“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
-The Lake Isle of Innisfree, William Butler Yeats
I have, for a long time, had a vision in much the way my buddy Mr. Yeats wrote of in the above poem, one that I can’t really ever shake. I strongly believe that the world is facing three converging crises that will require a drastic reshaping of life as we know it. These three crises are: climate change, energy and resource scarcity, and capital formation problems. Any one of these alone would be some seriously heavy stuff to deal with, but all three together spells only one thing–major changes are coming. We already see it at the peripheral: chronic unemployment, a jobless recovery that’s going on 6 years, massive wealth inequalities, energy prices that creep up but never seen to go back down despite all the talk of a “Saudi States of America,” budgetary shortfalls, endless Fed shenanigans, relentless persecution of the poor and powerless while the robber barons on Wall Street get off scot-free, a generation that pretty everyone understands will have neither the opportunities nor the wealth of their parents, and the list goes on and on and on. These are the symptoms of a problem that essentially goes bone deep in the world capitalist system, that essentially global capitalism as it has been practiced over the last 200 years is interested only in ever increasing growth, and benefits largely a select group of investor-class professionals, while leading ultimately to its own creative destruction in an endless cycle of booms and busts.
What very few want to consider is that the incredible period of wealth and prosperity that followed the last world war was largely made possible by two things: the industrial world bombed itself into oblivion, leaving the US and USSR as the only industrial powers left to prop everyone else up; and we were awash in ridiculously cheap energy. Neither of these things are true, and they haven’t been true since the early 1970s. hence, nearly 40 years of booms and busts and steadily stagnating wages and wealth prospects for ensuing generations.
Now I say all this as a preface to explaining the Yeats-like vision that I can’t get out of my head. It’s easy enough to read the above three paragraphs and grow despondent, depressed, angry, whatever. Things seem like they are really bad and they’re only going to get worse. For those of us with young children, it is a truly terrifying prospect to consider the world we will be leaving them. 2050 may seem like a long way off but my sons will be 41 and 36 in that year, barely older than I am now. How irresponsible is it for me and my generation to first bring amazing, beautiful people like my sons into this world, and then knowingly rob them of whatever is left to grab and leave them with nothing but scorching summers, crumbling infrastructure, little economic opportunity, and social strife from sea to shining sea?
This is what keeps me up at night, the fear that I am not doing enough to secure a life for my children and your children and everyone’s children that will at least be as good as mine has been, if not better. This brings me to my point, and back to Yeats’ poem above. I believe that there is actually a solution staring us right in the face: walkable urbanism. It is well-understood that denser, walkable urban places use less carbon per capita, are healthier, have fewer accidental deaths per capita, are generally more vibrant and pleasant places to live, and are simply more profitable per square acre than the current sprawl-tastic American way of building. If paired with the latest in renewable energy and medical technology, I believe that rebuilding America as a walkable, transit-oriented oasis is the closest thing we have to a “silver bullet” for climate change, energy and resource scarcity, and providing a healthy and robust life for future generations.
So, I have been thinking for about two years of what that place might look like within an American context. Certainly the New Urbanists have done a phenomenal job of moving the edge of what is acceptable in development circles. This is evidenced by the endless talk among developers of green space and multi-use development, etc. But in the end most of these developments make excessive allowances and considerations for automobile use, a practice that needs to come to an end sooner rather than later. The age of the car is likely coming to a close in the next several decades as younger generations discover walkable urbanism and play out a preference for community and lifelong happiness over rampant materialism and the classic suburban American Dream. It is clear there is a ton of demand for these places, since the few the US has are some of the most expensive places to live in the world (Manhattan, San Fran, Georgetown, etc.). So, Millennials are moving into the industrial, forgotten places of cities in an effort to recreate the sort of walkable urbanism that they see in Europe and Asia on the their study abroad trips. If we were to build new places like the places they saw over there, despite the unproven business model and inherent risks of trying something new, we’d likely find that demand would quickly outpace supply and a new building boom could be underway, this time devoted to creating an American landscape that will stand the test of time, not fall apart in 30 years.
We have a choice to make in the next ten years. Will we continue on our current path toward our certain destruction because it’s easier to bury our heads in the sand, or will we try new ways of living so that the future is a more certain place and our kids will be able to say they are proud of their parents, instead of cursing our names? The choice is ours.