By Request: Missing the Trees

John Bedell writes:

I work in downtown DC but live in the Baltimore suburbs and ride down on the MARC train. Whenever I read you waxing on about the joys of urban living, I think, “but big buildings are ugly.” I could live in a townhouse neighborhood, provided there was adequate parking, but I just couldn’t live in a big building surrounded by other big buildings. The atmosphere is grim and oppressive. So I wonder, do you like it, do you not care, or do you miss having space and greenery around you?

I grew up in an apartment in Manhattan and didn’t actually realize how much I like to have a little greenery around until I moved to a rowhouse neighborhood in DC and got my hands on a small backyard. Now I live in an apartment that has a largish internal courtyard, and precisely because I put a high value on that kind of thing I was glad to be able to get a unit that has a door which opens directly on the courtyard. Which is to say that a certain level of appreciation for green space is by no means incompatible with a preference for city living. Even in Manhattan! There’s a reason, after all, that people who can afford them really like to get direct views of Central Park or Riverside Park.

Obviously, though, what’s available in the city isn’t going to be enough for many people. And personally while I recognize a lot of virtues to New York City, I prefer living in a smaller city. And others will prefer small towns or rural areas or suburbs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Getting planning policy right isn’t about saying that there’s one kind of neighborhood that people ought to live in. Indeed, just the reverse. It’s about saying that public policy shouldn’t be aimed at exclusively promoting a particular vision of car-only suburbanism. If we had the mirror-image of our current policies — it’s illegal to build parking lots or garages, there’s no money available for work on roads, no structure can occupy less than 90 percent of its lot, no building can be shorter than six stories, no home can have more than 2,000 square feet — that would be stupid and bad. It would be bad in different ways and for different people, but it would still be bad. That, however, isn’t the situation we have.