Check Your Math

One day as I was driving to see my good friends (and Small Business of the Year Award winners) at Collier Construction, I came across the following billboard for a new apartment complex…

Questionable accounting

When I decided to start writing I promised myself that this space would not become a bastion of bitching. I also wanted to try to avoid singling out developments for criticism. I think it's more interesting to talk about concepts and big picture issues than it is to dissect specific projects. However, this week I’m flirting with crossing that line. 

I have a hard time getting too fired-up about goings-on outside of downtown, so frankly I'm ambivalent about this particular project. However, the billboard got my goat. Let’s never mind the fact that this development is not actually urban. Never mind the fact that half the site is not even in Chattanooga, much less downtown. Denuding a hilltop, building at 11 units per acre and accessing the site by a minor miracle of modern engineering does not urbanity (or perfection) make. However, this development is no worse than 3 or 4 four others in that same area, so I will stop here lest I cross too far over the line of development critique.

Development quality level aside, their mathematics need work:  “Urban + Suburban = Perfection”. Having married into the marketing world and living in a society that bombards us with pitches, I understand the game. Usually, I can chalk such silliness up to the ad game, but I couldn’t shake this one. I understand that a marketing firm came up with that line for an ad that will run for a month or two, and for them it’s a throwaway piece of prose. But this statement is so obviously and fundamentally wrong that I have to address it at face value.

Urban + Suburban = Perfection, this is not possible. “Urban” relates to or is concerned with a city or densely populated area. “Sub-Urban” means less than urban. Those two conditions are antithetical. The two cannot coexist in the same space much like matter/anti-matter, silence/sound, 'Bama fans/Auburn fans. As one introduces sub-urban elements into an urban setting, the urbanity is eroded or destroyed and one is left with a sub-urban condition.

I’m a child of the sub-urbs (God’s own Montgomery, AL), and most of the people I know grew up in sub-urbs as well. In a way, it's difficult to stomach the thought that our way of life is anything other than ideal (especially since we also happen to be Americans). Millions of people in our country have psychologically invested themselves in the perceived decency and righteousness of the suburb. However, we have had nothing else to compare it to since city design guidelines have ensured that sub-urbs are essentially our only residential option. But if we are to be honest with ourselves it has become increasingly apparent that this scheme of development is deficient from financial, environmental, health and social standpoints.

My old stomping grounds

One of my favorite articles on the subject is an oldie-but-goodie from Newsweek. One of the reasons that I like the article is because it frames the issues as solutions instead of just bitching about what sucks. Its easy to see how dated the article is because there is no mention of the (oh so en vogue) sustainability issue or any mention of how the collapse of the financial system that was set up to create the sub-urb has almost bankrupted us. The unfortunate reality is that we will not have the resources to continue to inhabit suburbs the way we have for the past sixty years. But the more salient question is: even if we had unlimited resources why would want to continue to build this stuff anyway?

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