From Never-Never Land to Shangri-La: The livability fantasy

Published October 1, 2002

Smart-growth activists, especially those representing the movement’s new urbanist component, frequently talk about “livable cities”—implying that, over the past 50 years, America has developed cities that are not livable. This will come as news to the unprecedented millions of Americans who live a lifestyle that is the envy of billions around the world.

Smart-growth advocates reminisce about how things are purported to have been in the American small town a century ago. There was a greater sense of community. People sat in rockers on their front porches, greeting passersby. They had no need for cars, because virtually everything was within walking distance, including the corner grocery store, where they conversed around the cracker barrel on their daily visits. It was a more democratic time. Communities were economically integrated.

But the romantic memories of people who were not there does not paint a reliable picture of what was. The physician did not live between the blacksmith and the janitor. True, they lived closer together. Everyone did. Communities were smaller in a nation of 75 million than in a nation of 285 million.

A different kind of community

Technology—from the automobile to low-cost long-distance telephone service, the Internet, and air conditioning—has revolutionized community. The small-town residents of yesteryear spent more time with their neighbors not out of an inherent interest in community, but rather because they had little opportunity to meet and communicate with geographically remote people who shared more common interests.

Community exists today, but like everything else, it is different. There are multiple communities—local, regional, and global—made possible by telecommunications and information technology.

Moreover, our great-grandparents did not sit on their front porches and speak to passersby out of a sense of community—it was simply more comfortable there than in their non-air conditioned houses. There were also fewer things to do: no television and no Internet. If community were driving the porch-sidewalk dynamic, then there would have been as many people on the porch in the frozen dead of a Cleveland winter as in the summer. There weren’t. Community does not ebb and flow with the seasons.

Today, people maximize their leisure time and standard of living by traveling to the discount department stores, the supermarkets, and specialized “big box” stores that have done so much to improve affluence, especially for those with lower incomes. Changing tastes now have people driving to mega-churches in the suburbs, rather than walking or driving to nearby churches. They drive to the lake, mountains, or other recreational locations.

The income-based distribution of residences is as it was 100 years ago. The physician does not live between the truck driver and the day laborer. Patterns are similar throughout the developed world. Outside the affluent core of Paris, for example, are the equivalents of U.S. public housing towers housing the minority poor in the suburbs. Minorities make up a disproportionate share of Stockholm’s architecturally Stalinist housing estates.

And then there is the fact that by no means everyone lived in the mythical small towns that populate new urbanist minds. Millions lived in large cities. Many of these millions were front porchless, relegated to fulfilling their community hailing obligations from upper story windows. Those were the lucky ones. Others didn’t even have windows from which the street could be seen.

Failed utopia

The grand fantasy of livability has as little chance for realization as its proponents have of altering historical reality.

Households will make some purchases by walking to yuppified convenience stores in new urbanist enclaves pretending to be something they are not. But residents will still travel miles to do the serious shopping, where there is more variety and where prices are lower. And they will spend far less on fuel than they save on other purchases.

Professionals who have paid the inflated house prices will not, in pursuit of the new urbanist ideal, take jobs in the beauty salons or Starbuck’s “wannabes” in the cutesy town centers. Indeed, there is a less than one chance in 10 that they will take transit to their jobs … which are likely to be just as far away, on average, as if they lived on a one-half acre lot in suburbia half a mile away.

And then there is the fact that most new urbanist communities are, in fact, in suburbia, and many are dreaded “leapfrog” developments.

Genuine livability is evidenced by the choices people make. People buy cars because they satisfy both their needs and desires, and they buy houses in the suburbs for virtually the same reason. They make these choices because they are more livable than the alternatives. It should come as no surprise that the smart-growth movement has, with its definition of livability, turned semantics on its head, just as it has with the term “smart growth” itself.

No one should object to development of a misnamed “livable” community freely chosen and paid for by its residents. This is consistent with the Lone Mountain Compact principle that absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like. But such a measure of freedom offends the self-appointed elites whose psyche requires controlling other peoples’ lives, not just their own. In Marxian terms, they would impose a dictatorship of the busybodies.

The livability thesis is based upon a revisionist, doctrinally enhanced misreading of history. The architects of livability seek to design a “back to the future” that never was. Indeed, the new urbanist prospect is more likely to mimic that of Robert Owen’s New Harmony (Indiana) or any other of history’s many failed utopias.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university.

For more information

about the Lone Mountain Compact, which outlines principles for preserving freedom and livability in America’s cities and suburbs, visit PERC’s Web site at