October 13, 2014
In approaching the issue of how to build good cities, Chakrabarti chronicles the recent economic crisis and what led up to it in detail and uses that to demonstrate why a change in patterns of civic development must occur. In one of his bold (and green) statements, he claims that “While it is conventional to point out that the world’s population is urbanizing, the world is primarily suburbanizing.” It is misleading to label suburbanizing as urbanizing simply because they are connected to a large city, because the former means more sprawl and the latter means more population density. It makes a huge difference in understanding the demand for resources and, to generalize, the access to opportunity. Chakrabarti expresses it well in one of the more meaningful passages in his entire book, and I quote it here in full, except for source citations:
“A growing population and dwindling natural resources call for a new global economy as a way to a more prosperous future for all. A new emphasis on human resources (that is, human capital…) and more effective production systems (such as automation) will likely supplant the capitalization of natural resources and mass production that propelled our economy through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As education becomes more important and opportunities to make a living through hard labor and physical skills diminish, those who have less access to education will become less employable and income gaps will widen even further. This is not to say that manufacturing will cease in the United States, but it clearly will no longer be the primary source of employment and wealth creation for our population, a realization that has far-reaching implications for the physical form the nation should take as an advanced service economy.”
My own experience tells me that Chakrabarti is not only right, but his approach runs counter to the “chasing smokestacks” approach to job growth, which in any case has largely been abandoned by most developers except in highly rural areas, where it will doubtlessly continue as long as there are large pools of minimally skilled labor. Its opposite approach, that is, attracting high tech jobs to rural areas on the premise that programming computers could be done from anywhere by and large failed because young people seek a more diversified lifestyle than what can be provided by rural areas. What Chakrabarti is advocating is that education is the pathway to prosperity and that access to educational opportunities in a city setting is far easier than to those in bucolic areas where higher education was thought of as economic development in and of itself. While he doesn’t define what type of education to pursue, and probably wouldn’t, one suspects that the type education most pertinent to the future he envisions is one that contributes to the production of products relevant to a highly sophisticated service economy. As America has discovered to its chagrin, it is difficult to maintain a superior standard of living manufacturing products in a mass production environment when global competition rears its ugly head. (As an aside, what some industralists have done when lower wage structures in China and elsewhere forced them out of business is to turn their expertise in manufacturing to assuring American companies making products off shore to act as an intermediary between foreign manufactures, especially in Asia, and American retailers to assure quality work, fair pricing, and observance of international work rules. Winston-Salem’s Mike Trull is a case in point and his story will be told on this blog.)
Another major point of Chakrabarti’s and one that Winston-Salem can identify with more than most cities of its size, is the utilization of existing infrastructure, in the form of vacant manufacturing facilities. Chakrabarti calls these “bastions of opportunity,” and suggests there is “little reason to let them further decline in favor of sprawl.” The most striking of example of this philosophy at work in Winston-Salem is the renovation of the beautiful former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. headquarters in the heart of the city. It will become a mixed-use building including an upscale restaurant, a boutique hotel, and 120 luxury rental residential units. There are rumors that the GMAC building in downtown may be destined for something similar. What’s already on the books is the energetic transformation of tobacco-related building on the east side of downtown into residences, businesses, and educational facilities.
Among the many things that Chakrabarti says must be done before cities can fulfill their potential is remove the restrictions that inhibit progress. He advocates “home rule,” that is, breaking free from the “shackles of rural and suburban special interests that constrain their politics and resource allocations,” most of them imposed by state legislatures. The list of advantages of home rule – enjoyed by major cities in other parts of the world – would allow cities to concentrate their resources within city limits, such as the creation of mass transportation systems that serve all parts of the city and improving failing schools by being able to target more resources more directly to where they are needed most. Chakrabarti, in general, advocates the loosening of regulatory restraints because they tend to increase costs and limit housing availability. In particular, height limitations, mixed-use restrictions, and historic preservation requirements and associated incentives need to be reviewed in order to ensure that they do not dampen productive economic stimulation.
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