Building Better Cities Series – Part 3: The Accidental City

Genuine WealthtroyMediaRobert McGarvey

EDMONTON, AB Sept 22, 2014

What’s a city, why do they exist?

I admit these are questions that don’t get asked very often, at least outside of dusty academic circles. Most of us just assume someone – much smarter than ourselves – must have decided the big issues decades ago based on deep insight and knowledge.

Sadly, that’s not true. Our cities happened almost accidently, and are carried forward by a herd of sheep-like bureaucratic forces that have left us with mediocre, alienating, automobile dominated cities. In many North America centers you’d be hard pressed to tell one city from another, they all have the same suburban housing, the same roads, freeways, office towers and merrily identical shopping malls.

Who’s to blame? Many blame the property developers. After all, they’re the ones who design and build boringly suburbs that have no character, no walk-able amenities where residents can shop and play, gather and interact.

‘Guilty as charged’ says my friend Larry, a property developer. “Look”, he says, “we put our money down on a developable property and then invest heavily; we’re at total financial risk until we sell out. Want to build better cities, talk to the bureaucrats, they’re the ones who zone the land and set the rules, I’m just trying to make a buck.”

It seems Larry’s right; one look at a city’s (any city’s) zoning structure reveals a chilling reality. The regulations are systematized to create identical mediocre, alienating, automobile dominated cities – it’s against the law to do otherwise.

Where did all that restrictive zoning come from?

According to scholars the modern city grew out of necessity in the 1920s, to meet the needs of a rapidly industrializing economy. In other words, facilitating commerce rather than creating living spaces for humanity was the silent logic of urban design.

The modern urban zoning structure reflects the overwhelming importance of commerce. There are rigidly defined central commercial zones where business takes place, and separate industrial parks where goods get manufactured. Of course that’s not all, business needs workers, so there are distinct suburban zones where the workers live and networks of roads to get these workers to and from their jobs as quickly and easily as possible.

Fortunately, it seems a new generation is questioning this logic and challenging the assumptions of previous generations.

The ‘best places to live’ all score strongly in terms of livability and have a uniqueness that sets them apart from other cities. This change in values is driving the micropolitan revolution, and rising expectations across the board.

The problem is, the system is deeply resistant to change? City zoning regulations are notoriously complicated, and only really change when commercial (or high level political) pressures are brought to bear. My friend Larry, for instance, is an expert on getting property re-zoned. But, as he stated clearly, he carries too much financial risk to get ‘experimental’ and build better cities.

The city administrators say they’re only doing what their political masters tell them to do. And most politicians believe property development belongs in the private sector, and that they shouldn’t be interfering where they don’t belong.

But that’s not true; cities are on the hook right from the start. After Larry has finished building his naked suburb – a combination of nearly identical houses, apartment blocks and connecting roads (as cheaply as possible) he lumbers the rest of us with a substantial contingent liability. It’s the city (i.e. the resident taxpayers) that must stump up for all the living amenities, the parks, recreational facilities, schools, fire stations and other public facilities – the numbers are huge.

Where to start changing the system? Let’s all return to the main question – what is a city, why do they exist?

Let’s put humanity back in the equation. Micropolitan communities are the central building block of all great cities – large or small. No one’s questioning the fact that commerce is an important part of the life of a city, but ‘best places to live’ also take special care to facilitate human scale livability.

Based on this new micropolitan logic, cities could re-examine their zoning ‘philosophy’ with a mind to balancing the needs of commerce with the desire of residents to have walk-able zones where they can interact with one another at ease.

As for Larry, he’ll keep building naked suburbs until we change the system. As he says, “if you want developers to build better cities, keep them in the game longer and align their interests with the community’s.” To accomplish this means that cities need to get involved at an earlier stage, and change the rules of the game to encourage livable communities that will distinguish our lives.