The Impoverishment of the Public Realm

By Dom Nozzi

In November of 2006, when my wife and I were enjoying the magnificence of the public realm in Italy, I remarked that the stupendous buildings and streets and piazzas we observed were built by communities that were quite poor compared to most American communities, yet these Italian villages were building public facilities that even
hundreds of years later make American communities look like slums in comparison.

I suggested that an important reason for this state of affairs is that American communities have impoverished themselves by pouring enormous public dollars into their ruinous road system. Indeed, a crucial reason for the financial dire straits was that even in the early days of the car, motorists were powerful enough (even though there was only a handful of them) to successfully stop government from getting road modification dollars from user fees such as the gas tax (a gas tax was sometimes established, but it was a tiny fraction of what was needed). Instead, much of the road modification dollars come from “general” taxes such as property taxes and sales taxes, which we all pay, regardless of how much we drive (or don’t drive) on roads.

The result is that those of us who rarely, if ever, drive a car are subsidizing those who drive a car frequently. A strikingly unfair way to pay for transportation.

Here is an observation about the early years of cars in Colorado from a book I was reading at the time: “…three-quarters of the state’s outstanding debt [in the 1920s] was for highways and about a third of the state’s annual budget went to the Highway Department.”

“[In 1930], the state spent 50 percent more on highways each year than it did on education. Only one-third of this state money was raised from motorists.”

It does not require rocket science to figure out why most every US community builds boxy, low-budget, embarrassing public buildings and pathetic, tiny, uncared for public parks, instead of building a Piazza Navona or a Duomo Catania.Piazza Navona in Rome



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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

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