Where To Go Post Election? Stop Saying Urbanism.

Ignoring the national political shitshow for a bit, the results of the local elections in Austin seem to be basically the status quo.  Delia Garza and Greg Casar have been the two most reliable supporters of better transportation and land use policy in the Austin, and they both won re-election easily.  Natalie Gauldin was defeated soundly, which means that Leslie Pool will continue to be strong voice against increasing housing (both affordable and market rate).  Sheri Gallo will hopefully win her runoff, and we will be left where we were over the past two years.

So the question becomes how best to work with Leslie Pool and the other city council members that are either ambivalent, ignorant, or actively hostile to building more housing and better public transportation.

I think one move to is to drop the label of “urbanist”.  Even for someone in their 20s like myself, the word still has connotations of “new urbanist” white suburb recreations like Celebration, Florida.  “Urbanist” still feels like it advocates master planning an ideal life for middle class families with two kids where Mom stays home and cooks casserole after Dad comes home from his job in middle management downtown.  There’s plenty of parking on both ends of the perfectly planned commute!

But master planning is not really what most of us are about.  The places that most urbanists love (most big American cities) weren’t built with master plans, they were built before modern zoning really existed.  The point is not that we should do away with all housing regulations or zoning, the point is that we don’t need master plans.  We just need to let people live where they want and get around how they want.  People have lots of different ideals and tastes about the places they want to live, and they should have lots of choices!  If people want to live in the suburbs, great, more cheaper housing for me in the central city.  If people want to drive everywhere, great, more room for me on the bus or train.

I feel the same way whenever I hear people called “density advocates”.  I’m not advocating that anyone live a more dense place than they want to, but I am advocating for them to have the choice of doing so.  No one wants to force anyone to live a Manhattanized hellhole if that’s not what they want.  But Manhattan is one of the most expensive places on earth!  Clearly people want to live there or a place like it, and there’s no reason that regulations should prevent that from happening.

One way of living is not inherently “better”, but there is a superiority in the term “urbanist” that I’m not sure it will ever shake.  Yes, living in a multifamily dwelling and riding transit is better for the environment, but technological advances like clean energy and electric cars might shrink that difference significantly in the next 20 years.  If people living in the suburbs isn’t bad for the environment and it’s not subsidized any more than living in the city, then go for it!  Again, more space for me in the city.

That doesn’t mean that one policy is not objectively better than another, however.  I think the policies that most urbanists advocate for are objectively better, and the arguments that we make should illustrate that rather than attempting to sell a lifestyle change to people that don’t want it.  So back to how we work with Leslie Pool and other people that see “urbanism” and “density” as threatening?  Use different terminology.

Say “fair housing” to describe allowing more housing types, because in reality that’s what it is.  Adding housing in the central city is good for equality and good for the Austin economy.  Preventing housing construction is hostile towards renters and non homeowners, which I don’t think is fair policy.

Talk about “parking burdens” placed on businesses and landowners that are forced to provide parking that their customers and tenants don’t want.  Explain over and over and over again that building parking costs a lot of money.  If anyone needs a refresher, Miami recently reduced parking burdens on residential developers, and a developer described his issues with the previous zoning:

Frey was unsure yet about what kind of rents the building would command, he estimated that building structured parking–in this case 12 spaces, under the previous regulations–would have cost $300,000, or $25,000 per space. This, he said, would have added roughly $330 per month to average rents, an uptick that he would have been unlikely to command in the working-class immigrant neighborhood.

$330 per month to the average rent is astonishing.  When anyone wonders why all new housing in Austin is so expensive, show them that quote.  If Pool or any other Council member talks about affordability, show them that quote.

But I do think it’s time to move past the urbanism of the past.  I’m not trying to master plan anyone’s life, and neither should you.  The sane thing is to give developers, businesses, and residents options about how they want to use their properties, and let people live the way they want.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *