Monday, October 31, 2011

Cities and information networks

Ryan Avent and Russ Roberts discuss Ryan's The Gated City in this week's EconTalk podcast.  They touch on many interesting topics, including the role of "density" and urban amenities.  They also discuss the urban productivity costs of tough land use controls. I posted my usual reservations with respect to large-area density averages at the comments section of their blog.

We expect density to be a proxy measure for the information networks we are able to form in cities.  Cities were always a good way to economize on moving goods and people.  They are now also a good way to economize on information exchange.  The "aha!" moments that we crave can occur when we combine ideas in new ways from our own heads, but it is much better when we can tap into the heads of others -- nearby and not.  But, while it is natural to look for ways that modern communications substitute to the traditional, they may also be complements.  We use the internet.  And many of us settle on a mix of commuting and telecommuting.  And we get on airplanes to attend meetings the old-fashioned way.  We choose and maintain a complex mix of information networks (in light of prices and opportunities), but asking "density" to explain all of this is asking a lot.

The internet has not made "cities" less important.  But the benefits are now available over a larger space.  Cities and their substantial suburban hinterlands are where we set up the complex networking opportunities that work best for each of us.