Home is Where the Hub Is

Home is Where the Hub Is

The Long Now Blog summarizes New Scientist (behind a registration) Some ideas on Civilization 2.0 (or) New Scientist plays Benevolent Dictator (not the fabulous game by Syd Meier).

Mark Delucchi at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, envisions districts laid out concentrically around a central business hub which residents access on foot, by bicycle or with light vehicles like golf carts (see diagram). ‘We believe that one of the major things that keeps people out of these low-speed vehicles is that people don’t feel they function safely enough in a regular road system,’ he says. To avoid that, conventional cars and trucks would be segregated on separate roadways, perhaps at the outskirts of each district.
To make this layout practical, every resident would need to live within about 3 kilometres of a hub, Delucchi estimates, giving each district a population of about 50,000 to 100,000, while maintaining a pleasant living environment of low-rise buildings. Each hub could then link to other hubs through a mass transit system, allowing people easy access to other districts for work, and to the attractions of a larger city. A few cities, such as Milton Keynes in the UK and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, already use some of these principles.

I like the idea conceptually, it reminds me of lots of planning schemas from the 1960s and earlier (Radburn, Ebenezer Howard) (like Zombie Economics, we have Zombie Planning), including the early plans for Columbia, Maryland but I have been to Milton Keynes , and this idea is nothing like Milton Keynes (which has the world’s longest shopping mall) (or Columbia, whose mall is no slouch) because the density too low. There are not 50,000 people within 3 km of the center in 1960s planned communities. I would also note that low-rise means ‘not high-rise’, it does not mean single-family in this concept.

The more important question is how do you get from here to there without dictatorship. That is, what set of rules of the game will lead to this possibly socially optimal outcomes. Clearly current regulations, policies, prices, ownership structures do not. Would large-scale land/transportation capitalists build such cities (the modern Jim Rouse or Del Webb or Robert E Simon)? If so, when and where? We have seen difficulties both with central planning and with capitalism in achieving productive ends, but there must be some mechanism to coordinate human behavior at the metropolitan level to align interests. I do not think full cost pricing is sufficient. While that internalizes negative environmental externalities, it does not internalize lack of positive agglomeration economies.

3 thoughts on “Home is Where the Hub Is

  1. One key to “walkability”, or making people actually want to walk, is short blocks. If I’m reading this diagram correctly, some of these blocks would be 1 km long or more. There also seem to be far too few connections to the “town centre”. Will there be massive traffic jams on these five roads? The concept seems very similar to the Clarence Perry “neighborhood unit” model, although on a much larger scale and designed for robots, rather than people.


  2. Is the problem with the proposal consumer preferences?
    The problem I see with Mark Delucchi proposal is that it is not incremental and that its intended for greenfield development.
    From my experience the housing market seems bifurcated. There are some people willing to pay site rent (accept a smaller home, tolerate poorer performing public schools) in exchange for closer proximity to work, shopping and restaurants. But that market is probably going to gravitate to existing neighborhoods in the city core or perhaps to inner suburbs. At the same time, there are people who will live further from work in exchange to access to bigger homes and better performing public schools.
    The people who will tolerate high density living are going to favor the existing core city or inner suburb over this proposal and the people who are willing to trade off longer commute for bigger home and better school aren’t going to find what they are looking for in Mark Delucchi’s proposal either.
    The other thing I wonder about is just how big is the market for high density living?
    Look at the map below of changes in population density for Chicago in the period between 2000 and 2010. In the loop the population clearly increased between 2000 and 2010. So clearly there is some market for high density living. On the other hand, outside of the loop, large parts of the rest of the city which are still built at fairly high density levels compared to the rest of the country and the rest of the region, yet they continued to lose population.
    If there was a lot of unmet demand for high density living, shouldn’t we see a movement of people back to these other high density neighborhoods?


  3. @Mike Part of the problem with using demand under existing prices as a metric as that today’s prices for both land and transportation involve subsidies (e.g. lack of internalization of negative externalities). Internalizing externalities would change prices. Demand would change if prices change. How much is the unknown. The other thing to consider as that old high density developments combine two features, high density and old construction. Old construction is generally a disamenity (assuming it is not historic).


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