One natural response to yesterday’s post about (housing) affordability vs. beauty is to think that I put forward a false dichotomy. Why can’t we have both? Why does it need to be a zero-sum game? Surely there’s a middle ground. Our cities should be both inclusive and beautiful. And of course, I don’t disagree.
What I was trying to do with the post was force a thought exercise. There are lots of things that we do as city builders which serve to increase the cost/price of housing. Going to a design review panel adds time/cost. Deciding to use that really nice material from Europe adds cost (and maybe time). And even adding a simple building stepback adds time/cost.
So in doing these things, we are in effect deciding that these are more important that just building cheaper and lowering the resulting rents/sales prices. We can certainly debate the right balance and how much should be spent on things like design and/or sustainability, but it doesn’t change the fact that, for better or for worse, we are saying, “it is important that we spend the money on this particular item.”
Now, there is also a common counter argument that none of this really matters, because developers will always price new housing at whatever the market will bear (i.e. the maximum possible price). But as I have tried to argue many times before on this blog, this is not always true. Pushing prices too far increases risk and slows absorption.
It also ignores the fact that in any given city there are going to be sites that are infeasible to develop with new housing. That is, when you look at all the costs and, yes, what the market will bear, the numbers just don’t work. And so what can happen when you reduce development costs is that you now unlock more sites for new housing, increasing overall supply.
None of this is to say that our cities shouldn’t be beautiful or that we shouldn’t strive for creative design solutions. This is exactly what we should be doing! Instead, this post (and yesterday’s) is simply a reminder that time and things do cost money, and that the decisions we make are rarely benign. In fact, they usually speak to what we value the most.
Having lived in Europe for many years I often ponder this question – why our cities are so unappealing and what could be done differently.
I believe that long term beauty in architecture and urban planning more than pays for the initial added costs. Think of tourism, social and cultural benefits, increased sale value for private properties, higher rents, etc., etc. There is also this vague and non-measurable “spirit” of a city. In Churchill’s words, “when we build we shape buildings, after we finish they shape us” ( I hope this was close to the original quote).
Our public parks ( think of Cumberland Ave), benches facing traffic on tiny patches of grass at major intersections, benches facing buildings instead of the street – are very sad and frequent examples of design ignorance driven by politics of the City hall. The goal of our city development is economic efficiency, while beauty and its intangible but real benefits take a back seat.