In The New American Metropolis (1993), Peter Calthorpe makes the pitch for a New Urbanism, which he has explained from time to time in terms like this:

Two fundamental principles of New Urbanism speak to [the] critical issues of affordability and location. One is economic diversity, and the other is regionalism. The principle of diversity flatly calls for a broad range of housing opportunities as well as uses within each neighborhood, affordable and expensive, small and large, rental and ownership, singles and family housing. This is a very radical proposition. It implies more low income and affordable housing in the rich suburbs at the same time that it advocates middle class homes in some urban neighborhoods. It advocates mixing income groups (and races) in a way that is very frightening to many communities. In the city it is called gentrification, in the suburbs it is called crime (the code for any housing other than large lot single family). It is a principle that is rarely realized in practice and, given the current political climate, almost always compromised.

What bothers me most about this paragraph is the way Calthorpe tosses off the phrase "large lot single family" as though it were some sort of disease, that everything that's wrong with American cities and the suburbs that ring them can be attributed to some people's inexplicable need to have a teensy square of land of their own, that if those people could be properly, um, retrained, they would appreciate the delights of diverse neighborhoods of high density enjoyed by New Yorkers and San Franciscans.

Omitted in this theory is the obvious fact that more than two million people live in the twenty-odd square miles of Manhattan; the choice is either high-density neighborhoods or, well, New Jersey. San Francisco is twice as big and has one-third the population, but most people still seem to be stacked on the sides of the streets like rolls of linoleum. For those of us out here on the Lone Prairie, where there's still a fair amount of open space — and, more important, a fair amount of open space that is not completely controlled by various governmental entities — the city of New York is a rabbit warren at best, and you don't want to know what we think about San Francisco.

I've lived for fifteen of the past twenty years in essentially the same set of quasi-suburban flats. It's always been what the demographers call a "racially-mixed" neighborhood, though the mix has shifted slightly over the years: in the 80s, it was about 60 percent white, 40 percent black, while today, it's more like 40-60. The impact of that shift is difficult to quantify, but the difference in terms of Quality of Life, whatever that may mean, is probably inconsequential; most people, regardless of racial background, don't go out of their way to be boorish louts. Just the same, it only takes a handful of boorish louts to make life miserable for everyone else, and it is of course unlawful to discriminate against boorish louts. Were I a proper New Urbanist, I presumably would be expected to embrace lowlifes of this sort as part of life's generous cornucopia of diversity. As a normal person who would like to get some sleep once in a while, I'm going to considerable trouble and prodigious expense to get the hell out of here, onto a teensy square of land of my own.

The Irony Meter will deflect slightly at the following revelation: to get that square (actually more of a trapezoid, technically) I'm leaving the ring of suburbia to move into the city, into a neighborhood where the vast majority of residences — there is one set of apartments — will be found on similar polygons. As Peter Calthorpe says, "Suburbs have always been for escaping." It probably never occurred to him that the road goes in two directions at once.

The Vent

17 November 2003

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