As Americans, we’re used to cities from small towns to the great metropolises having a downtown, where the three or more story buildings and offices are, industrial areas and residential areas. We’re so used to it that in urban planning circles they’ve given downtowns the general name of “Central Business District.”
In larger cities there’s even something called the Central Business District effect, where downtown land values are much higher than they are expected.
Unsurprisingly, CBDs are protected and encouraged through zoning. Downtowns developed for three main reasons: it was convenient for businesses to be located near railroads, which usually meant near industry and so people wanted to live apart from that; rapid population growth brought immigrants who the existing residents didn’t want to live near, but it would have been too problematic to move the businesses; thirdly, rapid economic growth in the nineteenth century resulted in businesses buying up a lot of land for office use. This was especially noticable in the City of London, which went from a population of over 100,000 at the beginning of the century to a population of less than 20,000 by the end, thanks to those factors and the construction of the Tube.
But there are other factors, as well. In London, for example, the British government actively drove out poor people by building roads and railways through their neighborhoods, sometimes as part as efforts at improving sanitation. In the United States, city and state governments subsidize the construction of office towers downtown and prohibit their construction elsewhere with zoning, as well as using “urban renewal” funds from the federal government to move downtown residents out and sell the vacant land to office developers. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, suburban development is subsidized with highways and loans and urban development is discouraged.
The result, wherever you live, might be a madman’s (or a central planner’s) idea of order, but is a way of life so stiflingly anti-human that everyone hates it. It has the universal result of rush hour as everyone has to get from home to work and back in some kind of vehicle at the same time. On the coasts, roads are jammed and trains are at crush load, while in the interior it means parking craters, where a few commercial buildings are surrounded by acres upon acres of dull, gray surface parking and parking structures.
It also increases crime, as residential; neighborhoods are deserted by day and commercial/industrial ones are deserted at night, it increases pollution and results in obesity from stress and sitting in the car for a long period. These things in turn increase healthcare costs, insurance, fuel, infrastructure and equipment is worn out sooner so there have to be roadworks and slower trains, which further increase problems and costs. Eventually your life turns into Office Space and then your costs of living and taxes take out so much of your income you can’t save any money, your children have to take on decades worth of debt to earn even less of a living than you and your great grandchildren end up as serfs belonging to land owned by the descendents of a Silicon Valley netrepreneur, all because of shitty urban design!
But if city halls weren’t concerned about lining the pockets of developers and didn’t use land use regulation and eminent domain to manipulate prices and uses?
Then we might see things a bit different: some parts of cities are still skyscraper forests, built during property booms, but since the government wasn’t stepping in to bail out the mistakes and there were no restrictions on use, many of them have been turned into apartments. People and office buildings are more evenly distributed through out the city, while small scale industry is slightly more concentrated, mostly around railroads, ports and even a highway. There are no parking minimums or floor-area-ratios, so the city is denser, both in terms of population and building coverage. There are a few parking structures, but it’s shared as opposed to exclusive. Many people live within walking or biking distance of where they work and if they have cars, only use them rarely. The transit system is used throughout the day, instead of being at crush load twice a day.
Apart from bikes, the only vehicles on most roads are buses, with freight deliveries within the city handled by cargo bike because they’re less noisy and dangerous. Taxes are lower, because there’s less wear and tear on the infrastructure and the buildings weren’t built with subsidies or tax abatements and the denser, more lively city suffers from only a small amount of crime.
Meanwhile, because development follows actual market demand, people pay far less than one-third of their income for housing and transportation. Many people save up to 50 percent of their income and a lot of them leave their corporate jobs to start their own businesses after buying a home outright or work only part-time.
Life isn’t without its problems: most people would like more parks and public schools remain plodding.
I’m sure there might be more issues than that, but the fact is, this damn obssession with “order” and “efficiency” and the constant meddling in prices and demand by governments has been making our cities boring, delapidated, dangerous and maddening for 150 years. And we keep making the same mistakes over and over again!