Category Archives: cities

The Lady Who Bulldozed Robert Moses … and more!

Robert Moses is one of those figures who are bound to stir up controversy. In the mid-20th century, Moses re-shaped Manhattan and the other boroughs with grand projects. Those grand projects were based on the idea of “city as machine”. Moses wanted to use modern technology to make the machine work better. That meant bulldozing neighborhoods for freeways. Stuff like that. People just had to adjust to the new realities. That was progress, as far as Moses saw it. And he saw himself as a visionary.

These days, this style of urban renewal has gone out of fashion. Instead of Moses as hero, we get his nemesis, Jane Jacobs as hero. And we will soon see this in a film to be released called “”Citizen Jane: Battle for the City“.

The new way of thinking is that people make the city. And treating the city like a big machine damages the human side of city life. We take James Baldwin’s comment, “Urban renewal means negro removal”. a tad more seriously.

I find it a bit odd that we embrace this as doctrine at the same time that we are awash in corporate money in our politics and elect a dude like Donald Trump to be president.  Could it be, as Elizabeth Warren argues, that we need to wake up to the way our political system has become “rigged” so that it cannot and will not deliver for the people?

Clearly, corporate power is at a high point. We want the efficiencies that cost reduction through market exploitation offers and that big corporations deliver. By and large, we are satisfied when we buy a car or shop at a supermarket. As Steve Jobs said in a different context, “it just works”.

At the same time, we may be just beginning to sense that Ayn Rand was full of baloney. Her vision of the rational and selfish heroics — a vision that captivated Alan Greenspan and led him to champion deregulating the financial system — is starting to look out of date. Contrary to Rand’s ideal, humans are not strictly rational. Research confirms that by and large, we are emotional creatures who use reason from time to time. Or as Dan Kahneman put it, we like to think fast (and act on pre-existing beliefs) rather than think slow (and question whether we know what the hell we are doing). Rand’s rational hero is not a slow thinker.

So where will this take us? Good question. It is too early to tell how the 21st century will move on from 20th-century silliness, just as the 20th century moved on from 19th-century silliness and the 19th century moved on from 18th-century silliness and the 18th century moved on from 17th-century silliness. But move on, we will.

Stay tuned.

The Uncertain future of Cities

I use the word “uncertain” not to question whether cities will be around 100 years from now. I am confident that they will be. Instead, I use the word “uncertain” because we do not understand how to manage cities.  Richard Florida and  Ed Glaeser agree that there is a crisis at hand.

BTW, in an interview with the Guardian, Ed Glaeser gives a brilliant potted view of how cities got to where they are now.  Ed also reveals his bias that city regulation (in New York and London) has tended to overly restrict development.

But are cities part of the problem when we talk about growing inequality and social fragmentation? Florida and Glaeser offer their views. 

The key idea that comes under the microscope — in the 21st century, smartness will be rewarded more than ever before. And getting smart requires being “plugged into” conversations. Cities offer those types of “plugged in” experiences.  The question will be whether they will dominate all other locales.

My hope is that they will not. I hope that there will be great opportunities built elsewhere and not dependent on pre-fab clusters that are easily dominated by the few.

Where are we headed? Stay tuned!

Is New York “Soft” on Crime?

The Trump Justice Department has just said that it is.

What is this all about?

To understand this, you need to look at the “soft on crime” argument from a historical perspective.

After the second war, American cities faced a series of huge challenges. Blue collar jobs started leaving the cities in droves. At the same time, the suburbs were opening up,  which attracted the middle class to move out of the cities. Cities faced a double whammy crisis.  The loss of jobs meant rising poverty. Businesses moving out along with the middle class meant declining tax revenues and therefore fewer city services.

It was no huge surprise that many cities, including New York, went into a period of decline. And with that decline, there was a surge in street crime. The conservative answer was to “get tough on crime”.   Strengthen the hand of police to stop, frisk, detain and arrest. Strengthen prosecution with mandatory prison sentences. And this argument prevailed.

The result was a massive increase in the US prison population. I do not believe that the intention was overtly racist. It is hard to ignore that the effect was. Black men were hit hardest.

As time went by, cities began to find ways to pull themselves back from crisis. Young folks started to move back. New types of jobs opened up. And new thinking about crime and punishment was discussed and implemented. All of this led to significant reductions in city crime and significant improvements in city life.

In other words, even if getting tough on crime had been needed — which is debatable at best — it is not needed now. To the contrary, overly tough police tactics and excessive punishments for non-violent crime are causing urban problems rather than solving them.

At the same time, conservatives remember that the slogan “get tough on crime” got them elected in the past. And so, some are trying it again. This time around, they point to protests against abusive police tactics as the justification for even more abusive police tactics. Trump’s justice department appears to be leading the charge.

Silly? Of course it is! Will reason prevail? that remains to be seen.

Mexico City and the Dynamics of Exclusion

Mexico City was discovered a while back by hipsters looking for something new. They proclaimed it as the next Berlin!

Is it? As it turns out, they refer mainly to three neighborhoods within the city – Condesa, Roma and Polanco. These neighborhoods are fantastic. They also form a relatively small part of an enormous city of 20 million people. The rest of the city is very different. It is much poorer and more difficult to live in.  And most of the hipsters visiting Mexico City don’t see that.

So what is the future for this place? Or is Mexico City evolving into two separate places – one for the affluent and well educated, and another for the poor? Sadly, it appears to be the latter.

And this may be a story that plays out on a global basis. The 21st century may offer incredible opportunities to some, but exclude many others more profoundly than ever before.

Clusters on Steroids

Richard Florida has a lot to say about how urban economics is changing. It is all based on his — and others — notion that “clusters” are where future value-added activities will occur. These bits of data are pretty amazing

The extent to which economic activity has become concentrated in the world’s cities and metropolitan areas is staggering. The fifty largest metros across the globe house just 7 percent of the world’s total population but generate 40 percent of global economic activity. Just forty mega-regions—constellations of cities and metros like the Boston–New York–Washington corridor—account for roughly two-thirds of the world’s economic output and more than 85 percent of its innovation, while housing just 18 percent of its population. The amount of economic activity packed into small urban spaces within the leading cities is even more astonishing. Just one small sliver of downtown San Francisco, for instance, attracts billions of dollars in venture capital annually, more than any nation on the planet save for the United States. This is why I believe it is more useful to refer to contemporary capitalism as urbanized knowledge capitalism as opposed to knowledge-based capitalism.

In the future, we will all cluster or suffer the consequences.

Why Oslo Could be Amazing

Oslo is one of the fastest growing city in Europe. But that is not why it may claim amazing status in a few years. Here is why (from CityLab)

To stanch emissions and smooth mobility for residents, all cars will be banned downtown by 2019. If delivered, the plan would be the first comprehensive and permanent four-wheel prohibition in any major European city (Paris, Dublin, Madrid, and Milan are working on similar, if smaller-scale ambitions). To pull it off, Oslo has set about creating a downtown that puts pedestrians first—and as a short documentary from STREETFILMS director Clarence Eckerson shows, the transformation is well underway.

Here is a video that tells the story

Oslo: The Journey to Car-free from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Living in the Era of Winner Take All Urbanism

The underlying crisis of our era stares us in the face. It is so simple that it is hard to see.

We live in an era that values knowledge acquisition above all else. And not all of us are capable of thriving in that activity.

For this simple reason, we see a growing divide between haves and have nots. Richard Florida calls it an urban crisis. I think it is more than that. It is a global crisis.

If this is true, the great question confronting us is how to build that capacity so that knowledge acquisition is more evenly distributed.  We know a few things about this already.

  • Knowledge acquisition has been a top down affair. In the future, it needs to become more bottom up
  • building this capacity is not about nurturing individual genius as much as it is about facilitating knowledge exchanges
  • the value of knowledge should be measured more broadly than whether it directly translates into a good or service

There is plenty more to learn. And if we can master these ideas, we can promote a global renaissance.