The Future: Cities, Not Suburbs, Not Small Towns Either

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

Two out of three Americans live in a single-unit building that is not attached to another building. It’s a standalone home. The American Dream is real for so many people, it’s difficult to conceive of a shift in the status quo.

The key concept is “density”—the number of dwelling units per acre. A nice American home is situated on about 1/4 or 1/3 of an acre, even nicer homes are part of acre lots. With that level of density, the only economically viable means of transportation is the car. (Lots of expense, pollution, etc.) To rationalize a bus, we need to up the game to 10-20 dwellings per acre: low-slung apartment buildings. Rail transportation begins to make sense at around 30-40 dwellings per acre, but it really sings when there are 100 or more. How do find enough space for 100 dwellings on a single acre? Don’t think in terms of ground area; instead, think up.

Interesting idea, but that’s not the way America works. Instead of thinking up, we think sprawl. That’s a tough philosophy for the economy and the environment.. At 25 dwellings per acre, the entire population of the world would fit inside the state of Texas.

Density only begins the discussion. Metropolitan areas—including cities and their suburbs—account for 90 percent of the US GDP and 86% of all jobs. The economic output of Chicagoland (city and suburbs) is greater than 42 of the 50 states. But that’s misleading.

coverbigAccording to the authors of Triumph of the City (Professor Edward Glaeser) and A Country of Cities (Noted Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti), dense cities (New York City) are very, very good ideas, and n0n-dense cities (Los Angeles) and the vast majority of suburbs throughout the world are very, very, very bad ideas. Why?

I like Mr. Chakrabati’s analysis of the self-sustaining economy and ecology of Hong Kong—a city-state where all resources are used for the good of the dense city, one that is surrounded by natural surroundings to be enjoyed by all. He contrasts Hong Kong with Los Angeles, which must contribute its considerable revenues to the state of California, and the U.S. government, leaving this metropolitan area with insufficient resources to, well, be all it can be. The same is true for most cities—they generate tremendous value, but they subsidize the far-less-productive suburbs and rural areas.

artbook_2273_30465543In the view of both authors, what we need to do is perfect our invention of the cities not only for our own good, and for the multitude of productive relationships that result from people living and working near one another, but also for the sake of the planet. Currently, in large part due to cars, suburbs, and inefficient systems, earth’s consumption rate is about 1/3 greater than our capacity. Shift to the American consumption rate—based, largely, upon suburban lifestyles—is over five times greater than our capacity. If When some of the developing economies reach the U.S. consumption rate, we’re more or less doomed (authors love to write this kind of stuff). We’ve all read the stories before: more commuting means less happy marriages, greater obesity rates, and (no surprise) a much higher per-capita rate of gun ownership.

Here, it’s easy to understand the growth of cities and the rest of America in terms of red and blue states.  Many of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas are located in blue states: east of the Mississippi River and north of North Carolina, and along the Pacific Ocean. But the U.S. government and the U.S. economy is not built to support cities. That’s why we spend more than twice as much on highways than air and rail travel—both far kinder to the environment, and in the long run, far more efficient. Instead, we support suburban living. We build more roads to more places, and more cars show up to take advantage of lost costly single family homes just that much farther away from the city center. What’s more, for every one taxpayer who takes advantage of the Mortgage Interest Deduction to achieve the American Dream, three do not—simply, Americans subsidize home ownership in a very significant way.

Should we? According to Mr. Chakrabati, the answer is no. Instead, he suggests that we fund a much more robust, livable, safe, easier urban lifestyle by eventually shunting those funds, and a roughly equal amount raised by a $1 increase in the Federal Excise Tax, to generate $3.5 trillion dollars to improve “economic and social prosperity, environmental sustainability, and equalizing real access to the American dream of home (but not necessarily house) ownership.

A special shout-out to Ryan Lovett who filled many pages of A Country of Cities with clear, direct illustrations, diagrams, charts, graphs, and just a few infographics. The result is an extremely appealing combination of a visual book that’s easy / fun / provocative to browse, and the well-c0nsidered arguments presented in detailed text by the author. At first, I simply enjoyed holding and paging through this elegant book. In time, I came to appreciate the reality of Mr. Chakrabati’s vision in terms I could understand: his SHoP is a top architectural firm responsible for Barclay Center, a multi-use arena that will anchor the future of downtown Brooklyn, NY with (you knew this was coming) a very high-density series of structures with massive amounts of homes, offices and retail, plus open areas that make city life that much more livable.

In fact, Barclay Center is walking distance from an earlier version of urban planning success: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the classy old apartment buildings nearby.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

This is provocative stuff. And, happily, it’s best presented in the form of a solid $30 hardcover book from a publisher whose work impresses me more each season: ARTBOOK / D.A.P. / Metropolis Books.

Advertisements

The News from Camden

For the past month or so, I’ve been thinking about a series of articles about the ways in which we define news, and the purpose served by that definition. Earlier today, I encountered the article below. It’s written by a Jesuit Priest named Jeff Putthoff who does the Lord’s work by running a youth development center in Camden, NJ. Before you read the article, you should know that half of Camden’s children live in poverty, and that only half of Camden’s adults finished high school.  Once a thriving manufacturing city, Camden is located just across the river from Philadelphia–in fact, you can walk over the Delaware River, from one world to another.  Camden is a great American urban challenge–and  Reverend Putthoff is among those who believe in the city and its people. His view on the news is the subject of this essay, which appeared on Philly.com on August 19, 2012. I suspect most of my readers have not seen the article, so I am encouraging you to read the article by either clicking on this Philly.com link or reading the text of the article below.

——————–

Killings that don’t make news

The Rev. Jeff Putthoff is executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden

A few weeks ago, Camden had its deadliest July since 1949. That was the year that Howard Unruh, America’s first serial killer, killed 13 people on one day. This year, 13 people were killed over the course of 31 days. At the time, I commented on how differently the violence in Camden would be covered by the news media if it had been done by a single serial killer as opposed to many killers.

Amazingly, with the killings in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., we see how gripping one killer of many is to the country. We also now have a case of domestic terrorism – and significant international news coverage – with the horrible killings outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month. Both of these incidents were unimaginable tragedies that have sparked hundreds upon thousands of debates and even more news stories. Both have elicited outrage and even responses from President Obama.

Here in Camden, where more people were killed last month than in either of the tragedies in Colorado or Wisconsin, there has been limited outrage and media coverage. In fact, there has been more attention and news about the new medical school than there has been about the people who are dying right outside its walls in the streets.

Just recently, I had in my office a young man who was speaking to his grief about losing a friend last month to a shooting. This was his second friend in a year who has been shot and killed. The loss is real, the trauma of the violence is deep, and most alarming is the lack of moral outrage that accompanies the “domestic terrorism” visited upon the people of Camden.

In State College, the crimes of Jerry Sandusky have been met with outrage. The outrage is not only about what was done to many young people, but the fact that so many people seem to have known or had some information about what was going on and chose to put Penn State’s image or football program first.

In Camden, murders are not being properly prioritized. Not only is our city being traumatized by ongoing, incessant violence and the trauma of losing life, but there is also a terrible public acquiescing that keeps it protected and perpetual. Such a lack of outrage is itself abusive. It “normalizes” the violence, making the unconscionable acceptable and continuing to wound the already wounded.

The question is, why do 13 murders in 31 days in a city of 77,000 find so little voice, so little reaction, in our world today? A movie theater, a temple, and a football locker room all engender a response that the streets of Camden don’t seem to warrant.

Camden is facing escalating crime and death. And yet the outrage is muted, the TV networks don’t send news trucks, and no memorial is held. It is the ultimate bullying: collusion with an abusive situation. In State College, such collusion is why Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down and why some officials may go to jail. As long as we continue to know and not act, the systemic and repeated abuse of Camden will continue.

The ongoing abuse and violence that are occurring in Camden need to stop. The lack of action around this issue is an outrage.

E-mail Jeff Putthoff at jeff@hopeworks.org.

 

Big Cities, 1860 Edition

I just came across the 1860 census. Fascinating.

With just over 800,000 people, our biggest city was New York. Philadelphia was second with just over a half-million. Third? Brooklyn, not yet part of New York, followed by Baltimore and Boston.

New Orleans was the sixth largest city, about the size of Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Surprises?  Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, Troy, Utica–the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, so this was high time for upstate New York. Also, Newark (NJ) as our eleventh largest city, on par with Washington, D.C., Detroit, Cleveland, Charleston (South Carolina), Hartford (CT). None of these cities were larger than 100,000; in fact, most of them were smaller than 50,000. Newark was home to 72,000 people–about the size of a modest suburb today.

Only one city on the list was west of the Mississippi: San Francisco. Population, just over 50,000, or about the size of Pittsburgh (then, Pittsburg), PA.

If you feel like exploring, visit: http://www.census.gov/population/www/censusdata/hiscendata.html

%d bloggers like this: