WHY CITIES ARE GOOD Part 3 of a review of Vishaan Chakrabarti’s “A Country of Cities.”

October 13, 2014

First, a Review

    In the first two commentaries on Vishaan Chakrabarti’s “manifesto,”  A Country of Cities,” we’ve cited a few statistics that indicate why cities are “good.”  Among them is that 90% of our GDP and 86% of our jobs are produced on the 3% of the land occupied by our largest cities.    There is no doubt that, in terms of economic productivity, cities are critically important.   Another astonishing statistic is that Chicago alone produces more economic output than 42 states in the nation.   Workforce productivity, measured in terms of patents awarded, is greater the larger the city.   Chakrabarti has convincingly established that cities are the economic engine that drives America, but nowhere does he suggest that there aren’t some challenges that first have to be addressed.   We will deal with how a city becomes even better, so that it can live up to the claim Chakrabarti makes that cities are the key to solving “economic stagnation, environmental degradation, rising public health costs, and decreasing social mobility.”   It’s a tall order.

…but before we do

     Let’s briefly take a look at what my home town, Winston-Salem, NC, is trying to do to, in effect, make our city an even stronger  economic and social powerhouse.   In November, citizens of Winston-Salem will vote on five bond issues to finance infrastructure improvements and site development.   In the face of an insignificant revenue stream to “ensure that our city continues to be the kind of place that all of us are proud to call home (according to Sarah Smith, Director of Marketing and Communications at Reynolda House Museum of America Art, in a guest column she wrote for the Winston-Salem Journal),  the city leadership and a community-based committee have identified $700 million as required to finance programs ranging from park improvements, street and sidewalk repair, upgrading police and fire protection, building housing, and developing industrial and business parks.   These are all worthy things and enjoy wide support.   I would certainly vote Yes for all five.

     Nonetheless, I eagerly await the details of the plans for each of the five categories of projects, especially in housing and economic development.   Many of the categories, in their general description, sound familiar, as necessary as they may be, and speak to the lack of support for increasing routine taxes sufficient to pay as you go.    This situation is not unique to Winston-Salem.   My concern is that going to the polls on occasion hampers the steady pace of civic improvement and forces the leadership to make up for lost time in a kind of hurry-up race to stay even.    Perhaps this is just the reality we have to accept and deal with, and, generally, do.   That is why I turned to Chakrabarti’s book  in the hope that there is indeed a “silver bullet” in our arsenal of ammunition to use in “ensuring that our community continues to support the development our thriving downtown…” as Mark Dunnagan, Chairman of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership put it in a letter to the Journal.

You’re On, Mr. Chakrabarti

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.

     One of the things that makes the United States truly exceptional is the size of the average house, the number of homeowners with a mortgage and the belief that owning a home is the fulfillment of the American dream.   There can be no denying that owning a home of your own has a cachet that perhaps is unique to Americans because it hasn’t been that long since the frontier was closed and the fixed-rate mortgage loan, complete with tax deduction of interest paid, became a staple in our economy.   What hasn’t been thoroughly examined is how this subsidy for sprawl has redirected resources that might be better utilized in other ways that would enhance the city’s already dominant contribution to the economy.   Perhaps the time has come to reassess the lure of a “home of your own” in light of the recent experience with mortgage finance and the likelihood that the constant increase in home values has leveled off and may remain stagnant for a long time as more and more young people delay household formation and/or prefer city life.   

     I dislike reducing  Chakrabarti’s important book to a few bumper stickers, but it is tempting because the facts and statistics in his book are indisputable and his conclusions based on them hard to resist.   So, here goes:  “Taller is Better”    “Walking is Healthier” “Home Rule Should be the  Rule”  “Variety is More Fun”   “Convenient Saves Time”   “Preserve What’s Productive ”  and so on.   These certainly don’t capture everything Chakrabarti has to say, but he’s not exactly critical of bumper stickers.  His book is filled with them and I have my favorites.   “If you love nature, don’t live in it.” is one.  

NEXT: More on how to build good cities and why we should.




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