Small-Town Exceptionalism
January 10, 2013

In my previous blog posts I've emphasised about the importance of designing cities for people with human scale architecture. One of most common arguments I've come up against is "that's great for a large city where everyone wants to live in an appartment, but it doesn't apply to the small town I come from." Good urban design is good urban design, regardless of the population you're catering for. To show it, I'm going to specifically focus on small towns in this post. Infact, I'm a believer that small but fast growing towns are in a much better position than large cities to lead the nation by example, as they're somewhat of a clean slate full of limitless potential. It's also easier to get it right early on.

The Ideal Small Town

So how does all of this apply to small-towns? Let's compare our vision of the 'ideal town' with reality. This is a mural, only a decade old, showing an ideallic small American town from an actual American artist;

Notice how asthetically pleasing it is? The roads are paved with brick and not ashpalt. Instead of cars, there are children playing in the street. There are no drive throughs or Wal-Marts, just speciality stores at ground level with offices or residences above. There is a low to medium density of buildings, but it feels far from crowded. There is plenty of open space, just look at the park in the middle, without having to resort to building setbacks or 'green space'. It has charm, it has character, it looks like a friendly place to visit and live. When someone says they want to live in small town America, this is what they fantasize about.

Go take a drive to your nearest town of 2,000 people, and you'll probably see something more like this;

Ugh. That place is ugly and depressing. I get stressed just looking at it. There's no character. Why would anybody want to live here? Why did anybody in their right mind even build such a monstrosity of an environment?

American Exceptionalism

There was a period starting from the 1890s up until World War 2 when the United States had something special known as 'American Exceptionalism'. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 held in Chicago, America impressed the world. It was the debut of Chicago's White City to show off American architecture and efficiency to the world;

There were many world firsts unveiled at the fair - the ferris wheel, phosphorescant lamps, the dishwasher, bubble gum, even Tesla's experimentations with alternating current;

The fair triggered the City Beautiful movement, and American cities thrived;

Even small towns that lacked the wealth or engineering experience thrived with life and architecture;

And with them, Americans built the world's largest network of trains, street cards, and interurbans through every town and city with at least 10,000 people;

But travel to a 'growing' American town nowadays, and you're more likely to see this;

Would you call this progress? I wouldn't. It looks like such a hellish environment. How did we come so far in less than half a century? What happened to American Exceptionalism? I can't entirely pinpoint it to a single cause, as part of it was due to the Great American streetcar scandle in which many great street car systems were brought out by car manufacturers, and then torn up in order to increase car sales;

What Went Wrong

At the start of the 20th century, there were small beautiful railroad towns with a strong community life all around the country, then after World War 2, and the promise of every soldier returning to their own house in the suburbs, these very towns and cities began adopting auto-centric policies including;

  1. Reducing or eliminating sidewalks, as it was assumed everyone returning would purchase their own car.
  2. Introducing laws to encourage drive-through services and other conveniences aimed at motorists.
  3. Investing in and encouraged suburban development on the outskirts.
  4. Encouraging, and sometimes requiring, the flattening or spacing out of buildings to accomidate for parking.
  5. At first, it didn't seem like anything was wrong. We could have our cars, our drive throughs, our parking lots, our wide roads, and our street cars too;

    Interestingly, you can still see hints around the streetcar tracks of the street that existed before the asphalt was paved over it and turned it into a road. But new development required roads to be wider, buildings to be set back to accomidate for future road expansions, and minimum parking requirements so every shopper could have a place to park during the Christmas rush. And so, by the mid 20th century, despite the technological advancement of the age making construction cheaper and faster, this was illegal to build this outside of very few already established city cores;

    That was the day American Exceptionalism died. The downtown area of many small towns do not contain a single building built after the 1940s despite rapid growths in population.

    So what changed? Before World War 2, traditional American cities were made for people. After World War 2, American cities were made for cars.

    Unsustainable Profiteering

    The major key point of modern suburbia was space, and city leaders saw this as easy profit. It was easy and profitable for them to expand, annex, and sell off large amounts of land - so they encouraged it. Property developers saw this cheap land, and saw easy profit in filling it with houses, and consumers were attracted to the idea of owning a huge yard. And, so was born the great American front lawn;

    With cheap land and ever expanding city borders, it was cheaper to just buy new land on the outskirts than it was to renovate or rebuild existing areas. It gave rise to a 'build it then move on' mentality. Once thriving inner city neighbourhoods are now associated with homelessness, poverty, and crime as the wealthy continue to expand outwards;

    Our political leaders encouraged this behaviour. It was expensive to maintain suburban sprawl. In the traditional American neighbourhood, infrastructure and road maintenance was cheap. The city just had to run a water pipe or powerline down a single street and they would have covered 30 or more houses;

    Instead, in sprawled suburban neighbourhoods, you'd easily have to build and maintain at least many magnitudes more infrastructure to satisfy the same number of families;

    Suburban sprawl is expensive to maintain, because you have to build and maintain far more infrastructure than you would in a traditional city. This includes paving more roads (and wider roads too, as you're now accomidating for cars), your mail and garbage routes are longer, your police and fire services have a larger area to cover. Many cities looked at cutting costs, such as eliminating sidewalks and performing sub-par, if any, street maintenance, and covering the rest of the costs with more easy profit by encouraging the sale of more land. However, this economic model only works under the assumption that there is infinity growth - in population, demand, and land, and once you've hit one of those limits, you've really screwed yourself over. With cities now outgrowing the sprawling suburbia it's no suprise that goverments of every level are going broke.


    In my previous blog posts I've talked about walkability, complete streets, and how cities are cars don't mix. It is great to talk about these topics, but even with sidewalks the entire length of the way, no one by choice is going to walk 30 minutes through typical suburbian sprawl or catch a bus to get to Walmart. And there's a reason why;

    I can see the sidewalks but I still wouldn't enjoy walking through there. It's lonely, and there's not much to see most of the way except houses and front lawns. The environment was clearly built for a car, so to traverse it any other way, to put simply, sucks. That is a major flaw in the mentality of many of today's leaders. They think just by building public transportation or installing side walks, their city is 'walkable'. But in an environment built for the automobile, you're going to get very low levels of ridership.

    Don't get me wrong, I encourage investing in public transportation and sidewalks, as it least it gives people a choice not to drive and it opens the door for better development later on, but for the most part it'll be unpleasent to use and not very frequented, because in a city designed for the automobile people are going to use their automobiles.

    In an environment that was designed for people, the most pleasent way to travel is by foot. If a person opened their front door to this;

    They'd be more likely to walk to the local store, even if they had a car readily avaliable to them. When I encourage people to design car-free cities, it's not that I think cars are entirely bad, but as soon as most people think 'cars' they think wide roads, parking lots, drive throughs, and heavy traffic - which we should avoid at all costs because it leads to an environment made for cars that is expensive to maintain and starts a reinforcing pattern of anti-walkability! But by getting in the mindset of designing a car free environment, our imaginations open up and suddenly we're thinking narrow streets, shops and parks within walking distance of every home, and safe, visually attractive neighbourhoods;


    There are three important points that I am trying to convey in this blog post;

    1. 'Walkability', sidewalks, and public transportation don't mean anything in an environment built for cars. It doesn't make your city greener just by including them if the environment is still built for cars. It's the environment itself that encourages people to drive regardless of what extra infrastructure you patch on top. If you want public transportation and walkability to succeed then you need to build human-scale cities.
    2. Human scale development is not expensive. Infact, it's cheaper than suburban sprawl. There's far less infrastructure to maintain (less roads to pave and maintain, less water pipes to install, less distance to travel for garbage collection, etc.), it increases the quality of life substantially as your citizens aren't required to deal with traffic, it strengthens your local economy as it favours small businesses, and is neccessary for a revival of American Exceptionalism. It doesn't take much skill either - many railroad towns of the 19th century were built by uneducated labourers without engineering degrees.
    3. Finally, it's not just something for big cities that 'doesn't apply to me because I live in a small country town.' It's easier to get things right the first time, therefore small towns are the perfect catalysts for reviving traditional development and leading by example.

    What I have discussed isn't limited to American cities (I'm not even American). I used American Exceptionalism to refer to a well-document and bygone age to show what is possible. However the future isn't bleak. Cities are finally growing faster than suburbs again and public transportation is reaching record levels of riderships. We also live in an age where there are great influential people promoting Strong Towns and Traditional Cities. The future is bright, as long as we act on it and don't continue along the unsustainable path of suburban sprawl.