A pioneering urban economist offers fascinating, even inspiring proof that the city is humanity’s greatest invention and our best hope for the future.
America is an urban nation. More than two thirds of us live on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities. Yet cities get a bad rap: they’re dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive, environmentally unfriendly… Or are they?
As Edward Glaeser proves in this myth-shattering book, TRIUMPH OF THE CITY, cities are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America’s income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.
The Nation’s Future Depends on Its Cities, Not on Washington - Michael Hirsh - NationalJournal.com
AD Interviews: Saskia Sassen | Arch Daily
Her line about the internet’s importance, it’s impact on us all, even those who might be physically isolated,
It’s not about communicating, it’s about knowing that that connectivity exists.
(h/t Gordon Ross)
Burney channels Kenichi Ohmae’s The end of the nation state, and brings it up to the awful, sludge-filled poltical scene of the present day.
An Interview with David Burney: On New York and the 21st-Century City-State
Nancy Levinson: As an urban designer who has worked for years in the public sector in New York City — and as a Brit who is now a U.S. citizen — what is your assessment of the current political scene? What are the key challenges for cities in these tumultuous times?
David Burney: There’s a growing consensus that this is one of the most dysfunctional eras ever in American politics, and I’d have to agree. The federal government seems paralyzed not only by the impasse between Democrats and Republicans but still more by the internal politics of the GOP. The anti-government ideologues have hijacked the legislative process to the point where it’s hard to expect leadership from Washington — and certainly not on much-needed investment in the country’s declining infrastructure. At the state level it doesn’t seem much better. So increasingly it’s been our cities that have taken the lead on critical issues, from gun control to immigration reform to economic stimulus to climate change.
Given the migration of people into cities worldwide, this trend is sure to continue. We might even be in a de facto transition to a society dominated by economically and politically powerful cities — a contemporary version of the great city-states that arose in the 13th century and ruled Europe until the consolidation of modern nation-states a few centuries later.
Here in the United States, the federal government remains strong, but its authority is being eroded by the polarization of the political parties, and also by an extremely unproductive debate about taxation. It’s an old story: we hate paying taxes but we value the services that taxes support. But the real issue goes deeper — it’s no exaggeration to say that civilization depends on the proposition that we all do much better when we work not just individually but also collectively, and that we need to balance personal freedom with common interest. In other words, if we all contribute to the common good — the commonwealth — then it will be there for us when we need it, whether in the extreme case of post-disaster assistance or the more everyday matters of affordable housing and healthcare and reliable civic infrastructure.
This idea of common good is the basis of the modern concept of progressive taxation, in which each citizen contributes according to his or her ability, and our elected leaders determine the best collective use for the revenue. What’s more, it is the most technologically and culturally advanced societies that adhere most strongly to this concept of collective revenue and spending. Think about Scandinavia and what’s come to be called the Nordic model, in which high government investment in education, health care and social services has helped to produce national stability and prosperity for decades.
Of course, the United States of America continues to resist this model. Maybe this is because America is still, after all, a relatively young country, born in reaction to the oppressive constraints of its European colonizer-ruler — which accounts, I think, for the libertarian tendencies that inform the U.S. Constitution and persist in the national psyche.Live Free Or Die. Don’t Tread On Me: These slogans date back to the Revolutionary War, and they’re still rallying cries! The original Tea Party was an act of resistance to a British tax in 1773. But the disparity between the U.S. and Europe is also a legacy of World War II: the devastation of Europe was so profound that recovery could only be financed and executed by strong national governments, entrusted with the power to borrow huge sums and marshal the necessary resources. In the postwar decades, European nations invested in major housing programs, in single-payer healthcare systems, in social security plans that protected the poor.
The U.S. has never confronted the need for such massive reconstruction. The closest parallel remains the Great Depression, which produced the New Deal programs of the 1930s, which in turn inspired the Great Society of the ’60s; and today those legacies — the monumental public works of the WPA, the protections of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, et al. — are being steadily dismantled in the wake of the Reagan Revolution and the 21st-century Tea Party. From a European perspective, and from my personal perspective as a Brit who has lived in New York for three decades, this trend seems absurdly retrograde. But I do think that we have now arrived — as we realize with increasing urgency — at a moment when our politics must change if the U.S. is to retain its status as a democratic role model and if we are to solve the problems that confront us in the 21st Century.
William H White, The Social Life of Small Places
And, in cities, what other characteristic jumps out about where people sit: there are many people sitting there, too, so — at peak times — it turns out to be a place where it is difficult to find a place to sit.
Lewis Mumford, The City In History
Yancey first introduced me to Geoffrey West and his way of thinking (cities never die, corporations mimic the life/death of humans.)
For a bit more on the topic you can watch Geoffrey West’s TED Talk on the topic.
A Bloomberg essay by the urban doyen Edward Glaeser makes a poor case as to why proposed New York City sea walls should be paid for locally, without federal government support:
New York Can Protect Itself Without Federal Aid - Edward Glaeser
Sea walls are expensive. One recent estimate is that they cost $35 million per mile and require maintenance that costs from 5 to 10 percent of that amount per year. At such a price, protecting the entire mid-Atlantic region would be prohibitively expensive, yet defending New York City would be affordable. A great wall running from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the Far Rockaways would cost less than $500 million based on that estimate.
Nothing in New York comes cheaply, however, and I suspect that the estimate by the Dutch water-risk expert Jeroen Aerts that it would cost $10 billion to build two barriers — one between Sandy Hook and the Rockaways and a second at the north end of the East River — is far closer to the mark. Aerts himself suggests a $17 billion solution with three great walls, and says that an extra $15 billion might be required in added coastline protection.
Aerts’s total of $32 billion would be roughly half the city’s annual budget. But the costs of Hurricane Sandy also ran in the tens of billions. If the alternative is giving up on lower Manhattan, which has hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property and infrastructure, the price looks downright cheap. If the Netherlands can build a wall system that protects an entire country that lies below sea level, then New York City can protect itself.
Who should pay for these defenses? The protected property owners, of course. There is no reason why New York should look to the federal government in Washington for this spending.
The city has the money to pay the bill, and it should champion the principle that we only build sea walls or other barriers when the people who are protected pay for them. This helps ensure that the benefits justify the costs. We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.
Sea walls may not be the answer, but any solution is sure to require huge public expenditures. This highlights another central point about cities: They need strong, effective governments.
Exit polls found that Mitt Romney, an advocate of laissez- faire economics, received only 29 percent of the votes in big cities, while President Barack Obama, who believes in big government, won 69 percent of urbanites’ votes. That pattern makes sense, since people in vulnerable cities need government more than people in far-flung rural areas do (even though the latter often get more per capita in federal subsidies).
Economist Matthew Kahn of UCLA has studied the death tolls from natural disasters. He found that where governments are more capable, fewer people die. This makes me worry about the fate of cities in the developing world that are just as subject to natural disasters as New York is but have governments far less capable of taking effective precautionary measures. Kahn has predicted that cities will be able to defend themselves against the changes associated with climate change. While I am far less certain about Karachi, I am optimistic enough to think he is right about New York.
For my confidence to be validated, however, New York needs to spend billions to defend its vulnerable real estate. We have to stop denigrating mega-projects and resurrect the spirit of the city’s master builder, Robert Moses. If it does this right, New York can again provide a model of safety amid threatening storms for the cities of America and the rest of the world.
First of all, let’s start by simply accepting Aerts’s numbers for the sake of argument (although my bet is that they are far too optimistic, by half). The argument Glaeser is making is that those that benefit from something — even when it is a large scale regional infrastructure investment — should be the ones that pay for it.
But, who in fact benefits from the protection of New York City? Is it limited to those owning property there? Does it include those living there, but only renting? What about those that only work in the city, who currently are taxed on their income by the city: they would surely be included? And of course, we already accept the premise that visitors to New York pay taxes for hotels and airport fees, and tools to enter or pass through the city on its bridges and tunnels. So we already have a systems where a great number of people — not just landowners — pay for New York’s infrastructure and operations.
Glaeser seems to generalize from the notion that property owners should pay for their own insurance, and winds up thinking of the city as a collection of individually-owned buildings and property. But a city like New York has an enormous civic side, involving streets, parks, infrastructure, transportation, and municipal and regional operations: it is much more than the sum of its properties. We shouldn’t consider NYC just another ‘hamlet’ on the coast. And I don’t quite understand the Romney v Obama dimension of his argument: is he suggesting that protecting NYC is one of Romney’s ‘gifts’ to the urban voters?
I have argued elsewhere that we need to retreat — in general — from the coast, even in southern Manhattan. But I still believe that the benefits of major urban centers on the coast, especially at the mouth of major rivers, will continue to justify us living and working there.
In the final analysis, the value of New York City is non-linear relative to the population and cash flow streaming in: much more comes out of a productive, creative, and growing metropolis than goes in. And those outputs are not just financial, and they are not held only by the property owners. The region, and by extension the entire United States, is enriched by a working New York City.
Basically, I reject Glaeser’s core argument because he — of all people! — simply does not factor in the miracle of cities’ non-linear productivity. Or perhaps he assumes that these returns aren’t shared widely.
So, any solution for protecting New York City from future superstorms should be a regional one, in which New York City, New York, New Jersey, and the United States all participate, sharing risks, costs, and eventual benefits when the next superstorm’s damage is averted.