Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form

There’s a budding YIMBY movement across the country and across the world. Folks who enjoy cities and say “yes” to development near them. The reaction to this movement from anti-development advocates has frequently been to assume that the folks who want development are somehow a “front group” for developers. Perhaps some folks simply can’t understand why it is people would want development. So here’s five reasons people get drawn to varieties of different (and denser) housing forms, to an intermingling of commercial and residential uses,  to connected street grids. In short, this is why people say yes to urban forms and yes to development in their back yard!

1. Urban forms fight global warming

Everybody knows about substituting solar electricity for coal power, Priuses for pickups, and getting better insulation for your house. Moving from suburban to urban forms, though, can bring about changes that aren’t merely substitutional but transformational. Trading a large house for a smaller townhouse or apartment–even one that hasn’t been specially designed for environmentalism–means using less energy to cool and heat, both because less air needed to be heated and cooled but also because shared walls benefit from their neighbors’ climate control. More people living and working in close proximity to each other means shorter trips. This saves on gas in the car, but more importantly, makes it easier to take some or all trips using less polluting travel modes like walking, bicycling, or taking the bus.

2. Urban forms prevent habitat loss

People can live without green space, but most people don’t want to! Suburban forms answer this need by dedicating more green space to each house. Larger houses on larger lots with larger gaps between the houses provides room for everybody to have their own lawn or garden. You could think of it as borrowing a bit of nature from the countryside to live with you. And if this is what you want or need to be happy, I say more power to you; find that house! But if all of us have a nice big lawn, then as the population grows, we’ll need to pull ever more land out of its natural state to accommodate our houses and offices with their own lawns. Urban living offers the possibility of something different. Apartment dwellers sharing a courtyard or neighborhood park; small lot homeowners foregoing the large lawn; coop dwellers sharing a single big house. All of these folks take a little bit less of the rural into the city with them and leave it there for the critters!.

3. Urban forms give people access to more things to do

I grew up in a suburban environment: large house on a large lot, lots of green space, and strict separation of residential from commercial uses. It was a nice place to be and a nice place to walk but it was very hard for me to find things I needed! Within walking distance, I had zero jobs, one restaurant, and zero grocery stores. When I moved to a more urban form, my world came alive: libraries, universities, jobs, food and culture from all around the world became open to me.

4. Urban forms allow more affordable access

Whether you’re talking houses, townhouses, condos, apartments, or any other form of housing, there are some things that set expensive construction apart from less expensive construction: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, high-design finishes. In a place with more land than people, this is what sets apart a fancy house from a cheap one. But when you get into the city, the biggest factor in the price of most homes isn’t the construction, but the access. Is this my dream neighborhood? Is it close to schools, jobs, parks, play structures, music, food? In Austin, an empty lot in a great location can sell for twice as much as a fully built house in the suburbs! An empty block downtown can be 100s of times more valuable. Most mere mortals can’t afford to buy a full parcel downtown by themselves, but when folks pool their wealth together and build vertically, the price of that access can be split across hundreds of people, bringing it down to affordable levels.

5. Urban forms Allow variety

If you want excellent food from one culture, you go to the source, where that culture developed. If you want excellent food from many cultures, you go to a city. Cities are places where people of different backgrounds, jobs, and social statuses interact every day. There’s rightfully a lot of soul-searching on ways in which cities fail at this, from exclusive enclaves priced too high for much variety to two-tier public transportation systems. But cities face these questions because we know and expect that a city is a place for people of all stripes to come together and learn from one another.

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Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form