I don’t hate single family housing

A few days ago was Greater Mankato Growth’s “Day at the Capitol.” Unfortunately the Capitol building is undergoing some much needed renovation so we were actually at the Double Tree in St. Paul. Cool place.

Anyway, during a discussion with someone, they told me that “You just want us to all live like you, downtown in an apartment”. While I was somewhat taken aback by the statement, I had to ask: “is this how I present myself?”

Well gosh I hope not.

Maybe it’s a question that all urbanists should ask themselves.

As much as I fawn over Europe and the way they’ve put their cities together, I have the common sense to know that it’s probably not going to fly in America here–even less in Mankato.

I should point out that I live in a 1890 single-family style house. It has been converted to a duplex, but it’s not like I’m living in a swanky condo (although this laughable video seems to think we have something akin to a New York penthouse in North Mankato.)

The unfortunate part of being a self-proclaimed urbanist is that (as with anything) it’s easy to point out the bad, without celebrating the good.

Single-family housing and subdivisions are never going away. They have been integral to the American city since the founding of the nation. They can provide a path out of poverty, they can build communities and it is still probably where we’ll end up. (I’ll eat a raw chicken before I link to something by Joel Kotkin though.)

And not just American cities, cities everywhere. Remember how I said I fawn over European cities? Well here’s a nice shot from just outside Paris.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.54.28 AM

But you’re also going to find stuff like this:

street

Rue-la-la!

That being said, the issue I have with “you want everyone to live like you” statement is the sheer hypocrisy of it.

While, no, I don’t want everyone to live like me, but I sure as shootin’ don’t want to be forced to live like you. Which is the main conflicting point here.

Most American cities are now broken into two distinct entities within city limits: downtown or urban and auto-oriented.

Yet in many parts of the country, those living in the denser, urban areas still have to largely play by suburban rules. Things like minimum parking requirements, road design standards, etc…

If you don’t want to “live like me” then it’s completely reasonable that I can ask to not have to “live like you” I want smaller streets, small setbacks, no parking requirements, mixed-use and so on and so forth. However, for a myriad of reasons, we tend to drop the whole city under similar requirements, which very well may artificially inflate single-family housing development. Why live in the denser parts of town if you still need your car to do everything?

Likewise, we put arbitrary (albeit far less expensive or common) rules on suburban development. There was a planning commission where I literally laughed out loud after the chair expressed her delight in seeing that the new gas station met the minimum bike parking requirements and was connected by sidewalk.

It’s being built somewhere out here:

Screen-Shot-2015-01-22-at-11.43.43-AM

Multi-modal baby!!!

We know that life isn’t fair, but cities should try. We need to take a nuanced approach to how we regulate our cities.

Freedom of choice is something that we’re supposed to value in the U.S. so why don’t we allow people to live sans-car or car-reduced in cities that it could work? Especially with the trends, I think it’s time we revisit some of our land use policies and codes to make this possible.

So no, I don’t hate single-family development and I don’t want you to live like me if you don’t want to, but don’t say something like that unless you realize that the city you want is probably already built for you and not for me.

As Jane Jacobs said, downtowns are for people, so let’s design them that way.

We can have both, it just takes a little creativity.

 

 

Cover photo from Tim on Flickr

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.