Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sprawl, Reconsidered

As soon as it quoted Jane Jacobs as an expert on urban development, I knew that Richard Florida's "How the Crash Will Reshape America" was headed for trouble.

Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new.

Steve Sailer has made a compelling case that diversity follows economic growth, not the other way around. Remind me to find the link.

Reading on:

Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.

But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

I'm not an expert, but this sounds exactly backwards. Paul Johnson's The Offshore Islanders (I think) made the point that those European countries that industrialized later rather than earlier were more competitive precisely because they were spacially organized to minimize transportation costs. Germany, for instance, was able to locate their steel plants close to their coal mines. More recently, China has taken over the world's manufacturing because it has done things like build an entire city dedicated to sock production.

But ideas? In the age of the internet, the movement of ideas over long distances is virtually free and instantaneous. So why, exactly, does everyone have to huddle in the same building to produce creative synergy? This question is not necessarily rhetorical: clearly, the telecommuting revolution predicted ten years ago was strangled in its crib. I will defer to the experts on why that happened, but I'm not aware of anything inherently innovative about room-huddling; on the contrary, a running joke on the Dilbert strip is how much time is wasted in meetings.

The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity here.

Oh dear. Stand by for social engineering.

Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.)

This isn't necessarily a bad idea; Steve Sailer proposed it a while back. But: if it's so good, then why would government have to require it? Why wouldn't banks offer it to homeowners voluntarily?

Next, we need to encourage growth in the regions and cities that are best positioned to compete in the coming decades: the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Again, why does this need encouragement? Why not let the market do its work?

Whatever our government policies, the coming decades will likely see a further clustering of output, jobs, and innovation in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. But properly shaping that growth will be one of the government’s biggest challenges. In part, we need to ensure that key cities and regions continue to circulate people, goods, and ideas quickly and efficiently. This in itself will be no small task; increasing congestion threatens to slowly sap some of these city-regions of their vitality.

As the article makes clear, much of suburban sprawl is driven by government: the 30-year mortgage, mortgage interest deductability, zoning laws, and highway subsidies are all government creations and have all permitted us purchase much more house and yard than we otherwise would. If this turns out to have been unsustainable, then it the government should stop encouraging it. Again: let the market do its work.

Just as important, though, we need to make elite cities and key mega-regions more attractive and affordable for all of America’s classes, not just the upper crust. High housing costs in these cities and in the more convenient suburbs around them, along with congested sprawl farther afield, have conspired to drive lower-income Americans away from these places over the past 30 years. This is profoundly unhealthy for our society.

No it isn't. Whether they will admit it or not, for most people, the whole attraction of moving to the 'burbs has been the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rabble. Unfortunately, the Civil Rights era made moving away about the only means of avoiding the negative externalities generated by underclass minorities. Now, in many respects, this process is reversing: many urban cores are gentrifying, and as they do so, they become more attractive to yet more gentrifiers. Florida's suggestion that what cities is need to make themselves affordable to the rabble is exactly what will halt this process.

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