Anti-Mortgage Deduction Urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti Says Dallas Needs to Find Own Urban Identity

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Great news that Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of the book A Country of Cities, a partner with SHoP Architects in New York, and director of the Center of Urban Real Estate at Columbia University, is coming to town next month as keynote speaker for the Physical City panel at the Dallas Festival of Ideas. Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster had a great Q&A with him where he says that the biggest mistake Dallas can make is to emulate Copenhagen.

Copenhagen, Denmark, is reputed to be the happiest, greenest, and most tasteful city in the world. Everything is beautiful, including the people, and 60% of the population rides bicycles. You can take bikes on trains — you can do this in San Francisco, too — and the people actually obey laws, including traffic signals. 

Shocking, I know.

The Danish capital has electric buses, the citizens recycle, the harbors boast clean water and 64% of the city’s hotel rooms are certified as eco-friendly.

Oh and Danes are healthy, too, which is probably why the country’s national health care system isn’t over-taxed: three-quarters of the food served in public institutions is organic. Don’t think Lockhart Barbecue would go over too well there, maybe.

Last year, Copenhagen was named the European Green Capital, an award that recognizes cities with enormously high environmental standards. By 2025, Copenhagen plans to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital.

So when Chakrabarti told Lamster that we cannot expect to make Dallas Copenhagen, that is what he meant. Dallas has a different climate and culture. A pickup truck racing through a yellow light in Copenhagen? Not going to happen.

Which is what I found so refreshing about this interview —

What is the biggest mistake Dallas needs to avoid?

To try to emulate Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s great, but sometimes urbanists tend to get fixated on one-size-fits-all solutions. What I would hate to see is the city lose its own sense of exuberance. There’s a gestalt to Dallas that’s about bigness, big open landscapes, large gestures like the bridges over the Trinity and the Arts District. A more livable Dallas doesn’t mean a tame Dallas.

Taming Dallas — making pick-up trucks illegal — would be like giving the city a lobotomy. He also says to quit dissing the suburbs, quit thinking it’s suburbs vs. cities like so many urbanists do — thank you:

How does Dallas deal with the competing interests of the core and the suburbs and the idea that it is a multi-nodal city?

It’s not useful to think of this as city vs. suburb. Most cities in the United States have this duality of people living and working in cities and people who live and work in suburbia. What’s really important is to understand that it’s a mutually symbiotic relationship. Those suburbs wouldn’t exist without that center, and the people who work in the center may well choose to live in the suburbs. They are full well reliant on each other. But what people in the suburbs need to understand is that the city needs a level of home rule, of autonomy, in order to make the quality-of-life investments in order to become a quality city, which in turn will make those suburban places more valuable.

I find this refreshing but also interesting. In an article Chakrabarti wrote for the New York Times last year, he said that state and federal policies continue to encourage suburban sprawl: cities don’t keep the wealth they generate — they send billions more in tax dollars to the suburbs, via state and federal coffers, than they get back:

The largest subsidy in the federal system is the mortgage interest deduction, about $100 billion annually. Gas taxes don’t begin to reflect the costs incurred by automobile use, from pollution to depressed land values around highways. By contrast, urban mass transit, school systems, parks, affordable housing and even urban welfare recipients receive crumbs relative to the vastness of government largess showered on suburbia. Is it any wonder that in bustling, successful American cities, our subways remain old, our public housing dilapidated and our schools subpar?

The good news is that he cited Dallas as one of a handful of cities moving ahead:

“Chicago, Denver, Dallas and New York are all advancing policies to increase urban density, infrastructure and amenities.  But with their citizens’ tax receipts still being sent to the hinterlands, these attempts remain half-measures.”

Chakrabarti obviously opposes the mortgage tax deduction — he thinks that’s how the government is subsidizing the ‘burbs. But he also thinks a Trinity toll road would be “antithetical to creating access to the river.” Again, thank you sir.

This will be very interesting to watch. Also, in Dallas we are actually losing employment tax base while our suburban areas are gaining. Arlington is benefitting from Jerry’s World, and Plano is delirious. And most cities that espouse the “Copenhagen urban dream” are also terribly expensive, shutting out huge segments of population not earning a minimum of $80,000 per year.

Love this guy, downloading his book, cannot wait for this discussion to begin. 


2 Comment

  • I think I read on Candy’s dirt that most of Dallas is a suburb. Far north Dallas looks like Plano or Richardson eacxept older and a lot more potholes.

  • AH! But, what about all those things he doesn’t tell you about Copenhagen? Just had two friends move back FROM there. If you buy/own a car: the tax is Equal – yes – EQUAL to the cost of the car. Bicycles? Yes, thousands. But, never any new ones. New gets stolen! All are old so if someone happened to pick up yours, you grab the next one you like best. High health costs? Yes – yet many Danes come HERE – yes, to the US to have serious work done – same in Sweden. Many Scandinavian countries, including Sweden and I think Denmark, tax you for the Church! Everyone tithes whether they wish to or not. An extremely socialistic society. With small amounts of minorities and they are working on getting rid of them… not Nirvana.