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New and Old #48
Friday roundup and commentary
Not many cities see value in beautifying such a utilitarian hunk of metal. Drainspotters – as people united by a niche fascination with manhole cover design are sometimes called – would disagree.
This is a fun piece on manhole covers as public art, and also some of their history. The fact that they have some kind of design is actually utilitarian:
Only after a few too many people and horses slipped and fell on the smooth iron plates did cities realise that manhole covers need traction, says Schladweiler. That is why most have words and patterns embossed on them.
But some cities have gone beyond those utilitarian patterns, and many people appreciate these small enhancements of the public realm.
This story, about Columbia, Maryland, is really interesting. Columbia, like my current home of Reston, Virginia, was a “New Town,” a sort of proto-New Urbanist suburb that tried to mix housing, retail, and employment in close proximity, with less reliance on the car than ordinary suburban developments. How these places have evolved, and how contemporary trends fit with or sit in tension with the New Towns’ original mix of urban and suburban ideals, is interesting.
The densification mirrors a trend in other U.S. suburbs that are embracing live-work developments and a need to create more pandemic-resilient downtowns. Many are trying to transform themselves into “urban ‘burbs” — retrofitting the amenities, infrastructure and sensibility of traditional cities into spaces conceived as escapes from city life. But Columbia’s utopian genesis complicates the plan: The town is toeing a line between encouraging growth and adhering to all of the founding ideals — inclusivity and spatial openness among them — that Rouse got right. Creating a walkable downtown also necessitates confronting a stubbornly auto-oriented planning legacy.
Read the whole thing, which is long and in-depth.
This article is about an invasive insect species, but what caught my attention was that it’s also about the Delmarva Peninsula. This is the Eastern Shore, the part of Maryland and Virginia (and Delaware, to the east) with the Chesapeake Bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It’s a fascinating region, culturally and ecologically distinct from the mainland.
It’s an alarming story about how this invasive insect is killing the ash trees which are uniquely able to survive the waterlogged soil in Delmarva’s marshes. Read it, and pair it with this if you like.
I suspect Drum speaks for a lot of people here, so for that reason this is worth reading. However, I find him to be largely wrong. It’s worth taking a look at a couple of his arguments.
One is this:
We have more housing per capita than we did in 2001. Now, there are places—California is ground zero—where the amount of housing per person has indeed gone down. But is this a housing crisis?
That depends on what you think the “right” amount of housing is. Urbanists consider it obvious that the right amount is about 4 million more than we have, but the people of California have made it crystal clear over the years that they disagree. They don’t want more housing.
This still doesn’t really explain why I find the urbanists annoying. Here’s my real beef: they are obsessed with big cities. They spend nearly all their time trying to convince us that big, crowded cities should become even bigger and more crowded. Or that suburbs should become big and crowded, just like cities. This is a fantastic waste of time.
You have to zoom out a little bit. Having an entire metro area, or an entire region, or entire state, where homes with any proximity to good jobs are unaffordable for the vast majority of people, is obviously a crisis. Or rather, it’s an abnormal state. You can debate how to fix it—people have proposed everything from “build the cube” to “break up the liberal city” and everything in between—but that situation is what’s meant by “crisis.” It isn’t normal or sustainable for the long term to have entire regions where people of modest incomes cannot live. It’s a kind of “does not compute” situation.
And besides, “they” is doing a lot of work. “The people of California” haven’t decided not to build enough housing, in any way direct enough to argue that deregulating land use would represent something undemocratic.
Finally, Drum has something of a point when he says that urbanists are “obsessed with big cities.” Some are, and they’re often very vocal about it in a way that rub ordinary people the wrong way. There’s nothing wrong with cheering for big cities, mind you, and big cities are places where it makes sense to build more anyway. But there are plenty of urbanists who focus on smaller cities, the Rust Belt, small towns, trying to create more walkable “gentle density” in new suburban developments, etc.
It’s very easy to get a very distorted view of what urbanists care about and how they talk if you take urbanism to be a sort of boutique Twitter phenomenon. Don’t, because it isn’t.
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