2011-11-03

Suburban Nation, Ch. 6: Wherein the Developer is a Tragic Figure

You know them. The Tragic Figures, the hapless characters that meets their end from a string of circumstances they did not initiate. They would do the right thing, if only fate would allow it.

In Chapter 6 of Duany’s Suburban Nation, developers are the tragic figure. Once respected, an insidious mix of onerous government regulations, tricky marketers, and narrow-minded bankers did them in. Once the builders of mixed-use hopes and dreams, they are now the farm-eaters, forced to stamp out dead, inedible housing units across land that once brought us sustenance.

It’s an odd tone to take in a book about the terrible ills of suburbia, and it’s one that holds weight, albeit in limited ways. Developers are not landscape architects or community planners; they’re businessmen. The smart ones will recognize that cultivating community is important to their bottom line. The hacks will follow market trends and do what Builder magazine says they should. There are a lot more hacks.

But I did find it strange that Duany spent the whole chapter detailing why developers aren’t really to blame, then doing a turnabout at the end and praising developers they think are doing it right. People like Robert Davis and Joe Alfandre do deserve praise, but mostly because they disprove the whole notion that developers aren’t to blame. Those guys managed to do it, somehow. Why can’t the others?

Municipal regulations and marketers are huge influences on what gets built; I’m not denying that. But at one point in time, people gave a crap. They took pride in what they did, and customers in return appreciated the good work and kept them in business. Now, most people don’t give a crap either, so they buy a house that sprouted up in treeless field somewhere, tended to maturity by a flock of illegal immigrants and then passed along with the expectation that this crap will bloom into their children’s college fund. It’s ridiculous, and the developers are fully implicated in it. They passed along an inferior product in the name of making a living,” because building something worthwhile might mean they couldn’t get a new F-250 every year.

All these regulations got passed because no one made a compelling case to resist them, even though compelling cases existed. Parking minimums got passed, developers raised their prices to keep the same margins, clients that couldn’t pay got weeded out, and bankers only gave money to projects that gave quantifiable results. So huge parking lots got built, developers still made money, local corner stores gave way to Walgreens, and bankers got their returns.

I say amen to the statement on page 111, that to think of the individual house (/building/project) as the ultimate outcome of the builder’s craft robs that craft of its broader significance.” Doing what we thought was best for the individual is bringing the whole thing down, making what was best for the individual not the best at all.

Thankfully, more and more projects are being built that will serve as precedents for other projects like them. I think it’s been substantially disproven that the model of suburbia is a profitable and desirable one to follow, for developers, banks, and municipalities. But if you’re going to praise a new generation of developers for pushing through and changing the game, you need to give equal blame to the ones that made a change necessary.


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