Going Sideways

19 thoughts on “Going Sideways”

  1. Hi Johnny,

    As you know, I love your stuff. You’ve got a really great perspective, with the images and storeis to back it up. You’re an urban naturalist, a la Jacobs.

    But, I want to take issue to your proposed financial strategy: buy low, don’t do anything, reap upside appreciation some day–essentially land speculation. I speak from experience of someone who is trying to repair the wholes in their walkable urban fabric at the small scale development level. Far too often our major road block is well… people who’ve taken the strategy you’ve described. They’ve done nothing for the neighborhood or their building and they will only sell for the potential future value of the development… so nothing happens and the neighborhoods continue to rot. In order for incremental development to work, people need to be in the game to do what they can with what they have, not waiting around for others to have done the work. Anyway, I think you might be right, but please don’t do it anywhere near where I’m working. I’ve already got enough of it to deal with. Thanks!


    1. Have the local regulators and Upright Citizens Brigade make small scale incremental improvements legal. Then come back and lecture me on not being on board.

  2. You think CA SB 1069 is too little too late? I inquired with the city recently about an ADU and came across the 2 biggies for this type of thing – utility hook ups & parking requirements. But she said SB 1069 may eliminate those requirements. BTW, she look very displeased as she was telling me this 🙂

    1. Meh. The state creates legislation and the locals immediately find work-arounds to stymie it. Cat and mouse. My recommendation (and this is what I’m doing myself) is to abandon any dreams of building an ADU since it will take an ungodly amount of time and money and may ultimately never happen. Instead, take that money and squirrel it away (preferable not in a bank since they’re unstable and insolvent at the moment – try 30 day treasury bills) and wait for the next big 2008 style market correction. It’s coming. Trust me on this one. Then buy a post crash property at a deep discount in a buyer’s market. No need to beg the authorities for permission.

      1. I hear you. Life’s too short. I think real change won’t happen until things get real. Until cities actually go bankrupt and driving becomes too expensive. Otherwise how are you going to convince people suburbs don’t work when they actually DO work at the present moment for a large majority of the populace?

  3. I can’t say I disagree with you or blame you for your outlook. Been down a similar path with “trying to do good” and hitting a wall. Bought, fixed, lived and sold one for a gain in suburban Dallas. Should have stuck with conventional wisdom, but decided to take the path less travelled in an older traditional neighborhood in Peoria. Drank the Smart Growth Kool-aid and wanted to apply my delusions of grandeur on a small scale. Bought, fixed, rented and sold at a loss.

    Read all the books, wrote a blog on it, joined organizations, started groups and even worked in a development position that was supposed to help right the ship. For perspective, I always like to look at human civilization over hundreds of thousands of years. This generally makes me feel better – Spoiler Alert: they fail badly…

    I’m wrapping up a book called, “Dream Cities” which I’d recommend to you for nothing else other than it goes through all the different states of Utopias people have previously imagined over the recent past. It’s always good to get a recap of history every so often because I’ve gone down the same rabbit’s hole of fist-shaking and other frustrations.

    I’d offer up a fourth paradigm to all of this, which is the teardown – in older neighborhoods, suburbs and rural areas. In either a renewal fashion or shrinkage application, it’s something we need to come to grips with. Once we have deemed something is obsolete and is no longer deserving of our romanticism, we might be able to forge new value out of recycling/repurposing the materials into a new form. That one’s a long shot, but we’ve already saturated the supply side and demand only seems to shift around like deck chairs on a cruise ship. If our next act is to recreate the whole damn thing all over again, then we’ll need to learn how to preserve, conserve and recycle.

    However, it again all comes back to contentment and complacency and how long people are willing to endure a model that doesn’t really work for them or the city they live in. In the long run it doesn’t bode well for us as humans. We’ll eventually need a huge catastrophe in order to change or alter our ways otherwise it will be classified as subjective taste or preference. As the Romans, Greek and others have found – it wasn’t built in a day and didn’t fail in a day either. Documenting the current decline for future generation “may” prevent their demise, but chances are that history will repeat itself…

  4. I think your vision of future adaptations is partially correct (in my opinion). The electric cars, solar panels, etc. will also happen, though. The car/house sharing is already happening among the poor. As this rises, so will the electric cars and solar panels among the more wealthy. And of course, this is a US-centric model: some other countries are fitting solar panels to most houses, whether they’re wealthy or not. Even the UK had a scheme where homeowners could have free panels, make use of the power, and any remaining was sold to the grid with the proceeds going to the panel owner/installer company. Tesla’s forthcoming solar roof aims to be cheaper and more durable than a standard roof, and is arriving next year. If they achieve that price, why would anyone install a standard roof ever again?

    1. I’m not against renewable energy or electric cars. But the idea that society will be able to continue business as usual by swapping out coal and oil for solar and wind doesn’t pencil out when you crunch the numbers. I’ve also spent a lot of time poking at the numbers behind a future of coal, fracking, ultra deep water wells, oil shale, tar sands, nuclear… That model hits a wall too. It’s all about energy return on energy investment – the amount of energy it takes to extract or create these sources of power. It’s a diminishing returns scenario moving forward no matter which route you take.

      What I’m describing here is a process where society eventually engages in a lower energy future regardless of the sources. If you reduce the amount of energy available suburbia either fails outright, or becomes much more rural in nature. Hyper dense skyscraper cities also run in to trouble. It’s all about societal complexity needing a certain amount of energy flow which will get harder and harder to maintain over the next century – although we’ll certainly try absolutely everything.

      Any random town from 1870 was built – and will continue to function – at a level that’s compatible with a much lower level of energy consumption. Skip all the cars. Skip elaborate transit systems. These places run largely on shoe leather. Ditch the fresh produce brought in from 2,000 miles away in February. These towns fed themselves from small diversified local farms and made do with strawberry jam and stored apples in winter. Towns used to be built on navigable waterways or at least a rail line that connected them to the rest of the world at an infinitely lower energy diet.

      Solar water heaters are currently a good return on investment in most locations and require nothing more advanced than a glass box, some tubes, and a holding tank. Plain vanilla windmills made of sheet metal like the ones from the Sears catalogue a century ago can pump water from a well. That works. It’s cheap and they can be installed and repaired by ordinary people with basic skills. But don’t expect 320 million Americans to live the way we do now using this energy base.

      1. Re windmill: that’s only good if the water table isn’t depleted so far that the simple pump won’t work on water at that depth.

        In all your doomsday scenarios you seldom mention the one most likely to be the biggie: fresh water. Most of the West already doesn’t have enough to go around. Most of the West relies on huge amounts of (cheap) energy to lift and move (ever-more-scarce) water toward money. This scenario doesn’t need an oil war, a bubble, or anything else than the steady ongoing Western drought to come to pass.

        1. Doomsday scenarios? I’m not a doomer. I’m just looking around and noticing what reality actually looks like and responding in a rational manner. Life will go on. There’s plenty of opportunity in being counter cyclical and getting ahead of the curve. For everyone who lost their overly leveraged home to foreclosure in the 2008 crash there was someone who bought a great property at half price in 2010.

          Yes, water is a problem in many places – and not just the western deserts. There are places where water is abundant, but terribly polluted. Does anyone want to drink out of any of the creeks in Northern New Jersey? People can live comfortable lives with radically less water, but it requires a cultural shift. For Americans it’s easier to simply exhaust a place and then move when the area is completely depleted.

          The old Sears windmills pump tiny bits of water up at a slow rate. If we limited ourselves to this rate of extraction the aquifers would hold up forever. Add in massive diesel pumps and circular pivot irrigation in the desert and sure, the End Is Near.

  5. Very timely, Johnny.

    We have a long-vacant box store (it used to be a branch of a now defunct home and garden chain(Remember “Yardbirds?)) that has been vacant off and on for years. Sitting there rotting. Homeless people camp behind it. It is in a “nicer” neighborhood, so someone has proposed a really nice, even fancy retrofit that includes….horrors…APARTMENTS. We have a council member who is wandering around behind the scenes trying to stir up shit against the project. Upright Citizens Brigade to the rescue. 😦

    1. I have sympathy for both the developer and the people who fear what he might build in their community. Our current conversation and practices are often a lose/lose affair. Are the proposed apartments going to be sad “garden” apartments on the side of a six lane arterial surrounded by half dead strip malls? That’s hardly a victory for good urbanism. Will they attract the “wrong element?” If you own a single family home next door to the dead garden center you probably think having two hundred renters over the back fence is the apocalypse. “Think of the children!” I suspect the compromise will involve a lesser number of “town home” condos in little clusters with landscaped berms and a “lake” A.K.A. “The Villas at Retention Pond.” The condos will be just as cheap and probably even flimsier than apartments, but the owner occupied model is more comforting. Of course, there’s no reason why the owners might not rent their units after they’re purchased…

      Do I want to live anywhere near any part of this neighborhood – including the precious single family homes? Nope. Do I think these places have a long term future? Nope. Do I care how the meat grinder process plays out? Nope. Failure fixes itself.

      1. Good points, all. The project (and location) is not QUITE as dire as all that.

        As a renter, I am frankly offended by those who think that I am somehow subhuman because I lack a mortgage. A pox on them all.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article. There are three organizations with which I was not familiar. Although I am aware of Smart Growth, neo-traditional development, workforce housing, etc from having spent most of my life in a large urban area I now reside in the Northwest, Rails to Trails is more relevant here. All these are good organizations,but I believe that Jane Jacobs had it right so many years ago. Thanks again for some great photos and the article.

  7. Johnny thank you for a very thoughtful vision of the future. I would like to see you explore beyond the standard expose of suburbia. I live at an eco village in Ontario, Canada. We are a small community of people trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle (low carbon, low consumption, very local food). Intentional Communities offer both opportunities for better food security, as well as other support (many hands …) and of course all of the challenges any situation becomes when you ad humans.

    1. I have some great examples of intentional communities that were built out of the spare parts of existing subdivisions. Only a third of the households are continuously active in the IC, another third shows up for special events, and the remaining third is ambivalent, but not obstructionist. This is a model that works well and can be scaled and replicated. Building an IC from scratch is a nightmare and keeping them together over time isn’t easy. And they tend to come in at a pretty high price point with a lot of debt.

  8. I totally agree, Johnny. In fact, my elderly, single mother has lived in the same two-story brick house (four beds, two living, 2.5 baths, two-car garage, bought as a HUD repo) for more than 25 years. She paid off the house 10 years ago. Although we are trying to talk her into moving to a more practical space for an older person, one reason she holds on to it is because she feels there is plenty of room for extended family if hard luck comes.

    1. Your mom’s a smart lady. Instead of trying to get her to move you could start that conversation about how exactly the house could accommodate family members and become more productive and fuel efficient.

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