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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Dirt Roads and the Future of the Global City



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Brandon Fuller describes Shlomo Angel’s vision for how cities in the developing world can accommodate future growth. Given that the UN anticipates that the world’s cities will grow by $2.7 billion, cities would be wise to plan ahead for this massive influx. Yet building large-scale infrastructure is expensive and risky, particularly because planners can’t generally anticipate which cities will grow most robustly, as growth will reflect changing global economic patterns, tastes and preferences, and other all-but-unforeseeable developments:

Angel writes that governments in the developing world, whose financial capacity is often limited, should focus on what may sound unglamorous: establishing an arterial grid of dirt roads throughout each city’s future territory, much as the commissioners did in Manhattan. The grid should connect to the city’s existing network of roads, of course, and it should cover an area that the city expects its future population growth to require. These arteries will one day carry public transportation and private traffic, and such infrastructure as water mains, sewers, storm drains, and telecommunications networks will follow their routes.

Angel suggests that cities space arterial roads less than a mile apart. That spacing will ensure that residents are never more than a ten-minute walk from public transportation. The arteries themselves should be 60 to 100 feet wide so that they can support not only regular traffic but also designated bus lanes, bike paths, and medians. At first, cities need only acquire the green space and rights-of-way for the arterial grid. Selected segments can then be improved as the city grows, the superblocks between the arteries are subdivided and developed, and the demand for services rises.

Angel’s approach is different from most urbanist schemes in not relying on government to make specific prescriptions about land use, development, and density—tasks that even the strong, well-financed governments of the West have often done poorly. His plan for urban development is essentially market-driven; the grid that the government creates merely establishes a sensible framework for future city growth. But governments can use the grid to shift building away from areas that are environmentally sensitive or susceptible to natural disasters, since proximity to arterial roads will be attractive to developers. By leading, rather than following, developers into new areas, cities can also avoid driving arterial roads through existing neighborhoods. [Emphasis added]

It is depressing to contrast this wise, modest, market-driven approach with the fixation of U.S. cities on profoundly counterproductive economic development schemes, which Steven Malanga describes in the latest issue of City Journal.



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