I’m Traveling Cross-Country to Write a Book on Market Urbanism

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Ever since Adam founded this blog, it has become a great forum for describing how free-market economics intersect with urban issues. But the term Market Urbanism itself has remained under the radar, especially compared to ones that encourage more government intervention for cities, like “Smart Growth.” I’ve always thought that Adam’s term deserved more mainstream cache. So I’m traveling cross-country to write a book about it.

My name is Scott Beyer, and I’m a 29-year-old urban affairs journalist from Charlottesville, VA. This week, I began a 3-year trip that will include month-long stays in 26 major cities, and visits to hundreds of smaller ones. Part of this is to continue work as a columnist for Forbes and Governing Magazine. But mainly it is to write a book that I’ve tentatively titled The Sparks From Within—How Market Urbanism Can Revive U.S. Cities.

My inspiration for this trip dates to my late teens, when I moved to New York City. I quickly become so enthralled with the fast-paced culture and diversity of urban life that I saved up some money to backpack the nation’s other cities. This continued on and off through my twenties, as I visited the nation’s 100 largest, burning through several Greyhound “Discovery Passes,” hitchhiking dozens of rides, and even once hopping a freight train from Jacksonville to New Orleans.

I had first expected that these cities would be as dynamic as New York, but was surprised to find otherwise. On one hand, numerous ones had declined despite decades of U.S. population growth, and now had neighborhoods that would embarrass a Third World country. And even many successful ones lacked a certain gravitas, with downtowns that hollowed out after 5pm.

Why were so many cities like this? That question inspired a research period after I returned home that extended for several years. My main conclusion was that U.S. urban failure did not result only from global forces like deindustrialization, but because of counterproductive government policies. This began with post-WWII federal policies that encouraged suburban flight, such as slum clearance, highway subsidies, and loan programs favoring single-family homes. When this caused industry to leave, many cities, feeling desperate, adopted their own aggressive policies, and have maintained this heavily-centralized model ever since. In most large cities today, powerful bureaucracies—bolstered by regulatory authority and gobs of federal money—dictate where and how growth happens. Rather than enlightened decision-making, this administrative model has produced a comedy of errors, as America’s cities are dominated by high taxes and regulations, political machines, rent-seeking, cronyism, property confiscation, and sometimes plain corruption.

What I also learned through research, though, was that this model had inspired numerous pro-market, small-government reforms for cities. These have included charter schools, defined contribution pensions, one-stop shops for business permits, zoning deregulation, and whatever else liberalizes economies and reduces the dead weight of government. These reforms have been explained in depth by various commentators—mostly on the right—but have always floated around separately. I would like to combine them into a single policy blueprint that would make U.S. cities more competitive in the 21st century. I thought the term “Market Urbanism” was catchy, and because Adam’s blog advocates for these policies, I asked him about expanding the concept into a book.  He told me to go for it.

During the trip, I plan to write about 26 different reforms, using each as a chapter for a given city. These chapters will be divided into 5 sections, dealing with housing, transportation, business climate, public services, and finance. This localized, case-study format will help me explore the details of how each reform would help a specific city—and who now opposes it.

What do I hope to accomplish from this project? I would like to bring the term Market Urbanism into public consciousness, and into direct competition with the moldy prevailing wisdom of America’s cities. For decades, this wisdom—moving from academia on through city hall—is that urban problems must be solved through more government. The point of my book is to explain why market alternatives would solve them better—while making cities denser, faster-growing, more affordable, and more livable.

I would encourage the readers of this blog to follow my project, either through my website, BigCitySparkplug.com, or my Forbes profile. I should also note that every Friday, I’ll be providing updates on MarketUrbanism.com from the road, including links to articles I’ve written that week, research I’ve encountered, or whatever else may be on my mind. I hope over these three years that I can connect with my fellow Market Urbanists, and if I happen to be in your city, please don’t be shy about reaching out, as I prefer learning about places through the locals. But at very least, I hope to bring America’s cities alive for you via the web, as I report on them directly from the streets.

Reach out to Scott about his travels:

Glamour in streetscapes

A while ago I attended an Urban Land Institute event on development trends in Fairfax’s Mosaic District. A presenter from the retail developer EDENS described their strategy of adding “sidewalk jewelry,” a design technique used to entice shoppers to travel down sidewalks between stores. Having never heard the term before, it nonetheless stuck with me as I thought about retail developments that manage to create relatively lively pedestrian environments from the top down.

At Mosaic District, this street jewelry takes the form of signage designed to engage pedestrians, fountains, and planters:

Mosaic 1

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It’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing and engaging to pedestrians than the average strip center. While the typical strip mall has a parking lot for a set back, Mosaic District has a parking garage that allows the rest of the center to be more pedestrian-scaled. With the “sidewalk jewelry” framework in mind, it’s easy to see that many retail developers have embraced this trend toward focusing on the pedestrian experience once shoppers have left their cars at the center’s periphery. While Easton Town Center in Columbus has many of the same stores as any major mall, it’s outdoor shopping environment is distinctly different, attempting to emulate the “town center” in its name:

Easton town center

For shoppers who value retail ambience, these “lifestyle center” sidewalks provide a much nicer atmosphere relative to more dated strip center or shopping mall designs, but they can’t compare to environments where storefront decorations developed more organically. A recent trip to Quebec City reminded me of the sidewalk jewelry term, but there the visual treats that lure pedestrians down the sidewalk have much more texture than the shopping centers’ above because they are the result of an emergent order among the street’s businesses and residents rather than one developer’s vision:

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This type of street meets social critic Virginia Postrel’s framework of glamour. In her book The Power of Glamour, she explains that glamour is something that transcends our everyday life and transports us to better, different circumstances. She explains that shapes that evoke mystery carry glamour because they create mystery at what lies beyond. The fortress walls surrounding the Quebec City add a sort of magic to the city’s charming streets:

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Quebec City’s glamour makes it appealing to tourists, but cities that are home to more productive innovation have streets with even more glamour, such as this Tokyo scene where each sign invites the pedestrian to find out what’s inside the business:

Tokyo

As Postrel explains, this glamour “invites us into a world without giving us a completely clear picture.” While people may dismiss the importance of glamour in cities as a frivolous quality, Postrel explains the importance of glamour in our lives:

Glamour is all about hope and change. It lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. Depending on the audience, that feeling may provide momentary pleasure or life-altering inspiration.

[. . .]

Glamour can, of course, sell evening gowns, vacation packages, and luxury kitchens. But it can also promote moon shots and “green jobs,” urban renewal schemes and military action. (The “glamour of battle” long preceded the glamour of Hollywood.) Californians once found freeways glamorous; today they thrill to promises of high-speed rail. “Terror is glamour,” said Salman Rushdie in a 2006 interview, identifying the inspiration of jihadi terrorists. New Soviet Man was a glamorous concept. So is the American Dream.

Glamour, in short, is serious stuff. It can alter life plans, even change history. And as a broad psychological phenomenon, it holds intrinsic interest. While rarely addressed in C-SPAN discussions, glamour is the sort of topic to which such 18th-century titans as Adam Smith and David Hume often turned their attention. It spans culture and commerce, psychology and art.

Land use restrictions do a lot to eliminate glamour from urban development through setback requirements, parking requirements, and height limits. Rules of the game that favor large-scale development over the environment that’s possible with the chaos of many small developments prevent the elements of surprise that glamorous streets have. Today’s retail developers are attempting to add glamour back into their products with sidewalk jewelry, but no amount of attention to design on their part will match the level of intrigue of the streetscapes above. Viewed through Postrel’s lens, rules that remove glamour from cities aren’t just bad for the pedestrian experience, but they also dampen what can be an important source of inspiration in our lives. If glamour plays a role in driving us to action, it may be one factor that encourages people to pursue their work in the place where they will be most productive. Rules that eliminate glamour from a city’s physical environment can ultimately reduce its contribution to economic progress.

 

Potential for Voluntary Infrastructure

Last fall I visited Budapest and learned some interesting history of the city’s beautiful Chain Bridge. Before 1849, the small cities of Buda and Pest were connected by a temporary bridge that was only viable during warm months. In the winter, the bridge had to be taken down due to ice, making it impossible to cross the Danube between the two cities if the ice wasn’t solid enough to walk on. Count István Széchenyi, a Hungarian statesman who traveled extensively throughout Europe, made it his mission to secure financing for a bridge to improve economic growth opportunities and Budapest’s standing on the world stage. His experiences in rapidly modernizing cities like London taught Széchenyi the importance of mobility for economic growth.

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Legend has it that Széchenyi was motivated to build a bridge between Buda and Pest because ice on the Danube prevented him from getting to see his sick father before he died, but it’s unclear to me if this is an accurate history. The bridge was the realization of both a politician’s ambitions and a private financiers goal to profit from tolling the bridge and by increasing the value of his landholding in Pest. While the bridge lost money during its financier’s life, it ultimately began turning a profit in 1860. It’s impossible to understand Széchenyi’s motivations for securing the bridge centuries later, but it seems he was likely motivated by a combination of profit seeking, nationalistic pride, and philanthropy. The Chain Bridge joined a slew of other privately built bridges and other infrastructure around the world, built either by people who hoped to profit from providing transportation services or who sought to increase their land value by providing mobility.

While a voluntarily built bridge seems exceptional from today’s vantage point — when a public private partnership or contracted toll road management seems like the “free market” alternative to government built and managed infrastructure — this is because government policies have radically transformed infrastructure provision. As Adam has pointed out previously (along with David Levinson and others), transportation is a private good, not a public good that carries a strong rationale for government provision. History demonstrates that absent government provision and given a legal market that supports it, individuals and firms in the free market will provide infrastructure. While some argue that mobility has positive externalities, the presence of positive externalities doesn’t mean that a good should be provided by the government, or even subsidized. Beautiful architecture has positive externalities for the neighborhood around it and smaller positive externalities for passers by who enjoy it, but this doesn’t make it a good idea for the government to take over building design or for the government to subsidize property owners who choose good design.

The general growth of government beginning in the 19th century along with many discrete policy decisions have led to the decline of voluntary transportation infrastructure, but technological and economic changes should make non-government infrastructure more attainable than ever. Large corporations from Wal Mart to Apple have huge interests in ensuring that their products reach their consumers in a timely manner. It’s not difficult to imagine that corporations could play a large role in providing infrastructure in world without government crowd out. Given that private infrastructure prevailed in a time when making infrastructure excludable was more costly, technology today has only made voluntary infrastructure more attainable.