Three reasons cities are stuck with "places not worth caring about"

Visit most American cities and you'll see a common, unfortunate theme. On the outskirts of most thriving cities, the urban design characteristics that foster the places we love just disappear. Instead of maintaining the attractive human-scale design functions a successful downtown would have, the greater areas of a town become replaced with unattractive and low-performing strip malls, parking garages, and (to borrow from Jim Kunstler) "places that are not worth caring about." These development trends limit the community to being surrounded by undesired built environments. Of course, we want to build great places. We know our communities deserve better places, but they just aren't getting them.

So why are cities still accepting developments that are poorly-designed, underperforming, and disposable? 

1. Cities require bad developments.

The zoning and building standards require the bare minimum. Think of it as only needing a D-minus to pass. The development community is delivering your community D-minus developments every day by design and law. These expensive and poorly designed roads are connected to buildings that neglect the basic functions for citizens to thrive. Lowest-common-denominator buildings go through the administrative process faster than developments which require staff interpretation. Faster is cheaper. 

Aligning the community plans, the development ordinances, and the development processes would allow for cities to capture their long-term potential all while neighbors become more neighborly. If cities don’t require better places, then the patterns of development and community conflicts will continue. 

2. Politics focused on short-term gains.

Often, politics is driving the ship rather than the long-term community goals. Current development standards may allow immediate profitable developments but it’s happening at a high cost to our citizens. The hot-button topics of a council agenda command the town's focus. Generally, it’s a controversial zoning case bringing the neighborhoods together to fight a rezoning. But we've seen what happens when cities are built by worst-case scenario decisions. The outcomes fail to perform for everyone and the built environment suffers.  

Without planning to build for the future, lot-by-lot decisions are having negative impacts on how the systems of a city work most effectively. Ultimately it creates a life with little community involvement, and the city becomes disconnected from its citizens. Strong leadership is critical to overcoming short-sided political issues. 

3. Bad street design.

Streets are a critical function of creating human-scaled places. If the street types don’t align with the developments, the developments will not work. High-speed streets fail for everyone and yet cities have minimum street widths that are requiring streets that further disconnect our communities. Secondarily, the wide, fast streets are expensive to build and maintain. Streets that only support the movement of cars have proven to have adverse effects—worsening traffic, creating deadly car crashes, and supporting poor development patterns. 

The issues our cities face need to be addressed in an urgent manner. The longer we continue building these development models, the costlier the solutions become. It’s important that the community is involved in determining the future of their city and is apart of the process. Hold your city leaders accountable for the community that you deserve, and enjoy the benefits associated with helping the city build better places. And don't forget, urban design is the critical path necessary to solve the balance between the public and private realms that foster the types of places we tend to love. 


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Matt Lewis is a co-founder of CULTIVATE! Collaborative. Learn more about him here. Follow Matt on Twitter and LinkedIn. Read more posts by Matt.

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