Friday, March 4, 2011

Do We Still Need Cities?

Believe it or not, there is a debate centered on whether the American future depends on the city. The two leading cultural and social debaters, Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin take very different views of where we are heading. Florida, in his recent book The Great Reset, believes in the dense megaregion to drive the development of new industries and technologies and the creation of a whole new way of life. Joel believes in demographics and that people still have a choice, and they currently are voting with their feet and walking away from the denser urban centers toward “opportunity” regions.

The politicians and bureaucrats have to believe that the future is in our dense urban regions, and are focused on the major cities (I would too if that’s where the most votes live). They believe in the return to the city and like Richard Florida, opine that this is where the future will evolve. Maybe, maybe not.

Unlike most other countries, Americans, Canadians, and some European countries do not have to rely on the core urban city to move forward. But in other regions, it is the city where the jobs, ports and commerce centers, and many of the universities are. What affects the poorer countrysides in India, China, Vietnam, and Brazil more than anything is that their cities are where jobs and modern infrastructures exist. Say what you will about the futures of these countries, but it's their severe lack of stable and supportive infrastructures (poor roads, unsafe water, intermittent electricity, along with subsistence living conditions), that will doom these countries for years and years. They must depend on the urban region to exist in the Twenty-first Century.

Do we have to depend on the city for the American future and growth? We are now seeing how incredibility complex these urban centers are; aged infrastructures, poor quality housing, excessive taxation, almost criminal school systems, and above all incredibly bad management, this does not portend a great future for the city. For these and many other reasons, people vote with their feet.

Cities, while amazing physical structures, are the most fragile social ecosystems humans have created. For almost 7,000 years people have used cities as centers of commerce. The oldest seem to have been founded in the Levant, the region around Lebanon, Syria, and Israel; a crossroads in the trade routes of north-south and east-west commerce. Our American city building efforts pale in comparison to other great cities that have grown to maturity, like Athens and Rome, only to fail, rebuild, fail, then rebuild again. Others cities have maintained an increasing world importance for two thousand years, like London. Others are being created out of nothing but desire and intense amounts of capital, like Dubai. To foolishly believe that a city is permanent, we only have to look at Berlin in 1946, or Lisbon in 1755 when it was essentially wiped off the map of world by an earthquake, is to see how easily they can be destroyed. Great plagues gutted Medieval European cities; these plagues were the neutron bombs of their time, a city without people is only architecture. One could even argue that the greater and more intense the population, the greater its risk to disease and infection.

My belief is that current Western culture allows for and in fact demands a more flexible human network. Cities will exist and will grow, but the citizen does not have to physically live in and participate in the city. Economic costs are too high for all but the wealthy to live well in the city; all other residents in the urban core require the support, through taxes and investment of this smaller but wealthier group. It is like Paris where the taxes of the rest of France support this incredibly costly city. If these fortunate and wealthier citizens aren’t supported and encouraged to participate, they will leave. The city will become poorer and more dangerous, both financially and culturally, look at Detroit.

Florida can believe in the future of the megaregions, the creative class, a less auto-centric culture, and high speed rail as the ultimate savior; but he will have to tax the suburbanite and the small town citizen to make them work. As we see now, they will rebel. All the research and “fact” collecting won’t divine the future of a wealthy society that has the ability to make cultural and economic choices outside of the demands of the “State.” People in a free society will make decisions in their own self-interest. If this changes, no matter what government carrots are hanging out there, we may be in trouble.

Stay Tuned . . . .

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Many of the City "destructions" of the past are really evolutions into new political or social regimes. The City itself didn't disappear as important centers of business and social life - Berlin, Lisbon, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and hundreds of others have risen and fallen in importance but, with rare exception, they've all been occupied and utilized as home bases for a group of people to congregate and interact.