Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lean Urbanism in Baltimore


This is a brief post because the important message is in the video below (from 42:20 to the end):

From my conversations with other young people and from my own experience, I've discovered that so many promising ideas proposed for cities like Baltimore inevitably run into a wall of regulation and crawl off to die. These regulations are well-meaning and well-intentioned, of course - but they're ultimately utterly unwieldy and infeasible!

Whether it's the increasing regimentation of food truck serving locations, or the inability to bypass parking minimums to adapt an old building for a new use, or the paternalistic meddling with slugging, ridesharing, and other bottom-up alternatives to the broken bus system, the established regulatory structure - which is primarily managed and enforced by older generations accustomed to stasis and formal procedure - has severely crippled a generation of urban pioneering. This pioneering built our cities in the first place, but it's no longer allowed to revive them.

Duany argues that Detroit recently overcame this obstacle via sheer municipal collapse: the city passed a threshold in which it became so desperate it could no longer afford to turn away any "illegal" ideas - nor did it have the municipal manpower to enforce any "on paper" regulations anymore. So it simply had no choice but to look the other way and allow young transplants to do almost anything they wanted.

For now, Baltimore is stuck in a slightly different predicament: It has neither the development attraction of cities like New York and Boston to enjoy widespread "risk averse" development, but neither does it feel quite as desperate as Detroit to simply look the other way and allow young people to experiment. Instead, it languishes in a bumbling, in-between stagnation, subsisting on a small platter of the top-down waterfront redevelopment projects Duany alluded to. There is a notion that these projects are a problem, but they're merely a symptom of a larger problem: the regulatory extermination of a fine-grained range of urban pioneers.

When it comes to most barometers of urban health - crime, poverty, drug abuse, abandonment, the quality of public transit - Baltimore is actually right up there behind Detroit, and I think it consequently needs to be just as desperate in accommodating any and all experimentation by the young "risk oblivious." But so far most pending reforms - such as that to the zoning code - have been far too timid in my opinion. Be more adventurous, Baltimore! You might as well tackle the problem consciously now, otherwise you'll default to deregulation anyway via municipal collapse just like Detroit!

- Marc Szarkowski


  1. As a 24-year-old urban planner, I could not agree more with all this. Utterly disenfranchised...local government is run by the people who have only yet to die.

    1. I should correct that: *I have a planning degree* but an actual planning job is not a realistic expectation.

    2. This 25-year old planner (or person with a planning degree) wholeheartedly agrees. I'm always amazed by Andres' brilliance.

    3. The disenfranchisement is frustrating, but fortunately there seems to be a "phase change" in ideas as the design professions inevitably (if sluggishly) turn over from one generation to the next. Chuck Marohn noticed such a phase change in the transportation field:

      "Last week at a Curbside Chat, I was introduced to a former council member from a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. He told me that he had been invited to address a gathering of civil engineers and, at the end of his talk, he played our Conversation with an Engineer video. According to him there were two reactions. The younger engineers laughed hysterically while the older engineers sat straight-faced with their arms crossed. That observation tracked with my experience as well."

  2. What's sad is that the overwhelming majority of cities are in that state of "bumbling, in-between stagnation." Things have to be really bad for them to start looking the other way, but it only takes one busybody in the city (or county, or township, or village) building department to be a colossal stick-in-the-mud. I've even heard someone say something to the effect of "this zoning code SUCKS, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to administer the hell out of it, because that's what I was hired to do."

    1. "I've even heard someone say something to the effect of "this zoning code SUCKS, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to administer the hell out of it, because that's what I was hired to do."

      I've heard that reaction SO many times too, and it even goes beyond zoning! There seems to be a pent-up frustration with following regulations that so blatantly fly in the face of common sense, and this raises the question of whether there should even be a "civil disobedience" of sorts to ignore dictums that are self-evidently idiotic.

      Unfortunately today's regulations are essentially relativistic (i.e. in a society where value judgements are inadmissible, one person's "idiotic" regulation will always be another person's "smart" regulation), which only deepens the malaise.


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