Part II of Can TODs Save Our Cities (and Suburbs): Shallow Ecology

Inspiring me to write Part II of Can TODs Save Our Cities? is this breaking news from the always-ahead-of-the-curve New York Times: Death of the Fringe Suburb! (exclamation point mine.)  The writer, Christopher Leinberger,  covers all the well-known suburban sprawl memes. Yes, Chris, that corpse has been pronounced dead by any number of planning pundits. But the more interesting story is how developers are jumping on the “TOD” bandwagon just like all the major food processing companies pounced on “lowfat”. The real bottom line for this guy is continued development and continued economic growth, in the old sense of GDP:

“Reinvesting in America’s built environment — which makes up a third of the country’s assets — and reviving the construction trades are vital for lifting our economic growth rate. (Disclosure: I am the president of Locus, a coalition of real estate developers and investors and a project of Smart Growth America, which supports walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development.)”

The problem is that, for several reasons, we cannot continue to expect “growth”; in fact, to begin to tackle some of our most serious problems, we need to come to grips with a contraction. And not a temporary contraction, but a “for the foreseeable next few milleniums” contraction.

For Leinberger, it still all comes back to us not as citizens, but as consumers—the all-important, omnipotent “market”—as though this were a system handed down by god, and not something created by man in the last couple of two hundred years or so:

“It is time to instead build what the market wants: mixed-income, walkable cities and suburbs that will support the knowledge economy, promote environmental sustainability and create jobs.”

In and of itself, building a brand-new “walkable suburb or city” from the rubble of a strip mall (one of his examples) does not “promote environmental sustainability,” whatever exactly is meant by that overused and underthought phrase. And while we’re asking, what  is the “knowledge economy” and what good is it doing us? His essay nowhere acknowledges that the current economic system, with its obsessive need for growth at the expense of the planet’s resources and environmental health, is no longer tenable, and in fact hasn’t been for some time.
Leinberger reached into the bag of currently popular ideas, complete with ready to go vocabulary words,  to write this piece. Forgetting about how these supposed tenets of TODs are actually implemented (Beacon was recently faced with approving zoning for a “TOD” that would have greatly increased auto traffic in and around the city) in the end, it’s another example of a technology fix.

Just as many believe we can engineer ourselves out of climate change and peak resources with solar power and electric cars and other, yet to be named technologies, so we are being told that “walkable, bikeable cities” will be our salvation—another engineering solution (and one that rarely, if ever, actually considers walking and biking before the accomodation of cars). All we good consumers must do now is buy a spanking new townhouse with 1.3 parking spaces for our electric car, that has a Trader Joes within walking distance and voila! the planet (and the American Way of Life!) is safe once again. Hey, this isn’t so bad!

I’m not saying that, at least in the short term, making our towns and cities less auto-friendly and stopping development of any more burbs is not a good thing. We could start with lowering in-town speed limits, limiting parking availability, banning cars from certain areas,–all can be done without lifting a shovel or spending a penny and would go a long way toward making our cities and towns “walkable and bikeable.” But we should be vigilant in that many interested parties will see TODs and Smart Growth as simply the development/growth pattern flavor du jour, and none of the underlying causes of our dilemmas will be sufficiently addressed.

Stay tuned: In Part III I will try to unleash some cheery solutions.

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