Cities are shaped by choice

A historian of suburban sprawl reminds us that individual decisions play a huge role in shaping modern cities. They can have more impact than the pocketbook of a Paul Allen.
Crosscut archive image.

The Bellevue skyline.

A historian of suburban sprawl reminds us that individual decisions play a huge role in shaping modern cities. They can have more impact than the pocketbook of a Paul Allen.

Sometimes after you finish writing a story, you find the perfect quote that would have helped underscore your point. That happened to me last weekend. Recently, I wrote about how our individual choices and tastes play a role in the cost of housing — that the upsizing of our space and luxury demands is inconsistent with our goals of making Seattle a more affordable city. The expense of housing here is not all because of regulation and growth management, it's partly due to entirely optional amenities that some consumers demand, like bigger homes, more bathrooms, and granite countertops. The decisions to convert small homes like bungalows into megahouses, or to replace affordable studio apartments with larger, ritzier condos for part-time residents who choose to live much of the year in Palm Springs, are factors that influence affordability.

The counter-argument is that we're all at the mercy of the market — unable to resist its power. I was reading Robert Bruegmann's excellent book Sprawl: A Compact History (University of Chicago Press, 2005) over the weekend. Bruegmann is a professor in architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It's an excellent look at our relationship with the complicated thing we now call sprawl — an ancient phenomenon that's been around almost as long as cities have. Yes, ancient Rome had sprawl, and it was called, what else? The suburbium.

Bruegmann's book is really an updated look at the forces shaping modern cities and the relationship between the urbs, suburbs, and exurbs. As our own Growth Management Act (GMA) demonstrates, they are interconnected, a part of a larger entity reflecting human life and endeavor. In his conclusions, he discusses the impact that individuals have on cities, and I think it goes to the heart of the point I was trying to make: Most people, especially academics, have resisted the notion that ordinary citizens have played a major role in the creation of the great cities of the world. They would argue that the average urban family actually has few choices because these choices are so heavily controlled by vast economic, political, and social systems. The family can only buy what the merchant offers or the developer builds or the government allows. They will say that it is those with power who make all the important decisions. Of course, in one sense they are correct. Everyone is constrained by what is available to them, whether by governmental decree, the marketplace, or societal pressure. But it seems fair to say that the average family in the affluent world today has more choices available to it than a similar family in any other society or era in history. Moreover, even a little reflection will suggest that very few individuals, no matter how wealthy or powerful, have the ability to change fundamentally any large piece of our built environment on their own [please note, Paul Allen]...A billion dollars, for example, in most cities would buy only about 2,000 moderately expensive houses.

At the same time, every individual has some role in determining how the city looks and functions. If I shop at a suburban Wal-Mart rather than a downtown department store or choose to live in an apartment near the old downtown rather than in a single-family house on five acres in exurbia, these choices have an effect on urban form. If my choices are echoed by those of many other people, they can have a profound effect. More than any other human artifact in the world today, our urban areas are the result of the actions of every citizen, every group, and every institution, every day.

My story generated some excellent comments from readers about what is enough, or what is "sufficient." The sustainability movement attempts to get at this as well, though the term "sustainability" tends to carry many unintended agendas as well. (I think of a friend of mine who asked a Chinese executive if his steel mill was sustainable, and was told yes, its growth and output were very sustainable, meaning virtually unlimited!)

I'm not lecturing people about how to live. I don't think there's just one way to live "correctly." But we shouldn't duck responsibility for our choices by just blaming the system and its parts (government, taxes, bureaucrats, developers) when we don't like the outcome. You can beat up on the imperfect GMA (which civic legend Jim Ellis once described to me as a "blunt instrument"), but neither the GMA nor "the market" lets us off the hook for personal decisions that have a collective impact. This is true when it comes to the environment, and when it involves the social fabric.

As Bruegmann points out, we who are affluent and privileged have an even greater responsibility to understand the impact of our choices on others. And we also have an unparalleled ability to change course if the effects are damaging to the city we love.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.