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Why Every City Feels the Same Now (theatlantic.com)
138 points by pattusk on Aug 24, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 276 comments



I have spent the last year trying to open up a cafe and small space where I could build custom motorcycles. I think on paper it is the kind of project that people would say brings life to a city but the city I live in seems like they have designed their zoning laws to be as stacked as possible against someone like me opening up a business that does not fit a cookie cutter mold of some other existing business, at least not without hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay lawyers and architects.The building I want to use could be moved into tomorrow without a penny of changes.

I had a realization while going through the process that this is the thing that causes our cities to be so drastically inferior to european cities which were designed before zoning laws were in vogue.

I get that I don't want a power plant or steel forge next to my house, but that's not what we are talking about here. I can't put a cafe (literally an espresso machine and a few tables and chairs) in a structure in residential neighborhood without a huge investment in lawyers and architects and likely installing 70k worth of elevators and a 30k sprinkler system in a two story 3k sqft building and even then, if a single person on the review board dislikes the project on a whim, it's out.

And then surprise surprise, all of the things open in the city are chain restaurants which everyone complains about backed by large corporation who have huge budgets for construction, and architects, and lawyers and palm greasing so our cities slowly morph into this.

It really sucks.


> I had a realization while going through the process that this is the thing that causes our cities to be so drastically inferior to european cities which were designed before zoning laws were in vogue.

Zoning laws are in fact an American invention, and they were originally designed to limit where Chinese immigrants could live and work[0]. Their actual impact on the quality of a city was kind of besides the point; the only goal was to hurt racial out groups. Viewed from this lens, it isn't terribly surprising that zoning laws haven't done a great job at making American cities good places to work & live; that's not what those tools were designed for.

0 - https://fee.org/articles/the-racist-history-of-zoning-laws/


I loathe zoning laws, but they were not "originally designed to limit where Chinese immigrants could live and work"; that was one application, but not the whole story. Zoning was more about protecting rich neighborhoods full of mansions from a 'blight' of apartment buildings.[1] Single-family house zoning is what differentiates North America from other regions.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1287cxr


"Protecting propety values" has been code for "keep out undesirable minorities" for a very long time, in the US.


Property values often increase from increasing density (ie, replacing my five-million-dollar mansion with a twenty-million-dollar apartment building on the same lot). The zoning doesn't necessarily protect property values as such, so it's an important distinction.


Well, it's code for "keep density low" and "keep traffic out of my property while I go generate traffic on other people's property". The results are the same though.


I didn't say "protecting propety [sic] values", I said "protecting rich neighborhoods". If you'd like more details, I'd recommend reading the book, it is very detailed and well-written.


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Poor white people are the difference between "protecting rich neighborhoods" and "protecting racial homogeneity." I don't know of any time that poor white people have ever been included in the rich people enclaves, which takes some of the air out of the race-and-race-alone perspective.


I mean, there were literally neighborhoods that were legally marked as “whites only”. That seems like a pretty important detail.

You need to also include racist bank and financial policies in order to get the whole picture. While poor whites are indeed excluded from rich neighborhoods, they’re also been the recipients of federal welfare designed to make them rich enough for “respectable” neighborhoods; blacks have not received the same treatment.

See: racial disparities in how GI bill worked.

https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-ben...


Segregation was outlawed in the 60s.

Black Americans were on an upward trajectory until the 60s despite living in a society with systemic racism.

That was until the government decided to pay cash to destroy family structure.

Welfare actually could have played a different role you from what you may imagine: https://ifstudies.org/blog/family-breakdown-and-americas-wel...


I'm not arguing race alone, but the comment seemed completely dismissive to the notion that keeping out the poor also usually means keeping out minorities. So yes, there's poor white people.

https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/explaining-white-pr...


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I think you're engaging in rhetoric here, and it's not very convincing (to me).


Rhetoric is typically effective, eloquent reasoning and speech.


Or they were razed 'legally' for an eight lane freeway.


Or to create Central Park, which was previously a black neighborhood in NYC.


Central Park was mostly a loose collection of shantytowns full of Irish people. There were evictions but it was not a large group of people, or anything resembling a neighborhood.


I don't know the exact history, but this reads as something that can't possibly be true. Had the "Irish shantytowns" successfully excluded other minorities? If so, how? Is there any "shantytown" anywhere on earth that isn't populated much more densely than 1850s Manhattan? What makes a "shantytown" not resemble a neighborhood? Not enough picket fences?


"Shantytown" is usually more of a pejorative value judgement than an objective statement of fact.


...hence the "scare quotes". b^)


> Central Park was mostly a loose collection of shantytowns full of Irish people.

I wouldn't call a 50 year old neighborhood with 1,600 Irish and Black residents "not a large group of people". Calling that "not a neighborhood" is also an eyebrow raising population, especially given that Seneca Village had a large chunk of the (extremely rare) Black property owners in New York State.

You have to be careful repeating historical claims of an area being a "shantytown", as sometimes that is less a statement of fact and more of a way to justify a negative or prejudiced opinion. Given that the same people who called Seneca Village a "shantytown" also used slurs to described the area and called the residents "debased" and "wretched", there is reason to doubt the impartiality of those calling it a "shantytown".


Seneca Village was not the only neighborhood on the land that is now Central Park.


I couldn't read much at the link, so looked up about the book. Found this line in a review fairly relevant.

>Hirt deliberately spends little time on racism, partly because it's too easy a target and too obvious.

https://www.planetizen.com/node/74628/book-review-zoned-usa


Zoning has been applied against Chinese immigrants, as well as other minorities, but it was also used in many relatively racially homogeneous areas. Again, I strongly disapprove of zoning (and many other city planning activities), but I don't think racism was really 'responsible' for zoning, and I don't think that calling all bad policies 'racist' is a good idea.


The start of many US zoning laws was based on racism though. No one is saying every zoning law was racist, or that racism is the sole reason they are bad, but their origin is undoubtedly tied to racism.


Like many policies, their origins are complicated, and subject to 'bootlegger and baptist' type motivations.[1] Going back to my first post in this thread, I was saying that zoning laws were not "originally designed to limit where Chinese immigrants could live and work", and I stand by my comment.

As a bit of an aside, I find it disturbing how political debate is becoming pure sophistry, where winning the day is dependent on proving that the other side is racist. Zoning is bad, whether or not it's racist.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bootleggers_and_Baptists


>As a bit of an aside, I find it disturbing how political debate is becoming pure sophistry, where winning the day is dependent on proving that the other side is racist. Zoning is bad, whether or not it's racist

Such an odd reply to my comment of

>No one is saying every zoning law was racist, or that racism is the sole reason they are bad


Yes, but you're arguably still doing the same thing, just slightly more indirectly.

>The start of many US zoning laws was based on racism though. No one is saying every zoning law was racist, or that racism is the sole reason they are bad, but their origin is undoubtedly tied to racism.

Here, there's the pretty explicit connotation of "racism created zoning laws", and that's only a mental step or two removed from "zoning laws are racist because racism created them". I do think that nickff's comment was pulling from the current argumentative zeitgeist as well though.


>Here, there's the pretty explicit connotation of "racism created zoning laws", and that's only a mental step or two removed from "zoning laws are racist because racism created them"

Mental steps I did not make as I don't know they are adequately supported by historical data. I mentioned this in the post.


> they were not "originally designed to limit where Chinese immigrants could live and work"

Right, its was also Black people: https://www.asu.edu/courses/aph294/total-readings/silver%20-...


What's the relevance of what you cite to OP having trouble clearing a commercial venture to apparently serve food, beverages, and test out vehicles with combustible engines?


My sister's chocolate shop requires state and local duplicate inspectors, fire inspectors and health inspections. She's required to install 7 sinks (minimum) because she serves food. She has to have handicapped parking spot, for a walk-in business with exactly 1 parking space. She has to undergo regular 'training' in food handling. All to serve boxes of chocolates and a latte.

It's part of the one-size-fits-all regulation that states and cities adopt to 'streamline' their rules.


A friend of a friend was a baker, and to get approval to bake on her own property, she had to buy a trailer with a kitchen in it.

I have a hard time believing that a trailer parked outside on a gravel pad is safer than the domestic kitchen of one of the tidiest people I know. Things like this gives "rules are rules" a flavor similar to "boys will be boys" for me.


> Things like this gives "rules are rules" a flavor similar to "boys will be boys" for me.

Not having rules is also how we wound up with exploding food trucks.

The main problem is inflexible bureaucrats--and I don't have a good solution to that. Their continued employment depends on not fucking up enough to get bad press--not on getting anything accomplished.

And, to be fair, a lot of people are trying to pull a fast one on inspectors. So, default "no" is not automatically a bad starting position.


The main problem is people who are scared of life happening when they're not looking. They are the ones that created the inflexible bureaucrats.

The law in many places, especially the US, has become a contemptible thing.


> The law in many places, especially the US, has become a contemptible thing.

And, yet, I have a friend who is an HVAC inspector for institutions (office building, care facilities, etc.).

The stories he has of everybody trying to cheat the system are appalling. Nobody seals the HVAC properly until he shows up and fails them. Nobody isolates the rooms (these are CARE FACILITIES with contagious diseases) until he fails them. And then the times he has just basic stupidity (intake in a closet, intake next to garage or other combustion/carbon monoxide source, etc.) are beyond numerous.

He has had only one case where he didn't immediately fail the building for absolutely gross violations of code.

So, you can complain about the building codes, but the norm is that most of the people building are bad actors and the law is only thing keeping them even remotely in check.


Straw man. Surely care facilities deserve extra attention. But the average shop?

Its the 'one size fits all' that's the entire issue.


But sure, inspections are very valuable. And some kind of discretion would be great. Instead we have a 2" rule book.


Is there any part of the US left that wants business?


It smells like regulatory capture whenever the barrier to entry is set to a point where it's almost impossible for small players to enter the market.

For this reason I think it makes sense to have a cutoff (or maybe several) for businesses under a certain size to operate in a lazies-faire environment with only the essential regulations to be accountable to. Regulation of business is important in a lot of cases, but if you really want to encourage innovation you need to carve out a space where people can grow up to the point where they can really contend with all that complexity.


I'm not sure it's regulatory capture. I'd say most of the times it's death by a thousand cuts.

You have a place that has obvious hygiene issues, e.g. only one sink and everything is done there. Then some people got sick because that place was just careless.

Now you have people clamouring "how could this happen?" "something must be done!" and a new regulation is put in place, and in isolation, it's not necessarily stupid.

Repeat this many times, and you have the situation s people are talking about here.


The existence of the TSA disproves this theory. The public didn't clamor for 1000 rules. The bureaucracy is self perpetuating and captures by special interests.


I like this idea. But, what I see happening with this structure is businesses growing up to the cut off and not taking any further measures to grow. For some businesses that will be just fine. Not everybody wants to grow a multi-million dollar business. For those that do want to grow this becomes something like the welfare cliff.


Unlike taxes/benefits, I don’t think you could scale regulations linearly - at some point there has to be a cliff. I wonder if a solution could be a time-offset cliff. I.e. regulations apply five years after hitting a revenue threshold, at which point you either grow past the cliff or fall under it.


An alternative is changing requirements to recommendations allowing businesses to compete on equal ground. The recommendations become a guide to making a consumer friendly business. Let the business decide if they want to implement recommendations to reach a broader market.

Some requirements, that protect the commons, are necessary. Things like "you can't dump gasoline in a river".

Requirements necessitate enforcement which costs the citizens money and compliance which costs businesses money. Money that could be put back into the economy instead of evaporating in the government machine.


So? It takes a billion dollars of funding to get an IPO, but it is still extremely popular. A business is not like a single employee.

Anyway, its simple if have regulations step up with growth over many small steps, as they already do today.


Building codes and zoning laws are, in part, a way of increasing the barrier of entry for new businesses. This benefits established businesses at the cost of reducing the number of new businesses.

Licensing, permits, insurance, and complex tax codes are also often used for this purpose. I hope we find a better balance between protecting the consumer, and creating an environment where new and unique businesses can flourish.


I agree with you, but also think that these regulations are about protecting incumbents from business model innovation. The rules mean that existing organizations don't have to bother with finding better ways to serve their customers; they can just keep plodding along without fear.


In one town a WalMart was able to go up after years of resisting any sort of development. They used 3 layers of shell companies to buy up the parcels of land and then re-sell them to each other in a maze of county filings until Wal-Mart finally was purchased the sum of the parcels so they had the land to build. Then they sent an army of lawyers and immediately began suing the shit out of the local leadership that was resisting them. A friend, a developer, built a retail strip adjacent to the new Wal-Mart. He didn't have the resources of Wal-Mart despite already being wealthy. He ended up just having to line everyone's pockets in order to get his permits. Yes, that's right, good old fashioned bribes.

Obviously this is just one narrow example, but it just goes to show things still work this way in some parts of the US.

I hate to say it but you probably should have just bribed them.


> but it just goes to show things still work this way in some parts of the US.

That’s how it works on the East and west coast in my experience. You have to make the right “donations” to the right “campaigns” or police associations, etc etc.


There's this giant city smack dab in the middle of the country too, you know.


I specified where I’ve had experiences.


There's enormous pressure to favor high-capital development projects like big box retail in America, and tons of developers working on the fringe of local politics to keep it that way.


>Obviously this is just one narrow example, but it just goes to show things still work this way in some parts of the US.

There's a long dead Greek guy who had a famous quip about laws and corruption that's relevant to this kind of thing.


Were you referring to this quote from Tacitus?

"The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."


Yeah. That's it. I would have sworn it was one of the Greek philosophers who said it.


The American regulatory landscape is a death-by-a-thousand cuts that ends up serving to entrench established businesses. Most of them seem reasonable when looked at in isolation, but they add up to an insurmountable burden for most would-be small businesses.

It's absurd to expect a local cafe to spend $70k to become accessible for a tiny fraction of the population. That investment, and the maintenance fees it generates, will likely never balance out. On the other side of the coin, if the disabled community will never spend enough money to justify the cost of installing accessibility features in a cafe, do we as a community just accept that? It seems like something that ought to be handled with tax incentives to those opting to provide accessibility. People smarter than me have thought about this, and it's no accident that they landed on the option that makes it possible for Starbucks to have less competition.


right. It's 5x the budget to set up the entire rest of the cafe.


I see why the food truck phenomenon is (in part) so popular and widespread. I thought it was mainly from the excessive costs of getting a brick-and-mortar kitchen off the ground in general but wow, I'm glad I never tried to startup a restaurant.


Are you familiar with Moto in Hudson, NY? They are almost exactly this business model. http://www.motocoffeemachine.com/

Obviously every town/city's zoning is different but you may want to try to see if they're willing to discuss the process they went through.


No, I wasn't familiar, and after seeing that website I'm still not familiar with them at all.


> YES! WE HAVE NO WEBSITE! IT'S ON PURPOSE. YOU WILL HAVE TO DROP IN OR CALL US, LIKE IT'S 1975 OR SOMETHING.

So, it's not something good to link to.


We also have a similar place in Lyon called Kargo Kulte: https://www.instagram.com/kargokulte/

No experience with the Motorcycle shop, but the coffee is excellent.


There's a place in Atlanta that's very similar as well!

Brother Moto - https://brothermoto.com/


> and likely installing 70k worth of elevators and a 30k sprinkler system in a two story 3k sqft building and even then, if a single person on the review board dislikes the project on a whim, it's out.

Your complaint is that your new business has to not be a fire hazard or completely inaccessible to the mobility-disabled?

I get you on the fact that zoning laws can get pretty wonky, but these requirements here seem pretty reasonable to me.


> completely inaccessible to the mobility-disabled?

One of my favorite coffee shops is a little hole in the wall in the basement or an old brick building.

Despite the fact that to get to the shop, you need to go down a narrow set of exterior stairs, the owner was required to put in a wheel-chair accessible bathroom. It's a small space and the bathroom is nearly as big as the seating area.

It's an asinine requirement.

The owner looked into moving to a different spot a block away, which would have been on the main level. He backed out of that when the city told him he needed to install a grease trap to meet code. This despite the fact that nothing he sold contained any sort of grease or oil that would make it down the drain.

Zoning laws and HOAs are great in concept. But they tend to get taken over by the Delores Umbridge [1] types who love nothing more than punishing people for violating stupid rules.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolores_Umbridge


Is it the requirement that is asinine, or the fact that the ADA allows grandfathered exceptions for parts of buildings that are unrenovated?

I'm not sure what possibly could make more sense and be more fair than "if you change it, the changes you meet have to be up to current law" Would it make more sense if we made people raze their entire pre-ADA buildings to renovate anything at all?

> He backed out of that when the city told him he needed to install a grease trap to meet code. This despite the fact that nothing he sold contained any sort of grease or oil that would make it down the drain.

Also, building codes aren't necessarily for the way you plan to use a building, but for the way a building can be used.


> or the way a building can be used.

"can be" means "isn't"


Regulations have to be applied to some measurable standard to be effective. Exceptions based on unmeasurable promises basically guarantee a toothless regulation.


Zoning laws and HOAs really aren't great in concept, but they're also not the same thing as disabled access laws and environmental regulations.


San Jose, CA had a streak of ADA torts that resulted in small businesses closing shop : https://sanjosespotlight.com/access-v-abuse-crema-coffee-in-... https://www.ktvu.com/news/times-up-san-jose-deli-closing-its...


FYI, Crema moved a few blocks away and is still open.


Alright, well lump them all together.

There are ways for laws and regulations to be thoughtfully applied, and there are ways for them to be abused by people who enjoy causing other people pain.

When the regulatory burden is so heavy that only people who have already "made it" can even play, then government has gone too far.


A bathroom stall big enough for a wheelchair is also big enough for someone who can manage the stairs but needs assistance with the toilet. Regulatory requirements can have justifications beyond the most apparent one.


> A bathroom stall big enough for a wheelchair is also big enough for someone who can manage the stairs but needs assistance with the toilet.

And as someone with young children, I think it's a great bathroom. But the truth is it could easily be half the size that it is and still be a perfectly nice bathroom.


sure, and as someone who values inclusion all thing equal. I'm not interested in spending 70k+ to cater to either. It just doesn't make sense for this structure.


> completely inaccessible to the mobility-disabled?

Completely inaccessible to a mobility-disabled person without help.

However, I live in one of those European cities that has kind of quirky small places, sometimes inaccessible to a mobility-disabled person. I also got a good friend who is heavily disabled. Two weeks ago we set up to meet up in one of those places, and when I arrived, a few minutes too late, he was already sitting inside. How? one of the people there helped him get in.

Almost all places are normally accessible mobility-disabled persons, if you only dare to violate the impersonal principle upon which many cities are designed.


> completely inaccessible to the mobility-disabled?

>>Completely inaccessible to a mobility-disabled person without help.

Same thing.


No, read again.


If you design relying on others to constantly do the right thing, you eventually find they will get tired of it and not do so. No one has to constantly help your disabled friend, and some may resent it.


Then the ones who don't want to help a disabled person, can design their place to be accessible without help (and perhaps at the same time explain their motivations so that I'll know to never visit their venue).

In other words, you got slightly confused. I didn't say that all places should be not accessible to disabled people. If I make a place I'd definitely try to make it accessible. However, I did say that if someone can't make such a place, they'll have to take into account that the human thing to do is to personally help disabled people get in it.

If they won't do it I'm sure socially media would know how to handle them.


That’s quite a cynical view of human nature.


So where should we draw the line? An 170 year old existing building should never be used for anything because it's not handicap accesible? I can't run an espresso machine that would be perfectly acceptable to use in the same structure for residential reasons but it is magically a fire risk once it is zoned commercial?

Sorry but that does not hold up under scrutiny.


Your 170 year old building can still be used even though it is not handicap accessible.

But construction or renovation of that building done in 2020 has to meet the laws of 2020.


The building is ready to use as is. Nothing needs to be constructed.


You’re not modifying the property or the way it is being used at all?

This “building in a residential neighborhood” is already configured for use in commercial foodservice?

Or is it a residence now?


The problem is preventative maintenance seems to fall under the ADA, or at least no one has challenged it.

I can see both sides. On one hand if no one was forced to do anything many people may never be able to leave their house. On the other, Hardvard was sued and took down a bunch of freely provided lectures because they had no tractable way to caption them.


I literally want to install a single espresso machines and have some pour overs and french presses and set up tables and chairs. There is already a commercial grade dishwasher and fridge that the current tenant installed. I would have to install a grease trap to meet regulation which also is nonsensical given that I'm not cooking here but at least that is reasonably priced.

As far as I'm concerned none of this is "build out" more like furnishing.


Which destroys the appeal of the building in the first place


If the plan was to build a new "traditional style" building, would the fact that a wheelchair ramp breaking the style/appeal of the building be a reason to bypass accessibility requirements?


The title of the article is "Why Every City Feels the Same Now". If someone is going to build a new traditional style building, they can't complain about why every city feels the same.


These are also building codes, not zoning laws. They're both regulations, but the public policy justifications are much different. (The waters are often muddied by defenders of restrictive zoning using spurious health and safety arguments.)


True although I'm fighting both.


> if a single person on the review board dislikes the project on a whim, it's out.

This probably sucks.

and secondly, why do you need an elevator for a 2 story building which will basically be used for a cafe? It's not a freaking life saving emergency service where you need people to provide access to every part of building.


In my opinion an elevator never counts as a disability device. In case of fire they are not safe to use in general, leaving those who need them trapped.

I agree that the disabled need access to everything, I don't have a solution to the problem.


Well, if we specifically talk about a cafe then I do see that it's problem if the owner can build the cafe only on the second floor. Even in that case it's a simple math to decide if it's worth spending 70K$ and make it accessible to disabled people. It should be left entirely to the owner to decide. City should not force him to install it. And it's entirely the cafe owner's problem not the disabled person's problem unless it's the only coffee shop on the street.


This is not within the rights of the owner to do. It is illegal for a business to discriminate against disabled people in the US, and this means renovations must reasonably accommodate the disabled. This is not a rule from the city, this is US law.


Maybe it's different in different states. I lived in a 3 storey apartment in MA without any elevators. If a person is bound to wheelchairs then there was no way for that person to get into the apartment.


Federal law is the same in all states. Maybe your apartment building was built before 1991?

https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/d...


Yes, I think it's older than 1991. If its law then I wonder why they did not build ramps to provide entry to at least the first floor. Elevator is definitely out of question without tearing apart the entire building.


If the building was construction prior to 1991, the construction wouldn’t have been subject to ADA requirements because the ADA did not exist then.


I agree and I am sure the apartment owner makes a hell lot of money than a cafe owner. If they (govt. and apartment owners) really cared about disabled people they could have easily added ramps to the buildings in last 30 years. They are probably just taking advantage of loopholes.


It’s not a loophole. The ADA simply doesn’t require people to add accommodations unless construction or renovation is taking place. It was a very intentional provision.


I don't want to drag this, but 2 years ago they installed new steps outside all buildings in the complex. Basically replaced old precast concrete steps with new precast concrete steps. Probably that doesn't qualify as renovation and doesn't need inspection or approvals.


3 story or less residential apparently doesn't need an elevator.


That's what I believed till today!


How can you call it completely inaccessible when presumably most of the seating is on the first floor?


It's all on the second floor up a single stair case.


Quite literally, yes. You're asking for a level of safety and accessibility to be provided that locks basically anyone without access to $300k+ out of going into business. It's not like the building has those accessibility and safety features now. Why should it matter if it doesn't have them when this business opens?


Mixing light industrial with commercial restaurant in a single building / space sounds like a nightmare to get approved.

You can't be doing welding, metalworking, spray painting, and dealing with gasoline, oil, and other industrial solvents in the same space as food preparation.


Yeah I understand why there are rules to protect workers, the environment, disabled customers, city aesthetics and more. But it does end up making it a huge barrier for anyone to do anything. I'd like to think I'd do a good job starting a small business but the rulebook is so huge it seems insurmountable.


May be the only reason for those barriers is to control growth? If it's too easy to get permissions for building stuff then you'll see new cafes popping up on streets everyday.


That sounds fucking awesome!! I could actually have options other than Starbucks and the random overpriced coffee art place. Holy shit, I would pick that town 100x over


> I get that I don't want a power plant or steel forge next to my house, but that's not what we are talking about here.

Reflecting for a bit, I don't know what you're talking about here.

Either you could get the permit to start a garage, or you couldn't. I don't understand why it's relevant that you'd have a cafe next door.

If on the other hand you're describing some kind of hybrid shared space where food, drink, and combustible engines come together then that is way beyond "doesn't fit a cookie cutter mold." Just off the top of my head safety and noise come to mind.


That reminds me of this case in SF, where someone spent 4 years and $1M just trying to get approval to convert their laundromat into an apartment building.

https://reason.com/2018/02/21/san-francisco-man-has-spent-4-...


I've seen a couple of shops that have an open doorway to the shop next door, and in fact I know some anecdotes of people skirting blue laws (which I suspect have bigger teeth than the things you're dealing with) by opening two shops next to each other.

That arm's length separation may help you with the health dept too.


One big issue is we Americans are very picky about what rules they choose to obey. Highway speed limits are for entertainment value but parking availability is written in blood.


If you actually want to try to change it, you are welcome to come hang out on r/CitizenPlanners.

Nothing takes the past away like the future. What is currently is not what has to be tomorrow.


Move to Houston where they are extremely lacks on zoning. I visited there and you can tell that its all intertwined.


And sometimes, industrial buildings near residential ones just blow up[1]. I'm generally against zoning and excessive regulation and in fact that Houston business had been fined for safety non-compliance before. But that is quite a BOOM! I can't find if there was a final verdict from the investigation but it was initially thought to be a leaking propylene tank ignited by a spark from faulty electrical.

1: https://www.click2houston.com/news/local/2020/01/31/live-aut...


Corona would have ruined the coffee side of the business, so you probably dodged a bullet.


What you're describing is gentrification. And yes, it's dehumanizing... to all but the gentry. But until we place another golden idol ahead of Capitalism, the natural gradient of life will forever serve the current idol -- the pursuit of personal profit above all else.


If anything, I would say the Espresso/Motorcycle cafe is the actual gentrification here, which is being stopped by zoning laws. Not that I'm against it, I love the idea, but that is the kind of hipster nonsense (that I love) that sounds like gentrification.


A unique cafe like that is early phase gentrification, which most communities and individuals don't object to. They don't like it when tech/finance bros move in and want a Starbucks because it's easy to order from an app on your way to the subway. But once it starts it isn't a process you can really stop.


Is the definition of gentrification here just new things moving in? I don't see how a coffee/bike repair shop moving into a neighborhood is somehow a bad thing.


This is so laughable. Ok So what should be done with this building you know nothing about, in the neighborhood you know nothing about to make this "acceptable" for your personal utopia?

I wish people like you got your wish and had to live in a world of your own design (free of gentrifiers and capitalism and cafes) and suffer the consequences of the hellscape you'd create out of good intentions and ignorance.


I think the fundamental error here is to think this is in any way a new phenomenon. This line, in particular, holds the key:

> Others evolved over the centuries: Islamic architecture encompasses both Moorish horseshoe arches and the turquoise domes of Uzbekistan, but the unified features such as minarets and geometric ornaments tell you these are lands conquered and converted by Muslim empires.

(Emphasis mine)

This architectural homogenisation has always happened to some extent except that, in the past, its sphere of influence was limited to the area of a certain empire, nation state, or religion. Nowadays the actors are powerful corporations with global reach, and hence the homogenisation is global in scope rather than more localised.

There may be a solution to this but I don't think calling for a preservation of local architectural style and culture is it, because it's not dealing with the root cause of the problem.

That may go back to valuing function over form and getting the most value for money out of buildings, although neither do I think this is a complete explanation.


That's a good point - in the past, when lands were conquered by the Muslim empire, they started to share architectural style. Now, as more lands are conquered by the international-corporate-capitalist empire, they too start to share an architectural style ;-)


Building codes have made it extremely expensive and time consuming to build anything other than cookie cutter boxes. Of course the code also reduces fire danger and roof collapses are extremely rare now. The cost is uniqueness. Yet another case where you can't get something for nothing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Building_Code


And yet another case, I suspect, of the Pareto principle: 20% of regulations are load-bearing. They keep lead out of our pipes, asbestos out of our ceilings, and make electrical fires thankfully rare.

The remaining 80% all look good on paper (or they wouldn't be there) but do things like require bathrooms to be wheelchair accessible, even if there's an accessible bathroom two doors down, at a business which would be happy to extend its use to any wheelchair-using customers. Or dictate ceiling heights so that the occasional 2 meter tall customer won't hit his head on exposed pipe.

But these regulations aren't optional "best practices", they have the same weight as ones which prevent building collapse, fire, and cancer. And the sum total is a landscape which is prohibitively hostile, in many cases, to starting a small business.


> do things like require bathrooms to be wheelchair accessible, even if there's an accessible bathroom two doors down, at a business which would be happy to extend its use to any wheelchair-using customers

This is not a scalable solution. Now does the business have to have the same hours as your business? If not, what does the handicapped person do when they have to use the restroom and it's not available? If we want disabled people to be full members of our society, we just need to pay the costs of reasonable accommodations to their needs.


1) the insistence that every regulation scale perfectly and apply in all cases is the root of the problem

2) I did point out that each regulation, taken in isolation, looks like a good idea: you're illustrating that with your objection

3) There will always be a gap between reasonable accommodation and perfect accommodation, and what's reasonable is always subject to some debate: the effect of this is to push the reasonable further out into the realm of the unreasonable, in pursuit of the perfect

After all, no one wants to strand a wheelchair user with nowhere to pee. Certainly I don't.

But no one, wheelchair or no, can enjoy a coffeeshop which never existed because the starting costs were too high.


ADA rules also add a lot of expense that is important, I believe, but certainly limits the amount of 'uniqueness' that is possible when building new structures.


This is a little ranty so it's difficult at a skim to get the core arguments of the author down

But the main call to action seems to be to preserve local culture, architecture, and design, rather than letting the world become a homogenized corporate sameness enforced by hegemonic powers.

A noble goal, but not one that's really actionable. The architectural sameness spreads for the reason most architecture spreads, which is practicality. Ultimately the people with deep pockets build and buy, and those people are influenced by current trends and what is most practical (affordable and featureful).

You can show me the most beautiful architecture in the world, and I'll show you a builder creating a bastardized version of it with 30% more square feet.

The mcmansion with 30% more square feet makes the sale.


If you want nice architecture, it basically has to be legislated. The neighborhood I grew up in is full of beautiful, unique homes, but this is only because there was a law on the books that no 2 homes on the same block could use the same floor-plan or facade, and each house had to be designed independently by an architect. That plus aggressive rules about how homes and properties have to be maintained.

It's a great place to live, but it's not without its cost. Surely it would be more efficient to print out a bunch of template homes, but if you want distinctive architecture you have to prioritize it.


Ya, OP is wisdom-free whinge fest.

From the OP:

"Historically, political and economic dominance have dictated building styles."

Well, ya. But what of the material and technical?

I'm very interested in differences. Yayaya, everything's the same. Hegemony, "kids these days", and other old saws.

But things are also different. If you look long enough, close enough.

Why?

Even in the small, differences are really very interesting, can have far reaching impacts.

I've been slowly remodeling my house, built in the 50s. The 30 years I've owned this house, the available materials, technologies, and products have greatly changed. Frankly, it's hard for a noob casual like me to keep up.

But even with my limited awareness, I can see how each new innovation impacts new construction. For better or worse, depending on one's esthetics.

These differences percolate out.

One of the few perks of getting older is the opportunity to see the changes on a longer time scale.


Collective action, especially purchase preferences, are notoriously hard to change but that's where the action comes from. The trend of putting every dollar into square footage, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, didn't come from nowhere. They are easily quantifiable metrics about a house that sorta-kinda-if-you-squint give you an impression of livability and they're what every house searching tool gives users to filter on and $/sq. ft is the most prominently displayed metric for "value." Worse, even if you don't care about playing stupid games, you still likely have to play if you ever want to sell your house.

Changing how we evaluate the quality of a house changes how they're built.


That's true. I've been looking at housing a lot because I'm hoping to buy next spring, since my wife and I finally just finished saving enough for a down payment.

I've started considering it a "smell", if you will, when a recently-constructed single family home is in the range of 2800-3500 square feet. Almost inevitably, I look at more detailed pictures on the floor plan and layout and see all sorts of weird choices - a little "half office" right at the top of the stairs not even in its own room (just like, an empty space). Questionably shaped rooms that interact strangely with the roof. And so on.

Additionally, my personal preference is not even to have that much space - I'm nearly content with 1000sqft for a family of 3, what could I do with 3 times that much? - but I must confess that I do play the value-per-sqft game without meaning to when I'm comparing a 1500 sqft against a 2000 sqft home.


I'm in the same boat. Currently looking at houses but largely content with out roughly 1100 sq ft two bedroom apartment for a family of tree. I wish I could find houses where the layouts are as thoughtfully planned as our current place. It's so frustrating to tour a house that's on paper twice the size but manages to feel smaller. Like I can fit more stuff in the house but it's not any more livable.


My wife and I have always felt this way, we could fit our rather large family in a much smaller space if it was designed around the way we spend our days.

When we had 2 toddlers and an infant and went apartment searching, we kept getting shoehorned into 3 bedroom apartments because of the size of our family, but half the time, the apartments just traded space in the living room for an extra bedroom, which we didn't really need because the kids spent all of their time with us in the living room.

We often felt like we were being judged for not wanting more space for the kids, when in reality we were trying to find the biggest common space we could.


Square-footage-cram is a lot like feature-cram in software. We don't like to do it, but it's unfortunately how we have to market to unsophisticated "checkbox buyers" of product.

I would personally love a half-sized well-designed home with character and a unique architecture that uses its area well. But, you have to pay an arm an a leg for it. Unfortunately the budget market caters to buyers who limit their home criteria to "price per square foot". So instead we get giant borg cube houses built right up to the lot line.


If you can new-build, https://rosschapin.com/plans/


This is true-ish. Building techniques have a lot of regional factors. How much rainfall do you get? Does the ground freeze? Is the ground dry and solid enough for basements? Do you need to worry about heating, cooling, or both? Humidity? There are a lot of practical reasons for architecture to differ from place to place even today.

At the same time, materials are more homogenous because more of them are engineered and shipped across the country, so that contributes to some homogeniety, as does the media environment.


There's the universal "not invented here" syndrome though. Often I find a lot of good ideas, proven in practice - that simply can not be taken to use somewhere else.


About Apple's new headquarters:

Shaped like a spaceship, it also suggests to the local community, which grants Apple huge tax breaks, that the company could take off and relocate anywhere in the world, whenever it wants.

This seems precisely backwards. A massive, stylish new headquarters in Cupertino makes it harder for Apple to relocate anywhere else in the world, and ties it more to the local community. Indeed, the fact that Apple HQ is in Cupertino seems to define the essence of Cupertino more than anything else. I feel like the author is distacted by appearances and ignoring the substance.


The point is the perception, not the reality.


That perception is not widely shared. Cupertino sees the reality.


It’s particularly curious that they compare Apple Park with the Pentagon. It’s a very similar design concept—arranging offices in a ring so as to maximize efficiency. But while Apple Park’s “UFO” aesthetic has the implication that it could take off at any second, the Pentagon was architecturally inspired by a star fort, which has the complete opposite connotation—one builds a fort when one is very determined to stay in the same place.


Ironic then that the Pentagon was designed to be temporary.

"It was supposed to be temporary.

The Pentagon was the brainchild of Army Brig. Gen. Brehon B. Sommervell, who, in the early 1940s, pitched it as a temporary solution to the then-War Department's critical shortage of space as the threat of joining World War II became imminent.

The plan was approved, and on Sept. 11, 1941, construction began. About 296 acres of land were designated for the building, which was supposed to be turned into a hospital, office or warehouse once World War II was over."

https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Features/story/Article/18674...


I read another article a few years ago, I think also in The Atlantic, that approached this from the angle of every coffee shop, hip restaurant, and, importantly, Airbnb looking the same everywhere.

Isn't this just the result of globalization? As people travel more, won't tastes naturally converge? And while I'll miss cities having their own distinct flavor, I'm also not sure it's inherently bad that things look more similar. What is bad is that the style and culture we're landing on is driven by the class of people who bounce between world-class cities.



Your comment made the think: The Atlantic, the Verge, Vox, New Yörker, they all sound the same to me. Whenever I pick up a magazine these days, I don't know what I'm reading.

My other thought is that bouncing between cities is the unusual activity here. Maybe after sleeping in so many hotels or airbnbs, the brain no longer has a sense of place and gets confused. I'm sure universal IKEA-decor helps, but why do we expect to jet around and visit so many different places and feel connected to them. In most cases people are busy and stressed, moving around without getting to know the place, just to hop in a car, go to a meeting, then back to the hotel or airport. Maybe that's what the brain is having trouble with.


Yeah I think there are economies of scale at work here, similar to how Hollywood designs blockbusters to be globally marketable (https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-53676789).


Everything feels the same now.

Websites, they all look like they used Bootstrap.

Smartphones, well they basically are the same as everybody has the latest iPhone.

Fashion. Everybody wears jeans.


I'm of the opinion that optimization is a natural enemy of variety and diversity. Our businesses, economy, and more encroachingly, culture, are dictated by the requirement for many to optimize on cost and ROI. As such, we converge on all but a few well established optimized processes we essentially copy and repeat. Occasionally "disruptive" strategies emerge and find a new, better cost/ROI optimization solution.

Variety and diversity on the other hand need to be able to discard cost/ROI focused optimization. They need to be inefficient/"wasteful", they need to take time and more resources because they're new or their fundamental variance that makes them appealing are defined by their very state of being sub-optimal. They need to be able to fail and iterate, not fail and die.

I'm a proponent of optimizing on certain factors like cost, time, space and so forth under certain conditions, but I think we need to stand back as humans and be mindful of processes we seek to optimize and ask if some of them are factors we really want to optimize on. Do we want more square footage so we can cram another person or piece of furniture in or do we want to change our target optimization to include aesthetic appeal, variety, mental health... and so forth. We have our priorities way off as a society, I'd argue, and those priorities are being less of a choice and more of a mandate for many.

Right now we're on a runaway freight train across society to optimize on cost and ignore everything else. This pandemic is sure to expedite that problem with the economic toll its taken. That cost saving/ROI optimization strategy, in our economic system, will "win" most times over other choices. If we are able to relax the financial constraints of many, then we can use that slack to focus on other factors that aren't always cost and profit driven.


Doesn't that question simply devolve into, "How much more are you willing to pay for variety and diversity?"

Shopping at boutique stores certainly offer a more memorable shopping experience, better dining, or more engaging products than Amazon or Walmart, but at substantially greater cost/risk. When efficiency/safety becomes primary among your desiderata, variety and diversity will suffer.

This is the exact conundrum covered well in Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" which bemoaned the social cost arising from city/village design that was optimized to serve too narrow a set of priorities, thereby eliminating opportunity to experience and share common spaces in more than one way.


Most "boutique" stores sell the same made in China junk as every other store.


> Do we want more square footage so we can cram another person or piece of furniture in

But is this what's happening? As far as I know, and particularly in the US, square footage is increase despite the reduction in the number of people per household. And are people really cramming stuff with furniture nowadays?

It feels really strange to hear the complaint that the US is optimizing on cost, when from my side of the pond, US lifestyle feels if anything extremely wasteful.


What you describe are the downsides or limitations of Stage Orange from Spiral Dynamics. That's just another model, though about how societies evolve over time.


It must be right? Just like a mathematical optimization which looks for just one value for x (assuming a global optimum) and discarding the rest of the values (the 'diversity' in x). You see the same thing in pop music, which is optimized for popularity by the music industry. These days pop music sounds much more alike than say pop from the 60s or 70s. Same thing with athletes, in their sport there isn't much variety in physique. Under the neoliberal/capitalist doctrine, which tries to turn everything into a competition, the winners take all and the winners tend to be optimized for the same qualities.


I don't.


I was a vocal atheist back in my university days, but ironically most of my friends were highly devout Christians... studying Physics of all things.

I was trying to explain to one particular such Christian friend that the problem with religion is that "The fish is the last to know that it lives in water". That is: it seems obvious that "Our religion is the one true religion" only if you hadn't travelled and realised that everyone thinks that, but doesn't agree with you. In a context of a Christian country, a Christian upbringing, and a Christian government, this is not so obvious.

She disagreed, and said very firmly that she does notice such consistent trends. "I would know if I lived in water."

We were in a packed lecture hall. In reply, I said simply:

"Everyone single person in this room is wearing jeans, except me."


As a trained physicist ... finding Christians in Physics really shouldn't surprise as you.

As a field we've gotten a lot of mileage out of deciding that something simply must be true due to the aesthetics of a set of equations, and our heroes (Dirac and his positron, Higgs and his Boson) are people whose faith in their aesthetic judgment was retroactively rewarded by experiment.


> only if you hadn't travelled and realised that everyone thinks that, but doesn't agree with you

For what it's worth, I don't think this is true. There are a good number of places in the world were people of different religous faiths live alongside each other. Sometimes they try and kill each other, but often they can live fairly peacibly. India's a good example (including both the killing and the peacibly part).


They live alongside each other yes, but OP's point is still valid. Muslims believe their religion is the one true religion. Christians believe their religion is the one true religion. And so on and so forth...

Or to put it another way: they all think their shit don't stink. It's even crazier when you break it down into denominations (see: Iran vs Saudi Arabia).


The way this is written comes across as very conceited. Do you truly believe that everyone is a sheep but you based on the clothes they throw on before a university lecture?


He did not say that like at all.


I don't think I'll spend too much time in a discussion about tone with someone who talks so grossly about women as you did in the sibling comment.


It's interesting that this is the outcome of capitalism considering it was always a point used to ridicule communism. That and the deep state espionage which we've also got now.


It's the outcome of having centralized power. Markets require competition to operate. We erected barriers to competition through regulation and lack of antitrust enforcement, so markets consolidated. Just enough competition to put up a fig leaf and claim they have some, not enough to actually be effective.

The entire dichotomy is a fraud. The problem is centralization, not whether the centralized power is a state or a corporation.


I agree 100%. I'm a bit bemused that I've received down votes on such a neutral observation.


The term 'deep state espionage' is neutral?


Yes. Remember Edward Snowden?


This article explains why travel in a lot of the US (born and raised here) is not interesting except for New Orleans and maybe Austin, or SF and Berkeley. There's a despair here that I bet the French or Portuguese have a perfect word for.

I hope old Europe doesn't fully go this way because it's my favorite place to go. It's oldness is very soothing which is a sensibility or modality I got from my father.


I'll concede that most US cities are probably not worth traveling to for the architecture alone. most US cities I've visited do have some hidden gems though. it's not stuff you'd easily find researching for a vacation though. when possible, I try to stay with a friend who already lives in the place I want to travel too. I've always been pleasantly surprised by what a city has to offer when I travel this way.


I've traveled most of the US on wheels and I feel this. I have an intense urge to take my oldest car on a long unplanned roadtrip just for the adventure of doing it, but I never go because 'Where would I go? It's all an interstate and a bunch of nothing new". Yes, there are small towns, but even through those you have to drive 15hs to find something that stands out.

What they don't tell you in movies about the American roadtrip in a convertible is that it's really long no matte where you go and really boring for the most part.


I travelled using a 50cc motorbike from France to Istanbul.

Avoiding motorways was necessary, but it turned out to be an amazing improvement. I now actively try to travel using just back roads and I try not to be in a hurry to reach a destination. I now find travel is best done slowly, unoptimally, via the less usual routes, and that the journey is often the best part (especially when travelling with a good travel buddy).


That's what I thought too until I found this guy's website: http://bigdogadventures.com/

He has a Honda CB500X and Husqvarna 701 (I don't know much about motorcycles, but I do know that's not the same as sibling comment's 50cc) and he rides all over the US on the backroads and dirt roads. It's full of local cafés, covered bridges, ghost towns, remote mountain roads, and the like. He takes photos and videos and documents the whole thing on an old-fashioned website. It really made me want to ride a motorcycle.


When you're just a tourist, you'll often be limited to tourist traps or other locations that are aimed specifically at people who are just superficially passing through.

How can anyone expect to see the real "soul" of a place just... by driving by?


"C'est déprimant ici" is what I usually say when I enter any midsize US city.

I don't see European cities going this way, people care about architecture there. Just look south of the border how Mexico has a lot of beautiful cities.


Funny - as someone in Europe that has spent time in the US I kinda see the opposite. I wonder if some psychological biases are at play here.

To me my home country feels all very regular and the US has strong styles to where I could pick out an American town from most other countries. But to you the opposite is probably true, USA towns seem all very normal and regular to you.


I can't help but feel like this is a result of capitalist optimization, melting pot culture, and declining religious adherents among other factors. In other words: the cities are reflections of the individual level, where diversity in all it's meanings continue to decrease. Much of the biggest differences between the Midwest and the South or the East Coast and the West are summed up to first order economically - some areas are cheaper, have fewer restaurants and jobs, and vice versa. There's little serious cultural difference between these areas relative to the "interesting areas".

Homogenization begins at the people level, and America is increasingly homogenized at the surface level.


> There's a despair here that I bet the French or Portuguese have a perfect word for.

Why those languages? I'd imagine that kind of dispair would be the specialty of German or some East European language.


It's a different "flavor" of despair then what you're probably thinking those languages might have


“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”


"At least we're not Detroit!"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZzgAjjuqZM


Haha, like NYC and SF are so different.


Its interesting. I don't have experience with a large variety of cities, but Seattle and DC I am quite familiar with. They do not feel the same to me at all. Lots of history and monuments, and there are still pretty strict height restrictions in DC. Just don't have any of that feel in Seattle. The primary commonality is the horrible traffic. But, if you go to Bellevue and Tyson's Corner they feel the same. Perhaps DC is unique? Perhaps I am biased to the region I grew up in? How do other feel DC and Seattle compare?


Both DC and Seattle are old cities where growth has happened recently. So the new build is shaped or at least influenced by the surroundings.

It's easiest to look at new places, or rapid growth places since 1960. You need to look regional vs. "the city". The areas around Atlanta are a great example. The area around the Atlanta Braves stadium exemplifies modern development -- a shopping mall posing as a city, with Comcast, a theatre and the baseball stadium as anchor tenants. The assembly square area just north of Boston is a similar thing.

Philosophically, on one extreme you have a real "organic" city like NYC, Chicago, Seattle, etc. On the other you have a corporate campus or malls that started popping up in the 1950s and 1960s. Modern development requires much more capital, so you end up with bland campus/mall environments controlled by one big entity. Once developers scale out, you end up with more vacancies, etc as it makes business sense to leave storefronts vacant due to tax law and other factors.

Even outside of big developments, modern buildings turn out to be a hybrid. End users don't own the buildings, so the REIT/leaseholder/developer wants it to look as prestigious as the market demand as cheap as possible. So lots of cheap glass and stucco to quack like a nice building. Usually the fittings, doors, etc are garbage. Best example of this is a medical arts building. The nicer ones will have a weird sculpture, but everything else in public areas are the cheapest available materials from the carpet tile to the elevators. CFOs managing a portfolio of 2,000 buildings see value in saving $0.08/square foot on carpet tile.


I recently did a cross country drive and there are some cities that stand out, but a whole lot that blend in. There were moments where I was looking around unsure if I was in Nashville, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Kansas City, or Des Moines. Anywhere that has a renovated or new "hip downtown" area with wood framed 1+4 (1 floor for retail and 4 of "luxury" apartments) painted in bright Ikea colors.


The industry jargon for that building style is:

“5 over 1” or “one-plus-five”: wood-framed construction, which contain apartments and is known as Type 5 in the International Building Code, over a concrete base, which usually contains retail or commercial space, or parking structures, known as Type 1.

https://www.curbed.com/2018/12/4/18125536/real-estate-modern...


Thanks for the correct terminology. It's these buildings exactly.

I also hate them because of the construction quality. No matter which city I visited, they all seemed to have the same cheap countertops, ovens, microwaves, carpet, and doors that never quite shut right.



Can't speak of DC but I feel that even culturally, large cities have more in common with each other than they do with the sparesly populated regions in their own countries.

London, Paris, NYC, Tokyo, Seoul, KL, Singapore, Cape Town, Shanghai, Buenos Aires... Same same but different.


I've visited/lived in 7/10 of those cities, and really appreciated the fact that retail and public infra look the same between cities. In that sense, there's a certain "interoperability" (much like how most airports around the world work the same). It only takes a day or so to get used to how the public transit works and how to buy things. I could drop into a new city and learn how to get around in no time.

(NY's subway was the least intuitive and took the longest to get used to -- it's complicated by inconsistencies like express trains, lack of electronic signage on multiuse platforms, doors not opening in certain cars for certain stops in lower Manhattan, etc. -- but even so there was a method behind the madness.)

However, once you venture outside the central business districts/downtowns and into the neighborhoods, things start looking very different. It's in the neighborhoods that one finds unique cultures.

Chicago for instance: the Loop is nice and all, but the character of Chicago is really in the 77 neighborhoods around the city. NYC's cultural hotspots are in boroughs like Queens.

I would say most cities retain their culture in their neighborhoods, not in their CBDs/downtowns.


I'm from Buenos Aires and now live in the US and travelled most of the country on wheels, and there is some truth to what you say. I feel more comfortable moving around in NYC and Boston than I do in any other medium city of the us (Miami or Jacksonville for exapmle).

What feels right is that things are not manicured down to fakeness. Everything is dirty because it gets used, some kind of yucky thing covering the whole city, noise, things that are compromise because "well you know, it's an old big city", and most importantly, people WALKING.

The people walking component is to be what changes everything. Sidewalks, store locations, transportation, the vibe of the city seems to be related to how many people are actually walking around you to go somewhere, and not because they drove there to do something.


Rome is an exception to the others. The centre is low-rise and packed with stunning ancient Roman buildings. Compared with, say, Milan. The suburbs are much more similar, though.


It's funny, I was about to include Rome and went like.. Naah, maybe not.


Pretty sure that's legislated in Rome. Similar in Jerusalem.


Also DC - nothing can be higher than the Washington Monument in the district.


Yeah... I just can't agree with the premise of this article

I've spent sizable chunks of my life in DC, NYC, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Barcelona, and Bangkok. These cities all feel wildly different to me.


But a few decades ago, cities like DC and Philly were much more diverse and interesting than they are now, at the cost of diminished safety and tidiness, of course.

Back in the 1980s, DC especially used to sport a warren of one-off ma and pa hole-in-the-wall shops packed into low rent enclaves found all round the city. But a couple decades back those neighborhoods were bought up by ambitious well-heeled developers and turned into chic malls of boutique shoppes that attract only yuppies. Now only homogeneous gentrification survives.


I'm from the same places. Definitely some overlaps, but IMO the big difference is the weather and the culture. All them security clearance types right next to one of the worst ghettos in the US vs. Seattle's Portlandia-light + Amazon/Boeing/Sbux/MS money all over the place. SLU is sooo much nicer than a lot of DC, save for maybe parts of Georgetown.


I think DC is the exception here. Most cities are cookie cutter buildings downtown, with the same restaurants. Out towards the suburbs its cookie cutter strip malls and the same restaurants. Oklahoma and Texas feel a little more unique since they tend to have a local set of franchises.


DC is a fairly unique american city, in part due to the height restriction and weird layout of the major arteries.

I often don't feel like I'm in an actual city when I walk around in DC. when I'm not right next to a monument or government building, it feels more like a particularly dense suburb. if someone else is driving, I might not notice that we've left silver spring and entered the city proper.


I agree that DC seems more unique to me than other cities. It's done a good job of retaining it's historical architecture almost everywhere. The Navy Yard is the only area I can think of that's switched over to the modern glass style, but even there the height restrictions result in buildings that look a bit different from the glass skyscrapers of other cities.


Haven't read the article, but here in Europe I see more McDonalds, Starbucks, Subways and UberEats in my own city as times goes by.

I hate it.

edit: I forgot the KFC and BurgerKing. WTF is Kentucky Fried Chicken doing in the most northern city of NL?


COVID is gonna kill the small local joints. Large chains, or well-entrenched local places are the only ones that will survive. Over time, they take over.

Post-COVID is going to look like a cyberpunk dystopia.


Probably true, but will that dystopia persist indefinitely? I doubt it. Yes many iconoclasts will lose their small business in the next year, but a couple years thereafter I suspect new gainsayers will arise. They may be fewer or farther flung geographically than before. But with some of the other likely consequents of COVID like a long-term rise in remote work and less commuting, more funky restaurants are likely to pop up in less expensive enclaves where more of us prefer to live and can better afford to set up funky shops of our own. It's still hard to predict the future.


Business come and go. A city is resilient not because of the business but because there is something.

Chains come and go too. Kmart used to be bigger than Walmart, now gone.


Or the set from "Idiocracy"


I wonder how much the locals thought the same thing when the Dutch East India company setup shop.

What goes around, comes around.


I can't downvote you, if I could I would.

Do you really think this is something I deserve because I am Dutch?


I'm less concerned with central business districts having the same architectural form. That's clearly function following form to some extent; people who work in those places want space and light, and as much of it as possible in a small area. I'm more concerned about the Brooklyn-ification of everything. Interior aesthetics, menu items, playlists, etc., are converging in places like Saratoga Springs and Omaha in a way that really dulls the sense of place you used to get traveling America.


At least in Europe they don't. At all.


Even Europe has seen a great deal of architectural convergence. The Nordic style, for example, spread from Finland to the surrounding countries, and if one has known the Baltic countries since the 1990s, one marvels at how in the post-Soviet era they have begun to converge architecturally, and in terms of certain aspects of urban planning, towards the Nordic countries.


>The Nordic Style

Do you mean Nordic Classicism or Funkis?


I mean Funkis and post-Funkis trends.


For now.


within Europe I would tend to agree, if you stay in city centres - it's just old buildings with churches, narrow streets and cobblestones, you could hardly distinguish the countries if it weren't for language, which makes sense considering how compact Europe is

but if you compare European, African and East Asian city you can clearly see differences


> it's just old buildings with churches, narrow streets and cobblestones

Just to talk of a single country: Rome has its kind of old buildings and churches, which is different from Florence, which is different from Venice, which is different from Milan or Trieste.

Even the cobblestones are different!


the differences are small unless you have particular interesdt in history/architecture most of the people would not really notice difference

and I write this as European


How can you not notice the difference between the whitewashed houses of Greek islands vs the clay roofs of Porto and Lisbon vs the elaborate facades of Vienna vs the somber everlasting feel of Edinburgh stone masonry? They look NOTHING alike.


you can see the difference, but unless you have interest in architecture it won't help you indetifying country, because they could be pretty much in any European country

sure some white buildings next to sea would help me to guess I am somewhere in southern Europe maybe, but I was talking about regular buildings you see somewhere in city center from street, if you take away letters it looks pretty much same everywhere in Europe


No. That's just not the case. Even if we set aside the most iconic street scrapes from various places even an ordinary street in Europe varies a lot in the look and feel. A random place in Barcelona will not be mistaken for a random place in Warsaw which will be absolutely different from a random place in Glasgow that will be different yet from a spot in Stockholm. Yeah they will all have buildings and streets in them but that's the extent of their similarly.

Do some Google Maps tourism and you will see.


don't have to, travel by myself, I can assure you regular Barcelona street could be as well in Vienna, very similar


I think people wouldn't _understand_ the difference, but I don't think they wouldn't notice.

If you limit yourself to churches, the difference between San Paolo[0] in Rome, Milan's Duomo[1] and Venice' San Marco[2] is pretty obvious, since they come from 3 cultures which were pretty different.

Do you need a book/guide to understand why they look like that? Sure, but I bet you can tell they are different.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_Saint_Paul_Outside...

[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/70/Mi...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mark%27s_Basilica#/media/Fi...


I looked at them and you missed my point, if I would wake up and look at any of these churches I would have no idea in what country I am, but I would guess it's somewhere in Europe, for instance the one you shown in Milan could be as well in Prague or in any German city, so as I said they use pretty much same, that bazilica from Venice could be as well Budapest, these are not distinctive styles you could distinguish unless you have particular interest

while if I would look at regular street in India with their temple, then look at temple in Thailand and then at some European church I could see the difference

nobody is saying you won't notice difference, but it's pointless because it won't help you placing you in specific country unless you have interest in old architecture styles


Here, in the Netherlands, towns get more similar. Mostly because all the shops are part of the same big chains, with the same cheap building style, and the same ways roads are upgraded. Cities all have their own history, so there is more variation there.


There's so much more to how a city feels than its architecture.

Though I do agree that the International Style is a bit overdone.


If you think about it, it's a weird consumerist way to think about buildings -- what's important about a building is why I, the tourist, thinks of it, and not the people who have to use it every day. Most people don't spend their time going from hotel to hotel not knowing where they are, so buildings aren't built to keep those people from being bored.


What is really consumerist about it is that it is the ultimate first world problem in treating minor inconveniences as grand oppression and demanding the world change how it operates alienated, smuggly alienated from the realities of production and calling themselves enlightened for it.

Get a disgruntled real estate developer with a few drinks in them to lower inhibitions and demand make less homogenous housing. Prepare for an earsplitting rant about every last detail they need to go through from economies of scale, cost of getting it, to building codes to zoning approval processes and meetings as they lack and the utter presumptious cluelessness of the demand from someone practically irrelevant to the whole process.


no it doesn't, I fail to see how is Prague same as Beijing vs KL vs New Delhi for instance unless you stay in CBD like author of this piece and I am pretty sure it would feel very different also in Africa


There are a lot of words in this article that are not really important to the argument so it takes awhile to get to the actual less link-bait conclusion.

TL;DR: architecture is another means of control and we shouldn’t let corporate architecture (headquarters) or current hegemonic / imperial designs take over the local uniqueness because it is acceptable but instead embrace local architecture. The article highlights some places under threat, and some good examples and ends with a plea to avoid blotting our our current desirable places that are unique with hegemonic buildings. [many many examples included]


To the degree that there is a certain sameness, at least in the US, the other thing that probably contributes is chain stores/restaurants. It's more pronounced in some places than others but both urban shopping malls and places on the street overlap a great deal from city to city.


Our needs as humans are mostly the same, as are our wants. Thus chains to fill the same needs the same way everywhere.


Obviously it's the internet.

But the internet also allows one to go deeper into cities.

So at the moment we are still breaking even.

In part poverty helps keep things different, this to is disappearing. The destruction of culture is an important part of progress.

This is seen as unfortunate for the viewers on the outside but swapping a ramshackle house that floods for a brick box that works and access to McDonald's is a godsend for the occupants. Pre internet it might have been a local burger joint.

Now the (physical) Irish pub delivered in a shipping container has gone to a (designed) shipping container Irish pub.


> The destruction of culture is an important part of progress.

You lost me here.

> This is seen as unfortunate for the viewers on the outside but swapping a ramshackle house that floods for a brick box that works and access to McDonald's is a godsend for the occupants.

Do some reading about all of the terrible things large fast food conglomerates have done to our food supply. Cheap food is easy to get in places like India -- rice and dahl for what would be pennies in USD -- and eradicating their culture via McDicks benefits no one.

> Now the (physical) Irish pub delivered in a shipping container has gone to a (designed) shipping container Irish pub.

This sounds like all of the worst parts of Irish drinking culture, inside a metal container, and without any of the things that make Irish pubs appealing, such as old crackpot sods who've sat at the same stool for ~20+ years.


> and eradicating their culture via McDicks benefits no one.

It's up to you, but when I stopped calling Microsoft M$ it allowed me to mature a little in the software world and be able to critically look at things. It sounds silly, but for me it worked.

https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6185/is-m-for-micro...


On the same note, why is every city council obsessed with attracting tourism? For whatever reason it's seen as the holy grail of industry.


They want job growth but building up a sustainable knowledge based service sector (and to a lesser degree) a skilled manufacturing sector is really hard. You need high quality universities, some mechanism to attract talented people, a thoughtful tax structure, multiple large companies willing to relocate for bootstrapping, infrastructure for startups, and an industry that isn't highly centralized around existing hubs (you're not going to be the biotech place when Boston and SF already are, for example).

Building up a tourism sector to generate jobs is trivial in comparison and it's a idea everyone can wrap their heads around without any specific domain knowledge.


The services industry is highly sought after in general. It is very labour dependant rather than industrial. With tourism, it cannot be off-shored. Plus, increased foot traffic brings vibrancy to the city. More arts and culture, parks, museums, restaurants, etc.


I would add that it’s also seemingly within the grasp of a city council. Economic hubs will naturally emerge for reasons outside the control of local government, and once established, local government can’t always succeed in sustaining them (eg Detroit) if the private industries there struggle.

There are counterexamples to this, but mainly as a result of national and not local policy (Shenzhen, Wolfsburg).

Another interesting example of an industry that local governments can influence is filmmaking. Georgia and Vancouver both have huge amounts of film and TV production due to local policies.


Naive economics: it's good for us when foreigners come here, give us money, and then leave.


Easy. Tourism generates sales tax revenue, keeps storefronts occupied and employs people.


"Amity is a summer town, we need summer dollars."


I guess people in Barcelona, Venice and Prague would disagree, this is really the best side effect of coronavirus despite the loss of income

I will rather have less frequent public transport to save money the whole city (center) occupied by tourists


Paris is best in July and August, when the locals leave.


It's relatively non-polluting and leads to growth in amenities that can also be enjoyed by locals.


Middle-class tourist travel is responsible for something like 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe you meant that it was locally non-polluting? That jet fuel and gasoline burning doesn't pollute the tourist destinations much more than everyplace else, although it pollutes more than almost anything else.

edit: changed 20% to 8%. Removed "IIRC."

https://www.carbonbrief.org/tourism-responsible-for-8-of-glo...


> That jet fuel and gasoline burning...

According to the article you linked:

> The rise is largely driven by an increased demand for goods and services – rather than air travel, the research finds.

But yes, as far as local job-creation goes, tourism is much more palatable than heavy industry. Would you rather live near charming shops and restaurants or a big factory?


Would you rather work in a charming shop or restaurant as a minimum wage service worker dealing with the public, or as a better-paid skilled worker in a big factory?


Doesn't matter to the city council. Homeowners pay property tax and vote in local elections. Wage labor commutes in to do whatever jobs they can get.


And without middle-class jobs, you don’t get any homeowners.


On the other hand it requires travel and is based on consumerist culture and selfie assertion “I was there”. We could go to the extreme and qualify it as a type of “appropriation” if we wanted because it’s ephemeral and not immersive.


I'm sorry, but can you try rewriting your comment? As a non-native english speaker it's very hard for me to understand what you're trying to imply here.


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