Can you sell urbanism to people who already enjoy proximity to everything?
I saw a really interesting comment on Twitter a month or two ago, in response to an article about 15-minute cities. It was basically, “Why do I need a ‘15-minute city’? I’m already 15 minutes or less from everything in the suburbs.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Maybe some of the seeming bafflement over 15-minute cities—the reason that the idea doesn’t excite people, or why they don’t view it as a lovely ideal—has to do with the fact that a lot of Americans already have that. We live in “15-minute suburbs.”
Only, in order to enjoy those times/proximities, we have to drive.
For suburbanites who like—or at least don’t mind, or are used to—driving always and everywhere, the notion that walkability means convenience or proximity almost seems nonsensical. It’s almost mystifying to see people sing the praises of everything you need being in walking distance when everything you need is already in driving distance: same travel time, but more comfort and convenience. What difference does it make if I can walk there? What does an urban setting add? When the default mode of transportation by which you measure proximity is the car, the 15-minute city doesn’t really give you anything. It almost doesn’t even make sense. You can see how it could even spark suspicion.
So for people who like, or at least don’t mind, driving, who value not having to think about the weather in order to run an errand (we’re coming back to this), who don’t struggle to afford a vehicle or two for their household, for whom “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could walk everywhere you need?” just doesn’t answer some secret desire—is there any actual selling point to walkable urbanism?
At least, any selling point that isn’t ideological or abstract?
I’m going to momentarily sidestep that question, because there doesn’t necessarily have to be a selling point for people in the suburbs. There are two different groups who would be helped by more walkable cities with a denser concentration of amenities, everyday shopping, etc. Those groups are urbanites on the one hand, and rural Americans on the other. Those are the places where proximity is often missing, whatever travel mode we’re talking about.
I think of the things my friends who live in the city say when they visit. Stuff like, “Wow, there’s a lot out here, but I can’t really get to it.” (I wrote about one of those conversations here). One of my friends in D.C. was just saying the other day that it would be nice if his neighborhood had a supermarket. Disinvested cities obviously lack these everyday needs most acutely. But even very affluent cities and “nice neighborhoods” often lack the everyday stuff.
Think about the classic small towns where storefronts that once housed supermarkets and hardware stores and doctor’s offices now house pricey boutiques. Larger cities tend to have cultural amenities, yes, but it can still be frictional to take your pet to the vet or go buy groceries if you live in an urban neighborhood or the core of a small town. Running everyday errands is often quicker and easier in the suburbs.
What’s within a 15-minute drive of my home? My barber, my doctor, my dentist, two Trader Joe’s grocery stores, two Wegmans supermarkets, a Whole Foods, three Asian supermarkets, a fishmonger, three home-improvement stores, two Targets, two Walmarts, a thrift store I like to visit, dozens of restaurants, the coffee roastery/shop where I sit and work. Those are just the places I frequent.
Yes, this is the D.C. area, and most suburbs don’t have this concentration of stuff. But the point is that nowhere in D.C. proper can you access that much stuff in 15 minutes by any mode of transportation. This isn’t to argue that the suburbs are better. It’s to say that the target audience for dense, walkable, amenity-rich cities is cities which lack those things in full.
The other audience for amenity-rich walkability is rural folks who have seen a spreading out and hollowing out of amenities and shopping. You know what people who have to drive a one-hour round-trip to a Walmart for grocery shopping could use? A vibrant Main Street. Which is to say, a 15-minute city.
Both small towns and complete urban neighborhoods—of the sort that America had by the thousands only a few decades ago, including in remote areas—are “15-minute cities.” It is a mystery to me why many of the same people who fondly recall their old neighborhoods, with corner groceries and luncheonettes and walk-up apartments, also become almost angry at the idea of 15-minute cities.
But back to the 15-minute suburbs. This all works unless you think that car dependence/car orientation is bad—that relying on the car is more than an equal but different personal choice.
Do you have to believe that urbanism is morally superior to suburbia? Do you have to believe that cars are bad? Environmentally? Metaphysically? If you like what’s inside your 15-minute car-trip radius, and you couldn’t care less about environmentalism or equity or whatever other seeming abstractions urbanists talk about, is there anything to urbanism? Anything in it for the people now living in 15-minute suburbs?
I saw this tweet a few months ago:
There are plenty of basically normal people who perceive this as something adjacent to a threat. If it’s totally normal to expect to get soaked on an errand run, then you have to justify choosing not to do so. It can be seen as implying that a motorist is doing something vaguely wrong simply by getting into their car. I know a couple of Twitter urbanists who indeed believe this.
I think a lot of people not only don’t want to do this themselves, they don’t want anyone to do it. They don’t want anyone to live in small houses or multifamily housing. They fear that once these things exist, they will proliferate and erode the comfort to which they feel entitled.
Which brings me to an idea I’ve kicked around before: that a lot of people, including a certain kind of progressive, seem to view urbanism as “eating your vegetables”: as a kind of self-denial or self-abnegation, something dutiful but necessarily a little bit unpleasant.
If your answer to biking in the rain is “just get wet,” is that virtuous? Is it learning to deal with a little bit of discomfort, and realizing that it’s no big deal? (Which, by the way, is kind of conservative in temperament?) Or is it about inconvenience and discomfort and choosing to enjoy less for the sake of ideals, or other people, or the future? Underneath the happy talk about proximity and convenience and serendipity, is there an inevitable element of self-denial?
I wouldn’t like there to be. But if there is, again, how do you sell that?
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