CNU XV Blog, Part 7: Rybczynski speech

MLewyn's picture

Last night at the plenary session, I listened to Witold Rybczynski's keynote speech, which discussed his new book on real estate development (Last Harvest). A few interesting points:

1. He said: "For my generation, housing was architecture and architecture was housing." No wonder mixed use was taboo- if retail isn't "architecture", you're not going to push to put it near the houses!

2. He said that "We use words like 'sprawl' precisely to dehumanize the process." What is more dehumanizing (and less accurate) is sprawl advocates' use of generalities about "the American people" and "the American dream" to describe new sprawl development. How often have you heard the claim: "The people want sprawl! The people want the outer suburbs!" But when sprawl advocates say "The people" they really mean "The people who are now moving to the newest suburbs."

But those "people" are a small segment of the total population; most people are staying put at any given time. For example, when I lived in Buffalo, the newest "hot" outer suburbs, Clarence, Lancaster, and Orchard Park, had less than 10% of the region's population. About 30% still lived in the city of Buffalo, and at least that many lived in the first-ring suburbs adjoining the city (Amherst, Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, and West Seneca). Are they not "people"? Are only new movers to new suburbs human beings?

And even these "people" don't necessarily want to live in sprawl. They may live in sprawl because they can't afford older suburbs (unlikely in a cheap region like Buffalo, but common in more prosperous regions). Or they may live in sprawl because their older suburb or city neighborhood is decaying (more likely in declining regions like Buffalo, less common in more prosperous regions).

3. He said that both NU and sprawl development are easier in the South than in the Northeast because people are more optimistic about the future, and thus about development. Is it really true that development is easier in the South? Or is development easier in smaller regions with more open land closer in? And is NIMBYism really less common in the South? I'm not sure - interesting avenue for further research, though.

4. He said that buyers in the project he researched (a greenfield NU project) were driven by "community" - that only the most social people were interested in living in this kind of project, and that people who thought they had enough friends were more interested in conventional big-lot suburbia. Is it community that drives people to NU or walkability? I would speculate that Rybczynksi is right in describing greenfield NU with not very much within walking distance, less right in describing more urban development. But that's just an educated guess.

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