The Death of the Urban Utopia

In 2012, I had the chance to hear from Howard Frumkin while attending TEDxRainier. In his talk he discusses the qualities of the optimal human habitat. In other words, how could we, as society, create an environment that creates a beneficial environment for those who live and work there. The talk goes on about the various benefits of optimizing the human habitat and goes through an example of how one could take an otherwise bleak street corner and turn it into a thriving, sustainable habitat. This reminded me of the sprawling technology capital of the world: San Francisco, CA.

San Francisco is a city that I classify as a "What might have been" city. A city that may have grown a little too fast to cope with the changes that were occurring. I reference this specifically pointing out to the technology boom sprouting from one of the top universities in the world, the mass emigration of software devotees, and the alarming gentrification of the society and people around it. Being in the Seattle area, a region that is also facing the same growing pains, I wonder how a city deals with such unprecedented levels of economic, social, and population growth that we haven't seen merged in this manner before.

Frumkin makes note of the benefits of having people living in the communities they work in. In his examples he cites less traffic, lower risk of deaths by automobiles, higher quality of life for residents, and so on. One of the major things that I think is a major benefit of having not only mixed use, but mixed income residences is the potential economic benefit of creating incentives to improve your community and stimulate your local economy by means of convenience rather than cost.

The unfortunate issue with a lot of cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York is the rapid increase in cost of living and quality of life manageability. We're hitting a point where people simply don't want to move to these larger cities because of the inevitable cost of living increases in the area. In fact, housing prices in San Francisco went down slightly due to the fact that people are not interested in living in the Bay Area as much as they once were.

In Seattle, anecdotally I know several families and communities that have to move further and further out of the city to be able to find apartments or housing that they are able to afford. Combine that with a major backlog of public-subsidized housing and you have an increased geographic gentrification of a region. This ultimately is causing a lot of the problems that Frumkin mentions in his talk: increased traffic, greater social/crime issues, etc.

Until a model of sustainable housing can be developed, one that allows for prioritization on geographic cohesiveness rather than forced income cohesiveness, the idea of a urban utopia, a healthy human habitat, may be lost for us all.