Friday, March 21, 2014

Smart city growth isn't at the edges

Sienna, Italy.
Sprawling cities create a liability with every new subdivision. Cities can be lively and financially prudent by building up, not out.
The maintenance and replacement costs of that infrastructure are not sufficiently covered by the property taxes.
As each subdivision needs infrastructure maintenance that money comes from the tax revenue from several newer subdivisions, which don't need that maintenance yet.
This is the vicious circle of perpetual exponential growth. Just like any good Ponzi scheme, it works for you if you get in early, but you don't want to be stuck at the end.
The institution of 'the city' is there for the long game. It's going to be around for the reckoning. All the infrastructure that the city thought it was getting for free from developers will need expensive replacement.
Sprawling has other costs too. Obvious costs include the additional cost of transportation over longer distances, additional cost of road maintenance because there's more roads, and the opportunity cost of the paved agricultural land.
More hidden costs include the social isolation that exists in suburbs where it's difficult to connect with your neighbours.
Great neighbourhoods aren't about wide boulevards, two car garages and mature trees. Those things are pleasant amenities, and they're beside the point. Great neighbourhoods are places where you know someone who can lend you a fondue pot; places where you run across your friends on a regular basis.
Much of the city has already been built out at a low density. Fixing it involves creating dense nodes near amenities and transit hubs. It involves reinhabiting the main streets. It also means curtailing the sprawling fringe.
The dense pedestrian nodes keep down the costs associated with transportation, infrastructure maintenance, road work, and parking. If you can live in these places without needing a car except for unusual trips you can save a bundle. The city saves a bundle too, because it doesn't need to maintain so much area.
The costs are an important factor, but they can't compare to the social benefits that emerge when people live in community with each other. There can be conflicts, but those are outweighed by the benefits of having friends close, being close to the amenities you need, and living in a vibrant environment.
When you think of destinations like London, Paris, and New York they have an energy that you can't find in a sleepy suburb.

Quit building fluff around the edges. Reinvent that stale business model. Find ways to reinvigorate the core and you'll end up with a vibrant community that won't be a ticking time-bomb of infrastructure and social problems.

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