Argument: boost America’s foreign policy by promoting walkable communities at home

Patrick Doherty argues that promoting and developing walkable urbanism at home can boost American foreign policy abroad:

This is the lesson, Doherty says, we should take from that era: “The real key to American strategic success in the 20th century – both during World War II and the Cold War – was not the military stuff. The key was that we understood how to let our economic engine do the heavy lifting.”

It’s clear today, though, that suburbia can no longer do this for us. The children of baby boomers are less interested in living their parents’ lifestyle. And baby boomers themselves are increasingly rejecting it, wary of a choice between isolated houses and nursing homes. If anything, the development model of suburbia now seems to be weakening our economy instead of propping it up. Without eternal new development, the infrastructure costs of existing subdivisions are becoming clearer. And as demand shifts back toward urban centers, we’re left with a dramatic oversupply of another era’s housing (which we continued to build long after the Cold War ended).

So what replaces suburbia as the engine of our economy?

“There’s no good growth story,” Doherty says. Or, at least, that’s how many investors and CFOs feel. But he believes an answer does exist among findings we’ve covered before from real estate theorist Christopher Leinberger: it’s in the rising demand for walkable urbanism.

The connection between foreign policy and suburban development is a fascinating one: economic strength, driven in the past by suburban growth and possibly in the future by walkable development, leads to a stronger foreign policy posture. But, this summary doesn’t connect the dots enough for me. Is there enough demand to make a big switch from suburbs to walkable urbanism? Where will the money come from – as the article notes, the suburbs were subsidized with federal dollars so will walkable urbanism receive similar funding? Given the demand and the money, would all of this be enough to drive the American economy in a new direction? It sounds like Doherty would argue walkable urbanism provides some bonuses compared to other kinds of development (can reduce dependence on oil, it is greener, etc.) but wouldn’t any big trend in development help the American economy and foreign policy?

I’m thinking this could also be an updated critique of the American suburbs: not only are they bad for residents but they hurt American foreign policy. Going further, if we continue with suburban development, America will decline relative to other countries.

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