We Should Forge a Nation of Hyperdensity

New book imagines, predicts, and proposes a rewarding urban life.

Denver today

“Imagine a country in which our policies would actually support the current desires of our citizens, not the desires that supposedly existed six decades ago, during the postwar era,” writes Vishaan Chakrabarti in his newly released book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America, with a forward by Norman Foster and illustrations by SHoP Architects. But the star of the book is Vishaan, who puts forth a convincing and well reasoned argument for an urbanized America in the 21st century. His voice is strong and resonant.

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The following text is excerpted from Country of Cities. It presents a vision that we’re just beginning to decipher, a vision that needs many strong voices engaged in serious debates about how we will shift from a country of suburbs to a country of cities. —Susan S. Szenasy

Imagine a Country of Cities.

Imagine a new countryside dotted with large cities and small towns, dominated by trains, towers, and trees, with little but agriculture and nature in between. Imagine this transformation occurring in a matter of decades, just as it took only a few quick decades in the twentieth century to transform the beauty of America into anonymous sprawl. Imagine this new landscape, this Country of Cities, resulting not from new regulations or burdensome mandates but from the agency of ordinary Americans exercising market-based choices, free from the suburbanizing manipulations of the federal government.

Imagine a country in which government policies would support the real desires of its citizens, not the desires that supposedly existed six decades ago, during the postwar era. Americans today are urbanizing, with the demand for high-rise multifamily rental housing increasing dramatically in the wake of the economic crisis. Young people, immigrants, and seniors alike want to live near mass transit, near shops and restaurants, and near each other. Economic opportunities, environmentalism, public health, diversity, and the inherent joy of cities are together creating a profound and lasting transformation of the lifestyle sought by everyday Americans. Many of us are flocking to cities without government assistance, unlike our suburban counterparts who continue, however unknowingly, to enjoy enormous subsidies in terms of highway funding, mortgage deductions, relaxed standards for the emission levels of SUVs and minivans, and undertaxed pollution and congestion.

The growing urbanization of America represents a rising tide against the pernicious undertow of federal suburban subsidies, subsidies that swelled the current housing crisis and left so many Americans adrift and underwater. This tide can now lift all boats and, guided by a new national imagination, carry us to a more prosperous and sustainable land.

Imagine citizens who fully understood what most leading economists already know and what Jane Jacobs asserted when she wrote Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Cities wield overwhelming economic advantages in a global economy, advantages that, if unharnessed, would lead us out of our current malaise and establish a lasting, widespread American prosperity.

Imagine environmentalists who truly embraced cities as the only sustainable means of creating a lasting future for a planet of many billions, a future in which the realities of climate change could be mitigated by the inherent resilience and resource efficiencies of urbanity.

Imagine a culture that viewed cities as the central means of establishing a healthy and happy citizenry, a culture that not only walked more and reveled in the wonders of our vast urban parks but also interacted more across social and cultural boundaries to truly realize the thriving, vital, diverse nation that is our manifest destiny.

Imagine a nation that embraced the indisputable facts about the economic, ecological, and health benefits of cities and, as a consequence, directed its intellectual energies toward the development of hyperdensity at the local level, defying NIMBYism and an outdated national-planning apparatus that attempts but fails to work for the public good.

Imagine we could summon the will to build an Infrastructure of Opportunity by enacting ASIA, the American Smart Infrastructure Act, which would focus our resources on high-speed rail and mass transit, recapture the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of societal pollution and congestion costs, and equalize the balance of payments cities make to state and federal governments.

Imagine America returning to a country of open roads and clear skies, in which a trip to a summer cottage, a cross-country drive, or a family vacation abroad were free from the mind-numbing congestion that bogs us down, preventing us from enjoying the most precious asset of a service economy, time.

Imagine we could call upon our fundamental beliefs as a nation to then build cities that offered equal opportunities for all Americans through the construction of extensive and accessible urban affordable housing, development in which costs could be brought down through greater density, public-private partnerships, efficient construction technologies, and a redirection of the billions in mortgage interest deductions currently pocketed by the wealthy.

Is it folly to imagine this Country of Cities? No doubt, to any wise reader, this might seem like wishful, potentially delusional thinking. Even if convinced by the overwhelming data regarding the advantages of cities, who among us believes we could successfully act on it?  Who, for instance, believes we could convince localities to embrace hyperdensity or persuade the federal government to pass smart infrastructure legislation, or phase out the MID and use the proceeds to fund affordable housing? Is a Country of Cities a far-off land in an urban fairy tale?

But political sacred cows can be slain, and social third rails crossed, if we can just listen to each other regardless of political affiliation. Consider a recent editorial in the conservative Wall Street Journal, which stated in unambiguous terms: “As an economic matter, the mortgage deduction has long done more harm than good, misallocating capital to housing at the expense of other industries that might create more national wealth. The economy would be stronger, and might have avoided the trauma of the last five years, if housing demand hadn’t been artificially inflated by years of policy favoritism.”

Similarly, an expansive 2011 article in the liberal New York Times on the same topic noted that most economists decry the MID and agree that it does not increase the rate of homeownership because it so disproportionately favors wealthy consumers who would purchase homes regardless. Furthermore, one economist in the article went on to clarify the relationship between the deduction and suburbanization by noting that the deduction “hasn’t helped to expand homeownership, but it’s helped to support purchases of larger homes.”

Most significantly, even the bipartisan Simpson Bowles deficit-reduction commission suggested extraordinary reductions to the MID, including lowering the eligibility cap and eliminating the shocking ability for the wealthy to use the deduction for second homes. To be sure, none of these entities suggested using recaptured funds from the MID to support urban affordable housing—most have talked about it mainly in terms of deficit reduction—but the point remains: At a moment of national crisis and transformation, everything should be on the table.

In this book, I have challenged many such sacred cows by proposing to charge for the negative externalities of personal behavior and redirect subsidies for the wealthy to invest in an Infrastructure of Opportunity. These investments are critical for unlocking the widespread social opportunities embedded in any new hyperdense neighborhood enabled through municipal policies. And in order to be beneficial, new hyperdensity will require support systems that cannot be borne by new development alone. Building infrastructure is a core responsibility of any good government, and only the public sector can fill the substantial gap between the contributions of private partnerships and the actual costs of these necessary projects.

Denver tomorrow

To be clear: Fulfilling these needs through the redirection of existing subsidies will not incur new debt obligations for a nation already in deficit. On the contrary, these investments, unlike our currently unproductive subsidies, would have enormous potential to increase our GDP and ultimately transform our deficit into a surplus.

Investments in urban infrastructure and affordability will result in the kind of shared prosperity that has eluded us, not only during this economic downturn but also through the previous decade, during which most Americans saw their wages freeze. The causes of that stagnation are supposedly well known—among them, the ongoing transition from a manufacturing to a service economy; a significant shift in our tax code to favor the wealthy; and a staggering decline in our national education standards, which caused the United States to drop to fourteenth place in international rankings of reading skills.

Yet few point to our car-oriented landscape as a culprit in our national morass, despite the dramatically increasing costs Americans are incurring to commute, raise children, buy homes, climate control environments, and stay healthy. And in the big picture, the diminishing wealth of the average American is leading to the collapse of municipal budgets, which still must fund everything from school systems to mass transit with only crumbs from the federal government.

Americans may not consider our suburban landscape as the cause of our inertia, but perhaps we sense that we are trapped in a vicious cycle in which two-hour traffic jams might, in fact, be playing a role. Our physical environment is crumbling along with our social fabric. From Weeds to The Wire, we know in our hearts that we have a predicament embedded in the very way we live. Most of us feel the decline, and together we sense, as Roy Scheider’s police chief in Jaws famously stated, we’re “gonna need a bigger boat.”

Our nation may be politically divided, but at least we share in the knowledge that something is deeply wrong in terms of our economic, environmental, and global security. Much of the housing in sprawling places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Atlanta is in foreclosure, with concomitant increases in unemployment several points higher than in our functioning service-economy cities. Our young men and women are dying in mountains and deserts around the world, struggling against enemies funded by an Arabian peninsula that we have enriched because of a profligate lifestyle we have endorsed. And to paraphrase former Vice President Gore’s quip on Saturday Night Live regarding our looming climate crisis: “There are guys in flip-flops hanging around the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.”

Confronted with this seemingly intractable knot of challenges, we arrive at the final and most important set of questions: Do we matter to ourselves? Do we protect our kids or do we act like children? Do we have the will to make investments that would break our cycles of debt and decline? Do we have the introspection to protect our coastlines, our cities, and our citizens? Do we have the strength to reject the threat that is fossil fuel, both foreign and domestic? Do we have the vision to recognize that we have seen the enemy, and it is the subsidization of suburbia? Do we have the will to embrace high-density, transit-based living as the only solution, the only land use that reverses our economic stagnation, our rising seas, our spiraling health-care costs, our vulnerability to petro-dictators, and our free fall into a sprawling national deficit?

These challenges are not intractable; they are solvable through a national call to action. That call must focus on a different way of existing physically as a nation—a transformation as radical as the one that created the synthetic landscape of the twentieth-century United States. This is why we need a far more coherent public voice for true urbanity and the robust infrastructure it needs to prosper, a voice that speaks outside of the politics of both major parties until at least one comes to its senses. The right tends to decry public spending. The left tends to favor entitlements over investments. The right fights regulations that curb sprawl and prices carbon. The left fights for environmental regulations, bureaucracies, and unwarranted community control that can imperil infrastructure.

All this to bicker, while Rome burns.

A Country of Cities:  The Manifesto

Let us form a truly urban coalition, one that binds the need for economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social mobility with the one-stop shopping of transit-rich hyperdensity. One that can rightfully claim that through smart urbanization, we can attack most of the major problems we see in the news media every day. One that can rally public sentiment to equally and credibly slay our demons, from foreclosures, to terrorism, to unfunded schools, to devastating oil spills, to ever more powerful storms.

Let us cry over natural and manmade disasters, towers destroyed by terrorism, and Great Recessions, but let us then find some introspection in such tragedies. Let us rebuild this nation by being the America that constructed the Transcontinental Railroad and the Erie Canal, by being the America that welcomed striving immigrants to the shores of its cities, by being the America that envisioned vast national parks and the dignified wonders of the New Deal, by being the America that has always reveled in the majesty of its pristine landscape, by being the America that invented the Internet, by being the America that once believed we are all created equal.

Let us together rebuild an America that embraces cities and rejects traffic jams. Let us be a nation of fair choice, in which the government’s subsidizing fingers have been taken off the scales; a nation where the best of market forces, driven by the desires of all of its people, allow cities to flourish. Let this new United States be a place where we heal our differences, pay our debts, and leave a replenished planet for generations to come.

We can build hyperdensity, along with an Infrastructure of Opportunity to nurture it. We can forge a nation where every one of us has a fair shot. We can provide more prosperous, more sustainable, and more joyful lives for all of our people. We can create a superior version of our most significant global export: the American city. We can and should construct not just a bigger boat but a better boat—an urban ark that delivers us to the safe harbor of prosperous shores.

We can, we should, we must, build a Country of Cities.

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