[At this writing, President Biden had proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would affect multiple aspects of Americans’ lives, not just roads, bridges, railways, and ports.]
We live in a relatively old neighborhood. Most of the houses are century homes, with styles ranging from Victorian to Italianate to Craftsman to plain old Colonial, each one different from its neighbors. Though they mostly sit on very small lots, they have beauty and character. Or at least, the ones do that have been carefully kept up or rehabbed. It’s deeply saddening to see that the area in general is becoming ghetto-ized, with abandoned homes and board-ups quite common now, and teens and druggies squatting where they can. When a structure is empty long enough that no one wants it and it reaches the beyond-salvage stage, the city adds it to a demolition list. When I last checked, the city was a year behind, maybe more, in the inspection and tearing-down process (our county had the third-highest home-loan foreclosure rate in the country, following the 2008 crash). That lag seems to prevail even in the various historic districts; our neighborhood is one of them. In such designated sections, there is a supposedly strict preservation code layered on top of regular city ordinances, such as those regulating grass height and yard trash. For instance, theoretically, no aluminum or vinyl siding is allowed to be applied to a house in a historic district. Any changes or refurbishing must be in keeping with minutely spelled-out specifications. In practice, however, code inspectors have mostly gone the way of the dodo, and unless a property is egregiously offensive in its lack of upkeep or nonconformity with historic norms, its owners can do what they want.
By far, the majority of houses in the area are single-family dwellings. Current owners relate that some of them were converted to doubles (up and down) during the Depression, and a handful do still accommodate two families, but almost all were returned to their original layouts sometime after WWII. With some interior alterations, however, most of them are spacious enough to fit individuals or small families both upstairs and down.
Across the main drag from our street was a small apartment complex, probably eight units, built of clapboards and possibly once a boarding house. By the time it was torn down, we’d heard that there were apartments with no heat or no running water; the building had been deteriorating for decades. It was a notorious drug den, and was mostly rented out to sketchy individuals; someone researched and discovered that the title-holder was listed under a West Coast address. A large, raucous party that devolved into gunplay was the last straw for the city, after years of complaints by adjacent residents. The building was condemned and eventually razed. Some neighbors had asked if the space could be repurposed as a community vegetable garden, but due to the likelihood of irremediable soil contamination, the garden was not allowed. Now, in the place of the apartments is a plot of bare grass, which the city mows occasionally.
Until I moved into this neighborhood over 26 years ago, I’d never lived in a place where vacant houses were normal. I’d never seen overgrown yards or boarded-up windows. But then, I’d never lived in an old, increasingly rundown urban area before. There are many failing neighborhoods within ten minutes of downtown Cleveland. Gentrification has come to a lucky few of them over the last three decades, spurring astronomical housing prices, along with tony new townhouses and condos. Even in those again-fashionable quarters, though, single-family dwellings still remain the most prevalent by a huge margin.
The urban flight and blight I’m describing translate into untold waste of spaces, both residential and commercial. I attended a lecture many years ago in which a city planner showed the progression of strip and enclosed malls ever outward from the city center. Meanwhile, the gigantic paved, lighted complexes in inner-ring neighborhoods, clean and trendy 50 years ago, now sit empty, their acres of cracked asphalt parking lots impeding the absorption of rainwater and sometimes causing flooding of surrounding properties. The planner had half a dozen examples just in the immediate vicinity of the city. He predicted mushrooming shopping centers 15 to 20 miles outside the city limits, and his analysis has proven accurate. The deserted malls are eyesores, derelict and toxic. But it’s expensive to remove all that asphalt, glass, and steel, so the stores still stand as monuments to obsolescence and thoughtless seizure and depredation of land.
Since we moved into our house and I observed the dilapidated houses on nearby streets, I’ve said that if I were queen of the world, I would decree that no new housing structures could be built until all existing accommodations were occupied. Individuals or families wishing to rent or buy living space would have to choose existing local apartments or available houses, according to affordability. Green retrofitting and overall rehabs would be mandatory for houses, but low-interest loans would be arranged to cover the costs, and would be deducted from the prices of the homes. Potential buyers who agreed to help do the work, or who agreed to assist at community green spaces, would be granted the rehab funds. If necessary, assistance with minimum purchase funds would be provided, as has been the case with the Fannie Mae program, as one example. Housing would be assigned on a lottery basis in areas where available accommodations were not plentiful. Those wishing to move to another city or state would have to make application and be put on waiting lists, with moving expenses reimbursed, depending on justification for the relocations. Cities would undertake to aid in maintaining all types of apartment buildings, and housing preference would be given to people willing to occupy multi-unit structures.
Any new construction would have to be erected on previous footprints; i.e., in the spaces left open by the demolitions of previous homes. The one exception to re-using old footprints would be in the cases of homes destroyed by natural disasters; there would be no more rebuilding of houses repeatedly leveled by hurricanes or ruined by floods. Such throwing of good money after bad would not be permitted, as it’s an inexcusable waste of money and resources.
The above policy would be in force for commercial spaces, as well: no new malls could be built until all existing stores were tenanted, and only then after a lengthy approval process, including stringent green requirements. Where feasible, if there were no commercial claimants, the abandoned store complexes would, again, be retrofitted and turned into housing units. The extensive parking lots would be removed and landscaped with native plants and trees, leaving only the necessary paving for occupants.
The idea of curbing viral new builds is actually already taking hold. Some municipalities, such as Minneapolis, have gone so far as to eliminate zoning for new single-family houses. As it stands, the undeniable trend is to increase urban population densities and then create more walkable cities. Such a strategy will afford not only economies of scale, but will cut down on vehicle pollution and preserve as-yet-untouched outlying areas. Rulings like the one Minneapolis has implemented in real time will become more critical, absent restrictions on population growth and endless construction of new developments. Under my system, continually occupied single-family homes could remain as is, for the time being, at least. If the building craze would slow significantly, then only a large percentage of any minimal, absolutely-necessary new construction might have to involve multi-family units; individual houses might not have to be outlawed, just severely curtailed. Certainly, gone would be the prerogative to blissfully acquire a wooded plot, then rip out half the trees to build a dream home or fifty.
In conjunction with my plan, there would have to be overwhelmingly successful initiatives to make populated areas more livable. That is, sufficient resources would have to be devoted to eradicate major crime and all kinds of pollution, as a start. A tall order indeed, but enough money and political will, combined with intelligent, effective solutions — as opposed to easy, expedient public-feel-good kabuki — might do the trick. Obviously, I haven’t yet come up with all the answers necessary to make my concept feasible, but the one thing that would be critical is united effort.
My queenly decree would go a long way toward accomplishing two major objectives: first, ending suburban sprawl; and therefore, second, helping to green the planet. We’ve got to stop grabbing, then clear-cutting/draining/paving/building on undeveloped land as fast as we can bring in the bulldozers, after which we eventually discard the built-over spaces and move on to gobble up the next section of woods, prairie, or wetlands. Aside from the fact that we’ll destroy so much farmland that we won’t be able to grow enough food, we’ll leave behind falling-down structures that add to the pollution of the soil and water.
I was thinking of my utopian plan today as we were driving through a chain of suburbs to reach a small, family-owned outlet we like to patronize. As we frequently do, my husband and I were talking about how all the upscale developments had been farmland not so long ago. I remember when there were hundreds of acres of trees and fields north of my hometown, and I recall the year when the then-ritzy, then-biggest mall in that part of the state opened. It sat, relatively isolated, with one road in and out, and a restaurant or two to keep it company. Since I moved away some 40 years ago, however, growth has been explosive. Now, the mall and its environs take up a two-mile stretch along a main artery, forming an unbroken commercial expanse on steroids, literally from one town to the next. And yet….the steel industry that was the foundation of the small city has almost disappeared, and nothing has come along as a substitute. It’s a place to get out of, now, not a place to move to. In another 20 years, the mall will be hard-pressed to keep storefronts rented. Huge swathes of the population will have moved elsewhere, to pave over yet more forests and fields.
We should have to make use of structures we’ve already built, and get rid of the ones we no longer need. Non-buildable spaces should be greened and tended. Cities should have to take the lead in maintaining green standards and minimum upkeep regulations, assuming responsibility for not only roads, bridges, schools, and airports, but supervision of all structures. The “take it, use it, and toss it” mindset is rapidly becoming unworkable. We must live as if our space and our resources are finite, because they are.