Some urbanism basics

Sometimes when I’m out for a run I get interesting 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 of Highland Park.

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 who feel that their streets are not well maintained, or plowed properly in the winter. They complain about lack of funds for parks and the development of new bike trails. This got me thinking, that everyone needs a quick little primer about how life works in a city. At least a simplified methodology that can be the beginning of deeper discussions.

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, good police/fire, and great parks)

This is a simplified list, 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. At a high level 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.

There are nuances in all of this, but 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 moderate approach. Perhaps you can have medium density, with moderate taxes, and simply adequate things. The difficulty with this approach is that we all have an idea in our head of what low and high density looks like. Most people would agree that a suburb like Coon Rapids, MN is a lower density environment, and NE Minneapolis is a higher one. However, what constitutes “in between” is a large swath of ideas that are difficult to agree on, and relates not just to the number of houses, but to the numbers of roads and transit options.

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 is can be quite difficult. The issue of property taxes can be affected by not just the reality of people’s ability to pay, but by their underlying political philosophies.

Compromise solutions can also be a challenge for cities to administer, but it’s a situation that many places find themselves in because of their desire to bring everyone together. 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. For example, a low density suburb, with low taxes, might decide that it wants to start investing in more bike paths because of resident demands. Due to the incredibly spread-out nature of the suburb, these amenities can be expensive to build and to maintain. Yet, they build them with one time money, and often can’t afford to keep them maintained over the long haul. It creates a scenario where no one wins.

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. Understanding what the levers are, and how we all feel about each of them, can guide better discussions among residents. Making people aware of how all the facets of our cities need to work together creates a better informed electorate, and a healthier dialogue among elected and non-elected officials.

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