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Is it possible to build moderate-income aspirational housing in CA?

When raised between different cultures and places, our experiences make us who we are, allowing us to see the world in its subjective multiplicity. This view contrasts with those held by people who experience unidimensional upbringings and are mainly attached to one culture and type of place.

The meaning of “home” and “belonging” is ambivalent, and both relativism and nationalism have their dangers. At *faircompanies, we’re interested in exploring the fundamentals of what makes a great home, what creates successful, thriving communities, and whether there’s a common denominator in successful urban templates.

Further away, hotter, more affordable. Mountain House, San Joaquin County, just outside the Bay Area, California. This 30,000 people town in the San Joaquin Valley didn’t exist 20 years ago

When exploring the meaning of home and belonging, we’ve often felt at “home” when traveling or felt a more transient instability when forces like nationalism urged us to take sides.

We’ve come to believe that great places aren’t only successful in the ways they accomplish livability, charm, well-being, and an organic sense of community; they also rely on the energy and drive of their inhabitants and “civil”—a word that shares the same Latin root as “civitas”: a city and its inhabitants, or “community”—leaders. Interesting places are often contradictory and feel vibrant, even messy at times, but they are tolerant and respect people scrupulously.

The great places nobody pays attention to

Paradoxically, places that accomplish excellent living standards and allow their inhabitants to live fulfilling, often long lives, aren’t usually the contemporary poster child of prosperity, and despite having high living standards, they aren’t usually among the highest.

Consider, for example, Euromediterranean medium-to-small cities, from Pontevedra or A Coruña, the Galician towns in the Northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, to Oviedo, Santander, Palma de Majorca, Valencia, Montpelier, Nîmes, Turin, Bologna, Siena. These places are hardly considered international destinations, and their relative anonymity plays perhaps in their favor, keeping rents and home prices attainable by locals. They are modest paradises on earth.

Such small cities tend to have a gentle climate, sharing a humane allure that blends urban anonymity and high-quality, long-established shops serving a loyal clientele. Unlike in more cosmopolitan, tourist-driven cities of the region, their inhabitants often dress somehow more formally and bear the intersubjective responsibility of carrying on with their tranquil (though often modern and busy, a global byproduct of our times) attitude when they spend time walking, sitting at a café, or just going about like your typical provincial flanêur.

Quality of life isn’t only about high incomes, successful professional careers, big and car-centric homes and environments, a hectic life, and desirable social markers of wealth and prestige. Good old urbanity is challenging to replicate because it doesn’t only take the physical side of urbanism and the way private and public spaces intermingle or the way people and goods move around but also relies on the intangibility of a climate, a culture, a way of looking into the world and, say, sitting at a table to eat something healthy consistently versus more contemporary attitudes toward getting through one’s day.

Can affordable good urbanism be replicated in hypercompetitive areas?

However, most of the mentioned places aren’t first choices for opinion pundits, so-called influencers, or educated immigrants willing to seek prosperity and a better life elsewhere; for the same reasons, they don’t face hyper-competition nor expensive, overcrowded private and public services; quite the contrary, they are usually experiencing subtle though steady stagnation.

Some of them, though, are even leading in fields like urban regeneration and walkability. Pontevedra’s center, big compared to the city size as a whole, is completely walkable, a paradise for flanêurs interested in stone buildings and amiable tranquil respites as if one were about to stumble upon the Galician dandy and bohemian writer from the Spanish Generation of 98 Ramón María del Valle-Inclán. (Disclosure: I do like Valle-Inclán, and half of my ancestors come from the area). Other “stagnating” cities from the region, like Santander, in the tiny Northern region of Cantabria west of Basque Country, have been portrayed as pioneers of a technological urban transition that makes sense, is affordable to taxpayers and doesn’t scare anyone.

Click on the image to participate in the survey (via Kirsten’s YT channel)

Despite being prosperous, they would falter in Mercer and Economist Intelligence Unit rankings of livability or “best places to live.” And, perhaps, their lack of marketable coolness keeps them relatively calm and affordable while still profiting from all the benefits—in education levels, overall well-being, and social stability—that high-functioning urban areas have.

What are the things these places do well, or outstandingly, versus others, often with little or no investment? And: can these environmental and cultural advantages be replicated elsewhere? Though highly livable, relatively affordable cities in Southwestern Europe benefit from heritage and the “gentle stagnation” brought up by homogeneous, predictable, low-crime areas, as if they bore a hidden social contract of mutual trust.

The difficult-to-replicate places everybody likes to visit

I’ve usually compared the feeling I get from visiting these places from the point of view of my experience when doing something in any of the usual suspects in Mercer’s Quality of living city ranking. Vienna, Zürich, Vancouver, Munich, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, and Geneva appear consistently in the top 10, with Stockholm, Oslo, and other Nordic cities also making the list or remaining close to the top.

Except for Vienna, a city that managed through meaningful policies to blend housing affordability with most of the benefits and few of the caveats of Central Europe’s cities, such cities lack the weather, affordability, and attainable well-being that Euromediterranean cities pull off effortlessly. Living standards and life expectancy in any small-to-mid-sized European town (from 50K to 499K residents) can be compared to standards in any Mercer quality of living champions (and yes, life expectancy will be higher, whereas food can be much better).

The urban continuum from Belgium to Denmark packs quite a few successful urban experiments from the European Renaissance (Bruges, Ütrech) but also examples of livable vernacular, baroque, classical, and modern architecture: heavily bombed in World War II, Rotterdam forcibly reimagined itself, blending utilitarian technology (arguably the most advanced water management system in the world applied at a big scale, with flawless maintenance) and modern architecture with respect for public transportation, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

Despite their rainy, overcast weather, cities in the Low Countries and Denmark have preserved and expanded public spaces connected to commercial areas by dedicated bike paths.

Things that work had to be created and run over time

There are entire YouTube channels and podcasts marketed to the American public that offer a detailed glimpse at Dutch urbanism; the mania runs deep in enthusiasts of such urban models, blending the charming urban density of usually old and memorable low-rise apartment buildings and relatively narrow, tree-lined streets, with mixed-use, café and bistro/restaurant culture, and pervasive bike use. Amsterdam, Utrecht, or Copenhagen portray a bike-and-pedestrian-centered reality that urbanism pundits like to contrast with car-centric America.

It’s less known that the bike success in The Netherlands was fostered through targeted, aggressive urban policies aimed at reducing urban pollution and countering the 1973 oil crisis economic shock (in a country dealing with lobbying from the giant Royal Dutch Shell, formerly headquartered in The Hague).

The bike-friendly college town of Davis, California

Unlike the stagnant Euromediterranean “dolce vita” urban model—one that lives off old charm and a social contract that, despite complaints, guarantees social cohesion through excellent public services—, Northern European cities combine the world’s highest safety levels with any possible appealing indicator highlighted in studies like Mercer’s quality of living city ranking.

Overall, naysayers consider the model from such cities in Northern Europe or the Euromediterranean unexportable to the US, citing fundamental differences between urban experiments on both sides of the Atlantic, like low-crime rates and high trust levels.

The reality is more complex. North America also displays a wide array of small-to-mid-sized gentle cities, from college towns around the US to old “heritage” suburbs in several States surrounding Washington DC, to the Western outdoorsy havens consistently portrayed by Outside Magazine and others as the most livable towns and cities in America.

Visiting US almost-walkable cities

However, Western mountain towns experience the evolution of Boulder, Colorado: when their appeal transcends their immediate region, attracting people nationally, they quickly become unaffordable, lacking entry-level and moderate-income housing for young and disadvantaged newcomers while pushing their most fragile inhabitants out.

Durango (Colorado), Taos (New Mexico), Chattanooga (Tennessee), Missoula and Bozeman (Montana), Asheville (North Carolina), or Bend (Oregon) share the same curse: success begets wealthier newcomers from cities willing to pay more for the same, transforming the economy and character of areas that learned how to create a vernacular quality of living.

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the trend of telework and outdoor cravings, and small cities surrounded by unique sceneries and access to activities such as skiing, mountain biking, and national parks became some of the most expensive places to live in the US (and the world). An extreme, if picturesque, case in point is Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Unlike most European and Asian cities, American ones weren’t built on top of custom and heritage and hence are deserted as soon as a noticeable setback signals their downfall trend, starting what experts call a spiral of death (sometimes in an exaggerated way: deeming San Francisco as a city in a “death spiral” is a long stretch and doesn’t check with reality despite the much-touted city’s dysfunctionalities).

Tarragona, a Roman city in Catalonia, Spain

Flint (MI), Detroit (IL), Buffalo (NY), Toledo (OH), or even Stockton (CA) have faced much bigger systemic problems in the last decades, closely related to the phenomenon of hollowed-out cities facing higher crime rates and pervasive failures in housing, services, and infrastructures (depending on taxes), from road maintenance to drinking water.

On the opposite trend other small-to-mid-sized cities in the US have dealt with the opposite trend: as they turn into magnets for urban professionals, they experience acute affordability crises and deal with a burdening transition to accommodate newcomers while often losing the least privileged locals, unable to afford their hometowns anymore.

The huge downside of exurbia

Since World War II, urban zoning in the US has privileged car use, disincentivizing mixed-use urban centers, hollowed out by parking mandates, and promoting single-family suburbs connected to downtowns through divisive, ever-expanding belts, overpasses, and highways.

But that’s not the whole story: those reassured that bike-friendly towns could not reach use and safety levels only seen in Northern Europe haven’t visited Davis, California (population 66,799 as in 2021, plus college temporary residents), a neighborly town in Central Valley near Sacramento combining pleasant mixed-use architecture and livable, tree-lined streets with parks, a charming arboretum, and a pervasive, heavily used bicycle network.

As for those believing that there’s no salvageable tradition of successful walkable urbanism blueprints, they probably didn’t have the opportunity to visit some US South old towns with big, well-maintained colonial centers in which inhabitants and visitors experience their own version of the good life and have little to envy from European flâneurs: Charleston (SC), Asheville (NC), St. Augustine (FL, oldest permanently-inhabited European-settled town in North America), Athens (GA), or the charming (albeit humid) Savannah (GA), perhaps the place in North America in which I’ve felt most welcomed by the enchantment of urban patina.

Such cities maintain dense urban centers, though they soon descend into the greyscale of single-use American suburbia (single-family homes, commercial strips, and car-centric infrastructures), hence giving the impression they are well-maintained byproducts of a long-gone era. Are they replicable? If they are, why aren’t some of their advantages (obvious to anybody walking around within them) replicated throughout North America?

In Europe, this humane urbanism has been a default in denser areas. However, single-family zoning is also a reality in places like France, first promoted (as a living standards improvement borrowed from the US) by “modern” president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who liked to drive himself from the Élysée—official residence—to the Parliament in central Paris aboard a Citroën DS (those were also the days of nuclear energy and the Concorde joint project with the UK, proving the European comeback).

The magic of the “City Fun Index”

To some, the best places to live aren’t the first choice in reputed quality of living rankings or influencer wishlists. When some time ago, US-based Serbian economist Branko Milanovic shared on social media his perspective about the sweet spots of livability (places with the best living standards for most of their inhabitants), he highlighted a paradox: these places of pervasive good living standards are not far away from stereotypes regarding the “dolce far niente.”

Milanovic joked with his friends about his “city fun index,” a ranking created by the World Bank economist that makes a lot of sense. Such places combine a few key patterns:

  1. Generally wealthy, low poverty.
  2. Low inequality and small differences in social status.
  3. Nice weather.
  4. All kinds of tolerance and no discrimination.
  5. Frequent changes in government.
  6. Frequent intellectual scandals.
  7. Lots of restaurants and good nightlife (theater, movies).
  8. Very good broadband internet.
  9. Accessible alcohol, mild drugs and other light vices.
  10. Sight decadence floating in the air.

They are small to medium towns in functional to moderately-dysfunctional areas of Mediterranean Western Europe, where living and social standards are solid, architecture has created patchworks of new-old enchantment, and culture around food, live-work balance, or the humanities is superb. Milanovic traced an imaginary circle of this “medium cost” paradise achievable for the middle classes encompassing Northern Italy, the Alps around Central Europe and France, and a tip of Spain.

Heck, some of such cities—he explained—weren’t even dysfunctional; they were clean, safe, modern, and attractive. He had recently visited Barcelona, and there wasn’t Mediterranean-style messy dysfunction in the places where middle-class Barcelonians live. It’s the same for a bunch of other cities, from Valencia to Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, Turin, Basel, you name it. Some of such places are even affordable to different degrees:

“I just realized that Barcelona hews quite closely to my index of best cities. (No 10 is v important too). I can tell you this index is much better than the index that produces very boring cities as the best places in the world to live.”

But, to make Milanovic point, Barcelona is perhaps too big and successful, competitive, and known to maintain both its quality of life and affordability; in fact, it hasn’t been relatively affordable for a long time compared to other major European cities. In contrast, a good wealth of smaller towns that share most of the charm and few of the hassles of the Catalan capital, like smaller Valencia or even Palma, offer rents and a cost of living that represent a fraction of an equivalent life in the most expensive cities making ranking lists.

Clogged arteries, extremities’ hypertrophia

Branko Milanovic was obviously generalizing, and experts in econometrics are as aware as others, if not more, about the dangers of portraying idealized realities you want to contrast with, say, the costs of living in a homogenized, soulless suburban community that relies on a car-centric living experience issued from single-use zoning patterns.

This blueprint, the most successful in the US (but not only here) in the last decades, applies homogeneous, unhealthy housing templates that not only get the funding and homebuyers behind but have been exported as living ideals to China and other emerging economies.

Rambla in Palma de Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain

Those willing to find new routes in urbanism are always caught in a catch-22 problem: the most vibrant and successful areas grow more expensive over time, their housing markets becoming more sclerotic and scrambling—at best—to accommodate the most urgent demands. Metros like New York City’s, the San Francisco Bay Area, or Greater Los Angeles show some of the consequences of such relative hypertrophy, where the only goal seems to be building more “inventory.”

Nobody seems to be concerned about not only more and more affordable housing (new developments capable of keeping middle-income people in places getting more expensive and pricing people out) but about middle-income housing developments that aspire to foster the quality of life and aspirational standards that such areas could achieve but fall short on.

How about using vernacular styles that blend in the places they are built? Could these new places promote mixed-use zones, allowing for walking, biking, and shared use of the commons while capable of doing errands close by from home, work, schools, and activities? Why can’t such places work like successful middle towns in Japan or Europe, where townhouses are next to appealing low-rise apartment buildings, and some areas allow for single-family homes, all fitting together organically and harmoniously?

Bad regulations shape sub-par realities

It’s been decades since towns—with the help of community leaders, urbanists, architects, and developers—tried to experiment boldly with a paradise on earth for middle-income young professionals. We have heard about the suburban aspirations of Frank Lloyd Wright, and also about the fresh takes on walkability, vibrancy, and mixed-use allowing for healthy serendipity that Jane Jacobs advocated.

But, unlike in prosperous, iconic European cities that created the modern templates of urbanism, from Haussmann’s Paris to Cerdà’s Barcelona, a post-WWII car-centric ideal of freedom and societal tensions (Vietnam protests, civil rights unrest, industrial decline side by side with “white flight” from urban centers) tilted the aspirations of American middle classes to the suburban single-family housing dream first, then to its banalization through the cheaper, stranded, unhealthier non-places of the gigantic exurbia.

Steve Jobs liked to explain that he grew up in a working-to-middle-class prefabricated Eichler home in Palo Alto, an example of modernist architecture for the mass market in a place that, back then, was attainable for young middle-class families. But the model allowed for the suburban dream of the few who reached proximity areas of appealing cities before they became too expensive due, in part, to their success, but also because of failed policies and good-intended legislation that generated perverse incentives.

A case in point is California’s Proposition 13, originally aiming at protecting middle-income families from potential destitution as housing prices increased, then slowing suburban dynamism by allowing people to sit on properties paying decades-old housing taxes.

Real innovation seems to avoid the real estate market despite housing being the obsession and the most important investment families make. California’s housing issues helped create the necessary momentum to legalize ADUs (accessory dwelling units, backyard homes, also known as “granny” units) in single-family-use homes by requiring a conventional, easy-to-acquire building permit, a legislation that overrides most local zoning hurdles on secondary units.

Building better communities

The proposed easy and relative densification of single-family use suburban areas by legalizing ADUs has gained a coveted and low-profile bipartisan support because of the benefits it generates: to owners, who increase their properties’ value with more square feet in their titles they can keep for their families or rent to third parties; to towns, which retain their much-touted character and increase revenues; and to entry-level renters (relatives in difficulties, students, bachelors, the elderly). Who wants to go against a win-win?

Commentators of the affordability crisis in places like California prefer to see current challenges (homelessness, median home prices unattainable for young professionals) as obvious signs of decay of the California Dream, contrasting the current challenges with one idealized, rosy past of “spacious and affordable homes” for the post-war suburban class.

Walkable center in Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Conor Dougherty, author of Golden Gates, idealizes the car-centric culture of the original suburbia that ultimately evolved into a more expensive, less livable California in which apartments and even townhomes are perceived as downgraded, sub-par housing options for those who can’t afford a home. It is not much different from using a suburban idealized past as one of the most successful talking points of identitarian politics in the last years.

I recently held an interesting conversation with a development expert from the San Francisco Bay Area, frustrated with the lack of a feasible middle ground (not conventional affordable housing in the context of Section 8 assisting low-income families, nor the current market rates in the area either) to build attractive, livable, healthy homes for moderate-income families.

But challenging the status quo to “build housing communities that inspire a deeper connection between people and nature” at prices that “moderate-income” people in the Bay Area could afford is no easy task and hasn’t been done in the new century. He is willing to explore ways of building mixed-use places that are community-oriented, blend with nature as only destination communities do, and combine different types of housing like successful towns across the world do.

Day in the life of San Joaquin Valley commuters

To comprehend how conceptually rigid car-centric zonification grew in post-WWII America, one has to consider that human-centric concepts, from the so-called “pocket communities” to town-like developments like Arizona’s Culdesac, are deemed radical or even out of touch with the reality of suburban life as we know it.

Yet naysayers stating the unamerican-ness of such densification ideas will unapologetically praise their days strolling around town when visiting Savannah, Charlotte, or any random Euromediterranean town where they see people walking and chatting under the shadow of nice trees lined along some low-rise mixed-use buildings they want to avoid at home at any cost.

During our conversation, my interlocutor expressed frustration with the lack of alternatives beyond market-rate or subsidized housing, which pushes the construction rationale to maximize outcomes, which disincentivizes, in his opinion, better-built developments offering vernacular designs, eco-friendly materials, and resilient features for mobility, gardening, energy, or waste management.

Is there a way to prove to the naysayers that there’s, in fact, a way to build better and more affordable homes near the places they work and want to keep living?

Descending Altamont Pass, not far from Mount Diablo

John King writes an interesting article for the San Francisco Chronicle on Mountain House, a California “city” that started from scratch in the San Joaquin Valley about 20 years ago. The place exemplifies the other side of how the Bay Area became a victim of its own global success. Mountain House was supposed to grow in harmony with its surroundings, yet this is not what one experiences when visiting the place:

“Most Bay Area residents only know Mountain House by what they glimpse when descending Altamont Pass into the San Joaquin Valley: row after row of close-packed houses stretching north from Interstate 205.”

When it was being built, there were “assurances that this would blossom as a self-contained place with housing and jobs in holistic harmony,” albeit all one can see is “blocks of faux-historic houses clustered around community parks and elementary schools.” To some extent—John King—recalls, Mountain House is a success: Residents working in the Bay Area unable to buy there flew to this relatively affordable place.

Today, nearly 30,000 people reside “on former alfalfa and corn fields 45 miles east of Oakland, flanked by wind turbines on the ridges climbing up to Mount Diablo.” Nobody seems to complain much that there’s no vegetation protecting the development, and only modern HVAC systems working at total capacity will keep such homes cool on hot summer days.

“More than anything else, the saga of Mountain House shows that even when so-called new cities are successful, they rarely live up to the promises made at the start. With roughly 30,000 residents but only 1,500 jobs as of this summer, what was billed as ‘the town of tomorrow … today’ looks a lot like yesterday’s sprawl.”

How come realities like Mountain House come to fruition and find success in the market while nobody tries to erect a truly vernacular, denser, more walkable “town” able to fully take advantage of the enviable Mediterranean weather of coastal California? Can’t be done? Somebody ought to try first before falling for the discourse of naysayers.