London: Work + Exploring

Our group made a quick trip to London last summer (2022) to meet with a collaborating team that’s based there. I stayed a few extra nights because I wanted to explore the city a little bit. Fortuitously, my visit coincided with an infamous heat wave in which temperatures hovered around 100° F: not the most pleasant walking-around weather. But I determined to make the best of my brief visit, and to take some photos that captured the city’s beauty, history, and spirit — and of course its urban form.

I stayed near Victoria Station. Many of these photos are from three walks originating from the hotel and reaching into Lambeth, Westminster, St. James Park, Hyde Park, and Belgravia. The fourth and longest (after the heatwave had broken) began in Whitechapel. Heading into the City, I went down to the embankment near the Tower and followed the Thames up to around the Monument and St. Mary Woolnoth. From there, I roughly followed the Roman Wall to the Barbican, then headed back down toward St. Paul’s. (By then, I was exhausted enough to hail a taxi back to the hotel).

A few small takeaways about London’s urban personality:

  • The Thames is London’s Grand Canal: functional, focal, and eternal. The urban fabric builds out from its banks.
  • The meandering streets, like so much that is English, evoke the benevolent chaos of plants: their roots and branches are of a piece with England’s common law, language, and gardens. For all its modernity, England is a deeply agrarian place.
  • In July, there are lilacs everywhere: little shocks of purple against stone walls. The whole city has a floral and smoky scent, a mix of lilacs, gardens, European perfume — and city smoke.

Edward Hopper’s New York

Enough writing. Time for some visuals. Let’s start with some photos from the Edward Hopper show that I saw at the Whitney Museum early this year. Some of the shots are at an angle; I think I had in mind that since these were familiar paintings, it might be interesting to see them from a slightly different perspective. Not sure how well that worked out. You can judge. Before going, I had posted a link to a review in The New Criterion. So it feels like I’m closing a loop with this entry.

Breaking Records: American Homelessness

The United States passed an ignominious milestone this year, with more than 650,000 homeless people. This figure — a record, according to Axios, and almost certainly a lowball — is inextricably linked to the nation’s chronic, insufficient production of new housing units. Of course, in this musical-chairs game of a housing market, the most vulnerable groups have been hit hardest. Per Axios, some of the numbers are staggering:

  • Homeless families with children increased by 16% in 2023, comprising 28% of the US homeless population — roughly 186,000 people.
  • Despite being just 13 percent of the US population, African-Americans made up 37% of the US homeless population, and 50% (!) of homeless people in families with children — roughly 90,000 people.
  • 61 percent of homeless adults were men, including 90 percent of homeless veterans.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported separately in September that homelessness among seniors is reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.

This is a slow-motion disaster. It is also an epic failure of the nation’s moral priorities, as enshrined in law. While it is true, of course, that addiction, mental illness, and poverty all contribute to people becoming homeless, I think it is important that the role of high housing costs, made worse by limits on missing-middle housing and SROs, not be ignored. There was a time when American cities (and towns, and suburbs) could grow creatively and quickly to house a rising population. Then, it became the law’s priority, in too many places, to oppose any change. Homelessness is a visible human consequence.

Community and Microcosm in NoVa

An LT reader and fellow urban writer based in the DC area, Bryce Tolpen, has launched a new Substack called Political Devotions. One of his first podcasts, “Stories & objects”, explores a global community that has coalesced around Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia; and how an arts space in a strip mall, StudioPause, came to serve as a neighborhood focal-point in the post-2020 American anomie that may never quite end. Such an interesting piece — check it out, along with the rest of Bryce’s writing and podcasts. He is a great storyteller, and writes with a perspective that incorporates a thoughtful and eclectic range of influences.

Status Check

I haven’t written much here lately — other obligations have taken priority. Also:

I have been trying to come up with a new organizing principle for this page. One reason is positive: when I began writing here, 13 years ago (!), I was about to begin my last year of graduate school. At the time, the spirit of New Urbanism had captured many imaginations (including, to an extent, my own), and I was especially interested in Andrés Duany’s assertions about the need to legalize traditional building patterns (an obvious factor in the title of this blog); but I wasn’t convinced that master-planning was the right approach, and I had also found little discussion on the Web or in the press about the role that land use law might be playing in housing markets, or how market-rate housing was becoming less affordable in many regions. I wanted to explore those issues and see what I could learn.

Since the mid-2010s, there has been a sea change: a widespread mainstream awakening to the role of land-use policy in shaping regional housing markets. I think it’s fair to say this was helped by the growing visibility of the scarcity of housing units, and the fact that it began to impact more people in the professional class. California and Oregon, two housing-expensive states, recently enacted laws that presume this dynamic to be at work — and seek to create many new legal units by relaxing zoning. Major cities across the country, including Minneapolis and New York, have largely accepted the same premise. Development opponents are now routinely expected to engage with impacts on housing; and articles skewering the obstructionary role of local zoning have become commonplace. For these reasons, I don’t feel the same urgency about raising attention anymore. It has become conventional wisdom that zoning contributes to housing shortages; and that these impacts deserve scrutiny. This change is a major win, and I hope my contributions here, and in publications, have helped to bring this discussion forward since 2010. Based on the engagement I’ve gotten from readers, I think they have.

But there is also a less positive side to my questioning of purpose here: it is clear to me that none of what has changed has been nearly enough. Not yet. Today we see and discuss the role of zoning in housing markets more easily, and this represents progress toward a goal I believe many share, namely, to create a more responsive legal framework for urban growth. But actual reforms, so far, have been far too modest; market pressures remain high; a NIMBY mindset continues to prevent enough building to match demand (particularly in the suburbs); and inequality continues to be amplified by past circumstances and present inertia. The current gridlock in the housing market (due, they say, to high interest rates) has pushed the cost of a home to record highs. And if existing pressures weren’t enough, American cities, with high levels of homelessness, now face a migration crisis that will require homes for perhaps millions of additional people — a Sisyphean challenge whose high-water mark remains unknown.

To be candid, I have a bad feeling about where this is all going. Healthy social institutions need to be able to adapt to changing demands, and, right now — despite some key recent victories — America’s model for urban growth is not capable of being sufficiently responsive. We need better results. With tent cities, shelters at capacity, and impossibly high rents, I fear that some US cities are at a turning point, and may be moving in the direction of those global cities where a mismatch between the population and available housing creates a permanent class of homeless or barely-housed people. To head that off, we would need elected officials and municipal planning officials to get serious about authorizing much more housing construction. We would also require a more coherent policy on migration, one that acknowledges the centrality of affordable homes to successful resettlement. From what I can see, I am not optimistic.

Whether a niche law-and-planning blog can do much to move the needle on these kinds of policy goals is debatable. Over the past few years, I’ve shifted to wrtiting articles that have had wider exposure. I have also been working on some primary-source research into the factors that shaped the more responsive American urbanism of the pre-zoning era, because I think we can learn a lot from the past; I know that I have, simply by examining it. In the meantime, I do still plan to write here on occasion, and will share links to any pieces I publish elsewhere. As always, I am happy to receive feedback. One of the best things about writing is the opportunity it provides to hear from others. That said, please forgive me for having posts that appear like rare birds.