How I Became an Urbanist

In the early 1980s when I was a newspaper reporter for the Milford Cabinet (oldest continuously published weekly paper in the US) I watched a number of small towns in southern New Hampshire kill themselves. That’s not what they thought they were doing, but that was the effect. The real estate market was hot, people were pouring over the border from Massachusetts looking for a tax haven in New Hampshire, and small towns panicked.

We don’t want to be Salem, they said, oh, gawd, don’t let us become Nashua, they said. We want to stay just the way we are, they said.

So what they did was enact zoning with minimum lot sizes of one acre or three acres or five acres depending on exactly where in town the lot was located. Seems logical, right? If you need an acre of land, minimum, to build a house then there are only so many houses that can be built.

You know what this really meant: a town that did this instantly rendered the most valuable and beloved part of town non-conforming. Not only non-conforming, but unable to be replicated anywhere else in town, or even to grow incrementally where it was. You cannot build a village or a small town if every house has to have an acre of land around it; with those minimums you can only build suburban sprawl. Suburban sprawl is what happened.

The immediate result was that anyone who lived in town and who wanted to build a garage on their 10,000 square foot parcel (now non-conforming) had to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment and plead their case. If they were lucky they had reasonable neighbors who supported their right to build a garage. If they were not lucky they had neighbors who went in to the ZBA and represented that the construction of a garage on a 10,000 square foot parcel would lead to the destruction of all that was good and holy.

That was bad enough. Worse was that in a village or town that historically had 5000 square foot lots no new lots could be created. Lots of towns had village centers with a mix of lot sizes and the logical thing would have been to allow the larger lots to be subdivided. This would have put more people within walking distance of the library and the village store and the post office and, in really lucky towns, the elementary school. People like living where they can walk and see their neighbors, and the people who were lucky enough to have a house in the village got to see their house value go steadily up because they lived in the village.

Those rising house prices in the village convinced people who owned those houses that the village was somehow magical and that nothing about the village could ever be changed for fear that the magic would be destroyed. The nothing that could ever be changed included the zoning, never mind that the zoning actually prevented the village.

So, in a effort to preserve what they had townspeople made what they loved best illegal and made what they said didn’t want, suburban sprawl, the only choice.

And that’s the moment I became an urbanist.