Suburban planning.
December 28, 2000 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Suburban planning. The Baltimore Sun has a series of articles that explore the possible failure of Columbia, MD to live up to expectations after 30 years.
posted by rorschach (20 comments total)
Usually it is the more affluent who leave first, motivated by a desire to live in a community where their children can get an excellent education and play without worrying about violence, and to own a home that will appreciate in value.
Do those phrases sound familiar? The idea of white flight from a suburb designed to discourage racial segregation is just boggling to me. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
posted by snarkout at 10:37 AM on December 28, 2000

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and no planned community ever survives contact with actual people. Or, to bastardize another cliche, you can lead people to a planned community but you can't make them live there. Did anyone ever really think that this country's deep-seated race and class issues could be resolved merely by shuffling a few buildings around and laying down some bike paths?
posted by kindall at 12:24 PM on December 28, 2000

Best line:
He and James Jackson were troubled by the evolution of the neighborhood dogs they each encountered on the bike paths over the past decade, from poodles and mutts to pit bulls.
posted by thirteen at 12:46 PM on December 28, 2000

There was an interesting article documenting white flight in the are around my high school a while back - showing mostly the same old thing: blacks move in, whites begin to believe the neighborhood is going "down hill" when it isn't really, they move out en masse causing property values to drop causing unsavory elements to move in.

Is this the world our parents left for us?
posted by owillis at 1:01 PM on December 28, 2000

side note: I used to live near Columbia and was considering moving back there eventually. Maybe not now...
posted by owillis at 1:02 PM on December 28, 2000

I live in Columbia, and I think the articles took a negative tone. Are there elements of white flight, sure? Is this town perfect? No. No community is. But the neighborhood I live in works. It is both racially and economically diverse. The people look out for each other. Crime is minimal.

It's all a matter of perspective. Having grown up in a rust belt inner city, it's hard for me to get mad about things like dogs and petty theft.

While I don't decry the articles as tainting our town, I think they were very misleading and dark in tone.

posted by girard31 at 2:05 PM on December 28, 2000

"White flight", what a pathetic concept.
posted by lagado at 3:30 PM on December 28, 2000

Is white flight a concept? It seems more like an effect. Its not like anybody has a meeting and proposes moving en masse do they?
posted by thirteen at 3:45 PM on December 28, 2000

I was there for a week once, the place gave me the creeps.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 5:31 PM on December 28, 2000

I'd call white flight a phenomenon, though there must be a better way to describe social behavior.
posted by sudama at 6:07 PM on December 28, 2000

I grew up in Columbia and I went to school there. I always thought that most of the founding ideals were full of crap. Organizing a town into villages with their own shopping centers and adding a few sections of subsidized housing was not going to solve the world's problems. That's a little much to ask from a city planner, or for them to promise.

I just came back from having dinner at my parent's house, and my street hasn't changed that much from when I was a kid. It is still racially integrated. It isn't integrated across class lines, but that was never the case. As for crime--everyone's favorite bogeyman, and favorite reason for running even further out into rural Maryland--the worst my parents have to worry about is petty vandalism. This is admittedly all anecdotal evidence, and it cannot stand in place of an in-depth analysis of Columbia's problems.

When people bitch about the problems of Columbia, it always seems funny to me. These are problems most places would love to be worried about.
posted by rorschach at 7:46 PM on December 28, 2000

There are probably better ways to describe the social behavior popularly called "white flight," but none of them rhyme.
posted by kindall at 8:07 PM on December 28, 2000

Well, Columbia mixed a lot of good ideas about city planning with lots of bad ones. Lots of the ideas involved were big improvements at the time, certainly better than the planning ideals utilized in urban housing projects a la Le Corbusier's Radiant City or the standard suburban neighborhood of tract housing like Levittown. Rouse at least recognized on some level the need for diversity in building types and uses within a small area (evidenced by his village design with mixed apartment and detached housing and a local retail center).

But ultimately any master-planned build-it-all-at-once development will decay and deteriorate after a couple or a few decades. For one thing, you can't make people do what you expect they should. Secondly, long-lasting self-renewing neighborhoods require a diversity of buildings, not only in type, but in age, style, and primary use. And the finer-grained the diversity, the better.

A street with only houses will be far more susceptible to crime, whatever the income levels of its residents, than a street that mixes uses from residential to office to retail to entertainment. Filling a street with a variety users for as many hours a day as possible is the best way to prevent crime in urban areas. Higher densities, too, would make the streets safer, providing more eyes to be at watch over a smaller area.

The paradox is that even if we know what we want, we can't just build it. Diversity in age is impossible to build in to a new development. Diversity in style is practically impossible given one or a few builders. Diversity in type is hard to justify to zoning boards and prospective residents. Diversity in use is something that best evolves on its own, not something that's forced.

In short, it's impossible to plan the perfect city from the top down. You have to evolve a self-sustaining neighborhood street by street, district by district. There are no easy answers.
posted by daveadams at 9:14 PM on December 28, 2000

kindall: Caucasian Evasion?
posted by thirteen at 9:58 PM on December 28, 2000

Passive Caucasian Eviction?
posted by lagado at 10:33 PM on December 28, 2000

That doesn't rhyme.
posted by thirteen at 10:56 PM on December 28, 2000

White Flight did, in fact, used to be coordinated -- after a fashion. The banking and real estate industries worked hand-in-hand -- one using redlining techniques, the other actively drumming up business by touting property values that didn't so much decline as plummet. The word for this is "blockbusting". Chicago, as one focal point for the Northern migration of blacks, was particularly stricken.

White flight abated as a real estate phenomenon as housing and redlining laws depromoted segregation. Later, in the 1980s, as Brown v. Board of Education cases percolated into practical integration of schools, white flight again took hold to describe educational segregation.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on December 28, 2000

But ultimately any master-planned build-it-all-at-once development will decay and deteriorate after a couple or a few decades. For one thing, you can't make people do what you expect they should. Secondly, long-lasting self-renewing neighborhoods require a diversity of buildings, not only in type, but in age, style, and primary use. And the finer-grained the diversity, the better.

Additionally, there needs to be a shared history between neighbors, social bonds that have evolved over time so that those who have grown up in the neighborhood have already been inculcated with a sense of belonging and a responsibility to

webchick already brought this up in the NY Times weblog thread, but I think that it is worth rementioning since the Saguaro Seminar (of which Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame is a chair) just published the Better Together report about civic engagement. One of their findings is that the generation of older Americans that came of age during WWII (and were among the founders of Columbia) have been replaced by Baby Boomers who aren't as community-conscious. I believe that this, along with the (relative) lack of history is part of why Columbia seems to be struggling. It is also why I think that the efforts of the New Urbanists to create communities out of whole cloth, while admirable for their bent towards building community, will ultimately show varying levels of decay before they can flourish as communities. We will either see places like Columbia, or places like Seaside which are little better than amusement parks or gated communities.
posted by Avogadro at 6:41 AM on December 29, 2000

Columbia is based on 1960s ideals. They are outdated and the number of subscribers will last only as long as that generation. What is left is a weird blight on the landscape known as Columbia where once stood beautifull woods and fields. But who cares, theres plenty more fields to build McMansions on "further out" -- it used to be Columbia was further out, now its urban decay. Nothing built today is meant to last more then 20 years, often outdated and ugly after 10. That new strip-mall with the high-end stores in 10 years will have "vacant" signs and crumbling parking lots. What we need is urban renewal not more high-brow suburban blight.

posted by stbalbach at 1:55 AM on December 31, 2000

What we need is urban renewal not more high-brow suburban blight.

Right, but we have to be careful how we go about it. Most city governments seemingly haven't learned anything in the past fifty years of "urban renewal" and continue to favor mass demolition of "problem neighborhoods" to be replaced with a massive single-use project as an effort to raise the status of surrounding areas. But more likely than not, these massive new projects will only further worsen the areas adjacent to their unfriendly borders because they aren't well-woven into the existing structure of the city.

Kansas City is still trying this broken approach. The city condemned and removed about nine city blocks worth of old housing and stores, many abandoned, many havens for crime. And then after four years of sitting vacant, the lot is now being converted to a Home Depot and a CostCo surrounded by seas of parking lots. In an effort to be more "urban," they built the stores right up to some of the surrounding streets, but thanks to the design of these massive big box stores, all those streets get is a big blank wall. Of course, the developers required massive tax breaks to build in that location, and the demographics nearby probably aren't really the two companies' target audience. Alas...

Real improvement of "problem neighborhoods" will only come through gradual improvement, not cataclysmic upheaval. It's easy to want a quick fix, but that's not going to solve anything.
posted by daveadams at 1:31 PM on December 31, 2000

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