Government Anti-Midases Produced the 'Burbs

Monday, December 05, 2016

One of the things I miss the most about living in St. Louis is the fact that the older, "streetcar" suburb where we resided was relatively dense and had streets laid out in a grid. I still had to drive a lot more than I did when we were in the middle of Boston before that (and easily got by without even owning a car). But it was still easy to do things on foot, or even using public transit. On sunny days, I would sometimes take the ten- or fifteen-minute walk to a nearby commercialized area and pick out a coffee shop for work.

In Maryland, I need a car to do almost anything, due to our suburban street layout. (And yes, I live on a cul-de-sac.) As you may have guessed, we live in an area built after World War II. On top of that, I bet you probably also thought, as I had, that this kind of development has been what the market has demanded for a long time. As it turns out, we are wrong on that second count:

The Federal Housing Authority embraced the cul-de-sac and published technical bulletins in the 1930s that painted the urban street grid as monotonous, unsafe, and characterless. Government pamphlets literally showed illustrations of the two neighborhood designs with the words "bad" and "good" printed alongside them.

The FHA had a hand in developing tens of millions of new properties and mortgages, and its idiosyncratic design preferences evolved into regulation. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, there were almost no new housing developments in the U.S. built on a simple grid.
Yes. Central "planning" is to blame for the spaghetti-like mess at the edges of those cities that aren't also laid out that way. The article linked above also notes that, on top of this layout necessitating more driving, it is also less safe than the older layout. This last fact may be due to the more traditional grid requiring drivers to pay more attention to what they are doing, or drive more slowly.

I have encountered so many instances of the octopus of the state slithering into so many disparate areas of our life that this should not have surprised me and yet it does, a little. And if it surprises me, I am sure others with a more naïve view of government regulation would be incredulous at best: The idea of not trusting the government the next time it tells us how to build communities might not even occur to them...

-- CAV

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