So many planners & developers read about town centers having high ROI, but then plan/build crap because they don't understand why it is that some work so well. So we get the drive-to urbanism in every upper middle-class region across the country. "Let's drive to this spot because we can walk around, and maybe eat outside."

I think it goes back to intellectual curiosity. Most lack it. Planning, building, property management is just a means to a paycheck.

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"So I guess I’m wondering which is the bigger influence in the suburban version of all that (big-box supermarket or Walmart Supercenter, Home Depot, Hampton Inn.) Is it land use, per se? Or is it simply the logic of economies of scale? In other words, “Why should or shouldn’t we build fewer, larger stores with modern construction techniques, and selling large volumes of inventory at low prices?” isn’t entirely a land use question.

And I guess I’m also asking whether we’d still get suburbia without the modern economic world we inhabit—or if we could have entered that world while retaining our old approach to building places."

I think it's impossible to overstate the influence of transportation technology--specifically, the car--on this kind of thing. The ability of almost everyone to travel 60mph if they want to means that a given store has a much wider radius of potential customers. And the need to provide storage for all those cars means that traditional urban forms will be less-suited for the new economic and social environment. It's really a historic change in how towns function that we are absolutely still incorporating and figuring out.

Personally, I think this has led us to make a lot of mistakes. Cars are useful, but we overuse them to our detriment (and the detriment of the entire planet--the ecological costs of our car addiction is pretty damning). But I don't know how to convince people to be more thoughtful about their car use, especially since we've designed so much of the country around catering to it.

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Another great Andres Duany quote: "Cars have become prosthetic devices"

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Feb 15, 2023·edited Feb 16, 2023

While it is possible to get a real tradition downtown through modern planning processes, I think it is highly unlikely. There are several reasons I believe this. They are not conspiratorial in any way and there are no real "bad guys", you know the "greedy developer" or the "phone it in lazy city planning staff". Rather it's the nature of the game we play today. As Rick Rybek said in a course on value capture, "Don't hate the players, hate the game."

Anyway, here's why I think it's unlikely: The nature of modern planning is, well, planned. This is how the public sees it and when the word "planning" is used what they really hear is the word "predictable". It's human nature to fear change and certainly unpredictable change. So the planning profession in their attempt to provide good service to citizens comes up with a process that is very predictive and simultaneously keys nicely into the large scale development complex because they offer well known "products" (in every way from the financing on the front end to the programming on the back end) and that results in what we see in the modern built environment. It was originally strip malls and malls, now town centers and mixed use town centers. But they are all the same master planned product more or less, just with different attributes that attempt to capture the current trends in a predictable way. At worst, most of them still cater to an autocentric world in some form or another. Of course we have organizations like Smart Growth America which attempt to guide these developments in certain ways, some which produce less shitty projects. At best, the product is a new urbanist place like Kentlands. But ultimately they are not traditional downtowns and can never be because they have the wrong DNA. As Strong Towns shows us, traditional downtowns were organic and were allowed to change incrementally with market feedback, which means unpredictable and messy. For example in Chuck Marohn's discussion of Brainerd MN, who in 1890 would have predicted what the downtown was in 1940? Not only do citizens hate that lack of predictability, but modern financing also can't tolerate it because failure at that scale is catastrophic. As you mention, when we are affluent, we want - we demand - this predictability because we feel we have a lot to lose. How many times have you heard people scream about "my quality of life!"? But when we are poor and we have no other choice, we are willing to allow it, as Andres Duany says "when the government is not watching" which really means without planning, or really application of the game that is modern planning.

Ultimately, how can we change the game in a way that people will accept to get back to that? I don't think it's fully possible in the current climate, but we can in specific areas and at least start to turn the ship. Certainly that is the mission of Strong Towns, but with now 75 years of modern planning experience ("The Game") it's a really hard task. At the risk of spouting too many Strong Towns talking points here, I think focusing on the underlying economics and market feedback is a good way to do it in a way that does not get caught up in the typical left-right or NIMBY-YIMBY tropes. But that requires some very detailed and nuanced understanding of municipal finances that even municipal governments themselves don't understand, at least that is until they are forced to.

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