Urban Growth Boundaries

Go see my latest article over at Strong Towns: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/1/25/urban-growth-boundary

It’s about how the urban growth “boundaries” we’ve established in Tennessee are really anything but that. It’s more of a technical article. Here I want to explore the issue from a different angle.

I kind of want to talk about just how far we are from the traditional urban mindset in most of suburban American these days. Chuck Marohn frequently talks about how all neighborhoods need to be allowed to increase in intensity (densify, build up, build out, however you want to describe it) to the next “level” by right. For instance, that would mean a single-family neighborhood would be allowed duplexes (at least) by right. This would allow our neighborhoods to follow the traditional growth pattern of all neighborhoods throughout history prior to the great suburban experiment of the 20th century (that is, incremental expansion).

Our ordinance in Gallatin is specifically written to prevent anything like this from happening. Almost all the residential districts require a time-consuming application and hearing process even for the simplest duplex.

Why is this? I’ve spoken with the people who endorse this type of restrictive zoning; the reasoning is usually something along the lines of: renters bring poverty, crime, pesky children, congestion, and lowered property values and trash-strewn yards.

And of course they’re not entirely wrong: these types of stereotypes don’t manifest out of thin air. (That doesn’t change the fact, however, that a vision of life which categorically excludes these things is in my view a very impoverished and unexciting vision.) I’ve indicated in a past post, though, that this sheds light on one of the fundamental problems of the homeownership system we have in this country. Or really of ownership in general: it turns you into an investor. When you need to buy a house, home values are too high and unreasonable. When you already own one, they can’t go high enough.

Of course I’m not proposing we end private ownership of homes in this country. I don’t even know how that would work. In fact, we wouldn’t even need to: I think you’re already seeing cultural changes overwhelm the older hard-nosed investor stance in certain areas. Look at the number of cities that are following Minneapolis’s lead and abolishing single-family zoning. It’s mostly the usual suspects: progressive, left-leaning places.

What’s going on here is that you finally have the critical cultural mass growing large enough to displace the original cultural inertia born of financial self-interest. This has happened with many social issues over the years. Environmentalism is a good example. There is a whole lot more profit to be made in unrestrained industrial activity than can be made with all those cumbersome regulations slowing everything down. But as the cultural shift of the 1960s matured, the 1970s saw the popular outcry grow loud enough that those in power were moved to take action. A curtailing of profits became socially acceptable in the service of a new cultural goal, that of a clean environment.

This process with abolishing single-family zoning is similar. While it produces effects that many Americans love (e.g., quiet cul-de-sacs, social homogeneity, stable housing investments), it also produces effects that are increasingly unacceptable to the ascendant cultural mood (like race and class segregation and suburban sprawl). As in all things, the coasts and the nodes of deep blue across the country will lead the way in overturning the previous cultural paradigm. The hinterland and suburbs will notice the trend and then be brought kicking and screaming into the new future. In most average American towns, look for most of this to still be edgy ten years from now, and not totally adopted for twenty more. That seems to be about the time lag in acceptance of new social ideas between the vanguard and the rest of the country.

But where does it all stem from? That could be another article. As I’ve talked about in previous articles, the suburban experiment was the spatial manifestation of late modernism (le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright). New Urbanism and New Traditionalism grew out of postmodern questionings of the previous modernist paradigm. I think what we’re witnessing is these postmodern chickens finally coming home to roost.

Could it be considered a metamodern phenomenon? Yes, but I think only in the sense that any “enforcement” of a postmodern conclusion by its very nature veers into metamodernism (or the return to sincere belief).

The topic of a metamodern urbanism is worth exploring.

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