The physical world

I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a screen. I have a mentally taxing 50+ hour-a-week slide-making job that also requires me to travel three weeks out of the month (on average). In my scarce free time on the weekends, when I’m grounded in St. Louis, I’m often anxious to get out of the house and away from computers and TVs. As we’re increasingly atomized into our comfortable homes, big cars, and zany online personas, it feels important to habitually disconnect and see the world for what it is—in other words, to touch grass.

My preferred method of escapism is long, spontaneous walks and bike rides around the city. Few things provide more of a dopamine hit than seeing St. Louis on a sunny day—the red-brick architecture, the parks, the Arch—and the entire experience is enhanced by the city’s rich history and prideful culture.

But, having become more familiar with the city’s story, what’s also striking is how little many aspects of the city have changed over the past half-century. While the streets of St. Louis in 1970 would have been unimaginable to someone in 1920, today’s cityscape is very much comparable to what existed 50 years ago. The major roads and highways are largely unchanged; we still use ICE-powered cars to get around; Amtrak is still marginal and slow. And while St. Louis is a slow-growth region that hasn’t experienced the physical renewal of metro areas further south, I’d argue the same theme applies to all U.S. cities—since the 1950s, we have not experienced a step change in how our physical environment is configured. The underlying principles of our cities—the modes of transportation, the design of the infrastructure, the patterns of development—are simply not that different.

I think this gap in progress between the virtual and physical worlds is one of the defining themes of the 21st century. It’s criminally underappreciated, with trends in tech—social media, the metaverse, crypto, AI—continuing to monopolize the attention of the public and capitalists. While it’s been wonderful to experience the benefits of unprecedented computing power, instantaneous communication, and abundant audio-visual entertainment, it’s also disappointing that this rate of progress hasn’t been replicated in our cities and neighborhoods. And ultimately, I worry that we’re already reaching the limits of what software can do for us without commensurate changes in our physical environment. For example, thanks to rideshare apps, it’s never been easier to call a taxi—but you still have to deal with the same old shitty roads and traffic once you’re in the car.

Progress in the physical world is a victim of cost disease. The American construction industry is less productive than it was in the 1950s—a stunning statistic considering overall productivity tripled over the same time period. And since wages are higher than they were 70 years ago, that means we’re getting considerably less floor space and infrastructure per dollar spent. Simply put, we’ve just gotten worse at building things despite having better tools to do so.

Some of this is driven by the cancer of NIMBYism—a cultural and regulatory backlash against building in general. Onerous land use regulations reduce the total quantity of building, and historic preservation and design review processes ensure that what is built is bespoke and difficult to scale. We’re far removed from the days when New York City extended the subway into open fields and developers built thousands of standardized rectangular apartment buildings. Today, master-planned communities on the exurban fringe are our only example of housing built at scale, which is why those places are consistently affordable.

NIMBYism fuels our obsession with process; changing our physical environment is subject to layers of process that simply do not exist in the virtual world. Community engagement, environmental review, planning studies, zoning variances, etc. all complicate, delay, and inflate the cost of building. In a country that ostensibly cherishes private property rights and freedom of enterprise, the production of new building space and infrastructure has been almost entirely socialized. Earlier today, I walked by a St. Louis Building Division sign in front of a house notifying the public that the owner had applied to construct a new garage with an ADU on top—subjecting the act of producing a single new unit of housing to the uncertainty and obstructionism of public input.

A brief tangent: one example of process at the expense of outcomes that irritates me to no end is St. Louis’s Preservation Board, which has the power to deny demolition permits across a massive portion of the city. The Board is obligated to deny demolition in a variety of cases where existing buildings are “contributing,” even if that means blocking dozens of units of new housing. It’s a ridiculous policy in a city whose population has been declining for seven decades. Defenders of the Board will argue that developers can simply bow to their demands and produce revised designs, but they never acknowledge how the process adds cost, complexity, and uncertainty to the production of new housing. The Board has undoubtedly killed housing proposals that would have provided desperately needed residents and tax revenue.

A prerequisite for accelerating progress in the physical world is a culture that accepts change and recognizes freedom to build. We need to tolerate our neighbor who builds an ADU; we need to accept that making our cities better will require changing how they look. I think most NIMBYism is fueled by anxiety about the negative consequences of development—impacts on congestion, parking, crime, aesthetics. Advances in technology have made it easier than ever for people to air these objections to changes in the physical world. Ultimately, it’s up to our political leaders to recognize that accommodating all opposition doesn’t produce better outcomes in the end—the unmet demand for new housing or infrastructure will materialize as more exurban sprawl, more expensive and overcrowded housing, less efficient transportation, and a variety of other negative consequences. NIMBYism is not victimless.

Another more depressing contributor to NIMBYism, particularly in urban areas where historic preservationists have complicated the development process, is the popular sentiment that we’re incapable of building like we used to. In many major cities, historic districts and design review boards impose meticulous architectural requirements on new development, delaying or killing much-needed housing. Some of the most desirable sections of our cities have been frozen in time, locked into an architectural style more than a century old.

Despite the pretty buildings, this historic romanticism is a thin pastiche of what our cities were actually like at the turn of the 20th century—dense, dynamic places that were allowed to evolve with shifting demand for housing and commercial space. The true story of the historic American neighborhood is one of continuous renewal—incremental replacement of old buildings with bigger, more modern ones; continuous shifts in population and demographic composition. There is nothing actually historic about historic preservationism, which picks an arbitrary point in time as the line between “new” and “old” and suffocates the entire (historic) cycle of urban growth that created our cities in the first place.

I recognize that modern methods of building, which often prioritize efficiency over beauty, often result in lifeless places. People are understandably anxious about their quaint street being ruined by long, blank walls or massive parking garages. But avoiding those outcomes doesn’t require prescriptive design standards that make it nearly impossible to build anything at all—tools like form-based codes can set basic standards for the built environment while preserving the freedom to build.

And to some extent, we must accept that some ugliness is the cost of building beautiful new places. We cannot discover great new architecture and build great new neighborhoods without experimenting and allowing the full range of creative expression. I believe historic design standards are fundamentally incompatible with freedom of expression—for some reason, we have decided that the design of buildings is one of the only forms of speech that the state should have near-unlimited power to restrict. Yes, removing these standards will result in buildings most people don’t find tasteful, but it’ll also unlock a generation of new buildings that will set new standards for beauty and design. The freedom to experiment and push boundaries is what makes cities such compelling places, and it represents the spirit of progress that we’ve lost touch with in the physical world.

A cultural acceptance of change must be accompanied by an improvement in our ability to build—solving infrastructure’s cost disease is one of the most critical projects of our lifetimes. I won’t pretend I’m deeply knowledgeable about the root causes of declining construction productivity, but I do think the restrictions on building are a contributor. By reducing the volume of building for an extended period of time, we’ve eroded institutional capacity to build. We’ve lost experienced contractors, engineers, materials suppliers, and project managers who know how to complete projects effectively.

I often think about how effective the Texas Department of Transportation is at building roads and highways. At the risk of handing it to them, the infamous Katy Freeway widening in Houston, which completely rebuilt 23 miles of freeway through a heavily urbanized area, was completed on time and under budget at ~$120m per mile—an outcome that’s difficult to imagine today. TxDOT is efficient because they have a permanent stream of funding that ensures there’s always a major freeway project happening somewhere in the state (if not multiple). The scale of Texas’s roadbuilding program supports a vibrant upstream industry of contractors, suppliers, and engineering firms that are deeply familiar with the department’s standards and methods. And the agency is itself a sophisticated, mature organization with 12,000 employees spread across 25 geographic districts.

This sort of mature infrastructure-building ecosystem does not exist for transit or intercity rail. Yes, the nation’s biggest transit agencies—like New York City Transit—employ tens of thousands of people and manage large budgets, but they’ve long been focused on operations with little investment in system expansion. Investment in new transit is the exception rather than the rule, delivered through spurts of federal grant money rather than sustained funding at the state level. And unlike roads, where federal highway standards ensure consistent infrastructure design across the country, transit systems are typically bespoke, each with their own unique infrastructure design and rolling stock.

All in all, achieving industrial efficiency in infrastructure requires, well, industrialization—the level of sustained capital investment and standardization that allows for greater optimization and more efficient supply chains. Technology also has a role to play in increasing productivity (I often think about the construction robots from Factorio) but we first need to create the conditions for that sort of innovation to take place—and that’s really a question of policy.

We need to want that sort of step change in our physical environment for it to actually happen. Our policies and attitudes on building reflect the lack of a clear consensus on that fundamental question over the past few decades. But I do believe the tide is shifting quickly—we are reaping what we have sown with the politics of stagnation, and people are increasingly dissatisfied with the restrictions we have placed on our own standard of living. Few places demonstrate this more clearly than the UK, which is suffocating on its own NIMBYism and decomposing into a European backwater as builder-friendly countries like Poland progress toward a brighter future.

If I could time-travel to St. Louis in 2120, I’d be sorely disappointed if it looked anything like today. I would expect that we’d implemented safer and more efficient modes of transportation. I’d hope that we’d removed the barriers to homebuilding and reinvigorated the city with tens of thousands of new, modern homes. I want the cities of the future to feel utopian, to be as unrecognizable to us as the iPhone would be to someone half a century ago. That’s the world we deserve in our lifetimes—the only barrier is ourselves.