Tag Archives | A discussion of the larger debate around density

“Portland creep” and the density debate

As most of you are aware, election day is Tuesday, May 15. Portland Afoot and others have thoroughly covered many of the races that are on the ballot, including the races for the open Metro council positions, the Portland city council, and the Portland mayoral race. One set of races that hasn’t gotten as much coverage in the urbanist and alternative-transportation blogosphere, but which are also important, are the races for the Clackamas County Commission. A conservative political action committee, the Oregon Transformation Project, is running a slate of candidates for the commission, hoping to transform the 5-seat county board from one which openly supports what the region has been doing, to one that opposes it. Like the Portland mayoral race, any candidate which wins a majority in May wins the seat; if no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two vote-getters face off in November. In either case, the new commissioners take office in January of 2013.

As Portland Transport is a 501(c), I’ll have no more to say about theses races or any of the candidates; if you’re interested the county elections website is a good place to start. However, the Oregon Transformation Project has coined a new term in the local political lexicon: Portland creep
The density debate

Various political factors seem to drive the various participants in the broader anti-density coalition, if I may call it that. Some density opponents are staunch conservatives, motivated by cultural politics, free-market economics, or political solidarity with other conservative constituencies such as big oil. Many other density opponents come from the left–viewing big-ticket capital transportation projects (as well as urban renewal projects designed to encourage infill) as little more than corruption and cronyism, indistinguishable (other than in scope) from the antics of Wall Street banksters, with greenwashing being used to deceive a gullible public. But a common theme that motivates many of the critics on both the left and the right, is a dislike of density itself.

A billboard run by OTP (you can see it here) compares a picturesque view of Mount Hood with a grainy, black-and-white photo of downtown Portland, with the words “CONGESTION DENSITY CRIME” lying under the latter. The implication being is that if the current course continues, much of Clackamas County will soon resemble the worst attributes of Portland. There seems to be a fear that single-family neighborhoods all over the tri-county area will soon be overrun by apartment housing of the worst sort, and that middle-class communities will be transformed overnight into budding Rockwoods. In some cases, this fear is expressed in near-apocalyptic terms, with dire warnings about an urbanist tyranny literally forcing people out of homes and cars and into Soviet style block housing. (The term “Potemkin Village” gets used quite a bit as well–although the term originates from Tsarist Russia and has nothing to do with communism or forced living arrangements).

In short–the fear that the communities that people love and live in will be transformed beyond all recognition–if not destroyed outright.

The death of the American city

Jane Jacobs’ most famous book is called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. At the time she wrote it, the death part was well on its way to becoming a fait accompli; the life part was her sincere hope for the future. For in 1961, many American cities were being destroyed: both literally, by the wrecking ball and the bulldozer, and figuratively, by abandonment. In many cities, including Portland, neighborhoods were ripped apart to build freeways. In many cities (again including Portland), thriving African-American communities were branded slums and demolished (often replaced by housing projects which were invariably far worse and more blighted and dangerous than the neighborhoods they replaced); in more than a few cases, such neighborhoods were deliberately targeted. (The urban renewal project that gave us what is now the Rose Quarter reportedly came about so white Portlanders could go shopping at the then-new Lloyd Center without having to pass through a black neighborhood). And in many cases, central cities were abandoned wholesale by the middle class, who fled to the suburbs, where they would be protected by discriminatory lending practices, exclusionary deed restrictions, and low-density zoning which had the effect of pricing the poor out of the market. Much of this migration was racist in nature (I’m speaking of the 1950s and 1960s, not of today), and likely exacerbated by the forced integration of inter-city public schools.

I do not recount this history lesson to ascribe mid-20th-century attitudes to 21st-century politics. Modern suburban communities are far more integrated; redlining and “whites only” covenants are now illegal. While some bigots do exist in the modern anti-density crowd; I have no reason nor desire to tar everyone with that brush.

I instead recount this bit of history as a warning to the urbanists in the crowd. The death of many great American cities is an event that still burns bright on the landscape–and many people in the suburbs have reason to fear that their communities are next.

…and the life

In many American cities, with Portland being acknowledged as a leader in this regard, an urban revival is occurring. Young Millenials and (to lesser extent) Gen-Xers are eschewing suburban living in large numbers, seeking instead to live in more urban environments. Many trends undergird this transition: greater levels of poverty affect housing (and transportation choices); the Internet and social media has replaced the automobile as the means by which the younger generation communicates, shops, and works. Gas prices reached higher (on an inflation-adjusted basis) than their 1970s peak back in 2007, and after crashing in the Great Recession, are back above $4 a gallon again, and are continuing to climb. The rise of other economic powers such as China and India have both driven up oil prices, and posed a challenge to American global supremacy. The threat of global warming looms large. And whereas the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s were greenfields unencumbered by urban pollution, corruption, and debt; the communities of today are struggling under the weight of pension obligations, decaying infrastructure, and (in many cases) the flight of capital to the next greenfield. The recent collapse in the housing market devastated many communities which were built in response to real-estate speculation; there are several cities in this country where perfectly good housing is next-to-worthless.

Given all of that, what can politicians do to rein in burgeoning costs? In many cases, the answer is “upzone”.

The cost of suburbia

Suburbia is expensive. It’s a simple matter of geometry–many types of infrastructure have costs (both construction and maintenance) which scale with the amount of land they have to cover. A 6″ water main that’s two miles long costs nearly four times as much as a 12″ main that’s only a half mile long, even though they may serve the same number of customers. This principle applies to all sorts of things–electrical distribution networks, telecommunications, sewers, roads, and public transit. If you limit the number of people that can live in a given chunk of real estate, adding more people requires adding more real estate–more roads, wires, and pipes. For this reason, US-style suburbs are a feature only commonly found in wealthy countries–and much like a Versace handbag or a Mercedes-Benz; for many Americans, suburban living has become a status symbol of American affluence.

But in the modern economy, many communities are finding it harder and harder to keep up appearances. Some are continuing to try to do so, of course; and some communities (particularly those with thriving export economies) are still staying above water. Other communities, however, are starting to adjust to what may well be the new reality.

One such community is Portland, which recently announced a moratorium on major-street paving. This decision resulted in howls of outrage, as the city is continuing to invest in its expansion of the bicycling network, as well as the Portland Streetcar. Many opponents of this decision have wondered loudly why the city is prioritizing frivolities over basic maintenance of existing infrastructure. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, of course–and one which I expect to get more discussion over the next few months, especially if nobody wins the mayoral election outright on Tuesday, and the city goes to a November runoff.

The city’s answer, of course, is that it is essentially trading in its Mercedes Benz for a Honda Civic–that instead of continuing to maintain the expensive sort of infrastructure (roads which handle auto traffic need replacing frequently; and construction costs have been going steadily upward over the years), it’s working on replacing it with things which are cheaper over the long run, even if doing so requires a big capital outlay up front. (TriMet makes much the same argument to justify light rail construction over simply expanding bus service).

Holding the bag

This argument may be well and good on an abstract level. But there’s one big problem. Many people–people who pay taxes and expect city services–are left holding the bag. If it’s your street that the city declines to pave, or your bus line that TriMet cuts because it doesn’t perform well, you’re not likely to be comforted by the existence of a new bikeway or rail line in some other part of town. Many people have made significant investments in their homes and their communities, and see them threatened by recent developments. For many people, public investment in new urbanism represents public disinvestments in where they live. One other geometric fact about density is that unless the local population explodes, density can’t go up everywhere. If the overall population stays more or less constant, and one neighborhood sees its density rise, then simple mathematics dictates that some other community will see its population decline. Property values and tax base will go down; and the quality of services will decline, leading to a vicious cycle of decay.

Just like what happened to America’s cities sixty years ago.

And the other side of the coin isn’t necessarily much better: the smooth functioning of many established neighborhoods can be disrupted by increases in population. A community geared around the automobile, with copious amounts of free on-street parking, may take umbrage when new apartments go in and suddenly finding a parking space requires circling the block, or feeding a parking meter. Many people, especially of the older generation, equate density (particularly apartment living) with crime, poverty, or with lifestyles viewed as unsavory. While many successful (and safe) neighborhoods have high levels of density, getting to these types of urbanism from the starting point of a residential-only single-family neighborhood is not a trivial undertaking; you’ve got to do far more than just throw a few apartments and trendy restaurants into the mix.

Fighting for home

Given all of that, it’s not surprising that a backlash is continuing to brew. The recession hit many people hard, and when government elects not to maintain the status quo, it’s not hard to see how people feel abandoned or even threatened. People are attached to their homes, and will often go to great lengths to defend them.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that some of the tools used by new urbanists, notably urban renewal, were the same tools used by Robert Moses and his progeny several generations ago. While most modern instances of urban renewal are simply a matter of financing–redevelopment is more expensive than greenfield development, and thus developers on such projects insist on public assistance; there is significant stigma with declaring a neighborhood “blighted” (and some such declarations are plainly fatuous). And even today one can find abuses of urban renewal and eminent domain, where perfectly viable neighborhoods are demolished against the will of the occupants. (Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn comes to mind). Given the history, it’s not unsurprising that some communities have restricted use of urban renewal, or abolished it altogether (as did Beaverton until recently).

The problem is, is that unless there is a significant restructuring in the both the national and global economic orders, the battle for suburbia is probably a losing one. The economic and political conditions which made the suburban boom of the mid-20th century no longer exist, and it is my belief that long term, suburbia is fundamentally unsustainable. Some of the choices that Portland is making voluntarily may be forced on communities in the future. Detroit is a favorite target of scorn, but perhaps it should serve as the canary in the coal mine: when cities (no matter what form) no longer can afford to provide basic services for their residents, bad things happen. And the policy response of Detroit has been to try and shrink–to abandon portions of the city (no longer providing services) in order to focus on a smaller core that can be served. Which is unfortunate for those stuck living in the parts that are abandoned.

My dire premonitions could be wrong, of course. Manufacturing could make a significant return to the US; new discoveries could resolve the impending energy crisis and counteract global warming; comprehensive healthcare reform could greatly reduce public payrolls, and the Federal Government could find some way of absolve countless municipalities of their crushing pension debts. But my suspicion is that most of these things will not occur, and that significant belt-tightening at the municipal level will need to occur (above and beyond what has been occurring for the past forty years, since the rest of the world recovered from World War II). And that sooner or later, many city, county, and state governments will have some rather unpleasant choices to make–choices that have been postponed until now.