Via Jarrett Walker, I recently ran across a provocative article by Aaron Renn in the Guardian: “In praise of boring cities“. Renn takes his fellow urbanists to task for the narrowness of their vision about what makes a good city:
Those of us who love urban areas’ walkability, variety and novelty often have a tendency to universalise – not to say sacralise – our values and tastes. But in an ever more diverse world, different people are going to have different ideas about the good life. We need to be more tolerant of those who make different choices… Some people like stability, predictability, rootedness and a lot of what suburbs have to offer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.
I’ll be the first to agree that some of Renn’s examples are pretty over the top. The hipster chefs in Portland who were arrested for brawling over whether their pork products were “local” enough: definitely absurd. And as I’ve written in the past, I fully agree that we should:
- Have a conversation about cities that incorporates diverse viewpoints
- Have a city that offers a diversity of housing choices and transport choices (and consumption choices in general).
That being said, I’m both an advocate for cities and a professional working on urban policies. And you know what? The advocates are pretty diverse when compared to the people who are making most of the decisions about transport and urban policy. That’s not a criticism; just an observation.
Moving on, Renn also calls for more focus on getting the “boring” elements of urban policy right: sound, affordable housing, good public services, including transport, and economic opportunities:
What’s more, to say a place is boring is to implicitly acknowledge that it’s getting the basics right. Getting your water shut off in Detroit certainly adds soul and excitement to that city, but I’m sure it’s an experience most residents would like to forgo. Cities can’t truly make a name for themselves as merely a “me-too” collection of attributes that everyone else is doing. But the uniqueness of a place comes on top of a foundation of getting the basics right. You can’t have the sizzle without the steak.
Unfortunately, part of what drives people to choose so-called “soulless” cities is that they excel in the basics, like reasonably priced housing, policing or schools. DC’s violent crime rate is 10 times higher than in “soulless” Arlington; “boring” Zurich ranked seventh in Monocle’s 2014 quality of life survey. No amount of artisanal chocolatiers or challenging art can make up for failing to give your children a crime-free walk to school. Cities would be well-served by putting as much focus on getting vanilla right as they do in creating those exotic flavours so many of us love. The boring parts of cityhood are just as important as the sexy ones.
I have three thoughts about this. First and foremost, I agree that we need to focus on doing dull well. In Auckland, right at the moment, that means:
- Getting the city’s frequent bus network up and running, with the bus lanes and interchanges needed to make it go – which will extend good public transport services to many parts of the city that have historically been under-served
- Putting safe walking and cycling infrastructure in place rapidly and effectively – which means a lot of dull intersection rejigs and the like
- Ensuring that our urban planning framework will allow people to construction new dwellings in the places they want to be, without onerous restrictions like minimum parking requirements.
In fact, if you look back at Transportblog’s posting history, we’ve always been more concerned about boring but consequential topics. We’ve written much more about how important it is to have a functional public transport system that serves lots of people than it is to have novelty projects.
Which leads me on to a second point: When Renn directs his ire towards hipster urbanists who like streetcars, he fails to notice that transport agencies and politicians – you know, the people making the decisions – are often peddling much worse projects. The NAACP, an African-American civil rights organisation, may have opposed a streetcar in Cincinnati on the grounds that it would foster gentrification and eventually displace existing residents. But let’s not ignore the fact that ramming freeways through predominantly African-American inner city neighbourhoods has done much, much more damage.
In transport policy in particular, there’s a pernicious tendency to invest in expensive motorway projects that offer great ribbon-cutting opportunities. Unfortunately, many of these projects don’t offer especially good value for money. And they squeeze out funding for smaller, more beneficial projects, including maintenance and renewals of existing street networks.
Finally, some of Renn’s points about “boring” versus “exciting” cities don’t travel very well. Due to decades of neglect and deliberate anti-urban policies like inner-city freeways and discriminatory “redlining” mortgage policies, American cities are genuinely more decrepit and dangerous anything we’ve got down under. For example, Oakland, CA, a city of 400,000 people near San Francisco, has twice as many murders a year as the whole of New Zealand.
In other words, New Zealand’s cities are doing the boring stuff comparatively well. There’s certainly room to do dull better – and Transportblog will always argue for it. But it’s also okay to get excited about the hip and sexy things happening in our cities!