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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sacred, Safe, and Busy

I am reviewing two recent books on urban and suburban development.  (Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl:  A Compact History (Univ. of Chicago Press 2005) and Joel Kotkin, The City:  A Global History (Modern Library Chronicles 2005).)  Bruegmann's book is the more "academic" of the two.  He is an historian who builds a very careful case for the suburbs (and against growth controls).  But, I am most struck by Kotkin's suggestion that healthy cities are "sacred, safe, and busy" places -- cities are centers of social and community life that protect their citizens and bind them together through shared norms and common aspirations.

The difficulty is, as any observer of the modern American landscape knows, that many cities have stopped serving any of these functions.   Some might argue that cities have stumbled because of suburbs, others that suburbs thrive because cities stumbled.  But, the question is what can be done to make cities "sacred, safe, and busy" again?  Like Bruegmann, I am skeptical of claims that we must stop suburbs to save our cities.  But, unlike Bruegmann, I do think that something should be done to save our cities.  Many cities' fortunes have improved in recent years --thanks in part to to new policing priorities, land use reforms, and sublocal government innovations.  The ultimate question is whether Americans can be convinced to live urban lives instead of suburban ones. 

Posted by ngarnett on June 13, 2006 at 10:31 AM | Permalink


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But what are the attractions of a city, as you see it? It seems to me that cities are life in the fast lane with everyone cramped together with precious little room to breath, paying massively inflated prices for the most miserly amounts of living space in shared buildings, and developing an ulcer either sitting in traffic or being sardined in public transport. I certainly agree that it isn't perfect, but it seems to me that the suburbs are the best we have, compromising between the admitted practicalities of the city and the space and independence of the countryside. It's not readily apparent to me that the city - which again, I assume to be used here as a synonym for dense urban environments such as NY - has any virtues per se; rather, it has features which some people are willing to put up with, a few people might actually like, and that others find absolutley repulsive.

Posted by: Simon | Jun 15, 2006 12:47:44 PM

Chuck, I agree with you completely. Oregon has created a happy compromise in that there is some new development allowed around cities, but not too much. The result? Reinvigoration of the inner city (in Portland, for example, the NE side is booming from its former decayed state) and some lovely houses right outside the area, while you still have the countryside, the mountains and the coast relatively unblemished. Also, you have fewer McMansions, because lot sizes within the urban growth boundaries are small.

Bill, why do you think the Oregon experiment only worked because of its homogenuity? From what I've seen (and I've lived in cities for the past 20 years, from Pittsburgh to Philly to New Haven to Los Angeles to New York to Salem), the mixing of races & ethnicities is really only going to happen in a city with boundaries, in which everyone wants to live. To take NY, for example, although there is some segmentation within neighborhoods, you pretty much have all colors & creeds living on the isle of Manhattan. If there were endless suburbs surrounding the city (insted of what it has,extrodinarily expensive little towns), people might move out--which is what happened to L.A. But the attractions of a city combined with limited boundaries essentially forces everyone to live together. It's not perfect, but it's the best we got!

Posted by: Laura | Jun 15, 2006 12:07:07 PM

the suburb is hardly a happy compromise. Sure, you have room for a garden and a swingset, but you can't walk down to the storeI have a supermarket, two 24 hour gas stations, a video store, a micromall with a branch of the county library and a theater, and a handful of other stores all within a twenty minute walk if I so fancy. As for bein aesthetically horrible, the proclivity of suburbanites to have gardens tends to offset that. Maybe we have different ideas of a suburb. ;)

Posted by: Simon | Jun 15, 2006 8:57:18 AM

But in response to Simon, many of us would rather choose between (a) cities (b) small towns and (c) the countryside - the suburb is hardly a happy compromise. Sure, you have room for a garden and a swingset, but you can't walk down to the store and they're aestetically horrific. The only suburbs I can respect are former small towns, which somehow maintain their character. I don't know how Oregon's law works, but if it protects farmland and woodland, while permitting new houses in existing small towns, that sounds like a great idea to me. Personally, if I had the money, I'd have a place in the city and another place in the country. And if and when I settle down, maybe I'd sell the condo and move out to a small town. But suburbs? Never.

Posted by: Chuck | Jun 14, 2006 6:28:14 PM

When you say cities in contradistinction from suburbs, I presume you're talking about reinvigorating interest in people living in urban environments. But for my part, I can't imagine any reason why I would want to live in an urban environment - indeed, places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are as close as I can imagine to Hell on Earth - and I don't think that I'm really all that unusual in reaching such a conclusion. I didn't move out of "the city" because "the city" failed (or "stumbled", as you put it), rather, I moved out of "the city" because I had a strong desire to not live in the sort of environment that is the definition of a "city." Thus, no change in city policy will ever induce me to move back, because the force that drove me out was inherent to the nature of the city. Perhaps I'm just unusual, but I really fail to understand the motivation for anyone to live in an urban environment unless they have absolutely no choice in the matter.

Posted by: Simon | Jun 13, 2006 3:09:00 PM

Nicole, nice post. Two observations:

First, I agree with Laura that the UGB in Portland is a remarkable innovation. It was invented 30 years ago (by a Republican administration) and has produced some surprising dynamics. For example, I remember interviewing at Stoel Rives as a law student, and the firm lawyers described how the partners were "lucky" because they could afford to live within a mile of work while the associates could only afford to live within four of five miles. Many pointed to their neighborhoods from the windows of the firm. Downtown Portland was also safe in the Jane Jacobs sense--lots of people walking around. Portland was the complete opposite of my hometown, Cleveland, which had become the quinesstential donut city. Unfortunately, part of the explanation for the Portland miracle may be the relative homogeneity of the Portland metro region. Over the years, I have heard urban experts point out this fact many times.

Second, when you say that "many cities' fortunes have improved in recent years--thanks in part to to new policing priorities, land use reforms, and sublocal government innovations," what cities are you talking about, and how significantly have the fortunes changed? Some of the best examples of gentrification have occurred in large metro areas, such as San Francisco, Washington, DC, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Miami. But there is a well-developed literature on "global cities" or "world cities" that discusses the rise of new knowledge worker class (that includes corporate lawyers). These elites have strong preferences for urban living, including proximity to work, and they are unconstrained by K-12 schooling issues because they are very likely to opt out of the public system anyway. That, I would argue, is a major factor behind these changing fortunes; the elite may even lobby for law changes that facilitate their desired types of development. Causation in urban renewal is very tricky to untangle; there are literally dozens of possible path dependent issues.

Thanks for the post, which involves one of my favorite topics. bh.

Posted by: William Henderson | Jun 13, 2006 12:42:14 PM

What about an urban growth boundary, as is practiced in Oregon? Portland, Salem & Eugene are all thriving cities which don't sprawl out forever and ever--there's the city, in all its busy, interactive glory (including more suburban bits), and then there's the country & farmland. It's a nice mix. (and yes, now that I've moved to OR I am singing its praises).

Posted by: Laura | Jun 13, 2006 12:16:26 PM

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