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Small is not beautiful


San Francisco in the 23rd century, according to Star Trek.

I routinely get into arguments with my parents about the San Francisco housing crisis. I tell them it’s all their generation’s fault, because their small-is-beautiful-localist-preservationist-Jane-Jacobs-ism prevented SF from building the kind of high-density housing and robust public transit infrastructure that it needs to be a livable city. They tell me that I’d be a Jacobsite too, if I’d lived through the postwar era when “urban renewal” maniacs like Robert Moses were slaying neighborhoods in the name of progress.

Fair enough. It’s mostly a matter of perspective: in the 1960s, when the prospect of living in a dystopian Corbusier city seemed like a real possibility, it made sense to stick up for the virtues of smallness. These days, smallness feels like a dead-end: or, more specifically, it seems destined to produce a city that's a picturesque playground for the rich. Say what you will about Robert Moses—and there’s plenty to say, the man was a racist, a tyrant, and an all-around unpleasant dude—but he recognized that what defines cities is their bigness—and that urbanists should embrace that bigness, not try to recover some impossible village ideal. As cities emptied out in the postwar decades, especially after deindustrialization, it was easy to forget the point about bigness, because it didn’t seem to apply anymore. But now that re-urbanization is making cities crowded and economically powerful again, recovering that large-scale thinking is essential. Otherwise, cities simply become enclaves for elites. Jane Jacobs loved the Village, but she’d never be able to afford it these days.

For a much more informed take on Bay Area housing, and Prop F in particular, see Kim-Mai Cutler's very thorough breakdown in TechCrunch. There’s a lot of excellent stuff in there, but I’ve been chewing over one quote in particular:

The central dilemma in the U.S. and U.K. systems is that housing is both a durable good as shelter and an investable asset as a person’s primary form of wealth. That introduces a fundamental tension between policies that maximize property values and conversely, policies that support the goal of affordability.