Livability means being poor and eating only one kind of lettuce

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

If you are looking for an overheated response to the Obama Administration’s livability agenda, one that regurgitates many of the heavy-handed arguments of the pro-sprawl, pro-highway crowd, look no further than a recent piece on New Geography called “Livability and all that.”

Alan Pisarski, who has promoted highways through influential positions on various federal and national commissions, councils, and government agencies since the 1960s, is unhappy that the federal government is shifting some of its resources toward walkable places and transit.

Pisarski’s article is a masterpiece of fear-mongering that begins with the kind of snide remark that is reserved for times when a Washington official tells the truth and should, in the view of some insider, be called out. In a chuckling tone, Pisarksi refers to “an unkind moment” when a reporter asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood what livability means. “He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.”

LaHood’s actual response is nearly as short, but coherent: “Livability means a community where you can take kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, go to the grocery store, have dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get into a car.”

Pisarski then invokes Myth Number One, which is a variation on a theme often repeated by smart growth opponents: Any deviation from low-density suburbia means that everyone will be forced to live someplace akin to Ralph Kramden’s apartment from The Honeymooners. He writes:

Well it turns out I was living the livable life style when I was growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties and didn’t know it. Here all along I just thought we were poor.

Aside from seeking to have the same modal shares of America in 1910, or Tajikistan today, this idea fails on both theoretical and practical grounds. Theoretically, whatever merit the idea might have, livability means very different things in a tenement in Brooklyn, or a place in Billings, Des Moines, or Peoria. I can recall being sent to the store for milk or lettuce by my Mom after school. If I didn’t get there in time the four heads of iceberg lettuce (I was 16 before I found out that there were other kinds) were gone. The milk was “milk”. Today in a supermarket the milk section is bigger than the grocery store I went to as a kid. There’s skim, 1%, 2%, whole, lactaid, acidophilus in quarts, half-gallons, and gallons and 86 kinds of lettuce. The typical market today has above 50,000 items. That means that the market shed for such stores is far broader than it was back in the day.

Pisarski is right that livability means different things in different places. My city, Ithaca, is highly walkable, yet not to be confused with Manhattan or Portland, Oregon. Those places, in turn, are far different from a traditional neighborhood development like Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, or a transit-oriented neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, all of which are different from a small town with a main street. Even in my little city there’s a wide variety of neighborhoods — more or less dense, with different characters and mixes of uses — but all walkable and livable and falling within LaHood’s definition. But part of Myth Number One is that smart growth means only crowding and lack of choice.

This argument makes no sense. Is there any shortage of lettuce in compact cities? Do they munch only iceberg head wedges in new urban communities? If the goal is a more dynamic economy with more variety in good and services, then walkable cities are where it’s at. Five times the density means five times the number of customers within a given radius. That’s why supermarkets are being built in urban locations — often the kinds with lavish produce sections — even in a slow economy. That’s why high-tech companies are flocking to livable places — not low-density suburbs.

Pisarski then launches into Myth Number Two, the idea that livability means massive government intervention:

The livability criterion is ultimately centralist: fed-centric. It is not up to local people if they want to densify or not, but real power will rest with a really “smart” guy behind a desk in Washington. Proposals for federal “performance measurement” degenerate into a charade that produces pre-ordained results. Now I can fund my friends, who are as right-thinking as I am!

The problem here is a total disconnect between what people in a diverse democracy want, and what the central bureaucracy, and their academic allies, wish to impose.

It’s ironic that Pisarski raises the specter of the 1950s in this piece. At the time, the federal government was imposing destruction on urban neighborhoods, often tearing them down wholesale. Big government was pouring billions into highways while neglecting or actively eliminating rail transit. (According to areport in the Free Congress Foundation, this lopsided subsidy had been going on for decades prior to the 1950s and amounted to billions annually.) Federal lending guidelines meant that financing went mostly to Leave-it-to-Beaver-type housing in the suburbs. Meanwhile, zoning and development codes and parking and street standards were adopted that made it illegal to build a downtown, a main street, or a walkable urban neighborhood virtually anywhere in America.

Government-sponsored favoritism for cars and automobile-oriented places went on for at least six decades and, despite recent welcome shifts in policy, is still mostly in effect. These policies have turned our built environment into an unappealing mish-mash of commercial strips and separated housing pods that make communities in Texas, Arizona, Washington State, and Maine look much the same. The negative effects include adding considerably to our world-leading greenhouse gas emissions. We are getting more obese. We’ve created a surplus of large-lot single-family housing that may last decades, and which may have contributed to the foreclosure crisis.

In Pisarski’s world view, the government isn’t smart enough to recognize the problems created by our land-use and transportation policies and change course. For more than half a century, with guys like Pisarski holding positions of influence, that’s been largely true. The only choice, he says, is to continue to build highways and see our commutes grow longer:

In today’s job market don’t we expect that people will be willing to go farther to find the job they want or can get? If the average travel time is about 25 minutes and a half-hour commute is acceptable, how long is one unemployed before the acceptable becomes 45 minutes or an hour? In this period of housing constraint in which people are even more locked into their homes by underwater mortgages, the commute will grow as people get desperate.

He continues:

Most will not be willing to trade living floor space for a close-by sidewalk café. Americans will drive to where they want to walk.

Let’s examine that last statement more closely. He’s saying that Americans don’t want a neighborhood outside their front door, they want to open a door into the garage, get in the car, push the automatic garage-door opener, and drive to someplace where they can walk.

This was largely our approach to development from 1945 to 2006 — not surprising given that anything else was illegal in most growing communities. Yet in the last decade and a half a big shift has taken place. US cities have rebounded — especially near downtowns and in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Many Boomers are looking to move out of suburban pods while a new generation is emerging, the Millennials, who favor cities. These trends are borne out by the current housing recession. Where did housing values collapse the most? In the suburbs. Which places retained their values the most? Close in, walkable neighborhoods. Many experts believe that the hottest real estate development in coming years will exemplify the aspects of livability that LaHood is talking about.

The finale of the piece is a volley from Tea Party territory:

The livability agenda may be popular in the press and among pundits, but for most communities and people it’s neither popular nor remotely democratic.

There you have it. Public expenditures on infrastructure that support citizens who are flocking to mixed-use places and/or seek to address issues like global warming through better planning amount to tyranny, Pisarski argues. Now that US policy is taking small steps away from total favoritism for highways and automobile-oriented development, a nabob of the old regime complains that democracy is under attack.