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Words on the Street

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Street Cred: What Jane Jacobs Got So Right—and What She Got Wrong | Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

Her admirers and interpreters tend to be divided into almost polar opposites: leftists who see her as the champion of community against big capital and real-estate development, and free marketeers who see her as the apostle of self-emerging solutions in cities. In a lovely symmetry, her name invokes both political types: the Jacobin radicals, who led the French Revolution, and the Jacobite reactionaries, who fought to restore King James II and the Stuarts to the British throne. She is what would now be called pro-growth—“stagnant” is the worst term in her vocabulary—and if one had to pick out the two words in English that offended her most they would be “planned economy.” At the same time, she was a cultural liberal, opposed to oligarchy, suspicious of technology, and hostile to both big business and the military. Figuring out if this makes hers a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details is the challenge that taking Jacobs seriously presents.

Trains Built Roanoke. Science Saved It. | Colin Woodard, Politico Magazine

How did a small city in a disadvantaged region four hours from a major metropolis—one that had seen its signature industries atrophy or depart, that lacked so much as a branch campus of a state university—transform itself from the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians into a formidable rival to Asheville, North Carolina? The answer has lessons for small, out-of-the-way cities everywhere: Roanoke’s people did it largely by themselves, in small steps and with an eye to assets and alliances in the wider region around them. … And it all happened in what would seem the most unlikely of places: a city created, built and controlled for most of its history by the distant investors of that most controlling and rapacious of Industrial Age corporations, the railroad.

Occupy Broad Street | John Massengale

Slow Streets don’t invite suburban drivers to bring their cars to the city, as our urban highways and one-way arterials do. Slow Streets favor pedestrian and urban life. When we remove all the striping and signs that mark the streets as machine space, it becomes easy to make streets where people want to be. Before the automobile, we even put stone monuments and fountains in our streets. Temporary monuments like the original Washington Arch, which was originally in the middle of the street, marking the beginning of Fifth Avenue, were common. New Yorkers felt free to step out into the street as they do in Amsterdam. That’s the essence of Shared Space.

Big Cities Can Learn From the Landscapes of Small-Town America | Josh Stephens, Planetizen

Who cares about buildings? Anyone with enough cash can commission a life-size sculpture, plop it down on a vacant lot, and call it great architecture. Truly great architecture—as opposed to great “design”— is that which responds to and enhances its context. Some of that architecture is avant grade, and some is as anonymous as you and me. … The fixation on architecture-as-object persists, most recently, and predictably, in Architectural Record’s Top 125 Buildings. … AR lists the usual suspects: early innovators, the CIAM crowd and other high Modernists, a few postmodernists, some Brutalists, and contemporary starchitects. Many of their structures will make you numb with their visual beauty, or at least their visual complexity. Indeed, many of them look like they were made to sell magazines. They look amazing in photographs; what goes on beyond the edge of the frames is often anyone’s guess. The trouble is, no one teaches cute in architecture school. I suppose the New Urbanists have tried. Everyone else is too busy teaching phenomenology, parametrics, and deconstructivism, which is, to be honest, a pretty terrifying theory on which to base a building.

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Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice

Everyone who follows debates about urban planning already knows that sprawling cities build more housing and have lower housing costs. Yet last week Issi Romem, an economic analyst at BuildZoom, a company that helps people find and hire contractors, published an analysis of this phenomenon that sent urbanists reeling. It should not have done so. Romem’s data was not new and his analysis was flawed and misleading.

Romem also shows that cities have not been increasing in population density as much as the past. Again, this isn’t new. If anything, Romem understates what has happened: the largest cities in the United States in 1950 all began to experience population decline due to suburbanization in that decade and only New York City has exceeded its previous peak, while expensive, growing coastal cities like Boston and Washington, DC are still far off the densities and populations they had in the past.

While Romem’s data is indisputable, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Sprawl isn’t really as cheap as it seems. A network of tax breaks, financial guarantees, subsidies, and other chicanery keep parts of suburbia relatively inexpensive. Most notably, transportation costs are often excluded from the discussion of housing affordability, even though it’s hard to live anywhere without a way to get to work. For example, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has shown that the low density, car-dependent development that has typified American cities since World War II does not produce enough tax revenue to service the debt that cities took out to build the infrastructure needed for sprawl.

Romem compares the San Francisco and Atlanta metropolitan areas on affordability and the sprawling Peach City naturally beats out the more compact City by the Bay on housing costs, but if one includes transportation costs as a percentage of income, then Atlanta becomes less of a bargain, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T Index. A typical household in San Francisco, according to the measure, spends 50 percent of its income on housing and transportation, but a typical Atlanta household spends 54 percent of its income on the same costs.

This leads to what Romem calls the “land-use trilemma,” which presents the perceived trade-offs between more sprawl, doing nothing while letting expensive cities get more expensive, or liberalizing land use laws to allow more density. Much like C.S. Lewis’s trilemma, which was useful for Christian apologetics (but is usually ignored by more serious theologians and Biblical scholars), Romem’s trilemma is useful for the apologists of sprawl but falls apart upon examining his assumptions.

For instance, tucked away in a footnote, Romem writes that “Shifting from single family to multifamily housing involves a sacrifice in terms of living standards. The current wave of interest in micro-units takes the sacrifice of living standards to an extreme.” This is a load of tosh: last year a CBS affiliate in San Francisco did a story on a house in the Mission District where the rent was $1,800 a month (far less than the area’s average rent), but tenants were in bunk beds eight to a room and the house ultimately had 30 people in it. When compared with this living situation, even a 140 square foot micro-apartment one has to one’s self is going to be a major step up. Nor does an increase in density imply a shift from single family homes to large apartment buildings: the attached houses of the English Midlands are single family and have yards. Tokyo also achieves very high densities with detached single family houses, thanks to small sizes, small lots, and narrow streets.

A similar view of development underlines and undermines the trilemma. For example, Romem implies that development is a major intervention that happens on a neighborhood scale. He told Bloomberg‘s Patrick Clark, “No one is really thinking about tearing down single-family neighborhoods and putting up apartment buildings.”

But no urbanists really think that kind of demolition is necessary. There’s a wide spectrum between the Levittowns, archetypes of postwar sprawl, and Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City, once the densest neighborhood on the planet. Density can be added, as in the albeit extreme Mission bunkhouse example, by turning a single family house into a multifamily home. Apartments can be carved out in basements, second stories, and above garages. The principles of the New Urbanism suggest that such incremental development is healthier for cities, since property remains in the hands of smallholders instead of assembled into giant lots.

Some cities are improving the quality of life for seniors and housing young people with homeshares. Seniors in many cities face increased difficulties in staying in their homes because they have more house than they can take care of and are hit harder by increases in property taxes. These programs match young people with seniors and they pay a small rent while taking care of the house and keeping the older person engaged and active.

New Urbanism also presents an alternative to the trilemma by supporting the regeneration of small towns affected by deindustrialization. Many cities have older, traditional small towns with existing but dilapidated multifamily housing stock or downtown commercial or industrial blocks capable of being attractively renovated. New England in particular is home to many of them—towns like Southbridge, Mass and Woonsocket, R.I., or even Bridgeport, Conn. New Urbanist designs can also be applied to new development in expansive cities. Some big cities, especially outside the northeast and west coast, are surrounded by unincorporated land not subject to municipal zoning laws. A developer could build a denser, more urban neighborhood in these areas—which is exactly what’s happening in Toronto’s suburbs, according to Stephen J. Smith. The financing might be difficult, thanks to federal rules that, according to the Regional Plan Association, discourage the construction of small mixed-use buildings by capping how much commercial space they can have and promoting larger buildings.

Just as importantly, the land-use trilemma falls apart because realistically there is no alternative to allowing greater density. There are hard limits to the development pattern of American suburbia. The most discussed is commute time across metropolitan areas. According to Slate, longer commutes are associated with divorce, isolation, obesity, stress, neck and back pain, sleeplessness, and unhappiness. The conventional wisdom for dealing with long commutes has been to build bigger and faster streets and highways, but in the long term, this does not work. Several years ago Texas spent $2.8 billion to widen the congested Katy Freeway connecting Houston to its suburbs. At 23 lanes it is the widest highway in the world and Houston commute times have still increased, according to City Observatory. Metropolitan areas need not follow the standard pattern of a dense core—not that most American cities are dense by global standards—and dispersed suburbs, but could become more decentralized with pockets of higher density at certain points throughout a region, along the lines of Joel Garreau’s neglected “edge city” concept.

American cities need not face an ugly choice or a hard choice, but their leaders and citizens do need to make decisions based on the realities of market demand, high levels of public and personal indebtedness, and climate change.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

The Nation’s Major Metro Areas Show Uneven Progress Against Poverty in 2015 | Elizabeth Kneebone and Cecile Murray, Brookings

In most of the metro areas that saw poverty rates fall (27), the number of people living in poverty also decreased. But for seven Sun Belt metro areas—including regions like Houston, Phoenix, and Orlando, Florida—declines in the poverty rate reflected a fast-growing total population, rather than a shrinking poor population.

Only two of the top 100 metro areas saw poverty continue to grow in 2015. Both the number of poor residents and the poverty rate rose significantly in the Little Rock, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, regions over the course of the year. In the end, the poverty rate registered no significant change in almost two-thirds of the nation’s largest metro areas in 2015.

Pittsburgh Seems Cool, But Its Numbers Aren’t So Hot | Justin Fox, Bloomberg View

One inevitable reality that a Rust Belt city such as Pittsburgh has to contend with is that the nation’s population has for decades been shifting to the South and the West, and is still shifting that way. Before 2008, according to Christopher Briem, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, more people had moved out of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area than moved in almost every year since World War II. The result is a metro area population that skews old (17.2 percent of the population was 65 or over in 2011, compared with 13.2 percent nationwide) and is among the country’s least diverse.

Lone Star Quartet | Aaron M. Renn, City Journal

[U]nlike California, whose cities have refocused on elite priorities at the expense of middle-class occupations, Texas offers a complete spectrum of economic activities in its metros. Another key difference is that Texas cities have mostly embraced pro-development policies that have kept them affordable by allowing housing supply to expand with population, while California’s housing prices blasted into the stratosphere due to severe development restrictions. Texas cities also benefit from favorable state policies, such as the absence of a state income tax and a reasonable regulatory and litigation environment. These factors make Texas cities today what California’s used to be: places to go in search of the American dream.

A Glorified Sidewalk, and the Path to Transform Atlanta | Richard Fausset, New York Times

ATLANTA — Could this traffic-clogged Southern city, long derided as the epitome of suburban sprawl, really be discovering its walkable, bike-friendly, density-embracing, streetcar-riding, human-scale soul?

The answer is evident in the outpouring of affection that residents here have showered on the Atlanta BeltLine, which aims to convert 22 miles of mostly disused railway beds circling the city’s urban core into a biking and pedestrian loop, a new streetcar line, and a staggeringly ambitious engine of urban revitalization.

The Ugly Choice American Cities Face | Emily Badger, Washington Post

[I]t will be very difficult for cities to grow denser in the coming years, despite rising worries about the environmental costs of sprawl and the individual toll of commuting. … [C]ities produce new housing in proportion to their rate of outward expansion. Metros that spread out the most add the most housing, and have kept their housing costs in check as a result. Metros that have resisted sprawl (like Portland, which has an urban growth boundary, or San Francisco, which is hemmed in by mountains and water) haven’t built much.

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Modernism, Food, and Public Space

Oscity /
Oscity /

Even on a warm late summer evening, many streets of Midtown Manhattan’s east side feel oddly desolate. A few blocks south of Central Park, along what has been called “corporate row,” the modernist office towers lining Sixth Avenue enter a slumber, most of their workers having gone home. Yet as the wide artery reaches the corner of 53rd Street, there is life on the wide sidewalks, as dozens line up at food carts. One portable kitchen in particular, The Halal Guys, has become a destination rather than a mere convenience for those who happen to be passing through.

The vendors take orders briskly, trying to keep the sidewalk line moving. But then patrons realize that despite the expansive open space surrounding the 45-story tower at the southwest corner of this intersection, there is no good place to sit and eat their lamb gyros and chicken platters—at least nowhere ideal. A few overcrowded benches seem far down the block, and the plaza fronting the former J.C. Penney headquarters is dominated by two large statues surrounded by square reflecting pools. Situated below the low walls of these water features there is a drain about a foot wide that from a distance is easily mistaken for a bench.

And so, seeing no other option, many diners sit on the drain, crouching forward in a rather perilous position: should they forget they are not in fact on a park bench, and inadvertently lean backwards, they will leave with appetites sated, but clothing soaked.

No one dares complain about this unfortunate design flaw. After all, it would seem that the plaza and fountain are not a public park, but on property owned by the building. Street diners are made to feel like squatters. But in fact, they have every right to enjoy the place—the ad-hoc dining room for the food carts is in the odd category of “privately owned public space.” In New York City, these hybrid spaces began appearing when a 1961 zoning resolution allowed developers to build larger and taller towers on the site than normal rules would otherwise have permitted—in exchange for creating more public space.

The 1960s coincided with the heyday of modernist architecture. As the boxy glass towers of the Mad Men era rose along the corridor Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had earlier ambitiously renamed the Avenue of the Americas, they invariably incorporated large public plazas that followed the modernist handbook, featuring clean lines and a utilitarian aesthetic. That didn’t mean these places were actually pleasant for the people they were intended to serve.

As William H. Whyte found in his landmark 1979 study The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, too often the modernist architect saw the space surrounding their buildings as a mere “plinth” on which to display their tower. As such, they treated outdoor furniture like benches as “artifacts,” “the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs,” not offer comfort to the public; the dimensions and design are often awkward and uncomfortable.

In a documentary film and book produced for the Municipal Art Society of New York, Whyte uses time-lapse films of plazas and close-up observation (including of the former J.C. Penney building) to provide basic but important observations such as “people tend to sit where there are places to sit.” His conclusions “might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell,” he admits, but by just watching these places for a few days, one can infer that a few simple elements often make an urban public space successful: street-level visibility, sittable space, exposure to sun, food, water features, and clusters of trees are the primary ingredients in Whyte’s recipe.

The former J.C. Penney plaza, where The Halal Guys cart has enlivened a place that otherwise might be underutilized, would seem to fail primarily in the area of sittable space—though trees would bring some life to what is generally a cold, hard, and forbidding landscape. By providing such popular street food, the vendors have already helped the plaza’s current owners create a space that at least meets one of Whyte’s criteria—access to food. But The
Social Life of Small Urban Spaces has now been available for over a generation, so why haven’t such prominent plazas learned a lesson about comfortable seating by now?

Still, there are reasons for advocates for quality public space to be optimistic. The original J.C. Penney plaza, as constructed in 1964, was even worse, “sunk 21 steps below the sidewalk … a narrow, rectangular pit with fixed benches, planters, and a metal fish sculpture.” It was “dark, dreary, and, understandably, rarely used … occasionally closed off by metal chain, as if to keep out the hordes seeking entry.” In 1991, the pit was filled in and the current water features installed, at least making the area more accessible at street level.

For additional inspiration, those trying to retrofit the modernist plazas of Sixth Avenue need only take a walk down to 42nd Street. Bryant Park was once a haven for drug deals and muggings because of reduced visibility and access, as well as a lack of amenities. But after a multiyear renovation explicitly guided by Whyte’s study, the former no-go zone reopened in the 1990s and is now one of the most popular public gathering places in the city. Besides a critical lowering of the park’s terrain to make activities inside less opaque, the renovation also introduced an element that remains key to its popularity: movable chairs and tables. Back in 1979, Whyte explained that allowing plaza users to drag furniture about as it suited their needs was key to them feeling a sense of independence and collective ownership. The proliferation of this practice today has solidified his status as a prophet of good urban design.

In an era when elite planners and architects assumed they knew better than average city dwellers what makes a good public space, Whyte’s study also suggested that when provided with the basic elements needed for success, ordinary people do a good job of bringing both lively interaction and orderliness to urban life. As befits an era that was obsessed with overpopulation, many 1960s designers of urban plazas were concerned about “carrying capacity,” fearing that providing too many amenities would render public spaces chaotic and overcrowded. But as Whyte’s time-lapse photography shows, even the most popular sidewalk spots benefit from a kind of spontaneous order that keeps pedestrian traffic moving with a reasonable number of users.

If this kind of freedom is a key part of urban vibrancy, planners should also ensure that food trucks such as The Halal Guys feel at home. In some cities, these sidewalk carts have been under attack from regulators and brick-and-mortar restaurant lobbies, but such fast food entrepreneurs undoubtedly make better public spaces, and ought to be encouraged, not hindered.

As for the plaza that plays host to The Halal Guys at 1301 Avenue of the Americas, owner the Paramount Group would do well to watch William Whyte’s film. With just a bit of retrofitting, their sidewalk space could be transformed. It’s now a popular place in spite of itself, where people are forced to adapt to marginal conditions. But it can become a space that brings life to the street, providing more customers for the building’s retail tenants and an amenity to all those who work there.

As the great urbanist of the 20th century Jane Jacobs wrote, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

Mark William Richardson /
Mark William Richardson /

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Send tips to @NewUrbs.

How Britons Are Saving Their Village Pubs | Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Spectator

In one village after another across the country, pubs are closing, as many as 25 a week by some counts, and this is accepted with English fatalism. But the people of South Stoke, near Bath, chose not to accept the loss of the Packhorse mutely; the locals decided to save their local. And in the process they may have demonstrated that ‘community’ and indeed ‘local’ or localism are not merely empty rhetoric.

When Will New York City Sink? | Andrew Rice, New York

The latest scientific findings suggest that a child born today in this island metropolis may live to see the waters around it swell by six feet, as the previously hypothetical consequences of global warming take on an escalating — and unstoppable — force. … The life span of a city is measured in centuries, and New York, which is approaching its fifth, probably doesn’t have another five to go, at least in any presently recognizable form. …

The deluge will begin slowly, and irregularly, and so it will confound human perceptions of change. Areas that never had flash floods will start to experience them, in part because global warming will also increase precipitation. High tides will spill over old bulkheads when there is a full moon. People will start carrying galoshes to work. All the commercial skyscrapers, housing, cultural institutions that currently sit near the waterline will be forced to contend with routine inundation. And cataclysmic floods will become more common, because, to put it simply, if the baseline water level is higher, every storm surge will be that much stronger.

Life at the Nowhere Office | Miya Tokumitsu and Joeri Mol, The New Republic

Wherever you are, you respond to the most urgent requests and make sure to nowhere yourself by deleting your “sent from my iPhone” signature. You could be at your desk already, right? No one needs to know that you are two blocks away. You don’t want to convey that you are on the run and not giving them your full attention. So with some digital camouflaging you say: I am in a place where I can give you due consideration. At no point are we on the train, in a cafe, in bed, in the restroom. Except of course we are.

Many of us recognize this morning routine. It might seem mundane, but like any regime, it is has an aesthetic. In fact, this vignette reflects the ideals of het nieuwe werken, a Dutch term meaning “the new way of working,” a reorganization of the office that promotes flexibility and “efficient” design, combining the fruits of a digitally-connected world and organically-formed social structures.

Gentrification on the Big Screen | Aaron M. Renn, City Journal

The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two seminal 1980s comedies, both set in Chicago, foreshadow the profound changes that would soon sweep over some of America’s big cities. Made just six years apart, they present strikingly different visions of Chicago. …

Watching these films today, viewers under the age of, say, 45 would be struck by how alien Jake and Elwood’s Chicago seems and how familiar Ferris’s Chicago has become. The vibrant working-class culture, tough old nuns, SROs, and Maxwell Street Market of The Blues Brothers have all either disappeared or survive only as shadows of what they once were. With a bit of cultural updating to cars, hairstyles, fashion, music, and phones, however, Ferris Bueller’s Day Offcould be remade today, virtually shot for shot. Modern proto-hipsters might well still skip school to visit Wrigley Field, the lakefront, the Sears Tower Skydeck, or the Art Institute. Three decades after Ferris Bueller played hooky from the suburbs, the triumph of the gentrified city is complete.

One City, Nine Months: Stand By For Chicago’s 3,000th Shooting Victim | Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune

Chicago is but a few days away from its 3,000th shooting of the year. At 2,930 and counting as of Labor Day, the first grimly inevitable milestone will be 2,988. That’s the number of people shot here all of last year. Soon after will come No. 3,000.

Tribune crime reporters keep a detailed spreadsheet, which shows 546 shootings since Aug. 1. That works out to be nearly 15 people shot every day — the majority on the West and South sides. Summer is always the most dangerous season in Chicago, but the violence this year is worse than it’s been in two decades. The city’s homicide total: about 500, most of them on this roster of shooting victims.

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Is Melbourne Really the World’s Most Livable City?

Scott Cresswell / Flickr
Scott Cresswell / Flickr

Who recalls John Gunther? You could acquire a very impressive general geographic education from Gunther’s mid-20th-century gazetteers of the First, Second, and Third Worlds. Inside Russia Today, Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside Africa, Inside U.S.A., Inside Latin America, Inside South America, Inside Australia and New Zealand (impressively accurate), and quite possibly, for all anyone knows or cares, Inside Tahiti or Inside Réunion. Gunther carried out an astonishing amount of legwork, personally interviewing locals from presidents to prostitutes, and conveying the results in the best sort of lively but dignified journalistic prose, benefiting from, but not enslaved by, the Hemingway revolution. It wasn’t all, or even often, color stuff either: Gunther invariably took care to supply abundant statistical information, as reliable as anything elsewhere available during pre-Google days.

I thought nostalgically of Gunther’s hard yards when confronted with The Economist’s latest attempt to prove that my own metropolis of Melbourne is, once again, “the world’s most livable city.” Once again, James Bowman’s epitome of that magazine must be pressed into service: “They say that The Economist is an excellent magazine for keeping informed about subjects you don’t know anything about, but its deficiencies begin to appear as soon as it addresses ones you do.”

There is no indication that the report’s writers (anonymous as per house custom) bothered to visit Melbourne themselves or even ask many locals for their input, although the report makes a vague mention of “a field correspondent based in each city.” (To prevent the suspense from overwhelming you, here is The Economist’s top-10 list: Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, Helsinki, and Hamburg. On a scale where 100 represents nirvana, Melbourne scored 97.5 and Hamburg scored 95. Least livable cities in the league table are, unsurprisingly, Damascus, Tripoli, and Lagos.)

It is surprisingly hard to determine from the report itself—which was produced by the magazine’s consulting arm known as The Economist Intelligence Unit—precisely how the authors arrived at their assessments. We get some sanctimonious hand-wringing and virtue-signaling about those U.S. cities whose livability scores have declined “partly … from unrest related to a number of deaths of black people either in police custody or shot on the street despite being unarmed.” (Sydney dropped out of the top 10 “owing to a heightened perceived threat of terrorism,” by which circumlocution the authors must mean the 2014 Lindt Café siege, that quintessential example of a murderous lone nut being given martyr status through criminally graphic 24/7 television coverage and through criminally incompetent police bosses who operated under the impression that they were Swedish social workers.) A few actual crime-related figures are given (we are told that Melbourne’s crime rate of 7,489.5 per hundred thousand persons represents an increase by 3.7 percent in 2013-14 as against 2012-13), but for the most part we are expected to make do with public relations cant about the “big city buzz” allegedly characterizing such centers as New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.

Eventually we find, halfway through the report, that “Every city is assigned a rating of relative comfort for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure. Each factor in a city is rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable.” If you are wondering about the scientific or even anecdotal basis for such ratings, you are not the only one.

The section on “culture and environment” includes ratings for “sporting availability” (Hitler’s and Erich Honecker’s respective Reichs would have scored handsomely on that test), for “level of censorship” (no suggestion that absurdly strict libel and anti-hate-speech laws might make formal censorship redundant), and something mysteriously called “cultural availability,” whatever that might mean (compulsory transgendered bathrooms?). Among the criteria under “healthcare” we find “availability of over-the-counter drugs,” though why opportunities for pigging out on Tylenol and its foreign counterparts are to be considered merits, we are not told. Nor are we informed of what is meant by “education”: kindergarten? Doctoral programs? Everything in between? Meanwhile, here are some of the Melbourne factors which The Economist’s mavens either did not consider at all, or, more frequently, considered without the smallest discernible day-to-day local knowledge.

Primary and Secondary Schooling

Don’t even think of sending your kids to the average Melbourne school unless your Social Justice Warrior credentials are polished to a sheen bright enough to dazzle Hillary Clinton herself. Most of Melbourne’s allegedly Catholic educational system serves much the same mess of cultural-Marxist pottage as does the openly public educational system, and charges four or five times as much money for it. A handful of Melbourne’s Protestant schools (whether Anglican or explicitly evangelical) provide some sort of serious instruction, and attract exceptionally large numbers of Catholic parents who have rightly given up on their own communion’s local classrooms. Orthodox Jews have their local yeshivas, which have been no more capable than purportedly Catholic schools of keeping out sex-criminals. You could, of course, homeschool; but although you would not thereby incur as much legal harassment in Melbourne, or elsewhere in Australia, as you would in Germany, you would experience incomparably more official nastiness than homeschoolers encounter in Alabama or Idaho.

Real Estate

Housing is ridiculously overpriced in Melbourne, and now comparable to Sydney or Perth levels of grand larceny. In the past, compared with most Western nations, Australia had remarkably high levels of home ownership, but this is proving less and less true today, at least in the civilized parts of the biggest cities.

I purchased—with inherited, not earned, funds—my current Melbourne home in 2003, about the last year when local home prices remained reasonable. For this apartment (one-bedroom, unfurnished, and probably too claustrophobic to suit 99 percent of persons not Japanese) I paid $195,000. These days I could sell it for $600,000 without any trouble. Over the last 12 months Melbourne’s housing prices have sunk marginally, but nothing like America’s 2008 housing bubble is on the horizon.

Private rents remain stratospheric, in Melbourne as in Sydney. I have met lawyers—yes, lawyers—who insist that they literally cannot afford to be home-buyers. Vast numbers of Melbourne’s affluent 20-somethings and even 30-somethings are still living with their parents. So much for the “empty nest” syndrome that psychologists once bewailed. These days plenty of Melbourne’s parents have the greatest difficulty emptying their nests with any method less drastic than Semtex.

Mass Transit

I am fortunate, in that because on health grounds I cannot drive, I live in a Melbourne suburb (Gardenvale) with better-than-average bus services and train services, plus an adequate tram service 15 minutes’ walk away. A 25-minute train trip from my home, and I can be in Melbourne’s central business district.

This is almost unimaginable luxury by the standards of most Melbourne inhabitants, however rich. In Melbourne’s extreme northern and southeastern suburbs, public transportation is either a joke or nonexistent. Consequently, car ownership levels—despite fuel prices which, while lower than Europe’s, would have Americans raging in the streets—border on the fantastical. Recently I chatted with a taxi-driver living in one southeastern suburb (Rowville) who, on the strength of a taxi-driver’s presumably exiguous income, maintained a four-car household. Not including the taxi.


I could go on—with evidence about what Americans and Europeans would find the exorbitant cost of books, cinema tickets, symphony concert tickets, and so forth—yet the picture will by now be vivid enough. None of the above information is arcane. Nine-tenths of it could have been gleaned by reading a week’s worth of local newspapers, watching (at whatever cost to one’s blood-pressure) a week’s worth of local television, or even interviewing the occasional local cop, garbage collector, morgue attendant, night nurse, or other such working stiff.

But instead of following John Gunther’s example, today’s pundits succeed only in evoking clichés about lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you actually live in Melbourne, if you have the misfortune not to be an investment banker or someone analogously well-heeled, and if you still suppose that Melbourne is the world’s most livable city, I have a bridge to sell you. Brooklyn or Sydney Harbor, make your choice.

R.J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

Dawn Endico / Flickr
Dawn Endico / Flickr

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Send tips to @NewUrbs.

Why Geographic Equality Matters | Conor Sen, Bloomberg View

An environment in which high value economic activity happens in just a handful of cities would make the country worse off, and ultimately starve those cities of what they need to thrive — talent and ideas. … Without the ability to import talent from the rest of the country and the rest of the world — talent that the large cities didn’t pay to develop — large cities would collapse. A look at the titans of Silicon Valley shows this to be the case. Mark Zuckerberg grew up in Westchester County, New York. Tim Cook grew up in Alabama. Marc Andreessen moved around in the Midwest. Silicon Valley, you didn’t educate that.

Message to Tech Firms From Palo Alto Mayor: Go Away. Please. | Thomas Fuller, New York Times

“Big tech companies are choking off the downtown,” Mayor Patrick Burt said. “It’s not healthy.” … Last year, the city of 66,000 people set a cap of less than 1 percent a year on the growth of office space in most of its parts. In the charming downtown, where battalions of tech workers from companies like Amazon stroll the streets, their eyes often glued to their smartphones, the mayor is looking to enforce, in some form, an all-but-forgotten zoning regulation that bans companies whose primary business is research and development, including software coding. (To repeat: The mayor is considering enforcing a ban on coding at ground zero of Silicon Valley.)

Did Construction Unions Kill California Housing Affordability? | Roland Li, San Francisco Business Times

It was the boldest California housing policy proposal in years: Allow any residential project that complies with local zoning and sets aside as few as five percent of its units as affordable to be built “as of right,” removing review from local municipalities. The idea was to fast-track approvals and reduce the cost of building as the state struggles with a crushing housing crisis. But after three months of debate and widespread opposition, the proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown, meant to boost the state’s housing production in the face of record-high housing prices, appears to be dead. … Dozens of community groups, environmentalists and the League of California Cities – and even some tenant groups – opposed the measure. One of the most powerful opponents of the bill was a sector that could directly benefit from more development: construction labor unions.

What Happened to the Future of Architecture? | Jonathan Meades, London Review of Books

Given that petty bossiness and online manipulation are everywhere to be found it is hardly surprising that the smartest of smart buildings are already being programmed to exercise control over us – caring control, softly spoken – and with a degree of subtlety that quite evaded B.F. Skinner and still evades the uniformed gorillas who patrol gated ‘communities’ and apartment complexes. So far the patrons of this new, chummy determinism are the barons of parallel reality and fiscal mockery – Apple, Google, Amazon etc. Skinner’s bludgeon may be absent, his menu of reinforcements may be diluted but his intentions stretch from the grave. According to one of Norman Foster’s apparatchiks working on the Apple project, ‘We have a building that is pushing social behaviour in the way people work.’ Maybe not so chummy. While over at Google: ‘We … hope to bring new life to the unique local environment … enhancing burrowing owl habitats.’

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dream Cities | Anthony Paletta, City Journal

Neil Levine knows that Frank Lloyd Wright was far from an urbanist. He acknowledges early on that the title of his new book—The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright—“must strike many as an oxymoron.” In fact, the architect was famous for his jeremiads against cities. But Levine has come not to praise such concoctions as Broadacre City, a conceptual project viewed by many as the pinnacle of anti-urban planning, but to reconcile them with the image of Wright as the modern architect even traditionalists can appreciate. Like Broadacre, most of Wright’s urban ideas never moved passed the conceptual stage. Some—such as his proposed Point Park Complex in Pittsburgh and his Baghdad Civic Center designs—achieved modest recognition; others are almost unknown. In Levine’s book, they are collected and examined in a single monograph for the first time.

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What Cities Can Learn From Thai-Style Economics

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As an American expat living in Thailand, I’m more or less an outsider to the intricacies of political life and what the ruling junta calls “Thai-style democracy.” Yet as a resident of Bangkok, one of the world’s largest cities, I am intimately acquainted with another form of Thai uniqueness—what I like to call Thai-style economics.

Whether it’s the random roulette that determines Thai taxi drivers’ willingness to accept passengers, the remarkable proximity of business competitors selling the same exact product, or the lack of basic household goods at various stores, many idiosyncrasies of day-to-day life in Bangkok are a frustration, if not a mystery, to expats. Though routinely maddening, the city’s micro-economies evince an ingenuity and communal spirit often lacking in our more atomistic American system.

Take taxis—a perennial topic of expat derision. There are refusals to use the meter, refusals to take passengers to another part of the city, refusals to take passengers to another part of the same road. In many cases, it simply doesn’t make sense—why are you turning down my money? How confident are you that you will find a passenger wanting to go where you want to go?

For starters, many taxi drivers lend their vehicles to friends or neighbors when they aren’t using them, participating in what one Thai official calls “the informal sector” of the country’s economy, which contributes to an astounding unemployment rate of 0.6 percent. Do these other people have the proper certification to be driving a taxi? Often I doubt it—every registered taxi has a prominently displayed registration card with the driver’s photograph and ID number. Frequently, especially on nights or weekends, the person driving the car does not match the identification information. Less frequently, an awkwardly taped separate registration will hang over that of whoever technically owns the vehicle. Regardless of whether or not this is legal, the laws are laxly enforced.

Obviously there is enough business to warrant this makeshift economy, which has the added benefit of employing a lot more Thais. Concerns about threats to safety appear minimal, given that though Thailand has an egregiously poor record on traffic fatalities, drunk and negligent driving are the predominant causes of death, and motorcyclists, not taxi passengers, the most likely victims. Indeed, I would think friends and neighbors have a strong incentive to take good care of the taxis they borrow, particularly if driving is their main source of income.

Moreover, though uncooperative and unwilling taxi drivers are the bane of those traversing the city, there is a method to this madness as well. If a cab driver is borrowing his friend’s car, but needs to get it back to his buddy by a certain time, he can’t take a passenger to a district in the other direction. He needs passengers heading towards his home or meet-up point. Annoying for those hailing a cab? Certainly. But there are plenty of cabs on any major thoroughfare, and the ubiquity of Uber and similarly-themed companies operating in the city means that even in the worst of circumstances, one needn’t wait more than 10 minutes for a lift.

This doesn’t mean taxi drivers don’t pull the same annoying stunts found elsewhere in the world—wanting to avoid traffic jams where the numbers on the meter will only inch forward, or waiting for a “bigger fish” who is headed to the airport or some other distant location. Yet even these are unsurprising. Who of us wouldn’t rather wait a few minutes to make $10 or $15 more, rather than getting $2 or $3 now? Which, truthfully, is how much drivers are making for most rides, as the meter in Bangkok starts at the equivalent of $1. Can I really fault a guy for having the business sense to make a couple extra bucks?

Another example of Thai-style economics is the industry of street-side food vendors who erect makeshift, transportable stalls in busy thoroughfares. This, in and of itself, is not particularly unusual—what’s strange is that many of the Thai vendors are selling the same thing. On my morning commute, I pass by a lady selling pineapple and watermelon, then a lady selling guava and rose apples … then another lady selling pineapple and watermelon … then another lady selling guava and rose apples. All within about 50 feet. To an American observer, this looks like the worst business plan ever. If I wanted to open up a Mexican-themed fast-food restaurant, I would be pretty stupid to buy the vacant commercial space next to a Chipotle.

But in Thailand, a different perspective drives such business choices. As one local explained, the Thai mindset is: “if you can do good business here, maybe I can too.” Which, truth be told, we Americans think, too. Consider how gas stations often congregate in the same places, sometimes even on the same side of the road. Yet they often all seem to stay in business, year in, year out.

Furthermore, the proximity of businesses selling the same products allows more people to make a living, and to take care of one another. Often I have stopped to buy fruit, and the vendor has been unable to make change—but never fear, the vendor simply wanders over to another stall and gets the required money from a competitor. Or, even more surprising, vendors who run out of a certain fruit will ask their competitors to share from their supply. Presumably all the balance sheets get evened out in the end. What to an American seems like the perfect lost opportunity to beat out the competitor is inversely an opportunity to strengthen community solidarity. Nobody is going to make a fortune selling tropical fruits on a Bangkok street corner. People can make a living doing it, however, and if a busy street can handle 20 vendors, it can probably handle 22 or 23.

This is more than just Thai economics—this is how people in much of the developing world scrape by. When I spent a summer in Uganda, I was surprised to discover that for many communities, the financial success of a single member is expected to be distributed among extended family networks. This seems contrary not just to the individualism of American capitalism, but to more basic rules of justice as well—shouldn’t the one who does all the hard work reap the rewards of a hard-earned diploma or well-paying job? Certainly to some degree this is true, and the propensity for communities to demand this distributive system perpetuates a paradigm defined by periodic windfalls and more consistent poverty, rather than one encouraging investment and long-term planning. These communities need prudent businessmen who save, invest, and build some successful industry that, over a longer horizon, improves everyone’s standard of living.

Yet for all their flaws, communally-based economic systems have been remarkably resilient in providing livelihoods, or at least basic financial protections, for a large majority of their participants. People in these communities not only know each other, they take care of one another, and provide a parachute of sorts, even if it’s quite delicate and vulnerable. This is in contrast to a more isolated, if globalist, approach, one defined increasingly by Wall Street instead of Main Street. The kinds of homes Americans live in (note the dramatic increase in square footage in the last century), the kinds of entertainment we indulge in (I’m talking about you, Pokémon Go), and the kinds of forums we communicate in (Twitter users worldwide united to condemn… a safari hunt in Zimbabwe), all discourage or fabricate the solidarity and subsidiarity necessary to preserve a strong community ethos.

There are a lot of things about Thai culture and economics that I don’t understand, and may never understand (the lack of light bulb options at their Walmart equivalent, for one). Yet I’ve also seen that some of my atomistic and capitalist American proclivities have a tendency to run roughshod over communities that have found some system—albeit an imperfect one—that works, likely through the trial and error of many generations. Such American communities did exist, or continue to exist, just barely, in places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Their way of life, like that of the Thai taxi drivers and street vendors, represents the conservative ethos at its most fundamental, local level.

On a trip back home last year, I visited an increasingly popular Virginia distillery that produces surprisingly tasty white lightning and its own trademarked “Virginia Whiskey.” During the tour, the guide introduced us to a 75-year-old bottling machine held together by jerry-rigged bungee cords. “Redneck ingenuity,” our guide called it. It will require a lot of Thai-style, hillbilly-style, conservative-style ingenuity and communal spirit to preserve such ways of life.

Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.

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Words on the Street


“Words on the Street” highlights the best New Urbs content we’ve encountered this week:

Penn Station, Reborn? | Catesby Leigh, City Journal

A decision to rebuild McKim’s station makes excellent sense on its own terms, but it also would provide the visionary, symbolic impetus that Gateway needs. Like Dresden’s glorious Frauenkirche, the faithful reconstruction of which was completed 60 years after the building’s destruction by Allied bombs, the old Penn Station was not architecture “of its time” but architecture for all time.

How Pittsburgh Can Take the Next Step | Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If one really wanted to bring this whole area to life in terms of transportation, instead of trying to keep Pittsburgh airport alive in the face of the whims of America’s fickle airline industry, thought should be given to building a new airport, midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, accessed by very-high-speed rail from both cities, with future options to link the new facility with Akron, Canton, Erie, Toledo and Youngstown, also by high-speed rail. Does anyone actually believe that the old Rust Belt cities benefit from parochialism? Where is the long-term regional planning? It certainly isn’t in Harrisburg or Columbus.

Why the High Cost of Big-City Living Is Bad for Everyone | Mark Gimein, New Yorker

New York, San Francisco, Washington, Miami: these have become international centers of commerce, issuing an ever louder siren call to the global élite. … The price of the creation of these imperial cities is that they actually provide decreasing opportunities for many of those who already live in them, or for those who move to them and are not already armed with resources, status, and education. Everyone living in New York or San Francisco understands the general contours of this. Artists get pushed out of the center, the middle class gets pushed into the suburbs, and bus riders are asked to make way (literally) for tech workers.

Vladimir Putin’s Walkable Streets | Maria Antonova, Foreign Policy

Almost all of central Moscow has spent the summer enveloped in green construction gauze as workers in orange jackets labor around the clock, digging trenches along historic avenues and sawing granite chunks, sending up clouds of dust. … Moscow architect Eugene Asse said the project to make the city walkable has been well-intentioned but poorly executed. “The city must be freed of cars in its historic center and create more democratic spaces for pedestrians,” he said. At the same time, the street revamp is a “rather monstrous operation with no anesthesia,” he added. “These projects were not discussed with anyone.”

How Big Can China’s Cities Get? | Adam Minter, Bloomberg View

“Adding more density to the cities won’t work anymore,” says Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at New York University who has consulted in China for decades. The problem, he says, is that those cities are increasingly fragmented. Housing in Shanghai and Beijing has become so expensive that non-wealthy residents have been pushed to the furthest reaches of the suburbs, where commuters often face extended waits just to enter a subway station — let alone actually get on a train. The result is a large labor force that can’t be put to work by employers, largely defeating the purpose of urbanization.

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Can Cooperative Businesses Save Communities?

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Nearly a decade after the beginning of the Great Recession, the economic recovery has been concentrated in a few sectors and a few places, mostly fields in technology and in coastal cities. Many Americans have been left behind in jobs with stagnating wages, while rising housing costs prevent them from moving. To stabilize their communities and rebuild the household wealth lost in the financial crisis, many Americans—particularly those in once decaying inner city neighborhoods—are turning to the model of co-operative businesses, which emphasize joint ownership by workers and democratic management.

James Razsa, a 32-year-old resident of the traditionally blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, is one of them. He’s a founding partner of Democracy Brewing, a co-op brewery currently raising money to start production.

“I’ve done a lot of unpleasant jobs,” he said. “Starbucks was where I started to understand that a lot of my co-workers were living in poverty. We were taking $2,000 in profit a day and sending it to people who had never been there.”

Starting a co-op was a way to have the best of both worlds, he said. He gets to do a job he loves and be a business owner.

Razsa isn’t alone, either.

The number of worker co-operatives in the United States has been growing for two decades, according to the Democracy at Work Institute, and employee-ownership advocacy organizations such as the Democracy Collaborative and the Surdna Foundation report surging interest since the financial crisis.

The Democracy Collaborative in particular has been at the forefront of a new model for Rust Belt cities struggling with growing poverty and unemployment, called the Cleveland Model from the city where it was first put into practice. The result, called the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, was launched in 2008. Evergreen partnered with local educational, healthcare, and charitable organizations to start worker co-ops to provide some of the millions of dollars worth of goods and services they need every year.

The model has since been taken to Rochester, New York, where the Democracy Collaborative helped develop the Market Driven Community Cooperatives Initiative. According to NextCity, Rochester’s anchor institutions collectively spend $1.7 billion a year on goods and services. Rochester’s initiative is focused on the city’s Northern Crescent neighborhoods, areas just outside the downtown where over 60 percent of the residents are living below the poverty line. The Evergreen Initiative also started in a high-poverty neighborhood, Greater University Circle.

The higher wages and shared ownership of co-ops have also helped them and their members stabilize and rebuild their communities.

“[We want to] create a space like an old public house,” Razsa said. “It was a place where you passed the hat or planned the next labor rebellion. Recreating that third space was important.”

Credit unions, essentially banks owned by their depositors, are also playing a role. Melissa Marquez, the CEO of the Genesee Cooperative Federal Credit Union, which is working with the MDCCI to provide small business loans to start up co-ops, said in an email that “Increased net worth (rather than equity stripping) increases stability for families and minorities in Rochester.”

In Britain the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society suspended mortgage payments during a miners’ strike so its members could keep their homes, according to The Catholic Herald. Then it demutualized and collapsed during the financial crisis, ending up nationalized in 2008.

Success is far from guaranteed. The Surdna Foundation report “Ours To Share,” published earlier this year, praised worker ownership in general as a way of increasing access to capital, building wealth, and maintaining productivity that’s as good as or better than conventionally owned and managed firms. But the report notes that there have been problems: for example, Evergreen’s businesses struggled to become profitable for several years, with no employees or consultants having experience in the types of businesses they were working with.

“Creating a local economy from the ground up, however, turns out to be a complex endeavor … first you have to create wealth in order to share it,” the report noted. According to the Democracy Collaborative’s report “Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale,” “Lack of business experience is a key barrier that limits startup and growth of worker co-ops. Many worker co-ops are initiated by workers who have relevant job and industry expertise, but lack business management experience.”

This is one area where Democracy Brewing is ahead of the game. Its board of directors features Jason Taggart, an experienced craft brewer at John Harvard’s Brewery and Alehouse in Cambridge, and Rob Evert, a co-executive director of Equal Exchange, a co-operatively owned cafe business. The business model also involves providing education and assistance to people interested in starting and running co-op businesses, Razsa said.

Another challenge is getting the start-up capital for businesses. Credit unions, for example, are limited in how much they can lend to small businesses and conventional sources aren’t always willing to see eye to eye.

Razsa said that Democracy Brewing had $400,000 in conventional start-up money lined up, but the rate of return the lender was demanding would have meant paying employees poverty wages. As a result they’re trying to raise the money through Kickstarter.  

Unfamiliarity with the model and a perceived lack of accountability lead traditional lenders to be skeptical and reluctant to lend to worker co-ops, according to the “Pathways to Scale” report. Marquez said that before lending to a co-op, Genesee reviewed incorporation papers to see who could make decisions. She added that members with more than a 10 percent stake in the co-op also signed on as personal guarantors. At the same time, Marquez said she looked at it as no different from lending to any other small business with more than one owner.

Earlier this year an Italian dairy co-op made international headlines when they couldn’t get a bank loan and so they sold bonds backed by the parmesan cheese they were making.

The continued economic uncertainty and lagging recovery in much of the country suggests that co-ops will continue to attract interest.

“People are very excited,” Razsa said. “We’re going to start their imaginations going.”

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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