A New Project

As a way to get me more deeply thinking and writing about cities and economics, I’ve decided to start a new activity using this blog.  The goal will be to read something relevant daily (or as often as possible) and write my reactions to it.  Simple as that.  I’m accustomed to writing long, well-thought-out essays, but in the interest of time, I’m going to try specifically not to do that.  I’ll quote one or two significant passages from what I’m reading, and then I’ll react.  I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this project, so it will be slow, steady, and straight to the point.

My first source will take me a while to get through: the mother of all city economists, Jane Jacobs.  I’ll start with her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, then I’ll move on to her more obscure but possibly more genius works focusing more intently on how economies work.  I’ll probably also throw in another one of my foundational classics, Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth.  I’ve read all of these books several times, so nothing will be new to me, but I’ve never really written reactions to them as I was reading them.  I hope this will give them new life for me.

So, let’s begin with the foreword Jacobs wrote to the Modern Library Edition of Death and Life.

Jacobs mentions that her book has been possibly more influential in Europe than in America, at least in 1992 when she was writing the foreword.  European governments and developers were much more willing to build in ways that strengthened rather than deadened cities.  Why is that?  I think it is because of the way people in each culture relate to one another.  Americans have always been much more stand-off-ish with other people.  We are independent, fiercely so.  We want space between ourselves and others who happen to occupy the same space.  I see it all the time on those home buying shows.  People complain endlessly about how close their vacation homes are to the neighbors.  If they can see them somewhere off in the horizon, it’s too close.  Europeans see themselves more as existing with other people.  They like being around others.  The like the bit of chaos that comes with sharing space with crowds and being where the action is.  That’s a generalization, but if you have ever seen a European city in the evening and compare it to most American cities in the evening, you would see what I mean.  The people who left Europe for America left for the pull of opportunity, but many who wanted opportunity also stayed, and I have an idea why: they stayed because they had that European-ness in their blood.  It was a part of them.  The people who left were much more likely to be people who didn’t want to be so tied up with other people anymore.  We are a nation begun by people who just wanted to be left alone, and that characteristic has had many impacts on who we are now and how our culture and cities have evolved.

Later, Jacobs is talking a bit vaguely about integrating non-urban pockets into the urban fabric.  She says, “The time is coming when we will sorely need to apply this learning to suburban sprawls since it is unlikely we can continue extending them without limit.  The cost in energy waste, infrastructure waste, and land waste are too high.”  That was 15 years ago, and sprawl seems to still be occurring unabated.  Does this mean that it is not as wasteful as we think?  Or are the costs just being so obscured from view, transferred inconspicuously somewhere else?  I tend to think that our $16 trillion national debt is where it is (mostly) indirectly accumulating, but I would have a hard time proving that.  It would be an interesting investigatory idea for a book.  I think of it in these terms: The more sprawl, the higher the costs to health, environment, tax base, etc.  The federal government is spending money hand over fist trying to fix problems related to these costs, while at the same time it is failing to bring in enough money to cover those costs.  Even a lot of political graft is related to trying to buy success of the politically important suburban voter.  Over time, the costs add up.  If I am correct, I wonder how intricately the debt is connected with the suburban lifestyle.  To be more specific, if we do default on our debt, I wonder how if and how quickly it would feed back into the system and cause suburbia to collapse under its own weight?

Jacobs then discusses how city ecosystems are similar to natural ecosystems.  The both depend on “diversity to sustain themselves.  In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways.  the more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life.”  Then she talks about chaos theory before chaos theory was really a thing worth talking about.  “In both types of ecosystems, many small and obscure components – easily overlooked by superficial observation – can be vital to the whole, far out of proportion to their own tininess of scale or aggregate quantities.”  This short explanation of a system of diverse, interconnected parts in which small events can create large effects, very elegantly and succinctly describes my whole worldview of economics, cities, and life in a nutshell.  Everything else follows from this.  I’ll flesh this out more and more as time goes on.

Jacobs also mentions how fragile and in flux these ecosystems are.  They are not stable, and they are never in absolute equilibrium, as our microeconomic equations cause us to suppose.  This is interesting in light of some other reading I’ve been doing about how we need to try to make our institutions and economic systems “anti-fragile,” meaning that they “get stronger when subjected to perturbation…” (Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration, pg. 62, discussing Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile).  I’ve been wanting to read Taleb’s book for a long while.  I’m interested to see how this type of system can be constructed.

The final thing of note is one of the great quotes about cities ever written: “Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together.   The combination is not coincidental.”  The is the ecological system of cities and economies at work.  It also works in reverse.  As cities strengthen, so do economies, and social troubles decline.  I am not sure if there is a causation arrow here, and if so, which way it points.  Can a city improve because the economy it is tied to improves?  Can either side improve or decay independently?  Can a group of social institutions be righted independently, which then improves an economy and its cities?  I tend to think that the causation arrow points outward from major cities, but I don’t know that.  All I know is that the statement rings true.  It is all of one piece, and it should not surprise us.  The question is, when decay is occurring (as it is currently), what do we do about it?