Thursday, June 30, 2011

 

Spiked Cities

I’ve been a fan of Richard Florida’s for several years now. He’s a student of cities who has famously argued that the key to growth is in the “creative class” which tends to cluster in major urban centers. In contrast to Tom Friedman -- admittedly, that’s sort of like contrasting Sonny Rollins to Kenny G -- Florida argues that the world is “spiky.” Cities with high concentrations of creatives are the economic engines of the future; they stand out on charts like spikes.

Having followed Florida on twitter for a while, I’ve noticed that his position goes beyond noting creative clusters. There’s a general pro-urban, anti-suburban flavor to his thought. Add a few bike paths and a vibrant gay community, and you’ve pretty much found his recipe for growth.

Florida’s work strikes me as a really elegant way to contrast New York or Boston with, say, Detroit or Pittsburgh. It also reasserts, correctly, the importance of geography in the digital age. There’s a distinct -- and acknowledged -- echo of Jane Jacobs in his work, updated for the age of the web.

All of that said, though, I can’t help but wonder about the urban/suburban distinction when you get to the second- and third-tier cities; spiked, rather than spiky, cities. It’s one thing to say that lower Manhattan is more culturally interesting than Long Island, and even a better place to raise kids. It’s quite another thing to apply that to, say, Syracuse and its suburbs.

The smaller and declining cities of the Northeast and Midwest -- it may hold true elsewhere, too, but I’ll write whereof I know -- can generate many of the negatives of city life: crime, terrible schools, corrupt government, even a lack of supermarkets. But they do it without many of the advantages that Florida seems to assume come with urbanity: robust cultural life, walkable neighborhoods, the excitement of young people taking chances on startups.

In these settings, it seems to me that suburbs hold a real appeal. Yes, they can be sterile and boring. But the schools are better, the crime is lower, and the hassles of daily life are fewer. You can give your kids decent lives without being wealthy. Car dependency is a real issue, but frankly, most small cities don’t have public transportation at a level anywhere near Manhattan’s.

I bring all this up for a few reasons. One is the basic fact that these lower-tier cities may not have many people individually, but taken together, they and their suburbs encompass a huge proportion of the population. They support the majority of the community colleges in America -- you knew I’d get around to that -- so you can’t really understand community colleges without some sense of the communities they serve. And you’ll have a terrible time understanding American voters if you don’t understand the daily reality in which most of them live and work.

There’s also a real danger of missing the reasons that people make the decisions they do. It’s easy to stereotype suburbanites -- and I’ll admit some truth to some of it -- but if you have an unspectacular income and a couple of kids, there’s a good argument for them.

Fun trivia fact: in which state do most New Jersey residents work? Answer: New Jersey! Suburb-to-suburb commuting is the daily reality for much of the American workforce. The old “spokes of a wheel” pattern -- live in the burbs, commute to the city -- is the exception now. Yes, it’s cool to see cities embrace mixed-use development again, and I hope to see it continue. But the big story is that the suburbs have been going mixed-use for about the last thirty or forty years. The prototypical bedroom community has businesses now, and those businesses have employees.

Seen in this light, the spiky world starts to look less about geography and more about income. And the community college mission of filling the middle class starts to look harder. Cc’s are place-bound, often in places that live in the shadows of Florida’s spikes. While they produce some grads who transfer to elite places, they mass produce grads who are qualified for middle-income jobs. A few doctors, but lots of nurses. A few researchers, but a bunch of high school teachers.

And they do it in settings in which public sectors are struggling to provide even basic services. The economically powerful are able to pit one location against another in the battle for the biggest tax breaks, guaranteeing that the public sector takes a hit everywhere. The employers that hired community college grads in the past are exactly the ones being defunded, just as the colleges themselves are. The spikiest cities may be insanely prosperous, but most of the cities I’ve lived in and near are not. They’re struggling to maintain the basics of civic life, and community colleges are feeling that struggle.

Community colleges, like many of the cities that house them, prospered in the less spiky twentieth century. As much as I like Florida’s analysis, I fear its accuracy; if he’s right -- and I think he is, broadly speaking -- cc’s are at cross-purposes with history. We’re trying to generate a middle class for a country that no longer really wants one.

Bike paths in San Francisco are great, and I enjoy Boston and Seattle as much as anyone. But most of the country is more like Syracuse than Seattle. Spiky cities are great, but spiked cities are everywhere. They were the products of economies that generated a middle class that was the envy of the world. To the extent that community colleges carry those roots in their DNA, I fear they’ll get spiked, too.

Comments:
I've always thought it would be rude to dump on suburbs on your blog, given the whole suburbdad name, but here's my chance, since you specifically brought up the topic!

Car dependency is indeed the #1 problem with the suburbs. There's also the tendency of people to buy larger houses than they need, which leads to more car dependency. In fact, maybe it's not so necessary to have a house, really. Why do people think it's so impossible to raise kids in apartments?

Although there may be better schools, it seems to that the problem is that the kids have no autonomy until they can drive a car. When there's public transit, no need for that, and kids can leave the house without having a parent (or older kid) involved.

Downtown Syracuse, for instance, might have potential to become more livable. The built form of the suburbs makes that very difficult (but not completely impossible); car dependency is central. It isn't, right now, but maybe that will change.

As you say, suburb-to-suburb commuting is quite prevalent. In fact it's kind of what's happening here in Waterloo. We just approved the construction of a Light Rail system. There's no real hub here, but there are nodes along a corridor. Old-school suburbanite planning professors are all complaining that it doesn't seem to make sense, but newer-school people think it's perfectly fine. We don't all need to go into the hub.

Some suburbs here (notably Mississauga, notorious for being a car-only bedroom suburb of Toronto) are also trying to urbanize by building out more of a core and having more services in the city.

Middle class? I have no insight into that question. It's a problem.
 
Smaller centers have advantages even for people who aren't parents: home prices are sane and commutes are reasonable.

If you don't have a taste for the really exotic things you only find in large cities, and you don't need to be there for a job, living in a large city isn't a particularly good deal.
 
There's nothing wrong with raising kids in an apartment, but at least in the U.S., there have to be some fundamental shifts on all sides for it to become a more popular choice.

First, we need to end the government subsidy for mortgage interest payments. It tips the balance in favor of buying all too often.

Second, apartments need to be built with families in mind. Where I live (suburbs of a major city) there are large swaths of apartment buildings filled with 1 bedroom and 2 bed + 2 bath units - ideal for roommates, but not for families with 2 or 3 kids. Get rid of the extra bathroom and give me a bedroom instead, now we're talking. But the folks building the apartment assume the tenants will be childless, so the people who line up to rent it are childless, so they build more buildings for the childless, and on and on.

Third, we've got to expand the social norms on this. When we were living in an apartment with our 18 month old (at the time), he would sometimes cry at night. He's always been a reluctant sleeper. We did our best to quiet him down, of course, but sometimes kids cry at inconvenient times. Anyway, one of our fellow tenants complained to management about this. Annoyed as I was, I understood that my child was interrupting his sleep. The kid was interrupting my sleep, too, after all! Point is, we all need to get better at living in close quarters. It's not just on the parents to up and decide that space is not a concern anymore.

And of course, finally, suburbs tend to have the best elementary and secondary schools. DD mentions this. Unless you can afford rent in a city apartment AND private school tuition, the suburbs make sense for this reason most of all. The importance of this factor to most parents cannot be overstated, rightly or wrongly, and it's unlikely to change. Even if everything else about you prefers city life, the schools make a strong case for the suburbs.

I guess I'm just trying to say that there are reasons for not living in an apartment beyond, "I want a huge giant house!" Though of course that exists too, and too much.
 
Richard Florida is kind of a crock. I mean, just who are the creative class? Mostly people like me and my friends who are incredibly creative...and broke. I mean really broke, we live communally and eat beans and rice and never get holidays and fix our own bikes (we can't afford transit) because we make $15,000 - $20,000 a year being so creative. Our employment situations are precarious to the extreme, especially now with the recession and everything any contract is hard to come by. I just applied for a really great creative class kind of job, along with 200 other people, a lot of whom I know. Honestly I'm kind of sick of creating vibrant, livable Toronto (I live where Herr Florida lives, but with his house in Rosedale, and his topped-up UofT/Rotman salary we might as well be on different planets) and eating beans and rice. I think a creative class revolt is a comin', and I'm not sure what the Florida's of the world will think of that. And I'm not sure I care.
 
I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that Florida is a "crock," but while his initial "creative class" insight was clever, it is also kind of fuzzy and superficial if you were to actually try to apply it.

And his creative class is not necessarily who you would think it would be - it's made up of doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, and engineers...with a smattering of artists and musicians to keep things interesting.

And his analysis seems to be purely descriptive. I.e., you can note that Seattle or Austin or San Francisco has a lot of bike trails and an interesting music scene...and it also has a vibrant high-tech economy. But this doesn't seem to be transplantable - if you add bike trails and musicians and artists to Louisville, it won't suddenly become the Seattle of the South.
 
"Add a few bike paths and a vibrant gay community, and you’ve pretty much found his recipe for growth."

From your description of Florida, it sounds like gentrification is the key to economic growth in a city. Wealthy professionals and investors have left the sick and dying cities you mentioned with the manufacturing industries, and no amount of bike paths, community garden's and coffee shops are going to bring back the jobs, and thus the people.

I love cities, and therefore I love everything that helps the communities in sick cities survive. Urban CC's are on that list. I think your worry about the middle class and the CC's role in supporting it is correct. I don't agree with the urban sub-urban divide you've framed the problem in.
 
"robust cultural life, walkable neighborhoods, the excitement of young people taking chances on startups"

"most small cities don’t have public transportation at a level anywhere near Manhattan’s"

You didn't mention Portland, Oregon in your list, but Portland has all of the above--a robust cultural life, an entrepreneurial spirit, etc--and excellent infrastructure for public transportation. Portland made specific decisions to invest in its infrastructure. It's a walkable, vibrant city. My family of four, including two young, school-aged kids, lives outside of the city center but in town, in a house with a yard, and we manage fine with just one very small car.

Our economy isn't great, but it'll come back. So add Portland to your list of "exceptions."
 
I think you're confusing the individually rational choice for the communally rational choice. You're right that for many individuals, suburbs seem to make a lot of sense. It comes however, at a significant cost to society's overall welfare. It requires massive amounts of low-density use land, billions in federal highway subsidies, a hyper-localization of school district funds that robs poor communities, and massive traffic, pollution, and congestion externalities that make life worse for everyone.

It also doesn't help that most suburbanites also fight economically efficient uses of public dollars too, like public transit, in order to fund even more highways.

We need to start thinking not only in terms of the financial cost of suburbs, but in terms of the opportunity cost as well. The amount of productive land we could get by building at even moderate density in most of America's suburbs is mind-boggling, and prohibited not by market forces, but by arbitrary zoning regulations.
 
Relatively recent reader (big fan!) and first-time commenter.

I grew up in an exurb on the East Coast (a rural county seat that became a bedroom community following the "white flight" of the 60s and 70s). Left at the first opportunity, have no desire to return, though the floor plans and square footage of my high school classmates' houses as seen on Facebook are tempting. Oh, for a second bathroom in my tiny urban house.

While my husband and I love our metropolis, warts and all, it is interesting that we chose to buy a house in an area that closely mimics a suburb. Sure, we are close to the world-class museums and landmarks of our fair city, but our neighborhood is mostly single-family homes with lawns. There is a cute little downtown with trendy shops within walking distance, but it is far enough away to keep the parking hassles to a minimum. Our municipality also boasts its own excellent public services, most notably an independent public school system.

We also have a community college, though our neighbors are barely aware of its existence. A pity, as the offerings (credit and extension alike) are excellent.
 
If you have anything at all within walking distance, you live in a city, not a suburb.
 
Some Europeans I know have commented that most American cities in fact look like suburbs.
 
Was that crack about "lack of supermarkets" based on lies told about Detroit? (Detroit has plenty of supermarkets, including regional chains, although it helps to know the Spanish word for it.) If Dave Bing pulls off the conversion of parts of the city back into the valuable farm land it used to be, there would be lots of small town-like areas suitable for the "creative class". It already has all of the other amenities on Florida's list.

Traffic jams are in the suburbs now.

One thing odd about the US is that college students love living in close proximity to other students, parties, and arty hangouts, but after graduation they seek out the isolation of houses in the suburbs where they might not know any of their neighbors or encounter any of the things they loved as students.
 
"- if you add bike trails and musicians and artists to Louisville, it won't suddenly become the Seattle of the South."
Well, not without gays, it won't.
In my many meanderings through the university library system as an undergrad, I ran across an article on the gay-ification strategy for gentrification in a journal about city planning. It was remarkably compelling.
Many cities have a sound-enough infrastructure, but have hollowed out cores as a result of white flight. A vibrant gay community has actually been the critical component in fixing that in certain locations. It goes along with 'diversity' being identified as a good thing, instead of a sign that the schools are poor.
I'm not sure if it works if there aren't any jobs anywhere nearby though.

"Portland has all of the above--a robust cultural life, an entrepreneurial spirit, etc--and excellent infrastructure for public transportation."
*longing sigh*
Tell Oregon Health and Sciences University to ramp up their research, and I'll be there in a heartbeat.
(scientists count as a 'creative class', right?)

"One thing odd about the US is that college students love living in close proximity to other students, parties, and arty hangouts, but after graduation they seek out the isolation of houses in the suburbs where they might not know any of their neighbors or encounter any of the things they loved as students."
I think a lot of it might be about having kids and thinking about schooldistricts.
 
I'll just note here that "living in the city" doesn't necessarily mean living in the urban core, or in an apartment.

I live in a rust-belt city not unlike Syracuse, in a residential neighborhood where the houses are all 80-100 years old (in other words, it's been residential for a long time, but back when people couldn't rely on cars to get around). The house my partner and I bought is a beautiful 3-bedroom with a small yard. It was half the price of homes just two miles away (in the technical 'burbs), and has much lower taxes. It has leafy streets and lots of kids, but is within walking or biking distance of everything. And since the homes are closely set together, there's lots of street and porch life.

It's true the schools aren't great, and the bus system could be better. But it's a viable, affordable model for urban living for families and the childless alike.
 
A skeptical perspective on Florida's theories:

http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_1_the_curse.html
 
Well, I'll take my 15 minute commute, my 15 minute ride in one direction to the theater, and a 15 minute ride in the other to buy cheese and milk made on the dairy farm that produced it. I'll take my kids to art classes at the museum, or to their orchestra rehearsals, we'll take the canoe out to a county park, we'll hang out with our same sex couple friends and their children, and we'll walk to school or the grocery store. No, it's not Manhattan, but I'll take my Syracuse suburb, thank you.
 
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?