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Urbanism and the American Dream

Is urbanism replacing suburbia as the American Dream?

Professor Walter Russell Meade writes a blog in which he ponders coming societal changes. His premise is that the social model for which suburbia is the American Dream is coming to an end, just as the social model for which the small farm was the America Dream came to an end a century ago.

I don’t concur with his every premise. I also find him too willing to point out the shortcomings in others. Nonetheless, he raises points that are thoughtful and insightful. In a recent three part series (one, two, and three), he summarizes his perspective and lays the groundwork for his ongoing contemplation of coming changes. Unless you’re particularly motivated, I won’t recommend it reading the entire series.  It is long and requires serious chewing. However, I'll point you to a key paragraph near the middle of Part Two.

“I start with the assumption that the 21st century must reinvent the American Dream. It must recast our economic, social, familial, educational and political systems for new challenges and new opportunities. Some hallowed practices and institutions will have to go under the bus. But in the end, the changes will make us richer, more free, and more secure than we are now. The means will often not be the progressive and bureaucratic institutions of the last century, but the results will be something that most Americans will perceive as progress.”

I note this passage because its message is noted in a second blog. The latter blog is written by Kevin Hartnett who ruminates on the points raised by Meade and then concludes with the following thought. 

“But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.”

I’m unsure that the universal American Dream of the next generation which will be an urban life, but neither were small farms or suburbia the universal American Dream of past generations. However, I believe fervently that an urban life will be the American Dream for some. I also believe that those who find fulfillment in an urban life will bring particular creative value to our communities.

And ultimately that is why this blog exists. To help establish the places in which fulfilling and creative urban lives can be lived. For eighty years, we neglected that lifestyle, adopting policies that discouraged the downtown living land-use alternative. The momentum has begun to shift, but there is still far to go.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Reminder: A fledgling Petaluma new urbanism group will meet on the second Wednesday of every month at the Aqus Café. The next meeting is today, March 14. We’ll convene around 5:30pm. Feel free to join us for casual conversation about land-use planning and whatever else may come up.

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer who has worked on energy and land use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He also was the president of a minor league baseball team for a couple of seasons. He currently lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs.  The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.  You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Tina McMillan March 17, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Dave People have always wanted the freedom to choose their own dream. Declaring urbanism to be the next renaissance involves some level of hubris. The ability to create exists in many different forms. One of the gifts technology brings is access without having to be adjacent to a city center. Some people dream of living on a farm with many acres of land for crops and critters. Others want an active metropolis where neighbors are an arm's length away and activities at their doorstep. Romanticizing Urbanism is part of the One Bay Area plan which at its core does not provide freedom to choose if regional agencies will be determining city planning based on their criteria. Though I can admire your passion at a distance I would not want it imposed on me or anyone whose dreams are of a different nature. Freedom to choose how to worship, how to live and how to work was part of what our founding fathers wove into the fabric of our constitution. Perhaps they knew that it would have to be defended by future generations if they didn't put it in writing.
Dave Alden March 20, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Tina, thanks for writing. it's good to hear from readers. I wouldn't ascribe "hubris" to the writer who suggested urbanism as the new American dream, but I think he would admit that he was gazing into a hazy crystal ball. American Dreams can only be determined by sociologists working a century after the fact. I think it likely that a 22nd century sociologist will determine that the 21st century American Dream was urbanism, following centuries of the small farm and suburbia. But that's not a dead certain prediction. Regardless of how the American Dream might be defined in retrospect, many people will be living other lifestyles. Of my late 19th century ancestors of whom I'm aware, few were in agriculture and only one had his own farm. The American Dream is a lens through which to view society, not a straitjacket. The issue of freedom cuts many ways. It's important to note that ABAG and MTC have no authority to impose their will on cities. They can withhold funds if cities choose to follow a different vision, but the funds they'd be withholding are likely funds that the cities didn't want anyway, so the pursestring power is weak. Nor is there any authority for cities to tell their citizens where to live. All that is now happening is an attempt to create more urban places as residential alternatives. In a world where over half of all people prefer to live in walkable urban settings, that strikes me as a blow for freedom, not against it. - Dave Alden

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