Few cities have changed as much as Nashville has over the past 20 years. A metro area of a mere two million people, it boasts more cranes than coastal metropolises like Boston, SF, and DC. Every day 84 people move into the city. Perennially America’s fastest-growing city, Nashville has transformed from a mid-sized Southern capital known for Dolly Parton, hot chicken, and country music into a national commercial hub.
Nashville’s Sunbelt mold is similar to cities like Raleigh and tends to contradict conventional urban planning wisdom. Walkability is minimal, traffic is dreadful, and the cost of living is considerably higher than in peer cities. Structures that inspire are few and far between. What were once farm fields or single-family residences are now a sea of yuppie-priced stucco structures.
Leafy Sunbelt cities like Nashville are missing their opportunity to cement growth in the future. Given America’s lagging population growth, metropolitan expansion has become a zero-sum game. Today, these cities gain as former Midwestern boomtowns shrink. Despite their newfound prosperity, the nouveau riche cities have largely failed to dream. In contrast, twentieth-century boomtowns gifted their residents of today with art collections, theatres, and infrastructure.
Twenty-first century cities will need to compete relentlessly for companies, talent, and people. Direct flights and trade routes matter less. With mobile workforces, the best long-term investment a city can make is in its livability.
Stucco and the Sunbelt Boom
Beyond the Sunbelt’s favorable tax rates and weather (debatable), what differentiates its cities is unclear. Walking a block in Uptown Nashville or Raleigh’s Glenwood is an interchangeable experience. There are a few wide boulevards flanked by chain bars, “luxury” apartment buildings, and multi-level parking garages. A few Carl-from-Pixar’s-Up-style houses and retail shops adjoin new towers. Inevitably, one senses, the historical block will merge with the glossy new neighborhood.
The majority of new, low-rise “luxury” apartment buildings are constructed using the stick framing method. Built similarly to a home with wood framing, the method can cut costs up to 40% and reduces construction complexity. To meet the “luxury” price tag, developers will then throw in a hotel-sized gym, a small pool, a few brick overlays, and a chic lobby. This form of construction yields quick returns for the developer yet little long-term value for the city.
In the short term, supply increases, the city has additional revenue, and everyone wins. Yet, unlike the city, structures have a lifespan. Given the cheap construction techniques, even with proper maintenance, these buildings will last no longer than 50 years. As seen in China, which has experienced its own construction boom, the ultimate figures tend to be even shorter. Those figures may feel far away. Yet, a city cannot be measured in years or decades.
What will happen to America’s hottest neighborhoods?
In two “luxury” apartment buildings I briefly lived in, structural issues were already evident. These buildings, constructed within the last decade, were semi-dilapidated with broken gates, closed pools, and shuttered balconies. Whether they last 50 years or 20 years (my guess), critical capital will be eventually needed to redevelop the property.
Unlike historic buildings, however, low-rise “luxury” apartments will probably not see the level of investment needed. They were built to be thrown away. As Charles Marohn Jr. and James Kunstler recognize, if a place could “be anywhere,” then it is “no-where”. By the time these units reach old age, the prosperous residents will have left, giving little reason not to tear them down.
The future can be told from the present in my hometown, Cincinnati. In a neighborhood where the residential stock was Italianate structures dating from the mid-nineteenth century, the development community found a reason to reinvest (see Over-the-Rhine). On the other hand, nearby neighborhoods developed in the spirit of Levittown are routinely left to waste.
Livability as the Vision
For a hyper-growth city, development is vital for matching supply and demand. However, many residents, city officials, and developers resort to myopic thinking. Developers may prefer the quick return-on-investment, whereas long-term residents hope to maintain their sleepy street. NIMBYism and Stuccoism succeed when U.S. city officials fail to have a long-term vision for their respective city.
Historically, governments and individuals recognized the value they could create by investing in the livability of their cities. From the City Beautiful movement in Chicago to Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, fast-growing cities recognized their potential to be iconic cultural centers and strove to become them. They prioritized lasting value over short-term savings. As the adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.
Cities in the sunbelt of the U.S. are at a similar juncture. Livability starts at the sidewalk level, and it’s doubtful that stucco neighborhoods will retain value into the future. Cities need to deemphasize this form of short-term growth or be outcompeted tomorrow. Here is plenty of evidence to suggest that a healthy, intermediate level of density makes for more community, better health, and happier people — livability does not entail Manhattan-level density. It involves creating distinctive environments that inspire and delight. Not every city can aspire to become Paris or Tokyo, but striving to be “nowheres” will prove a costly formula for America’s boomtowns.