This article is another venture in holiday-themed discussions of urbanism by myself and Kevin Clark. Enjoy!
For centuries, Santa Claus has been successfully delivering gifts on time and in budget to every good boy and girl. But today, at a meeting of the United Nations in New York, Santa made a surprising announcement: “Christmas is in jeopardy.”
The announcement came following last year’s major research and development project at the North Pole. Santa, flanked by scores of elves and about nine reindeer, detailed the findings of his team’s analysis. In short, the NP-R&D organization found that the suburban development patterns over the last several decades were responsible for the rapid rise in operational costs at Santa’s workshop.
Before the 1950’s, Americans typically lived in either urban or rural environs. This pattern allowed Santa and his staff to organize a two-pronged Christmas Eve flight: the first prong took place in cities and the second prong took place between cities. In cities both large and small Santa had access to a large number of chimneys within a short amount of time. The R&D group referred to this measure as the “Cookies per Acre” ratio (a term Santa, until today, preferred to keep a secret, especially from Mrs. Claus). With these cities spaced by large swaths of agriculture, Santa could nap between the higher-density areas and put the sleigh on auto-pilot.
Now, after decades of suburban growth, Santa and his operation is on the verge of total collapse according to the R&D group. As Santa spoke to a shocked assembly, he explained, in a not-so-jolly way, that suburban sprawl has been devastating to his Christmas Eve flight efficiency. He noted a number of challenges he finds in the suburbs ranging from the poor neighborhood layouts and total lack of connected street networks to the issue of not being able to tell one house apart from another.
“In one block, Scotty, Jimmy, Lucy and Christy have identical houses! I’ve come so close to giving Scotty a pink polka dot dress simply because I cannot tell the houses apart!” Santa proclaimed. “It’s embarrassing! I never thought I’d say this, but cookie cutters aren’t always a good thing.”
Santa continued with his face redder than normal:
“Additionally, the unnecessarily complex roof lines of most suburban dwellings make it far too cumbersome to land. I mean, how many gables can one home have!? And the suburban patterns are so disorienting that my reindeer have major difficulties navigating all the twists and turns.”
As his announcement came to a close, Santa gave one last example in an honest but disconcerting tone:
“We try our hardest to account for every package before leaving the North Pole, but inevitably something gets left behind. When that happens we have to go last-minute shopping. In the suburbs we spend much more time traveling to a toy store than we do in an urban area given the distances involved. It just doesn’t make sense when there is such a better alternative. If we want the joy of Christmas to continue, things have to change.” Santa paused to wipe a tear from his left eye before leaving the podium.
Following the event, many of Santa’s little helpers were obviously unnerved by the announcement. “No more suburbs!” proclaimed one of the elves. “Santa used to look forward to his Christmas flight, but now that so many children live in suburbia what was once a night of joyful routine has become one of frustration. We’re just getting killed out there.”
Santa and his workshop have tried to adapt to the changing times. “We recognized the demographic shift early on,” said an elf who is familiar with the matter, “and wanted to market to the suburban children as well. So while we continued production on our posters that read Santa is coming to town! we also started printing a new edition: Santa is coming to your gated subdivision! I can’t say we were totally happy with it, but we knew we had to do it to stay current with our customers.”
This same elf was quick to point out the benefits to living in the city. “If you forgot to buy batteries and need to power up that Furby, in the city there is likely a CVS just around the corner. If you are in the suburbs, however, you will have to drive to the nearest big-box store, but then you run the risk of being either stuck at home due to snow or stuck in line due to all the gift returns in the region. And we all know the sound a child makes when their new toy is without batteries!”
Other benefits of urban development patterns that were cited by this elf include:
- A higher population density allows Santa to be more efficient with his deliveries which conserves much-needed Christmas Spirit (the fuel that powers his sleigh).
- Urban buildings oftentimes have flat roofs which make for an easier landing environment.
- Regularized and connected street patterns enable easier way-finding for reindeer.
“No one, not even Rudolph, could navigate some of the cul-de-sacs I have seen,” said a reindeer who is familiar with the matter. “Some of those gated communities look like the ribbon you see on presents! Whenever we fly over one we joke: that cul-de-sac is bound up tighter than Scrooge’s money bag!”
“The gates also slow us down,” said this reindeer. “We have to stop constantly and this reduces our efficiency.”
“Here, here!” heckled one fireman who overheard the reindeer. “The gates also keep us from getting to fires as quickly as we can.”
As Santa was seen leaving and getting into his sleigh in front of the UN building, a reporter yelled “What now, Santa?”
“Insist that your government officials enact regulations to support mixed-use communities with small, connected blocks,” Santa said. “This is the only way I can hope to continue my Christmas operation in the future.”
As Santa flew off, the lights of Manhattan reflected in his eyes like a great urban Christmas tree, but he has many miles of suburbia to fly over on his way back to the North Pole.