March 5, 2010

The Urban Hellhole Vision

Ed Glaeser's op-ed on the anti-urban bias in transportation policy is worth your time to read. In particular, I'd like to highlight this paragraph:
It is a mistake to think that spending on trains balances the scales. Cities will always benefit far less than exurbs from transportation because dense areas already have good means of getting around, like walking. Urban advocates would do better to either reduce highway subsidies or to balance that spending with more funding for urban schools.
This dovetails with the argument David Owen makes in his excellent book Green Metropolis: To fight climate change, or to make our economy more sustainable generally, it matters less what new inventions we come up with or whether we're "greening" our current consumption patterns, and more whether we can make cities -- dense, walkable cities in particular -- more attractive to the bulk of the population. And that means overcoming not only the policy biases against cities that Glaeser describes, but the social biases many Americans hold against cities as well. In other words, it means dispelling what Atrios would call the "urban hellhole" mythology.

It may not be so easy to break down that mythology, however. Part of it reflects our current political divides: It's no secret, for example, that the US leans Democratic in its urban centers, but Republican everywhere else:

Thus, trying to shift the balance of transportation spending from highways to transit, or from favoring suburbs to favoring cities, becomes a partisan struggle for existence; e.g., Michelle Bachmann's remarks about liberals wanting to force people into "tenements" so they can "take light rail to their government jobs."

But distaste for city living isn't a recent phenomenon, not in this country anyway. Owen describes in his book how generation after generation of Americans, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Ford, has been drawn to the utopian "back to the land" vision of cityless living. So urbanists have a lot to go up against. A good place to start would be showing that raising kids without a car is not only possible, but desirable as well.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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