Americans are used to a development pattern that’s orderly, but bumb and expensive. It wasn’t always like this. But over the last few generations we’ve become used to installing a huge amount of very expensive public infrastructure first, then slowly building some skimpy private structures on that chassis.
Then, because people fear density, traffic congestion, lower property values, “the wrong element”, et cetera… rules are put in place to make it impossible to build anything more in the area. The end result is that over time our towns are increasingly incapable of maintaining the systems required to sustain them. Municipal, county, state, and federal governments slip ever deeper into insolvency as expenses outstrip tax revenue.
I thought it might be instructive to examine how we used to build towns using a chaotic, but smart approach. What did New York or Chicago look like in their earliest days? The best modern examples can be found in other countries where this process is still unfolding. Here’s how it works in India. This isn’t in any way different from what our great grandparents did in the 1800’s so don’t let the local color distract you from the underlying development pattern.
First, the simplest possible structures are built to provide basic shelter and allow commerce to begin. Small portable water tanks and fuel cylinders do the job in these humble spaces. Latrines in the back suffice. Notice that this can be created with almost no money by people with limited construction skills and no political connections.
Over time families and businesses succeed in earning enough money to replace their tents and kiosks with small one or two room brick buildings. These still don’t have running water, but people manage.
As this incremental process continues the buildings are expanded and improved. This level of development is still largely self financed without much involvement from mainstream banks. Electricity makes its way to the neighborhood. The roads aren’t yet paved, but the local authorities have installed public water tanks. Rudimentary surface sewers carry dirty water away from homes and businesses.
Here the neighborhood has become viable enough to support piped water, underground sewers, and paved roads. Schools and medical centers have opened in the area.
The same little scraps of land that once held tents and one room huts now sport six story buildings occupied by professionals with middle class incomes. Banks have become involved at this point and spacious modern apartments are sold with mortgages by a developer. You can imagine how this process will continue over the next decade or two. Municipal services will improve as tax revenue increases and the sophistication of the inhabitants forces a tidier environment. The neighborhood will become cleaner and more beautiful with better quality shops.
If you’ve ever been to a romantic historic village in Italy, Spain, or France… this is how they developed too. You’re just seeing the mature wealthy version instead of the pimply adolescent stage.
Notice that if regulations had forced nothing but six story buildings to go up immediately with paved roads, electricity, sewer, and water from Day One the local economy probably couldn’t have supported any of it. Also notice that the poorer people in the area benefit greatly by having incrementally more work, wealthier customers, and higher property values in a steady stair step fashion that manages to lift most (if not all) boats with the rising development tide.
My point here isn’t that we should allow open sewers and unsanitary conditions to exist in North America. Instead, we could embrace variations on the theme of incremental urbanism and steady slightly irregular development mechanisms. Sooner or later we may not have much choice in the matter.
You may very well prefer life in a comfortable suburban home with its freshly paved arterial highways. Fine by me. But these neighborhoods are designed to age and decline. They’re trapped in amber with a culture that rejects any form of thickening or evolution. Once the sewers and other public infrastructure need to be replaced the money simply isn’t going to be there. Full stop. The only way these places can remain viable is for some other portion of the town to become more productive so revenue can be skimmed off to subsidize things over time. That works if most places are dynamic and only a few places are in need of subsidies. But we’ve managed to build out an entire continent of structurally insolvent places and only a small handful of places that generate more than they consume. The clock is ticking…