In thinking about the recent revolutions and unrest in North Africa, Richard Florida tweeted March 4 2011 that:
Great cities mobilize human energy. That energy = innovation & creativity in free & open city.
In the middle east right now, human energy is motivated toward bringing political change. But what’s been happening back in North America? How has this mobilized human energy been shaping metro area housing?
As others have previously observed, revolutions tend to emerge from cities. Following success in urban and higher-density Cuba, Che Guevara had no luck convincing Bolivian peasants to rise up. It’s easier to mobilize urban people.
This got me thinking about life, mobilization and protests in dense, transit-oriented and walkable city areas versus auto-centred suburbs. More spaced out, and car-centred suburban living seems to prevent people from getting together to protest something. I rarely hear of protest marches in the suburbs, for example. Meanwhile downtown and in the denser urban neighbourhoods I can observe one almost every day (just go to the ritual protest spots).
I’ve also observed how much harder it is to build new housing, office space, or even community spaces in dense urban areas compared to the suburbs. It’s hard to change people’s communities. People living there all see something happening, they walk and take transit so have time to chat about it with the neighbours and friends, and then they often fight the proposed change. This is often good as it provides a democratic check on various initiatives that might not be a good idea in the long run (but might be politically expedient today). Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods would have been torn down to put in a freeway in the 1970s if people hadn’t fought it, for example.
But this tendency for people to fight change is also at least partially responsible for the rising costs of housing in urban cores. Just try to double the density on one site in an established neighbourhood (as opposed to a new, greenfield one), it’s a tough battle. Adding a new subdivision in a suburb is often quite easy by comparison.
When I see protests about high housing costs in Vancouver, I sometimes wonder if these are the same people that protested against the building of new market rental housing in their neighbourhood (housing which the planning department recommended).
Ed Glaeser in his new book (which I have yet to secure a copy of) has apparently critiqued city planners for not allowing for more height in core areas, which has had the result of limiting housing supply and pushing prices up, thereby forcing millions across North America into the suburbs. Maybe it’s not the planners’ fault? maybe the citizens and politicians have been the ones resisting the change. And today Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog wondered if it is the boomers and war-time generations specifically (although I’m unsure about this).
Cities are full of contradictions and ironies. Cities are also full of ideas, different tribes of people, and different ways of looking at problems. People in cities talk, and seeing that they are not one lone person, they feel empowered, whether in Tunisia or Toronto or San Francisco or Vancouver. This makes cities vibrant places.
But if we want to critique the reasons for sprawl and high cost urban housing, perhaps we need to look in the collective mirror and not blame only the planners.