

About Casey Brazeal


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  1. […] through this book in a weekend or a long night) way and I want to give my argument against it a full post — for now, let us say that Speck steps past a fourth benefit for the modern urbanism he […]

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