How To Make Billions While Making People Happy and Saving the Planet
April 10, 2014
(This item originally appeared at Forbes.com on April 10, 2014.)
Real-estate legend Sam Zell said recently that the “End of Suburbia” might be happening. Right here and now.
Of course, all the suburban dreck that was built in the last six decades isn’t going to vaporize. But, in terms of new construction — in other words, the real estate development business — reproducing the postwar, automobile-dependent Suburbia pattern is a money-losing proposition.
“You’re drawing all the young people in America to these 24/7 cities,” said Zell last October. “The last thing they want to do is live in the suburbs.”
Of course, as people get a little older, compromises ensue. But, that doesn’t mean they like it. “Why would anyone live in the suburbs, except to provide schools for their kids?” Zell asked.
The first criticisms of the American automobile suburb began about the same time as the suburbs themselves appeared in the 1920s and expanded in the postwar period. “There’s no there there,” lamented Gertrude Stein about Oakland, California, in 1937. She would know — she grew up there.
But, if we aren’t going to build suburbs, what should we build?
I propose that we build what I call the Traditional City — the normal form of human urban living for the last five thousand years. The Traditional City is the basic form of historic cities in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and both pre-Columbian and post-Columbian Americas.
It is the form of ancient Rome, of the Aztecs’ capital city Tenochtitlan, of ancient Cuzco and Machu Picchu, of Alexandria in Egypt, and medieval Kyoto. It is also the basic form of most of modern Tokyo (built after 1950), central Paris, and Kathmandu, Nepal.
Hundreds of millions of people — perhaps billions — are living in Traditional City environments today, throughout Europe and Asia. You could hardly think of anything that has a longer track record of proven success.
The world’s most beloved urban places — central Paris, Venice, Florence, Santorini, Greece, the best parts of Kyoto, Hanoi, Bangkok and Quebec City — are inevitably in the Traditional City form. Obviously, it is popular.
Americans spend thousands of dollars and travel for days to escape their Suburban neighborhoods, and enjoy a week in Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Innsbruck.
Alas, here in the United States, we hardly have any examples of the Traditional City form. We have what I call 19th Century Hypertrophism, the form of all U.S. cities and towns built after 1780 or so. This later morphed into two new forms in the 20th century — automobile Suburbia and the high-rise 20th Century Hypertrophism popularized by French architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s and exemplified today by places like Dubai, New York’s Stuyvesant Town, and much recent highrise construction in places like Shanghai.
Think of the best parts of Europe’s best cities — places like Rome, Lyon, Lisbon or Madrid. Is there anything like that in the U.S.? Obviously not.
If 19th Century Hypertrophism worked, then we would today be celebrating the beauty of places like Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Buffalo and the Bronx. Despite some pleasing elements, our 170-year experiment in 19th Century Hypertrophism (1780-1950) was a failure. Alas, even the confused “New Urbanists” in the U.S. don’t really grasp this, and attempt to reproduce this failed experiment, with predictably mediocre results.
After literally decades of real-world experience, we can conclude today that 19th Century Hypertrophism and 20th Century Hypertrophism are failures.
Besides creating better living spaces for people (as demonstrated by thousands of existing successes worldwide) — which also happen to be inherently cheaper to build and live in — the Traditional City, in its modern form today in places like Osaka with a fully-developed train system, is also vastly less consumptive of resources. It is the path not only to a more pleasant lifestyle, but also a much more environmentally-friendly one.
For example, people living in London today are responsible for about 5.9 tons of CO2 emissions (a proxy for total energy use) per year. The average suburban American is responsible for 24.5 tons of CO2.
In other words, living London-style instead of Suburbia-style results in a 76% reduction in energy use per capita, without anyone actually having to think about it.
I bet a lot of those people living in London prefer their lifestyle too. There’s a reason Gertrude Stein moved to Paris.
People in suburban Phoenix used about 70 gigajoules of energy per capita per year for transportation. People living in Amsterdam, Vienna and Tokyo used about 9 gJ.
People living in Hong Kong used about 3 gJ.
I want to create the tools to enable the first American Traditional City Billionaire. Traditional City places are much more pleasant and desirable, and also much cheaper to build and maintain. That translates into creating high-value places for people which also inherently has a big fat profit margin. In the process, that visionary entrepreneur will help create millions of “green jobs” while also helping to Save the Planet.
Win. Win. And more Win.
For eight years, I’ve been outlining the principles of the Traditional City, and how to implement them in today’s real-life environment to create beautiful — and profitable — places for people to live, work, shop and play.
Others have joined with their own insights. We’re a movement now.
Think I’m nuts? First, read the stuff. Then you tell me if you think you could make money with it.
Much more money than reproducing the ugly, expensive, low-margin Suburbia pattern, a proven failure that is becoming more unpopular by the day.