betacity


a synthetic consequence of history

Twenty years ago I read an op ed in the Globe and Mail that asked the question: what is the biggest public money grab in North America? The answer, the suburb. The suburb, apparently, is a massive welfare program.

In the intervening period I have read precious little on the topic – ie. material specifically tying suburban life to public debt – no doubt because the idea cuts to close to the heart of the truth of how we live. I’m now reading Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities which kicks off with the bold face assertion that how we live is subsidized.

I sometimes like to think about a solution. If there’s a problem, why not? Clearly the solution here is to delink public money from very expensive lifestyle choices: ie. no more oil and gas subsidies, no more massively expensive infrastructure projects and utility grids that serve less than x people per acre, no more big box market subsidies and incentives, raise the level of investment in efficient means of transport (public) and lower that of the much less efficient means (private cars), etc.  (That’s one half of the silver bullet. The other half is to make the city affordable for everyone, which is another big topic for another day.) I know, I know, I’m dreaming. But this dream has to do with that hard nosed topic, money, so maybe …

Here is Chakrabarti:

The suburbs, therefore, are not a mere reflection of the way people want to live, or even a reflection of true market forces, but a synthetic consequence of history. The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government,’ and explicit policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play. Over the last century, this has created the most consumption-based economy the planet has known – that is until the music stopped: the twenty-first century debuted in America with an epic collapse of the housing market (particularly the single-family housing market), the rapid acceleration of climate change, and the largest division between rich and poor in the postwar era.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 33.

photo: American Palimpsests, © Stacy Arezou Mehrfar

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planes, trains and automobiles
July 29, 2012, 12:54 am
Filed under: economy, Energy, Transit | Tags: , , , , ,

From the Regional Plan Association, more evidence all is not what it seems:  our governments subsidize all forms of transportation, including cars – (there go our bragging rights):

A common theme of U.S. political dialogue is that while highways are sustained by tolls and gas taxes, trains and other mass-transit systems are heavily subsidized by the government through tax revenue.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Federal, state and local governments have subsidized all modes of transportation since the birth of the nation. Tolls and dedicated taxes such as the gas tax have paid for only a small portion of our nation’s road system. In the past century, road and air transportation have received more government money than rail.

And, especially during the last century, government subsidies have favored cars and air travel over trains:

By comparison, the amount spent on train travel pales in comparison, unless you go back to the 19th century … But the record is very different in the 20th century, and in the last 100 years the amount of government money spent on railroads have been paltry compared with what is spent on roads and air travel. As government money has poured into air and roads, the once robust network of intercity passenger rail has shriveled to a skeletal framework.

A pitch is made for multi modal systems as an antidote to the mono-culture we more or less have with cars and roads:

If well designed, a transportation system does pay for itself through larger benefits to the economy and society. International experience and historic example in the U.S. has demonstrated that a multi-modal transportation system with many choices is far more flexible than putting all our eggs in one basket.

How come we still believe we are paying our own way when anything serious we read on the topic says the opposite?  Maybe we – a little desperately – need to cling to a sense of having done it on our own.  No one wants to admit to being on the dole – especially not when the top is down and the tunes are turned up and the girls are out.  Cars are about freedom and independence, not government handouts.

Maybe that is what it will take to get the multi modal system that seems to serve other people so well:  to finally admit that we aren’t paying for what we have, that the government is paying for most of it and that if it’s got to be a public service, then why not pay for something that is efficient and comprehensive and inclusive, and if it’s sexy that’s great, but if it’s not who cares, at least I can get around without the government paying for my gas.

The Public Money Behind Road, Rail and Air Travel, Osman Dadi and Alex Marshall, RPA



gdp equivalents
July 15, 2012, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Cities, economy | Tags: ,


Denmark – 310b
Canada – 1,574b
South Africa – 364b
Taiwan – 432b
Columbia – 288b
Switzerland – 523b
Austria – 376b
Argentina – 369b
Thailand – 319b
Netherlands – 782b

Boston – 211b
New York – 1,283b
Philadelphia – 348b
Washington – 426b
Atlanta – 271b
Chicago – 531b
Houston – 379b
Dallas – 377b
San Francisco – 337b
Los Angeles – 738b


global cities compete
May 12, 2012, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Cities, economy | Tags: , , , , ,

From What is the World’s Most Economically Powerful City? Atlantic Cities



the true cost of driving calculator
April 17, 2012, 9:47 pm
Filed under: economy | Tags: ,

the true cost of driving calculator

From the article:

Many people also know that other costs associated with automobiles are paid for by taxpayers, like highway construction and maintenance. Since those fees don’t come directly from a driver’s pocket, they aren’t usually considered as costs of driving. However, indirect costs are very real, along with other hidden environmental and social costs that drivers and non-drivers alike pay to support our primary mode of transportation – the automobile.



an atomized, desegregated, poorly engineered commodity

MOMA has a new show called Foreclosed which is four architects who tackle the problem of that great disaster environment the American suburb.   This show is so much better than MOMA’s lame 2008 Housing for New Orleans show in which a half dozen architects proposed designer suburban homes for the newly dried out city in the gulf – baptism by hubris:  ‘you still have to drive to get your milk, but at least you live in a hip little house,’ that show seemed to be saying.

Foreclosed on the other hand, suggests that the base ideas that made the suburb were wrong and makes some very viable proposals for reversing course at the scene of the crime – the suburbs themselves; one each outside New York, Chicago, Tampa and San Francisco.  No mention – yet – that it may be time to resist all urges to fix what is broken and to concentrate our energies in the cities where they stand some chance of accruing.

Four American architects confronting face on the debacle of the suburb is a rare thing – we’ve seen lots addressing, but few confronting.  Perhaps this show establishes a watershed moment in which more and more begin to speak out.  Is it good news for architects everywhere, who may now speak openly about urban ideas and planning and government involvement in development etc?  They now have at least some precedent to defend against recrimination.  The sphere of the built environment has become as politicized as the many other hot button issues of our time – health, education etc, but it rarely gets air time, in great part because of fear of recrimination.

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the buell hypothesis

From the show Foreclosed on now at MOMA:

The Buell Hypothesis, at its most basic, argues as follows: Change the dream and you change the city. The private house and the city or suburb in which it is situated share a common destiny. Hence, if you change the narratives guiding suburban housing (such as that of the American Dream) and the priorities they imply—including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails—then you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl.

Reinhold Martin and his colleagues at Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture presented this hypothesis to the Foreclosed design teams in the form of a “screenplay” that treats the American Dream metaphorically, as a film with a familiar plot, characters, and setting.

The five American suburbs identified by The Buell Hypothesis as study sites—located in different regions, but all along existing or proposed high-speed rail routes—were selected through a process called multi-criteria decision analysis. Based on data from February 2009, the date of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the so-called federal stimulus package), the analysis considered a wide range of quantitative and qualitative factors, including foreclosure rates, poverty rates, population trends, average commute times, amounts of publicly held land, and other relevant criteria. Each selected suburb exhibits particular needs and potentials in relation to the wider economic crisis.