August 5, 2006

We hate sprawl, but we also hate density.

People in Madison are always complaining about sprawl, but whenever buildings of any real size go up downtown, they freak out about that too. Check out this forum, complaining that Madison is becoming a "sardine can." Don't you want the city to grow? Don't you want a substantial urban core to this place?

Some of the criticism, like this editorial in yesterday's Wisconsin State Journal, takes the form of saying that people probably don't want to live in condos and that the city, by promoting this sort of development, is somehow trying to force people to live on a smaller scale and drive them out of the suburban lifestyle they love.

Are these the same people who also fret about how too much driving is hurting the environment? Why shouldn't the city adopt policies that reward people who abandon their green lawns for a greener urban lifestyle?


Jake said...

Humans were never designed to live in cities. They were designed to live in wide open spaces. That is the reason that violence, corruption and pollution is the hallmark of every large urban city in the world.

It is no coincidence that 85% of our population do not live in an urban core city. The drive to own a piece of land with a home on it is so strong no politician in American can stop it.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

These people can never be pleased. Their only wish is that this planet was totally untrammeled by the human footprint.

Giving people a choice to live close in instead of driving an hour to and from work every day, with it's associated cost of fuel, is the way to go.

Violence and corruption is caused by a small group of perpetual miscreants/psychos and a larger group emboldened by the politics of a portion of society that preaches lack of responsibility for one's actions.

These professional handwringers, whiners, and perptetually unhappy people will always be looking at a glass half-filled.

Jake, humans are designed to LIVE their allotted time. The choice of WHERE they live is, simply, their choice!

Take a "SIP..." from the cottage of sip who is right on target.

Frank Borger said...

I attended IIT (the Mies Van DerRohe designed campus.) To a person, (except for architects,) the students hated it.

The students describ ed the design as "Steel and glass up the @## and
"That's the Chemistry building, but it has a much more important function. It matches the Physics building."

As far as violence, corruption etc. I think it's simply that cities attract the small percentage of people that are scumbags, mainly because the pickings are much easier for them in cities.

The Drill SGT said...

Taking a play off of Sips excellent blog piece (hint) go read it. I'm not agile enough to figure out the link method here.

Anyway, Two observations:

1. directly related to Ann's post, there used to be a lot of NIMBY's out there. Now those folks seem to be BANANAs ("build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything." ) You won't make these people happy Ann. Though personally I think growth of the core is a good thing overall as long as you attempt to control the heat footprint with parks, etc

2. The other point that particularly plays to SIPs thought piece, (did I say, go read it?) is that lots of those suburban BANANAs, just got there and the instant they arrive, they want to stop development to save their pristine location that they just cluttered with their new MacMansion or vacation home. Make sure that farmer, whose great great grandfather cleared the forest can't do what he thinks best with his land. Sometimes that's complaints about the heavy equipment moving down narrow farm lanes while the suburbanite wants to get by in his Beemer. Other times its the smell from the dairy or pig operation. Sometimes its the reverse, when the farmer gets tired and wants to sell out to a developer and then the newly arrived reverse polarity and want to "protect our open space" Well if you want to protect it, don't use confiscatory zoning practices, just pay market value to the farmer.

James R Ament said...

Sorry for thr grumpy tone, but I don't care what policies cities adopt to stimulate urban living. For me, "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth." (Steve McQueen)

Elizabeth said...

New Orleans was blessed with an urban setting that still allowed for yards and plenty of sky; there aren't a lot of highrise condos, and only the French Quarter and Warehouse districts are lacking in any yard space.

But with many of those quaint, green neighborhoods having flooded, we're going to have to adapt to more urban density, and accept some of those condo buildings and apartment complexes. The first apartment complex in the U.S. is here, the Pontalba Buildings on Jackson Square, so it's just an example of coming round to where we began.

altoids1306 said...

I'm pretty sure they would prefer that less people existed, or that everyone else live in a state of ascetic enlightenment, while they pursue whatever life it is they want.

Chris said...

Is it objectively true that urban density is greener? I live in Portland, Oregon where such ideas are practically a religion. Perhaps it's true, but I've never really seen any evidence.

One thing I DO know, is that while our city fathers are going to a lot of trouble to encourage density, they still haven't updated our sewer system. Whenever we overload it, massive amounts of untreated sewage gets dumped into the Willamette green is THAT?

Maxine Weiss said...

More cement = more offices = more staffing = more congestion = more taxes = more pollution = more death.....

...and the cycle starts all over again.

Peace, Maxine

Dave said...

The New Yorker published an article a while ago which argued that densely populated places like Manhattan are more environmentally friendly than are suburban and/or rural areas with lots of green space.

The article is available here.

Disclaimer: the author is a family friend.

Maxine Weiss said...

"people probably don't want to live in condos and that the city, by promoting this sort of development, is somehow trying to force people to live on a smaller scale and drive them out of the suburban lifestyle they love."---Ann

The Urban Planners are in the hip pocket of the developers, who make the big contributions.

If you look at East Berlin and parts of Soviet Russia...those communist countries, also, tried to herd people like cattle, into the modern tenements, and communal living eyesores. That's all you see in East Berlin is row after row of austere Condos and glorified tenements.

It is a uniquely American idea to want the traditional ranch-style single family home with backyard barbeque and picture window.

Green curving vistas of your subdivision, which quiets to a hush at night, and you can see the stars, or perhaps a lone dog barking in the distance, or the birds.

What could be more American than that?

If you want shared housing--shared walls, glorified tenements....go to Russia or People's Republic.

You'll find a lot of that style of housing over there.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...


"Middle Class houses are the homes of those who would not live here."-

---D.J. Waldie, 'Lakewood: A Suburban Memoir'

JB said...

Of course they hate sprawl and density in Madison, even in ole' S.F. they hate sprawl and density. Of course you can't say that, why because after a while people catch on. Hating sprawl and density, is hating other people. How dare those "other" people want to live where I live or own a house like I do.

This is why so many very liberal bastions are so very anti-children oh not so much in programs they have plenty of programs, but the ethos of it, have more than 1 or 2 accessories (cough kids), and you hear comments about not being able to "keep legs shut" called breeders etc, all sorts of crap. No wonder most families leave the cities. Fortunately, it should be a self-rectifying problem it can only last one generation or so.

Hayduke said...

I write about this contradiction all the time on my blog, which is focused on a suburban county between Baltimore and Washington. We're in the middle of developing a master plan for our "downtown" at the same time growth in our region is exploding, aided by military base realignments and tremendous demand for housing and office space. Yet given the chance to funnel much of this growth into the largely-undeveloped urban core of Columbia (Jim Rouse's first planned community and now Maryland's second largest city), most are resisting any increase in density while also bemoaning the cost of housing and the rapid conversion of farms into sudvisions.

Elizabeth's observations about balancing urban and suburban values is spot on. I love my newly-bought house, an 800 sq. ft., funky-70s rancher on 1/10 of an acre -- plenty large enough for a garden and my dog to roam. Though houses on my street are really close together, they were placed with more consideration for privacy than you will ever see in typical subdivisions today (where the front of one house often faces the rear of another...ugh). I also live about a mile from my office, which I can get to on my bike using a series of trails through our city's copious open space.

Elizabeth said...

Whoa. Some of these suburban idealists posting scathing descriptions of urban hells must never have actually been to a city before. Cities aren't all Manhattans, you know. Mine is full of neighborhoods, with a mix of multi-unit rentals and single-family dwellings, with small yards and large yards, and picture windows and barbecue pits, and corner stores with display windows and awnings. I wouldn't trade it for suburban look-alike houses where the developers tore all the trees up by the roots to make it cheaper to build, planting little twigs that won't be shading anyone for another 20 years, for no sidewalks leading to coffee shops and newspaper stands, for having to hop in the car and merge into four lanes of traffic to get a banana or a jug of milk.

Lots of cities are a wonderful mix of urban and green. Dallas is great. Jackson, MS, likewise. I doubt that most cities are the hellish cement Soviet gulags posited here. It's natural for people to come together and live in cities; it's good to be close to where you work, to have neighbors nearby, to have places to eat and shop and be entertained within a walk or a short drive. I cast my lot in with the cities. You folks in the suburbs, that's nice for y'all, too. Why denigrate the urban choice, though?

knoxgirl said...

We have some friends who used to bitch constantly about West Knoxville, which is the wealthier, suburban-sprawl area of the city. They'd rag on the "West Knoxville soccer moms" in their SUVs and they'd be outraged at the sprawl whenever another strip mall was going up, extending the reach of the city further and further west... soon as they'd saved enough money, guess where they moved??? Well, the schools are better, the property values better, they could *hardly* be expected to buy anywhere else! *sigh*

ploopusgirl said...

Why are you denigrating the suburban choice in your rebuttal, Elizabeth? To some people, myself included, a twenty minute drive is no big deal; in fact, it's a pleasure on a nice day. Not all subdivision homes are the same, and, at least where I live, the trees cut down allowing for building are vastly outnumbered by the trees and forests surrounding them.

In short, it's lovely that you enjoy the city, but others enjoy the suburbs. Why must someone always be wrong? To each her own.

Robert Burnham said...

It's worth remembering that the qualities which make a city downtown or core area attractive to tourists and day visitors — museums, bookstores, cafes, galleries, trendy boutiques, etc., etc. — are not those that make it a place where you'd wish to live and raise kids. This means a lot of urban criticism is based on a category error.

For an illuminating look at sprawl and the burbs — and how they actually function (as opposed to stereotypes) — read Robert Bruegmann's recent book Sprawl.

Sprael is a huge bucket of cold water dumped over the heads of those planner types (and their sympathizers) who look at Yurp and want to turn Here into There.

Bruegmann also has some pretty on-target observations about the social snobbery involved in suburb-bashing. But that's a whole other topic!

Elizabeth said...

ploopus, perhaps you missed the many "cities stink" posts before mine, that I mirrored in the mistaken belief that the technique was obvious. It's a big beautiful country, with lots of living space. No need to be down on cities, if you love the 'burbs. And vice versa. But if you want to diss the cities, don't expect it to go unnoticed.


Palladian said...

"Cities aren't all Manhattans, you know."

Ouch. I mean, you're right about New York, but still, ouch.

I currently live in the nadir of nightmarish urban Hell, New York, even though I'm a veteran city hater and am currently making plans to move to somewhere quieter and more healthy. But I don't think it's a binary choice between either sooty, crime-ridden, overcrowded slums or disinfected, homogenous replicant ranch houses. There's a full spectrum of choices, and towns and cities of all sizes as well as truly rural areas. I admit to being as put off by contemporary subdivisions as I am by the appalingly unliveable conditions (and appalingly high prices) of large cities. My problem with many suburban developments is that they lack visual texture, they lack history, they lack individuality and they lack a sense of permanence. Many of these problems could be solved architecturally, but aren't. The American character is one that (hopefully still) strives for individuality and independence and I wish that would be reflected in suburban development more often than it is. Leave the Europeans to live in aligned rows of identical cheap anonymous dwellings or, more probably (to paraphrase Tom Wolfe) German worker's housing pitched up 100 stories.

Elizabeth said...

Palladian, ouch! indeed. What was I thinking?? I love Manhattan, but was sadly lost for the right example. I think I envisioned The Out-of-Towners as I read some of the mistaken impressions of cities. Then I just compounded them, ouch.

tjl said...

Elizabeth -

How right you are about the unique, intangible, life-enriching qualities of a old city like New Orleans. My own old hometown, Boston, is similar in that respect. Every neighborhood has its own look, feel, and texture evolved over time. A careful look at such a block will tell you much about the generations of men and women who lived and worked there and made it what it is now.

My home now, Houston, is one of the most flagrant examples of sprawl at its worst. It can be a very pleasant place to live, in that all but the poorest are comfortably housed, but its aesthetic values are nil.

El Presidente said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
El Presidente said...

Once the revolution comes you will live where I tell you.

BJK said...

I've always said "Madison would be a great place to live, if it wasn't for all the people."

...and while this story isn't quite what I had in mind at the time, it's a start. ;)