Friday, August 15, 2014

Long shot

Those writing about cities focus on overall performance or on urban structure. I claim that these are closely linked. We get growth if urban structure is congenial.  But consider the three dominant conversations in the study of urban structure.

The canonical model of urban economics develops the idea that land uses arrange themselves in terms of how users value accessibility -- actually plural; many destinations matter. We get the prediction that ever cheaper access causes ever more city spread. The evolution from pedestrian city to streetcar city to automobile city corroborates this. I suggest that smart-phone city will continue the trend.

There is also the visionary planning approach, based on architecture-high-modernism-urban design traditions. "Garden city" and "smart growth" designs are examples.  These approaches are static and popular in many circles -- but  have not had any discernible real world impact.

Finally, there is the Jane Jacobs-F.A. Hayek complex self-ordering arrangements view. Locators evaluate complex trade-offs as they seek propitious locations -- to exchange and form new ideas and to produce new things. If enough of them succeed in finding propitious locations, we get city growth.

Here is a passage from The Economist's obit for Peter Hall:
He soon changed his mind. Wherever that [top-down, rational] approach was tried—in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or around the elevated Westway in north-west London—it caused exactly the sort of ugliness and alienation he had hoped to banish. In the 1970s he began arguing that one way to deal with urban decay might be a bonfire of regulations; the idea, he said, was to “recreate the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s inside inner Liverpool or inner Glasgow”. That sort of fertile chaos, he came to believe, was exactly what made cities so important, and such exciting places to live. He was an early advocate of the view—these days the received wisdom—that by allowing people to form connections with like-minded colleagues, cities are the engines of a country’s economic, cultural and artistic life.
I am not sure that this is the "received view."

But let locators form connections. Let them locate where they get the connections that work for them. But getting to that state requires flexible land markets and overcoming the efforts of those wedded to the second approach. It means a light touch from planners. Given that the mainline view favors the visionary planning approach, that would be a long shot.


There is lots that is easy to find re the first two perspectives.  Sandy Ikeda has been most influential describing the less known Jacobs-Hayek view of cities.