As the country continues to see ripple effects from the pandemic, an air of crisis is hanging over some American cities. Headlines paint places like San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and New York as circling the drain: spiking homelessness, unaffordable housing, water shortages, refugee influxes, fentanyl overdoses, rising crime. For growing midsize cities, gentrifying neighborhoods and expensive downtowns can stifle personality and character, leading to more corporate chains and homogenous five-over-one apartment buildings. Some of these national narratives may lack local context, but a common thread among all of them is disparity. If not grim, the future of the American city looks complex.
Writer, landscape designer, historian, and public-policy professor Wade Graham says it’s impossible to untangle these problems from one another. If a local government focuses solely on creating density but doesn’t consider making housing affordable, updating public-transportation routes, or bolstering infrastructure, it’s effectively barred parts of its population from its new developments.
In his 2016 book, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham examines seven iterations of utopian city planning, explaining the visions behind them and why they ultimately fail. Graham consistently argues that the architects with grand ideas about how to organize cities strip them of community, ultimately worsening the issues that make them inhospitable to middle- and low-income workers.
Graham grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and now resides in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and Outside. His other books include American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards; Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawaii; and Jesus Is My Gardener. His latest, Southland: An Atlas and Almanac of Los Angeles County, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. We spoke several times over Zoom last summer, comparing and contrasting the issues plaguing my home of Richmond, Virginia, and his in Los Angeles. Graham speaks with passion, allowing his thoughts to roam without ever losing sight of an original question. Between our conversations I visited LA and, while walking around, took note of the vast array of architectural styles and the contrasting businesses, apartment buildings, and churches nestled together on the same block. Back in Richmond, I couldn’t help but notice the bike lanes and sidewalks that suddenly ended, the bus stops without shelters or benches, and the silent spaces between the houses in my neighborhood.
Lewis: What are we talking about when we talk about the identity of a particular city?
Graham: Cities are like people. They have parentage and a history and a personality. They have DNA that they bring with them, containing adaptations to whatever they’ve had to deal with. And they have life spans: they begin, they have a middle age, and they often end. They have good days and bad days. [Laughs.]
Cities are social, so they have the same problems we do. The mistake we always make in our culture is thinking that cities are somehow separate from us and that if we conceive of the right design for them, they will magically relieve us of our problems. By investing this theoretical power in cities, we can avoid confronting the flaws in the way we have built the world: with inequality and oppression and systems that make some people’s lives miserable while other people’s lives are good.
We continuously try to redesign cities, but it doesn’t work. Cities don’t work well because we don’t work well.
Lewis: What are the most glaring problems American cities are facing?
Graham: American cities aren’t all the same, but most arose from a twentieth-century ideal of what a city should be. What we’re seeing is a cumulative, astonishing failure of that ideal across regions, across climates, and across scales. The fires we just saw in Lahaina, Hawaii, were a nightmare. You could say Lahaina’s a town, not a city, but most American cities are made up of town-sized urban divisions. New York City’s Staten Island is no different from Lahaina. The failure in Lahaina was not just an environmental or a climate failure. It was an urban failure. It was a failure of planning, of neglected municipal services that failed under stress, of inadequate roads and evacuation routes, of inadequate housing, and of facing up to its economic history—in the form of the former plantation and cattle-grazing lands that surround the town and were abandoned by their owners and carried the fire.
The twentieth-century model imposed upon us by the people who designed, built, and funded cities is falling apart. Racial segregation was a goal, a means, and an organizing principle in those designs. So we’re left with structures that were created to achieve programmatic racial segregation: Up until the twentieth century, we didn’t really have segregated cities. Owners lived with the enslaved; they didn’t live in different parts of town. Factory owners lived with their workers, or relatively close. The achievement of segregation in the twentieth century was programmatic and had multiple different avenues, and the model was to evacuate the white middle class from cities, to suburbanize, to build around cities the environments where those white people would live, and to make the old central cities places where no white people live but many white people work.
So new single-family homes moved from the original nineteenth-century cities to municipalities on the outskirts, where the homeowners could control their zoning and their taxation and their schools and all that. The suburbs were built around cars, single-family homes, exclusionary zoning, and what’s called “home rule.” [A shift of governing power from the state to local governments.—Ed.] That’s the code word, the dog whistle for separate municipalities on the periphery that control everything. The key to the suburban model was that everybody paid for it—not just the people who benefited, but all taxpayers. To build a suburb, you need massive public investment. To make that land accessible, you need freeways, you need water, you need power, you need every sort of infrastructure. The private sector didn’t pay for any of it. The public sector did. Educational institutions, fire services, the racialized policing that buttressed all of these changes—all that is a subsidy operation.
Now we’re seeing the twentieth-century model fall apart. And the solutions are not going to be one-to-one. You’re not going to solve housing affordability and homelessness without solving a bunch of other problems. Homelessness is related to a complete failure to deal with mental illness in this country after Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an inability to reorganize policing so it isn’t just about keeping segregation going, the deterioration of earning power for the middle and working classes, and unprecedented drug epidemics. The war on drugs and the incarceration industry that arose around it are a result of urban policy. Mass transportation is a complete failure in most parts of the United States. Public education is down the toilet in most parts of the United States. Deindustrializing the economy has led to the rise of the Sunbelt and the decline of the Rust Belt. Immigration is obviously a big, complex factor. We only started to address pollution in the 1970s. And now you layer the climate crisis on top of all that.
And it’s not the case that cities were always doomed to failure. This is a false narrative from the Right, an old narrative that dates back to the British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Whig tradition is anti-urban, and we inherited that. It’s also an unwillingness to commit to governance. If people were to have faith in governance, it would undermine that anti-urbanism, because you actually can solve urban problems and societal problems with good governance.
We’re heading into a period where all the crises are mounting and getting out of control. It feels hopeless. At the base of it we have the problem of income inequality. And that’s what you get when you undermine unions, you undermine labor, and you underinvest in public education and social services. We have to reinvest in all of these, but we also have to reform the physical environment. The car-dependent, infrastructure-sucking suburban model doesn’t work for the future. It certainly isn’t going to work in the global-warming era, because it isn’t defensible against fires or drought. The cities that are going to be hardest hit by climate change—besides the coastal cities, which have their own set of problems—are the ones that are the most suburban. Think about the Sunbelt cities. Will Phoenix, Arizona, be habitable in five to ten years?
Lewis: So where can we start to address the problems?
Graham: We need to look seriously at zoning reform. Zoning determines what can be built where. Single-family-home zoning has to be taken apart. That doesn’t mean you build tall buildings everywhere. You do what the New Urbanists and others have been telling us for a long time: You provide missing-middle housing. [Options other than single-family homes and high-rise apartments.—Ed.] You zone for the most density in the center, and less as you gradually move out. And you don’t tell people what the permitted uses are. You just tell them how big the building can be and let them do what they want with it. A lot of smaller cities are doing this all over the country—in red states as well as blue states.
A question that’s not asked very often—and it is a nightmarish problem in California—is: How do we build and what do we build with? Americans build out of garbage: plastic sheeting, glue, sheetrock, flimsy stick frames, and paint. We also build with extraordinarily expensive building-code and inspection requirements. In California we have seismic requirements for structural frames and foundations. You could put a battleship on top of your average California swimming-pool foundation because of the seismic codes. At the other end of the spectrum, for larger structures, we build in ways that are incredibly expensive, rigid, and probably overengineered for threats. And those methods are ossified by building codes that are almost impossible to change. So if I were to come to any city government in California and say, “I would like to build my house using fabric and flexible aluminum poles,” they would say, “That’s not covered in the building code. You can’t do it. There is no permit. You’re going to build with steel, concrete, wood, and drywall, or you’re not going to do it at all.”
The result is very little innovation in building materials in this country. We should give architects, engineers, and planners more freedom to use lightweight, flexible, movable structures. The public is already showing that this is the direction to go. Some people with means are turning into nomads, essentially living in tents with wheels on them. It’s a reasonable response to the constraints of living in a city. If you’re a millennial and have some money, why build a house in Portland when you can buy a Sprinter van with a shower and a satellite phone? We need to pay attention to that trend. At the top and the bottom of the income spectrum we have nomadism, which to me means that the rules we have for how and where you can build are a failure. It is too expensive, too rigid, too focused on single-family homes and thirty-year mortgages. We need to make cities fast, cheap, flexible, and mobile. People have been living with fires and earthquakes for thousands of years in places like Greece. They have wonderful models for how to do it fairly cheaply and coherently, and it’s not suburban homes made out of wood and garbage.
The twentieth-century model imposed upon us by the people who designed, built, and funded cities is falling apart. Racial segregation was a goal, a means, and an organizing principle in those designs.
Lewis: What are some examples of success in rethinking a city in America?
Graham: One is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is a small city. [Population in 2022 was just over 184,000.—Ed.] In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth it was an industrial city, one of the few in the South. Then it was gutted by deindustrialization, and most of the white population moved to the suburbs. Suddenly you had a racially segregated city, with a Black core and white suburbs that were self-governing. But over the years the city started to reinvest in education, transportation, and basic infrastructure like internet and synchronized traffic lights to alleviate gridlock. They’ve turned a polluted, industrial riverfront into a lovely, clean, accessible area. They changed the zoning so people can redevelop abandoned industrial areas into housing. They’ve taken advantage of what diversity they had so that the city can be viewed by outsiders as an inclusionary place to live. Chattanooga is attracting digital migrants and the type of small businesses that can move around and pick places to settle. Now, of course—particularly during the pandemic—they had people coming in and buying second homes, so housing prices shot up. People started turning the properties into Airbnbs, so the city had to design a new set of ordinances to keep short-term rentals out of residential areas and then enforce those ordinances with dedicated agencies. This is really effective governance because they’re tackling everything: housing, policing, community trust, pollution, and—to the extent that they’re able—income inequality.
One reason they can do this is because city politics are less partisan than state politics. In cities party affiliation is not at the top of everyone’s mind. The mayor of Chattanooga is essentially a business-friendly liberal, but he ran as an independent because he’s in a blue city in a red county. Rather than kick the hornet’s nest, he just said, “I’m governing for everybody. I’m not part of a party.” That strategy has been very effective at the municipal level in the United States. It’s a beacon of hope, as far as I’m concerned.
Some cities are governed worse than others. The dynamic ones like Chattanooga; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Portland, Maine; and Boise, Idaho, are tackling this whole ball of crises with integrated answers. A city like Los Angeles, on the other hand, is very hard to govern because it was set up to create home rule in the white areas. The conditions are fractious.
Lewis: Americans tend to think of themselves outside of nature, as if it were something to conquer or to experience in moments. It makes me wonder if cities and nature are diametrically opposed to one another.
Graham: That’s our basic quandary, our basic obsession in the West. Postwar Japan had a similar massive anxiety—perhaps larger than anyone’s—about the possible coexistence of cities and nature. The anxiety about whether we can bridge that gap between the two comes from the fact that they’re not the same thing. But the notion pervades our history, going back to the desert monotheism, back to the Israelites. There was enormous anxiety about cities’ corrupting effect, because that was an era of huge cities, manifestations of power that structured the known world. And then you had groups who were attacking the cities, being attacked by the cities, fleeing from the cities, being enslaved in the cities. So the anxiety is sort of a permanent problem. Cities are very disruptive; the making and maintenance of them can be insanely disruptive to nature. Our desire to reconcile the two produces new bad outcomes. Suburbia is just an effort to live in a garden city. But not everybody can afford it. Even if we created an egalitarian, utopian, suburban society, nature would still be paying the bill for the way humans live.
In our moment of climate crisis, everyone in architecture, corporate and otherwise, is talking about sustainability. Even Saudi Arabia is proposing a linear city called The Line. It’s like something right out of postwar utopian futurism. They’re going to build a hundred-mile-long slab across the driest part of the Arabian Peninsula and claim that it’s fully sustainable, because it’s powered by solar and wind energy. It’s complete madness.
The private sector sees profit in the language of sustainability, so it’s very attractive in certain markets. People will pay a lot for complex homes that promise sustainability. Is that an improvement? The simpler you can make a building, the more likely you are to be able to recycle it later, give it other lives. In the old days they would build with materials that you could recycle: timber, tile, stone, brick, and even metal. A lot of construction in older cultures is plant-based: cob walls or thatched roofs or adobe. That all just breaks back down into the environment. There’s a movement in architecture now to use mass timber—essentially engineered forms of wood that are really strong for their weight, have long life spans, and sequester carbon. So there’s some effort to return to older organic materials that will last.
The problem is that it’s expensive to do something new. Planners and building departments won’t allow you to do it, because they are stuck following whatever rules they have, whatever list of acceptable materials they were given. To get building permits to use mass timber, its manufacturers had to do decades of engineering and testing to prove that it’s not too flammable; to prove that the glue doesn’t make you sick; to prove that structurally it’ll work as well as steel. Existing bureaucratic infrastructure is a huge impediment to any kind of reform.
Efforts to reform building design have historically arisen from some anxiety in the culture. In the nineteenth century people were concerned about poverty as a threat to social order. So reformers thought, Let’s let the poor have more air and better hygiene in their dwellings. Then they won’t behave so badly. They’ll work longer if they’re not housed in hellish, unsanitary conditions. They won’t be so sick. They won’t go to gin shops.
In the twentieth century it had more to do with allowing certain people a maximum amount of freedom and distance from certain other people—cars, freeways, suburbs, swimming pools, country clubs, Sunbelt states with no income tax.
In the twenty-first century we’re burning the world down, so now we’re interested in sustainability. But we’re still designing a kind of utopia in some places, at some times, for some people. And the consequences are often worse than what we were fleeing from. It’s alluring to place the possibility of reform and social justice in objects, because then we don’t have to change the way we treat each other.
I’m trying to say justice matters more than buildings. Romans made incredible buildings, but theirs was a slave empire. So what good did it do anybody? The Egyptians built the pyramids. How? It was a slave society. People were better off living in bedouin tents—flexible, movable, democratic, hauled around the desert with camels—than building pyramids for pharaohs. To me that’s what’s missing from all of these conversations about urban planning: If you succeed in making a sustainable building, who gets to live there? We have to solve our social problems first, and designing a perfect city won’t do that. Architecture has no intrinsic moral qualities. People do.
Suburbia is just an effort to live in a garden city. But not everybody can afford it. Even if we created an egalitarian, utopian, suburban society, nature would still be paying the bill for the way humans live.
Lewis: What do you think the fight over water rights is going to do to American cities, especially in the West?
Graham: The twentieth-century water model is an imperialist model, where cities or states or agricultural entities could reach into somebody else’s territory and steal a resource and pipe it back to their property. It’s publicly subsidized profligacy. Water from the Owens River in eastern California made it possible to create front lawns and golf courses in the suburban San Fernando Valley. It’s a subsidized lifestyle. Bring the water to grow the lawns, and then it looks like suburbia is tenable in a desert. In Utah they take water from as far away as they can and then pay for it with property taxes. So what you pay for water isn’t linked to how much you use. This incentivizes golf courses in places like St. George, Utah, where temperatures are over 100 degrees fifty days a year—which is going to be a hundred days a year in no time at all. They’ve got like eight golf courses per person and are trying to build more, because there’s no additional cost to water all that grass.
The model of the long-distance water grab will be made impossible by climate change. Cities are going to have to learn to cope with the resources close at hand. The far-flung suburban model—we’ll take the water from 1,200 miles away and power from 1,700 miles away—creates vulnerability. So if you’re in Phoenix, and the temperature is over 110 for four months out of the year, and all of your electricity comes from hydroelectric dams hundreds of miles away that are no longer going to work, you’re in trouble. Phoenix has little local water supply. Most of it gets pumped uphill from the Colorado River.
The whole Southwest needs to anticipate the sudden shocks that are going to come, which are going to be fatal for a lot of cities. New Orleans, Miami, New York City all have issues with those sorts of things. A recent study about Phoenix said that if there’s a prolonged heat wave, which is getting increasingly likely, the city will have widespread power outages, and something like 800,000 people will need to be hospitalized. If that’s even a tiny possibility, you need to plan for it by shortening your supply lines and minimizing your vulnerabilities.
Lewis: Are any cities already taking strides to deal with climate disasters coming their way?
Graham: One example, a perverse one, is Las Vegas. That city was built with the worst of intentions on the worst conceivable model: a waste of power, water, and energy, with resources brought in from very far away. Then the city started getting kicked in the face early when the Colorado River began to shrink. Efforts to reach out to northern Nevada and steal the groundwater from White Pine County failed, and so did attempts to buy water from farmers in Colorado. Out of desperation the city leaders decided to use less. They said, “Let’s get rid of the grass. Let’s get rid of giant swimming pools. Let’s not permit any more golf courses. Let’s use what we have.” They started treating their water and reusing it for irrigation, taking rational steps toward efficiency. Turns out it’s not that hard.
Twenty-five years ago they grew worried about what would happen if water levels dropped in Lake Mead. [The reservoir created by the Hoover Dam.—Ed.] And so they invested in a lower intake. As Lake Mead dropped more, they were smart enough to invest billions on a third intake near the bottom of the reservoir. It was viewed as crazy to put an intake at the bottom of Lake Mead. But the minute they got it done, they needed it, and they are using it.
It reminds me of Gregory Bateson, a British cultural anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century who ended up teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Apparently late in life Bateson was invited to the University of Cambridge, where his father had taught, to be feted at one of those faculty dinners in the big medieval hall. It had fluted stone columns and stained-glass windows and beautiful oak beams at the top. Bateson said to the provost, “So those beams are how old?” And the provost said, “They’re six hundred years old.” Bateson asked, “What do you do when they need to be replaced?” The provost had to track down someone who knew. And the man he found said that five hundred years ago, a forest was planted in the countryside so that when the time came, the trees would be of the right size.
Americans don’t think that way. We say, “The future can take care of itself.” But in questions of urban policy, you first have to accept the idea that we have a collective responsibility to the future.
Lewis: Is American individualism standing in the way of our ability to fix these problems?
Graham: The right-wing form of it, yes, because meaningful solutions require a government that works, and the Right wants to undermine the viability of governance and collective decision-making. By orders of magnitude the most common government entity in the U.S. is a homeowners’ association, or HOA: private entities designed to maintain property values. They can tell you what color you can paint your garage, and the right wing doesn’t mind that. It has a problem with the rest of governance, however. That’s not individualism; it’s just a hatred of the collective.
Lewis: After COVID there are a lot of questions about whether remote work is going to continue and transform cities. Is downtown San Francisco finished? Is Lower Manhattan finished?
Graham: In the medium term the answer is no, it’s just a blip. Those cities are going to refill with people. They may not be repopulated by office workers of the same type, but the forces that drive people into cities are only getting stronger, not weaker. In fact, urbanization is winning 99 to 1 over remote work in privileged sectors around the world. It’s going to become an urban planet. It might be that more people can work remotely than in the past, which reflects changes in the American economy and points us back, again, to the root of most urban problems: income inequality, unequal opportunity, unequal access, and governance that doesn’t serve the majority.
I think the prophecies about the death of cities are premature. You’re going to see plenty of people working in the office. The districts of tall buildings that were built for white-collar work—Lower Manhattan, downtown San Francisco—are the ones having this existential problem with remote work. That might be a problem of tall buildings, which were a fetish object of the twentieth century for developers, corporate chiefs, city planners, and certain kinds of architects. There are places where you have no choice. If everybody wants to pile on to the island of Manhattan or Hong Kong, you have to have tall buildings. But in other places it seems to be a bad move. It might be that we have to reassess the era of tall buildings. Paris, for example, doesn’t have this problem because even the office buildings aren’t that tall, and the offices are not all in one place.
Lewis: So does the renewed push for density in cities solve anything?
Graham: What problem are you trying to solve by pushing for more density? If increasing density in cities is going to redress American racism, great! Let’s do it. But let’s be really conscious of why we’re doing it. What kind of density? Do you want to live in something that resembles worker housing in Hong Kong, which has the highest density on the planet?
Changing U.S. zoning codes to create more density, either in traditional inner cities or in suburbs, is meant to redress the real damage that suburbanization did. I think zoning was invented in Los Angeles in about 1904 to keep industry away from residential neighborhoods. No one wanted to live near the pollution and stink and slaughterhouses—and they also didn’t want to live near the workers that made those industries run. So city officials said, “You can’t have industrial facilities of any kind west of Alameda Street. And on the other side, you can do whatever you want.” That allowed people who didn’t have to work in factories to live west of Alameda Street, where the air was nice, while the people who couldn’t afford to live there had to deal with the pollution.
Once city governments realized that they could move people around without even mentioning them, they realized zoning had unlimited power. The city could establish a minimum lot size of one acre and limit what you can build there to single-family homes. Well, who could afford that? Not laboring people. That zoning law doesn’t mention people, yet it totally decides who gets to live where. You’ve created perfect segregation without even mentioning people.
So now, if the design and planning professions are seeking to solve complicated social problems, they’re kind of engaging in the same magic. I don’t believe that the public—or the planners—understand it. Some of them think, If we break the single-family-home zoning code in a given place and allow granny flats, we’re going to create more diversity of income and race. There’ll be more support for mass transit. That’s social engineering, whether you agree with it or not.
I drove through Richmond, Virginia, maybe four years ago. It seemed like—tell me if I’m wrong—the classic abandoned inner city surrounded by suburbs and interstates.
Lewis: The downtown is not really residential. There are government buildings and high-rises for banks and insurance companies.
Graham: That’s the legacy of urban renewal: once there was a city that people lived in, and it was cleared because it became “blighted.”
Lewis: Yes, I live in the Northside, which was the first suburb, so it’s a bunch of American foursquares. But the lots are really small. It doesn’t seem like they were building with the idea of everyone needing their own acre of personal space.
Graham: Pre-car suburbia. Railroad or streetcar suburbs. They have that walkability and a relaxed, urban quality. That’s great urbanism. That was the middle point between cities where people could walk from one side to the other and cities where people could move a little farther out because there were either horse-drawn or electric trolleys. Most thoughtful people who are talking about increasing density are trying to recapture those pre-automotive urban forms. You can put cars in those neighborhoods, but they’re not utterly necessary. We should seek to re-create that. But since we’re not building from the ground up, it’s tricky.
Lewis: Something that’s happening here is suburban developments modeled after small towns. They’re supposed to be walkable. You can walk to a grocery store and a movie theater. But they’re still far away from everything else. I’m curious how you view that kind of development.
Graham: Since it’s built on the periphery, out in suburbia, you still need a car to function in the larger context. It’s built out in suburbia because that’s where the land is cheap. Those developments have the same problems of any suburb, but they appear to be dense and therefore virtuous. And the density means more profit for the developer, who can put more people on less land. There are probably some tax benefits to it, because they can claim density. And maybe people can walk from their row house to Whole Foods. But it doesn’t mean their lives are car-free. So this, to me, is just putting lipstick on a pig. But it’s better than the alternative, which is that you take that same number of people and spread them out over five times the acreage, and now they can’t walk to the Whole Foods.
Urban planners ought to insist that developers build that same walkable community within the urban core that was destroyed by urban renewal and other twentieth-century programs to gut inhabited central cities. They can get rid of some surface parking lots to do it. And then that scale and density can complement the rest of the city, instead of being a suburban space colony surrounded by fields.
Lewis: Is the explosion of condo buildings an outgrowth of that kind of thinking?
Graham: Yes, that’s supported by zoning codes written to prioritize density. The codes say you can take a lot that’s zoned single-family and put up to X number of structures on it. All this density is supposed to solve some unarticulated set of urban problems. What you really see is gentrification, rising real-estate values, a lot of developer profit, and no real increase in pedestrianism or decrease in road accidents, because it’s piecemeal. And when you build five million-dollar condos on a lot that used to hold just one million-dollar house, you’ve increased density, but you’ve also increased land values radically, which has the opposite effect to opening things up.
I view the whole thing as a fraud with a good cover story. Planners think it’s solving the region-wide issues, but I don’t see the promised benefits. Planning itself is part of the problem. The best cities, the most interesting cities, typically evolved in coral-reef fashion—they grew on their own.
A better solution is missing-middle housing, where cities zone to allow moderate amounts of density of a certain type. You can build the granny flat or put in a duplex or a triplex on a single-family lot, but buildings can’t be five stories tall. What you get with that is infill at an almost imperceptible level. The decisions are not made by developers; they’re made by families, typically.
The state of California got frustrated with the unwillingness of localities to allow that kind of development, so it passed a law allowing accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These have to be in the backyard and can’t be bigger than 1,200 square feet. Every city government in the state has to allow them. It was the biggest change in the history of land law in the state. So people are building ADUs all over the place. In 2022 LA issued about seven thousand permits for ADUs, and the number of single-family-home permits was around 1,300. And an ADU is not built by an outside developer; it’s built by the people who live on the lot, who hire a contractor and maybe an architect. It’s an attractive option because it’s cheap, I can rent it, I can Airbnb it, or my mother can live there. And because it’s in the backyard, it doesn’t visibly change the fabric of a neighborhood. You don’t get rid of the single-family home and put in five condos that each cost as much as a house. You keep the home but add an apartment over the garage.
Theoretically this does what Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said: “Diversity of building types and ages allows for a diversity of people.” Some people are just out of college and want to get a studio apartment. Some people are old and want to live with their family. Some people are rich and want ten bedrooms. If you can do all of that in the same place, you will have a diversity of people. She also said that new buildings are more expensive than old ones. With old ones, the rents are cheaper. You can have students living there; you can have artists; you can have teachers. Essential workers can live in the same neighborhoods as people in a different tax bracket. But if you get rid of the diversity of building types and build monocultures, then you have just gotten rid of the diversity of humans.
I see that where I live, which is a neighborhood that was never zoned. It was built piecemeal, so it has this jumble of types of housing. There are single-family homes, apartment buildings, duplexes, courtyard apartments, and boxy buildings from the sixties and seventies. It has no order whatsoever. And yet that built diversity creates a social diversity; that’s a great outcome.
Next door to me right now are a couple of shacks that were built in the 1920s. If a developer were to buy them and put up a five-story apartment building, what is that going to achieve? What’s it going to cost? What are the impacts going to be? The city thinks it will achieve density. There’s this idea that if a lot is within a half mile of a bus stop, then the owner should be allowed to build the density of the downtown core. As if people are just going to take the bus. They’re not going to take the bus, because the bus system is not functional, and building a giant, dense development here won’t fix it.
Lewis: A trap of form over community?
Graham: If what we’re interested in is a set of community goals, then we should have a conversation about what that community is. Everybody. That should dictate what kind of city we build. But we don’t do it that way. We allow certain actors pursuing certain goals to get control of public policy.
In the last century, instead of a conversation about what kind of culture we wanted, we had this fake conversation about “blight.” Blight was a problem, so we needed to raze downtown Richmond and scatter all its inhabitants to the four winds and leave a bunch of parking lots and bank high-rises. What was blight? It was racial diversity and income diversity—blight included working-class white people, too. But nobody ever talked about it in those terms. They just complained about this concept called “blight.” There were zoning codes and legislation and other efforts to get rid of blight and build something else.
And we’re still in that place, because we’re not having an explicit conversation about what we’re trying to achieve. What problem are city planners trying to solve with increasing density? I don’t know. They haven’t told us. Frankly we are afraid of having the conversation. We’re still at the point of viewing the city as a problem that can’t be solved.
Lewis: I wonder if we can even begin to create the kind of community we want to live in without fundamentally changing our relationship with cars.
Graham: Well, the car didn’t cause the problem. It’s people who wanted to have their car use subsidized and protected: I want a house with a big lawn, but I also need to work downtown, so you need to build me a freeway. Freeway means I don’t have to pay for it; the taxpayers do. And that’s what we did in the fifties and sixties. There are no suburbs without freeways.
If you want money, you have to work in a city, and prior to World War II that meant you had to live in the city. What we did in the postwar years was allow a broad slice of white America the luxury of living in the country but working in the city. It was good for them but bad for everybody else. That’s the conversation that we don’t have.
They certainly don’t teach architects in school that they’re at the front of the political war. The profession, which seems so harmless and technical, divorced from social problems, is, in fact, so enmeshed in them as to be insoluble. Buildings, codes, and density are political.
Lewis: How did the idea of the modern architect who’s divorced from these ideas evolve?
Graham: I’m not an expert on this, and I will enrage people who do design architectural education. I’m hoping that’s not true anymore and that schools are focusing on context, interdisciplinarity, and responsibility. But think about the way in the postwar era we started to fetishize masculine object-making. The archetypal American architect, unfortunately, is Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead: a raging asshole building penises, essentially. The parts of the culture with money and authority responded well to the idea of the big, phallic architecture. And then we had people like Frank Lloyd Wright, who wanted to design a society in which the governance would be by the county architect: an unelected king who designed everything based on what he saw as the public’s needs. The notion of an architect as an omnipotent superhero with a slide rule is an American, Cold War, macho, Atomic Age stereotype.
The other problem is that some architects, since Vitruvius, want to be taken seriously as artists, not as servants of capital. Architecture, in essence, is a service industry: the bankers tell you what they want you to build, and you do it or you don’t have a job. But architects don’t like to think of it that way, and one way to counter that aspect of the field is to build a mythology of independent creativity. That puts all the focus on the object that you’re making, rather than the place or the context that you’re inserting that object into. “How will my building affect the surroundings? How will it integrate with what’s already there? How will it improve or ruin the fabric into which it’s going to be sewn?” These were really not the hard points of architectural training in this country. For a long time it was “Let’s talk about the object. Isn’t it wonderful?” It’s like a piece of jewelry. As much as I love him, Frank Gehry just designs buildings that are pieces of jewelry. He can put them in any city. It does the same work in each place because that’s the work that it does.
Architects should be thinking of themselves as servants of society. How about well-trained, creative, social builders thinking about function, efficiency, responsibility? I think Harvard was guilty of training the Ayn Rand model of the hero man for decades. I don’t want to damn architecture education in the present, because I don’t know enough about how it is taught today, but as we reconsider the social role of architects, we should reconsider the objects that they’ve made.
In questions of urban policy, you first have to accept the idea that we have a collective responsibility to the future.
Lewis: Are there any American cities that actually have these conversations?
Graham: Like most things in this country, the smaller you get, the more experimentation there is. Small cities and towns are doing amazing things. A number of communities in your neck of the woods, like Alexandria, Virginia, have adopted form-based codes, which seek to understand the rules of beneficial self-organization. How does a coral reef build itself when no one’s in control? It seems random, and yet the whole is thriving and diverse. It must have certain rules, and if we can figure out what those are and put them in the code, then we’ll get a good coral reef, rather than something out of balance.
The “strong towns” movement is similar to form-based coding and New Urbanism. It started in Minnesota. The guy behind it, Charles Marohn, comes off as a sort of rural conservative, truck-driving, boots-wearing kind of guy. I think he was a civil engineer in a past life. He realized that traditional suburbia is a pyramid scheme where the developers can make everybody else pay for the infrastructure that’s required. The lower the density, the more infrastructure you need per person. Conversely the more people you have on the same sewer line, power line, and road, the cheaper your infrastructure is.
Marohn started doing analyses and realized that traditional small towns work well. They are relatively cheap to build and maintain, so you can have lower taxes. He’s built a successful movement by advocating for traditionally left-wing positions but justifying them in a way that’s centrist and actually can appeal to conservatives who want lower taxes and like small towns. He’s built a very successful movement. Most people on the Right are anti-urban and make no secret of it. Look at all Trump’s lies about how our cities are “hellholes.” But the suburban Left has an anti-urbanism streak as well. This makes it hard to have good conversations about cities outside of niche places like Berkeley or Minneapolis or Seattle or Portland, Oregon. And the quality of life in those cities shows it. Portland is a type of paradise in terms of urbanism, but it’s massively dysfunctional. You might ask, “Why are there so many homeless people on drugs in the middle of your paradise?” “Oh, because we have this other set of social problems that light rail and ADUs aren’t going to solve.”
America’s a problematic, complicated place. What we did in the twentieth century was create a utopia for some and a dystopia for others. We’re still coping with and paying for that. Still, I think there’s no reason not to be optimistic. We can solve these problems if we agree that it’s possible. If you fight over the very idea that you can solve problems, and if you elect people whose goal in life is to prove that you can’t solve problems, then nothing’s going to get better. The issue is that half of Americans are committed to the idea that government doesn’t work, so we shouldn’t try. You just keep watering the lawn.