Reads and Reactions

I saw a couple things that stood out with me.  First, I saw this Planetizen link to a New York Times article that talks about the real possibility of Stockton, CA filing for municipal bankruptcy. 

I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, really.  All of the cities that went all-in on housing during the ’90s and ’00s will be suffering for some years to come.  Some of the larger cities whose recent growth was paved by the subprime lending fiasco include Las Vegas and Phoenix, which have had a horrible time recovering from the Great Recession.  Stockton fits another profile, that of cities that blew up as affordable exurban alternatives to large major metros.  Stockton, 80 miles from San Francisco and the Silicon Valley and 50 miles from Sacramento, tried to grow its way out of the dull Central Valley identify its has long held by providing new and (relatively speaking) inexpensive homes for workers in the high-powered Bay Area.  Well, a couple things converged.  While the city was flush with money, it was making unsustainable promises to its union workers.  And then the housing market, always a house of cards IMO, crashed and crashed hard.  Vallejo, CA, a smaller city just north of San Francisco, filed for bankruptcy a few years ago and is still struggling with the aftermath. 

One word of caution — this phenomenon is not exclusive to the West Coast.  There are many suburbs on the edges of metro areas that employed the same model and will undergo the same difficult process.

I also saw this Alantic Cities article about the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis and the new documentary that’s coming out on it.  For those who may not know, Pruitt-Igoe was a high-rise public housing development constructed in the ’50s as an urban renewal project that became so notorious for its concentration of poverty and crime that it was torn down in 1972.  And that’s not even mentioning the destruction it did to the existing neighborhood during its construction, like with so many urban renewal projects.  Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is no longer in the business of constructing such monstrosities, and has shifted its focus to building neighborhoods that fit into the context of the surrounding community with their HOPE VI and Choice Neighborhoods programs.

There are a couple lessons learned here.  One is that catastrophic failures like this are one reason planners often get a bad rap.  However, when bridges or buildings collapse, why don’t engineers face the same scrutiny?  The second lesson is the one HUD seems to be employing — the development of sound neighborhoods built on sound principles.  The problem with that is that sometimes I think our failures prevent us from building up the credibility to do what we now know will actually work.

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