Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Report from the hustings

Back from a book tour that took me through Denver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Chicago, following stops earlier in New York (Mayor's Institute on Long Island sponsored by the Regional Plan Association) and Washington (Brookings Institution, National Building Museum, Politics & Prose bookstore). Two observations. One, people are very eager to talk about growth and our living circumstances and the physical environment we arrange for ourselves. Two, every one of these cities, while wrestling with schools and infrastructure and crime, is entering a new kind of golden age. The condo towers are rising in Seattle's Belltown, the sidewalk cafes in Denver's LoDo, Chicago's stunning Millennium Park -- all clear evidence of a continuing resurgence of interest in cities and city living. With the greater demand comes higher prices, and that led me to address, everywhere I went, the central challenge of the smart growth movement: affordability. My own prediction is that more Americans will be turning away from sprawl in the years ahead, turned off by crushing transportation and energy costs, that will quickly wipe out any inititial savings from lower sticker prices for single-family homes miles from anywhere. But for middle-class families, the worst outcome would be alternatives that are equally expensive. Inclusionary zoning and affordability requirements can help. The best solution, however, is to make livable urban neighborhoods and older suburbs as ubiquitous as sprawl. That means investment, cutting red tape and reforming zoning so the revitalization can extend well beyond what we're seeing in LoDo and South of Market and the Pearl District today. The message is sinking in. San Francisco Chronicle urban design writer John King had this to say about This Land: Syndicated columnist Neal Peirce also wrote on the need to get busy on viable alternatives to sprawl, given our unfolding energy crisis: