“Just Building Sprawl” is Over, But How?

When President Obama declared, before an audience in Ft. Myers, Florida, on Feb. 10, an end to “just building sprawl forever” (fast-forward to around 58:58 for the money quote), it may have signaled a change of venue in the battle over how the stimulus package is interpreted and applied.

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

Up until Obama left Washington for town meetings in Florida and Indiana, the debate seemed paralyzed by partisan politics at the national level. Democrats and Republicans retreated to familiar corners, debating the effectiveness of tax cuts vs. spending initiatives as if the issues were purely academic. The national media, as usual, were captivated by the food fight. By changing the stage for the debate from the floors of Congress to communities already hard-hit by the recession, Obama was able to bring back into focus the sense of urgency for action and likely targets for effective stimulus funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers had already done some of the homework for Obama, giving a grade of “D” to the nation’s infrastructure and calling for $2.2 trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next five years. And even if Obama had not taken to the road, bottom-up politics was likely to overwhelm Congress before long.  See this February 8 Chicago Tribune story suggesting a growing tension between conservative elected leaders and their constituents over the need for immediate investment in communities.

City, county, and state governments were not likely to sit on the sidelines for long, either (note Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist standing on the dais next to Obama in the Ft. Myers video). In the short term, government spending at all levels is likely to be the source of most new investment. So the faster funds begin moving out of Washington, the better.

A recent conference hosted by Governing magazine on the “Outlook in the States and Localities” was full of sobering presentations about spending cuts and lay-offs. According to a survey by the National Association of Counties, 91 percent of those polled said they were cutting spending, and 64 percent predicted lay-offs. A similar survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested 40 states have budget gaps in the current fiscal year and 24 are already predicting shortfalls in 2010.

The signal Obama sent with his end-of-sprawl message in Ft. Meyers is likely to be welcomed by counties and municipalities, many of which have Smart Growth vision plans in place and have a pretty good idea how to use economic stimulus money. With transportation planning at the center of the infrastructure debate, here’s a good place to watch how the process plays out: www.t4america.org. Also, The Alliance for Innovation, a public-sector collaboration that includes the International City/County Management Association, is monitoring 11 municipalities and how they’re coping with the current economic environment. The group is producing a wiki report called Navigating the Fiscal Crisis: Strategies for Local Leaders. Much of the advice, taken from lessons learned in other downturns, is about resisting the temptation to sacrifice long-term strategic goals for short-term savings.

- Ben Brown

Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

- Scott Doyon