Some urbanism basics

Sometimes when I’m our for a run, I get thoughts flowing through my head, and before I’m done with my journey, I have an entire presentation and blog entry written in my head. Today was one of those days. We went for a run around the river road in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, from Ford Parkway up to Marshall/Lake street. While we were out I came across some leftover signs that are protesting the new development that is going in to the old Ford Motor Plant area.

There are a few people in the neighborhood who are opposed to the development. They feel it’s too dense, and will bring in the wrong kind of people, destroying the feel of the Highland Park neighborhood. They believe that it will increase traffic and lower property values, and that the neighborhood should take a slower, market-based approach. The plans that the city put forward would increase density, with a large scale development approach involving multi-unit buildings, as opposed to single family homes.

At the same time, I often hear from residents of Saint Paul that they feel their streets are not well maintained, or plowed properly, in the winter. They complain about lack of funds for parks and developments of new bike trails. This got me thinking, that everyone needs a quick little primer about how life works in a city.

There are three things that people often ask for in their neighborhoods.

  1. Low density
  2. Low taxes
  3. Nice things (well maintained streets, infrastructure, and parks)

Not everyone agrees that this is what they want, but in general, this is what people complain about. Here’s the problem though.

You can only have two out of the three. 

These three things are not mutually exclusive, but they are exclusive when you combine them into a triad. You can’t have all three things at the same time, and you need to chose between which two things you want to focus your energy on.

  • If you want low density and low taxes, there isn’t enough money to have nice things and infrastructure will suffer.
  • If you want low taxes and nice things, then you need high density to create a large enough tax base to pay for it all.
  • If you want low density and nice things then you need high taxes to pay for everything with a smaller tax base.

This is what most people don’t understand. You need to pick what is most important to you, and it will dictate your other choices.

Some may argue that you can go for a moderated approach. Perhaps you can have medium density, with moderate taxes, and simply adequate things. The difficulty with this approach is that we know what low and high density looks like. However, what is “in between” comprises a large swath that is difficult to agree on. The same goes for taxes and nice things. We know what the ends of the spectrum look like, but coming to agreement on where the middle should be is quite difficult.

It also becomes a difficulty for cities to administer, but it’s a situation that many places find themselves in because of their desire to compromise. It creates a scenario where cities have to live on the razor edge of a knife with their budget and planning, worrying about what happens if they make any slight movement to one side.

I don’t envy cities that have to deal with choices around these topics. But, perhaps, if we all start with a better foundation of knowledge about what our choices are, we can have a better conversation right from the start.

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