A Few Slightly Radical Ideas to Ponder

Here’s a handful of somewhat radical planning ideas to ponder as we enter the Great Mini-Depression:

I am wondering what sort of innovations will go mainstream in this strange new age. General Motors is busy touting a plug-in electric car as its salvation. What’s next? The housing industry pushing Katrina houses or even log cabins for everyone who can’t afford McMansions anymore?

I for one would be delighted to see housers promoting little houses, but fear the ideology of the big house on a postage stamp-sized parcel will be difficult to overcome. For people to be able to live comfortably in smaller houses, they would have to first agree to possess fewer things. That would require a change in our society away from insane consumerism, which wouldn’t go over well with the big box and department store industries.

One once-radical idea that appears to be on its way to mainstream acceptance is transit-oriented development in the suburbs. Every property tax-hungry burb around Boston is busy permitting multi-story residential projects by their commuter rail stations. But in a nod to traditional stuck-in-the-mud thinking, these towns don’t pressure developers to add retail, recreation, child care, or office space to their projects. So if people who live in the new residential happen to also have their offices right on the transit line, they can survive much of the time without driving. But for every other aspect of their lives, they still drive, so the transit-oriented impact on these suburban towns is very limited.

As a rabid but law-abiding cyclist, I’d like to see more places adopt this radical idea: narrower lane widths for cars. I’ve noticed that officials tend to blindly agree when transportation “experts” insist that cars need at least 12 feet of lane space for safety. I’d like to know why they don’t require the same amount of space for bicyclists, so we don’t have to run the risk of getting tossed over our handlebars every time someone so much as opens their driver’s side door a crack.

I wonder what sort of radical steps to control land development will gain mainstream favor as more of the public learns about sustainability and living within our means. Will community land trusts, taking land out of the capitalist market, become more common? I don’t expect Americans to call for lots of new co-ops or rent control, but I’m thinking people are now more open to the idea that neighborhood and family stability outweigh the potential of housing as an investment.

With transit agencies in many big cities deep in debt, neighborhoods can forget about getting more bus service. They may soon lose some of their most cherished routes, in fact. It’s time for people to push for neighborhood-based transit which is more accountable to the people who use it.

Finally, how about we create more naturally occurring retirement communities like the one on Boston’s Beacon Hill with an emphasis on affordability? The senior citizen population continues to grow as a share of the nation’s total, and nursing homes and assisted living centers aren’t getting any cheaper.

Enjoy pondering these still slightly radical-isms over your egg nog, and have a happy holiday and new year.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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