commentary (2006-19)

Urbanism is on the upswing, even in Knoxville


by Matt Edens

So gas has gone ratcheting back up again, spiking over three dollars a gallon in most major metro areas. Thus far the American “consumer” seems to have absorbed the hit with little notice, or simple resignation to the fact that “back when gas was a buck-eighty-five” may soon become one of those cherished memories old timers trot out, like walking five miles in the snow just to go to school. 

It’s too bad for us that cars can’t be powered on platitudes, fantasy, or flat-out demagoguery. Unlike petroleum, all three seem plentiful and infinitely renewable. And the only emissions they seem to produce are hot air (imagine if we could store that up for next winter’s home heating season…). In Washington, Senate Republicans have proposed American taxpayers receive a $100 gasoline rebate or a temporary suspension of the federal gasoline tax of 18 cents a gallon.

Now I’m not sure a hundred bucks will mean all that much to some suburbanite making a thirty-mile daily commute, but suspending the gas tax sounds like a surefire vote getter in the short run. Its long-term application could, however, cause serious problems. Those tax dollars pay for tons and tons of concrete, the second major ingredient required to keep traffic moving along—or, at least creeping along between the orange barrels. Gas-tax dollars also pay for a sizable amount of oil, too, in the form of asphalt, meaning that petroleum will continue to be a player in our motoring future, even if all the energy being invested in alternative energy actually pays off, and our future cars run on ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen or some permutation of the three.

All three have their issues, however. Namely their expense and the amount of energy that is required for their production (and, in the case of ethanol, the amount of farmland—replacing our imported oil with homegrown ethanol would, according to some estimates, eat up some 70% or our agricultural capacity). The expense and energy conundrum also holds true for alternative sources of petroleum, such as tar sands and oil shale. Expensive gas makes all these alternatives more viable, but that means some poor sap will still be shelling out sixty bucks to fill up his Ford, no mater what sort of tiger he has in his tank.

Yet, in the midst of all the ink and airwaves promoting the idea of a technological solution to our energy woes, the most readily achievable solution—driving less—dare not speak its name. Even Democrats, focused on what they hope is this week’s Achilles heel of the big oil administration, would rather talk about why gas costs so much than why we all drive so damn much. But, unlike the much-hyped “hydrogen-economy,” the technological issues of building a denser, more walkable world were worked out ages ago and, with the aid of mass transit, applied on a massive, industrial scale within modern memory.

Those memories just might have some relevance for the future (whether or not Grandpa was fibbing when he said he walked five miles through the snow to school). Urbanism is on the upswing, even in Knoxville, as the growing number of downtown lofts and denser “New Urbanist” developments attest. While details remain sketchy, local developer Rarity Communities and Blount and Knox County officials recently unveiled plans for a dense new town center and technology park off Pellissippi Parkway. The 450-acre development—not far from Northshore Town Center, Knoxville’s first new-urbanist-inspired private development—is Rarity’s second foray into urbanist territory, one that appears to be much more mixed-use than the modest commercial core of Rarity Ridge, a lakefront community outside Oak Ridge.

But what’s happening in downtown and out off Pellissippi is only part of a much larger trend. I recently read a fascinating piece in The New York Times on how Toll Brothers is moving into the New York market. The nation’s leading builder of the exurban McMansion sprawl, emblematic of the easy-motoring age, the Bros. have come to NYC to build condo towers in the East Village and townhouses in Brooklyn, not gated communities in suburban Connecticut and New Jersey. That’s right, the nations largest suburban developer is heading back into the city. Something’s up, and I don’t mean just the price of gas.