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Posts tagged with ‘cities’


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.


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.


We don’t make cities in order to make buildings and infrastructure. We make cities in order to come together, to create wealth, culture, more people.
The United States is not one national economy but a series of smaller metropolitan economies.

ArchDaily: What will cities be like in the future?

Saskia Sassen: Well I have two scenarios: a very optimistic one and a very dystopian one. The dystopian scenario is that we will have a lot of private cities. Abuja is de facto a private city. It is how not to be in Lagos in Nigeria. The mechanism is very simple. Everything is super expensive. The milk, the houses, everything. It de facto eliminates all kinds of people. But I think we’re going to take it further. Songdo is sort of a private city. There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people—modest, middle-class people—will be living in slums. In a country like Brazil, many people who are in the civil service of the government live in the slums. Same thing in India. This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term.

At this end, my utopia is that when so many new people come to cities there is going to be a lot of making—making of sub-economies, not the economy. Making of urban agriculture, making of buildings that work with the environment. People of modest means will use their imaginations; they will understand how to make air circulate so that mosquitos are less likely to come in. They will work and have that knowledge—that is my optimistic scenario. So even a modest, poor slum will have people that know that the shack that they are building is part of larger systems. Then of course, the rich will be the rich and the upper-middle class will be the upper-middle classes. I think the modest middle-classes will keep on splitting up. The splitting up of the middle class has been happening for 25 years. I wrote about it in the late 1980s and people didn’t believe me. They said, “That’s not happening. We’re all becoming richer.” Well, no. Now we know that.

On a larger systemic map about cities, I think that the desirable, optimistic format is multiple articulations of the territory—not one endless metropolitan zone. I think we will have understood that the vast metropolitan area does not work.

The option is articulations. China is building all of these cities so they build nine small cities around Shanghai rather than letting Shanghai become an endless stretch. In my optimistic view, I see a different way of articulating the urban with territory. Moving away from metropolitanization. Now, my Dutch, practical sense tells me that we’re not going to be able to do that. We’ll build something unmanageable and then the elites will move out and build a new private city.

Those are the two scenarios. There’s much more to be said but it’s a complicated question.

ArchDaily: What is the role of architecture in growing cities?

Saskia Sassen: I think of the city as a complex but incomplete system. There are other such systems; the city happens to be one of the most complex and the most incomplete. It is an extreme condition—a big working city. I like to work with extreme conditions. My assumption is that they are heuristic: that they produce knowledge about more than the thing itself. So I look at the city to understand all kinds of other things.

Architects could be doing much more in the city. But it would mean expanding the range of interventions that architects do and thinking of the city as a complex space where there are multiple very diverse points of intervention—looking at the slums, low-income neighborhoods, degraded spaces, toxic spaces. At the other end, we look at architecture as a form of art, where it is a beautiful work and it amplifies the experience of being in that place.

ArchDaily: How does the internet affect cities?

Saskia Sassen: There is something very good there—the constituting of a global public that might be fed by people who are otherwise quite isolated in their own cities. There’s an opening there. They are non-cosmopolitans who might be poor and physically isolated, but they are part of an emergent global, subjective space. You don’t have to be online all the time but you can know that you’re not alone doing what you’re doing. This is extremely important. It’s a truly subjective global space. It’s not about communicating, it’s about knowing that that connectivity exists.

I find that the discussion of the internet that looks just at the communication bit is reductive. This global subjective space does not depend on communication—it’s something else.

On the other hand you have finance and all the global farms, who create their own separateness. When I look at the world of 100+ global cities that we have, I see also these fragments—the central business district—that constitute their own urbanity. But they are often far less connected to the hinterland that is city itself than they are to each other. The business centers in these cities connect much more with each other than they do with the larger city. Even though I insist that they need the larger city (the cleaners, the truckers that bring them stuff); I’ve written a lot about this. So that’s a subjective disconnection that means that you do less philanthropy for the city because you think that you don’t need the city. You just need that little bit of central business space—the global city functioning in the narrowest sense.

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)

David Burney On New York and the 21st-Century City-State

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. 

New York City [Image: Penn State University]

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 DieDon’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. 

People tend to sit most where there are more places to sit.

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.

The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.

Lewis Mumford, The City In History

(Source: inthenoosphere)

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Jane Jacobs

A company begins as a start-up. It creates tremendous buzz and goes through a period where anything goes. There is no concern for paying bills as the company explores new rules. Below a level of fifty employees, there seems to be a lot of random behavior. Between fifty and one hundred employees, if the company has survived, this is when the sigmoidal behavior begins. At that stage the company needs bureaucracy, human resources, compliance, and so on. The company more and more becomes the bureaucracy. The innovative phase gets phased out, unlike a city. A city tolerates all sorts of crazy people walking around. No corporation will tolerate that. Companies become very intolerant to new ideas, rhetoric to the contrary. When a company starts cutting down the bloat, it no longer can be cool. The last time I was at Google I already could feel the tentacles of the bureaucracy encroaching—and Google’s awareness of the problem. There are signs of mortality creeping in. It may well be that Apple recognizes this problem and is fighting it like crazy by being open to new ideas. The question is: Is that possible?


Santa Fe Institute physicist and organizational theorist Geoffrey West, quoted in “Inside Apple” (via buzz)

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.

(via msg)

Edward Glaeser’s Laissez-Faire Urbanism

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.

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