Letter: What real pragmatists say about infill development

Graphic by Lori Deaton

The most interesting sentence in Bill Branyon’s entertaining but misguided opinion piece [“Look Homeward, Asheville: Let’s Make the City’s Pop-up Parks Permanent,” May 29, Xpress] reads as follows: “But wait! I can almost hear the groans from pragmatic Ashevilleans expressing that we must have more affordable housing and that this involves cramming infill development into as many urban green spaces as possible.” At the risk of intruding on Bill’s reverie, let me make a few minor corrections.

First, I doubt many people would consider it an insult to be called “pragmatic,” even in Asheville.

Second, pragmatists do not groan. They think.

Third, pragmatists tend to express themselves in terms more precise than the grunt Bill attributes to them.

There are many pragmatists who (correctly) perceive a need for more affordable housing — in Asheville and just about everywhere else. Even ideologues and impractical dreamers do that. But I have never heard anyone insist on “cramming infill development into as many green spaces as possible.” I’d like to see that quotation in verbatim form.

What the pragmatists I know want to see is the removal of unnecessary barriers to infill development so as to rationally encourage more multifamily housing, especially in locations where walking, cycling and public transportation reduce car dependency.

That policy is good for the climate because it is more energy-efficient. It’s good for affordable housing because multifamily dwellings are cheaper and because the reduction of a shortage has been known to have a pleasant effect on prices. It’s good for community harmony because denser development attacks the legacy of racial segregation caused by single-family zoning. And, when done properly, infill development is compatible with the existence of public parks and the preservation of leafy neighborhoods.

I wish Bill would stop listening to the pragmatists in his head and starting paying attention to the real ones in his community — some of whom may know more about land-use policy than he does.

— Peter Robbins


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11 thoughts on “Letter: What real pragmatists say about infill development

  1. WNC

    Do real pragmatists live where they’re surrounded on 4-5 sides by neighboring units that are adjoined to their unit or just offer instructions to others?
    Do real pragmatists live where they accomplice life’s needs from a bike or just make suggestions to others?
    If denser units are good for community harmony the projects must have a lot of community harmony. Do you want to live there?
    So are you a pragmatists?

  2. Peter Robbins

    Thank you for these thought-provoking comments and please excuse the tardiness of my replies. I was on holiday overseas when Xpress published my little essay, and I was unaware until now that it had set off such a firestorm of urgent concerns in the minds of both my readers.

    I have taken the liberty of breaking my answers into bite-sized pieces so as not to overload the Xpress website.

  3. Peter Robbins

    Taking the comments in reverse order, I will begin by addressing the thoughts of the individual who calls himself/herself/themselves “indy499.” This person dodged the merits of my argument and simply asked, “Checking in from marshall?” The implication is that a person who lives in rural Madison County must have some kinda nerve – some kinda nerve, I tells ya! — offering opinions about land-use issues in urban Asheville.

    I understand this sentiment completely. The city is not my turf, and Asheville’s traditional culture has always looked with fear and suspicion upon store-bought notions imported from the outside world. We foreigners must always be mindful of regional sensitivities, no matter how strange they may seem to us.

    But even in distant Madison County, people have a direct self-interest in the subject of suburban sprawl – not to mention a healthy curiosity about more general topics like climate change, affordable housing and racial justice. So, condolences but no apologies to any local yokels who found my “checking in” to be excessively presumptuous.

  4. Peter Robbins

    The remainder of my responses will be directed to the comments of someone who goes by the initials “WNC.” Out of respect for the author, I will try to quote his questions in the original vernacular.

    To begin with, let me emphasize that I am not trying to “offer instructions to others” about how to run their lives. That’s their business. I am giving instructions to Asheville about how to run its government – namely, by relaxing regulatory barriers, such as single-family zoning, that discourage more diverse housing choices and frustrate the opportunity of ordinary people, especially folks of modest means, to have a fair shot at realizing their dreams.

    Although reasonable minds may differ, I think that it’s wrong for government to use its considerable powers to crush human aspirations, especially for the dubious purpose of protecting the privileges of a peevish landed elite. I know the idea is controversial, but I believe public policy should enable, to the extent consistent with general welfare, the freedom of the individual to create his or her own destiny.

  5. Peter Robbins

    I will first address WNC’s inquiry as to whether “real pragmatists live where they accomplice life’s needs [sic] from a bike or just make suggestions to others.” The short answer is that despite my rustic surroundings, I live in personal circumstances where I don’t actually need to do more than walk a short distance to satisfy everyday needs. More on that later.

    For the moment, let me just say that there’s nothing contradictory in my preference for an energy-efficient lifestyle and my choosing to live in rural Madison County. But I have to admit that WNC’s argument to the contrary does begin, like any good con game, with a kernel of truth.

    Generally speaking, urban living is better for the environment than rural living (suburban living is the worst) because city living is more energy efficient. This analysis assumes that the typical rural dweller relies on energy derived from fossil fuels for household needs and that he uses a gas-powered vehicle to drive longer distances for everyday needs. Because of these factors, the typical rural dweller, even though surrounded by greenery, is doing more damage to the environment, on average, than the typical city dweller. That’s a fact. Look it up.

    But it’s also just a generalization. The exception, as they say, often proves the rule, and I am nothing if not exceptional.

  6. Peter Robbins

    When my wife and I retired to this area and built our house, we deliberately kept it small, employed passive solar design features to take advantage of southern exposure, and included other energy-efficient features to reduce our carbon footprint. We also invested heavily in solar panels, far more than most people would. As a result, almost all our household and transportation needs are powered naturally by the sun without resort to burning carbon.

    I cannot, of course, expect WNC to know this merely because I told him all about it two years ago on another Mountain Xpress comment thread.

    What he also may not know is that I’ve cleverly arranged my affairs so that I never need to drive for routine personal reasons, even in my eco-friendly car. Impossible, you say? Nonsense. I achieved this surprising result simply by volunteering to deliver meals four days a week to elderly shut-ins.

  7. Peter Robbins

    For obvious reasons, the only feasible way to deliver meals in rural Madison County is by vehicle. Since I drive an electric car, the environmental downside occasioned by my participation in this program is limited to the incidental damage entailed in the manufacture and disposal of batteries. Moreover, if I quit my deliveries in Madison County and moved to Asheville, another volunteer would just have to take over and perform the necessary driving. So, my driving routine cannot be charged to my personal carbon account at all. It is effectively a form of public transportation furnished at no cost to the county.

    By a happy coincidence, my delivery route takes me back and forth through downtown Marshall, allowing me to carry out personal missions without any additional driving. I simply stop the car and walk to the various markets, drug stores, restaurants, etc., that I patronize regularly. As such, I live a lifestyle identical to the Asheville twenty-something who lives in-town and walks, rides a bike or takes public transit (and an electric bus at that) practically everywhere she goes.

    Talk about pragmatic ingenuity! I don’t mind giving myself a hand for that.

  8. Peter Robbins

    But let’s say, arguendo, that WNC is right and that I am a complete hypocrite and a false prophet of pragmatism. So what? What would that prove? Failing to live up to one’s ideals is a bad thing only if the betrayed ideals themselves are a good thing. If the ideals are bad, failure to follow through is laudatory. Hence the adage about hypocrisy being a tribute that vice pays to virtue.

    For WNC to be right about my supposed hypocrisy, then, he must be wrong about the merits of my argument in favor of urban density. And if carrying the day on the substantive point requires me to feign a little insincere embarrassment in front of an audience that doesn’t really care, I’m willing to make the sacrifice. It would be churlish of me to deny a pyrrhic victory to one who has worked so hard to earn it.

  9. Peter Robbins

    I will next address the question as to whether “real pragmatists live where they’re surrounded on 4-5 sides by neighboring units that are adjoined to their unit or just offer instructions to others.” Actually, six dwellings adjoin my property. But what I think WNC is trying to ask is why I don’t live in multi-family housing if I think it’s such a good idea for Asheville to have more multi-family housing.

    The answer is that I know multi-family housing is a good idea because I’ve been there. Ever since I went to college and for my entire working life, in both mid-size cities and large metropolises, I have always resided in either an apartment, a group house, a row house or a triplex. Until I came to Marshall, I had never lived in a single-family dwelling. I found all of those other experiences quite enjoyable, and I never needed a car to get around. Ever.

    Before moving to the area, I did look for comparable housing in Asheville but found nothing suitable. Maybe if zoning had allowed for more condos back then, I might be living in Asheville today.

  10. Peter Robbins

    Finally, WNC asks: “If denser units are good for community harmony the projects must have a lot of community harmony. Do you want to live there?”

    The answer is sure. I don’t know much about Asheville’s public housing, but my food-delivery route takes me to public housing in Marshall, so I know exactly what living there is like. The apartments are small but comfortable. The residents are delightful. The neighborhood is safe. And the location of one of the apartment buildings is terrific – right across the street from the fanciest restaurant in town.

    If I qualified financially, I would be proud to live there. The density of apartment buildings is not an insurmountable impediment to quality of life. Not in Marshall and not in Asheville.

    “So,” WNC triumphantly concludes in his inimitable style, “are you a pragmatists?” You tell me, my articulate friend. You tell me.

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