Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking issue with New Yorker's Lemann on cities, and other random links

It seems a healthy chunk of that segment of New-York news media that isn't picking through the compost heap of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's case remains obsessed with New Yorkers' love-hate relationship with bike lanes. John Cassidy of The New Yorker magazine a few months back ranted on a blog "Rational Irrationality," about the expanding lanes. Here, "R.A." of The Economist skewers Cassidy's economic arguments, in "Tragedies of the commons/The world is his parking spot.

Just last week (June 27), the New York Times ran an overview of the ways many European cities are trying to make driving and parking so uncomfortable that people choose to walk, bicycle or take transit.  Of course, this is a technique that needs to be imported to the U.S. with caution. Many U.S. cities, especially in the Sun Belt, make is all but impossible to walk, bicycle or take public transportation. And even in New York (see above) not all are thrilled with the idea that a bicycle lane might – gasp! – remove parking spots.

Also in the New Yorker (June 27 edition), Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia School of Journalism reviews a series of books dealing with cities, "Get Out of Town/Has the celebration of cities gone too far?"  (Subscription needed to read the full article.)

Lemann gives an overview of, among other things, the city-suburb wars, of Richard Florida's Creative Class theory,  of Edward Glaeser's new book, "Triumph of the City," and of "Aerotropolis," a new book written in part by UNC sociologist John Kasarda, who helped mastermind the still-underperforming Global TransPark in Kinston, N.C., though Lemann doesn't mention that infelicitous angle. As an aside, the state-funded creation of the TransPark, in a rural part of Eastern North Carolina, shows the degree to which Glaeser may be right about the importance of cities in generating wealth.

For a smart guy, Lemann is remarkably shallow in some of his analyses. For instance, he says Glaeser is not an admirer of Jane Jacobs.  To be sure, Glaeser (showing his own shallow analysis), contends that Jacobs' fights to save Greenwich Village turned the village into a low-density, high-priced haven for the wealthy, because the preservation prevented skyscrapers. (Here's my own take on Glaeser's book, a review of "Triumph of the City," for  Has Lemann read anything other than Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities"? Her next book, "The Economy of Cities," listed in Glaeser's bibliography, clearly prefigures much of Glaeser's own economic theory in "Triumph": that cities and the proximity they create allow innovation to happen.

Lemann concludes by saying that in 20th-century America, many more people found what they were seeking in American suburbs than in cities: "They tended their gardens, washed their cars, took their children to Little League games, went to PTA meetings and to religious services." Come again? Other than the part about gardens, is he saying city dwellers didn't do or value any of those things?  As an academic at Columbia University, surely he's heard of the work of Kenneth T. Jackson, an urban historian at Columbia, whose "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States," explained how the federal government's policies starting in the 1920s subsidized suburban development and hindered development inside established cities. (Glaeser also makes this point, with some vigor.) In other words, we'll never know how many Americans would have moved to suburbia had the economic playing field been level.

Still up for more reading: The New York Times had an intriguing article Sunday, "Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscles," about how Detroit – which many Americans associate with urban blight exponentially worse than any other U.S. city – has instead become a magnet for creative young entrepreneurs. In the past 10 years, "downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities." And the long list of initiatives to attract and nurture entrepreneurs is impressive. Anyone taking notes at the Charlotte Chamber, and in city government here? 

Happy Fourth of July.


Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

That is an interesting fact regarding Detroit and it gets to the heart of a problem here in Charlotte: There aren't enough apartment buildings in the city. Young professionals are drawn to urban living more so now than in recent memory, yet Charlotte has an over-abundance of living devices known as "condominiums" that are outside the budgets of America's over-educated, under-employed, and under-payed 25-35 year-olds. A testament to this is the very fact that apartment occupancy in center city is near capacity but condo occupancy is abysmally low. I realize much of the condominium surge was riding on the speculation wave of the late 2000's, but if Charlotte plans to have a livable center city, it needs people to live there first.

As a resident of one of 4th ward's large apartment blocks, I'm impressed that I can walk one block to Harris Teeter (a regional grocery chain for readers unfamiliar) and 4 blocks to work/eating out/movie theater/performance arts. And I know many others within a stones throw of me who are equally dedicated to the lifestyle without the added benefit of good transit or good retail, and even more who don't have the same benefit of a grocery store one block away. The amazing fact is that all of us fill the apartments to capacity and put up with a few vestiges of suburban lifestyle (ie, having to drive to SouthPark Mall, or the Target at the Metropolitan), and based on that fact alone, Center City can undoubtedly draw even more apartment renters if it had the capacity.

Convenient retail and transit will come eventually, but only when the population is big enough to support it. The population could be big enough to support it if there were better incentives for apartment development rather than condominium development.

Scott said...

Interesting article on Detroit. This three-part video series further highlights Detroit's resurgence among young people.

consultant said...


Don't worry about bicycle lanes. Pretty soon bikes and scooters (I like the Vespa) will have most of the road to themselves.

In case you missed it, a couple of months ago Saudi Arabia declared, after repeated bluffs, that it would increase oil production to bring prices down. They couldn't do it. Something many oil observers had long suspected.

In response, the US and many allies released about 30 million barrels of oil from their stockpiles. Only the third time in history the US has done this.

Folks, Peak Oil is here. Contraction is here. The recession/depression is here to stay.

What isn't here, yet, is the broad realization that the way we lived from 1950 to 2007 isn't coming back. That going forward is going to be tough and very different.

Mary, your recent move is just a tiny part of the huge story of the new, new that will emerge between now and 2020.

Our time is up. Energy is everything and the kind of versatile and abundant (cheap) oil that produced our remarkable and a typical post WW II economy is gone. We blew the opportunity to develop and implement reasonable plans to make a relatively smooth transition to a less energy intense economy. Most of the stuff from here on out are going to be shocks. Big ones.

Tidbit: they're putting on a brave face in all the entertainment towns across America. Down along the Gulf Coast, most of the cities and towns have become Disneyworlds for adults. They are taking a man size beating in this economy. With gas between $3.50-$4 a gallon, folks are staying home.

According to the local chambers of commerce, some places are still thriving. This won't last long.

As a nation, it's not like we've run out of ideas, it's just that we don't want any world other than the one we've got.

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