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We should build more nice places to live

Nice places to live — however you want to define that — tend to be expensive places to live. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be the case. Perhaps it’s on a body of water, next to a park, or it has some other redeeming qualities.

Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns makes a cogent argument, here, that when it comes to nice and desirable places it usually comes down to one thing: scarcity. Demand > supply. But on top of this, he argues that in most cases, the supply constraint is artificial.

Here’s an excerpt:

In fact, our shortage of nice places is almost totally self-imposed. And it’s precisely because 98% of the North American built environment is so blah that the 2% of places that are really well-designed environments quickly get bid up by the rich and become inaccessible to the rest of us. The solution to this isn’t to stop creating such places, but to create vastly more of them.

He goes on:

The same story applies to the countless row house neighborhoods of the Northeast, Chicago, and San Francisco. In city after city, the mass-market, working-class housing of its time has acquired a distinctly bourgeois reputation today. In all cases, the reason lies in economics, not design. What’s abundant becomes culturally coded as middlebrow; what’s scarce becomes culturally coded as elite.

We have talked before on the blog about how tastes change over time and how housing that was previously undesirable can sometimes/oftentimes become desirable given enough time.

My sense is that there are a number of factors at play here and it’s perhaps a bit difficult to decode where new “cultural coding” truly starts. But I very much appreciate Daniel’s scarcity argument. Scarcity drives so much in markets (just look at the NFT art market right now and the fixation on rarity tables).

But let me be the devil’s advocate. If we were to be successful at building no blah and all nice stuff, wouldn’t the rich just seek out a new 2% rarity? And if so, would the 98% still seem just as nice?

Either way, more nice places to live should always be the ambition.

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