Suggestion that Hudson Yards and other urban megaprojects threaten suburbs

The glitz of the new Hudson Yards in New York pushes one theater critic to argue such spaces threaten suburbs:

A problem faced by suburbs becomes all too clear at Hudson Yards. Affluent Americans are almost all going to live in cities, starving urban centers of affordable housing just as they’ll choke up the traditional suburban resources. No suburb, I kept thinking, can compete with this. And Hudson Yards, or Lincoln Yards, or whatever comes next, are far from done.

Such large developments in significant urban neighborhoods are worth keeping an eye on because of all the change that comes at once plus what is included in the new spaces.

But, I don’t think Hudson Yards or the proposed megaproject on Chicago’s north side or the development around Staples Center in Los Angeles will threaten suburbs in the long run:

  1. These spaces do not have the same combination of factors that Americans like in suburbs starting with the emphasis on single-family homes and family life. Projects like these have elements of what suburbia can offer but primarily offer a different experience: bustling activity, diversity of dining and cultural options, presumably a greater mix of people. Suburbs can indeed compete with this by offering a different lifestyle.
  2. The housing available in these new projects is primarily for wealthy urbanites, likely appealing to young professionals and older adults who like all the activity and the newness. This may indeed continue to help concentrate the affluent in certain urban neighborhoods but there will be plenty of working to middle-class residents who will be priced out and will find suburban housing more affordable.
  3. Surveys continue to suggest that even young Americans desire a suburban life in the long run, particularly when they reach a certain age or have families. From my vantage point, the emphasis on the rush to the big cities is overplayed.

Both sizable and exciting urban megaprojects can find success alongside suburban life. Perhaps they may even draw on different people groups in the long run, segmented by age as well as resources. And perhaps we should continue to keep paying attention to who has difficulty finding a true home in either type of space.

The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.

A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.

Secondary cities attractive but have a ways to go to catch biggest US cities

New data from Redfin suggests Americans are moving to secondary big cities:

Nashville, Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin and Dallas are among the top-10 cities with the largest influx of new residents, according to new data from the Redfin real estate brokerage…

“People in the coastal markets are just fed up with double-digit price increases, and they’re moving to a commuter town or to the middle of the country,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin. “In our most recent ‘hottest markets’ report, Indianapolis tied for third place with Boston among the cities where homes go under contract fastest. People are moving there from Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area because it’s affordable.”…

“It’s the combination of affordable housing and jobs that are causing people to move,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based property database.

“In places like Tampa, Dallas and Las Vegas, there’s a booming economy, with lots of jobs, along with relatively affordable homes. You can cut your housing costs in half if you move to Dallas from Los Angeles and there are jobs there, too.”

The United States has now had a decades-long hierarchy of the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It would be interesting to see if other regions could challenge those top three in terms of population or status/importance. I have written before about the case that could be made for Washington, D.C. but it also has relatively expensive housing and may be considered a secondary city. In population, Chicago has lost ground compared to Toronto and Houston may overtake it soon. But, does Houston or Toronto have the same status? Most of the locations on the list above of secondary cities are Sunbelt cities with relatively recent population growth and/or importance. Can a place like Phoenix or Nashville or Dallas translate these changes into global city status? It would take a lot of work and changed perceptions.

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Would more Americans move to cities if they could live in a suburban neighborhood in city limits?

This summer, the New York Times profiled two neighborhoods in a “Suburbs in the City” series. See the profile of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn and Marble Hill in Manhattan. Many American cities have such locations: neighborhoods within the city limits of a major city but with single-family homes, quieter residential streets, and wealthier residents. This is true of both older American cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago – as well as newer cities that are more sprawling – Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.

Three quick thoughts regarding such neighborhoods:

1. Americans like suburbs in part because they offer proximity to the big city and its amenities without necessarily having to feel like they live in a big city. I would guess at least a few Americans would consider attractive urban neighborhoods that have the feeling of a suburb. Single-family homes with yards alongside assurances that their kids are safe and will get ahead are huge. The biggest downsides might be issues like a further removed city government and higher taxes.

2. David Rusk discusses how important it is for big cities to capture such locations within city limits. What he calls elastic cities, places that have successfully annexed more land in recent decades (and many cities in the Northeast or Midwest, like Detroit and Chicago, have not), tend to do better on a number of economic and social measures. These neighborhoods allow some city residents who would otherwise move to the suburbs (like many other Americans) to stay in the city.

3. How much should big cities work to enhance these more residential neighborhoods to entice wealthier residents to stay versus deploying resources to neighborhoods who need the resources more? Chicago presents a great example: the city has worked to reassure whiter and wealthier families that residential neighborhoods, particularly on the north and northwest sides are worth staying in (read about one white flight reassurance program). On the other hand, mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have been dogged by claims that the city cares little about poorer neighborhoods.

Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.