“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”—President Kennedy, May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress
Today’s pundits would have you believe that President Kennedy’s challenge to the American public was grandstanding rhetoric to get us to heat up the Cold War, but to me—an eager young Marine aviator sitting in the ready room—the gauntlet our Commander-in-Chief tossed down fairly sizzled in its brilliance. What a sensational concept—not that I for a moment believed it was possible. Maybe two decades, I thought, but in 1961, when the best we could toss into orbit could fit in a suitcase, this was right off the charts.
Now, I believe, is the time for us to do something equally mind-boggling: build cities that really work and that you and I and our kids can afford and enjoy living, working, and playing in.
Questioning a System Run Amok
Maybe you just like living in your truck or car for umpteen hours a week, windows rolled up and doors locked to keep all the advantages of urban life at bay. If you’re typical of residents in the LA Basin, Atlanta, DC, Kansas City, Seattle, or 100 other population centers in the US, you are destined to spend upward of 600 hours this next year cursing the traffic with breath whose saving grace is that it’s probably purer than the air from which it came. At the same time you find yourself fighting off dehydration with water that costs more than the gas you’re burning because you’re afraid to drink the stuff from the tap.
While we’ve been humping our tails off to be able to enjoy “the good life,” doesn't it seem that the goal has moved farther and farther to the right—almost to where we have to ask whether it’s even possible to get there from here? While it’s not an acceptable situation, it’s one we live with, however much it raises the question, “What do we do about it?”
I don’t pretend to know the answer—partly because I’m not bright enough, but also because there is no single answer. Instead, let me take a different tack and suggest that we need to ask questions—lots of them—about why we chose to live the way we do and how this stacks up against our expectations.
For example, why do people live in Simi Valley, CA, and drive 45 miles—75 minutes minimum each way in the daily commute—to a job near the Los Angeles Airport? Or what could possibly possess a person to take a job in downtown Seattle, knowing full well that he can't afford a house for his family within an hour’s commute? Or how do you run a successful business in Atlanta when the people you’d most like to hire don’t feel safe living in the neighborhood? The questions are endless, but even before you’ve gone very far, you’re struck by recurring issues: safety, congestion, health, convenience, opportunity, and so on. So why don’t we do something about them?
Let me offer a couple of thoughts here. First, urbanization and the spectacular growth of our cities is a rather recent phenomenon for which there were few, if any, guideposts to mark the way. Second, to the extent we’ve done urban planning, it takes the form of exclusionary zoning practices more apt to consider land values than long-range utility. Third (but by no means last), the diversification of our society along racial, ethnic, and cultural lines has become a major driver in the continued press toward suburbanization and its resultant—you’re not going to like this—ghettoization.
The point I want to make here is that the forces we’ve allowed to shape the growth and development of our cities have little to do with their utility or inhabitability. Worse still, these factors have, in many instances, mutated or migrated over the years, leaving behind a legacy of legal and territorial entanglements that are no longer applicable and certainly not fiscally sustainable.
Changing the Experiment
It’s time to go back and challenge the assumptions on which the myriad planning decisions and zoning ordinances in our cities are based. Then we’ve got to weigh their validity in terms of what it will take to attract private investment back into areas blighted not merely by age and neglect, but by faulty, politically motivated, and all-too-often fraudulently initiated public programs. If there’s a major city in the country that isn’t in crisis with crumbling infrastructure, social unrest, and inadequate service delivery, please inform my ignorance, but the time is fast approaching when limited government budgets will be unable to respond to these deteriorating situations. The longer we wait to remove the politically enacted impediments to private investment in our inner cities, the worse the situation will become. Our cities need rebuilding, so let’s commit ourselves to that goal. It’s time to convince our elected representative to get out of the political agenda business and let the market economy do its job.