Tag Archives: Detroit

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Pros:
Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

Cons:
The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

Conclusion:
The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Urban Farms: Bad Idea?

Urban farming in places like Detroit (and elsewhere) has gotten a lot of good press, this blog included.

But the author of this piece, Richard Longworth says we shouldn’t necessarily be praising urban farming, but instead seeing it as a symptom of how far some cities have fallen. (We’ve written about Longworth, and his work at the Chicago Council’s Global Midwest Initiative before.) His suggestion? Better grocery options for central-city neighborhoods, including big box retailers like Wal-Mart.

Reading Longworth’s post reminded me of a speech I heard at last year’s GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange) conference in Cleveland. The speaker, from the Genesee County (Flint) Landbank, said some in the urban planning community mistakenly might assume inner city residents are always enthusiastic about having an urban farm in their neighborhood. This isn’t necessarily true though, she pointed out. Some residents who migrated to Flint (or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever) came from a background of being rural sharecroppers in the South. A sizeable number of folks in the Flint community she dealt with were not enthused about farming in their neighborhoods, they wanted where they lived to feel like a city. 

What do you think?

-KG

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Filed under Featured, Green Jobs, Real Estate, sprawl, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

Is Your City ‘Water Sustainable?’

From The Nature Conservancy via the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Americans are collectively moving from the places that are best equipped to deal with climate change to those that are least equipped,” (a Nature conservancy blogger) writes.

The five cities at the bottom in water sustainability (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Mesa,  Tucson, and Los Angeles) grew by an average of 37 percent from 1990-2000.

But among the five most water-sustainable cities, only Chicago grew. The other four cloudy and water-rich towns Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and New Orleans — all lost population.”

The article also has information about climate change impacting the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Great Lakes, the environment

St. Louis, America’s Most Dangerous City?

Congressional Quarterly has released its annual report on America’s most crime-ridden cities. This year St. Louis topped the list, upping last year’s leader: Camden, NJ.

Activists in St. Louis play dead in a demonstration on healthcare reform. Image via St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice.

Also, Detroit was No.3, Flint, No. 4. Cleveland ranked in at No. 7. Gary, Ind. ranked 9th.

The National Conference of Mayors called the report a “premeditated statistical mugging of America’s cities,” saying the rankings are “bogus.”

St. Louis mayor Francis Slay said on Twitter yesterday “Crime stats reflect crimes. Crime stats rankings reflect how we draw our boundaries.”

Writers at UrbanSTL, took a different stance however, saying “I’m dumbfounded that many in St. Louis would rather attack those pointing out the fallacy of crime rankings than the ranking itself.”

I’ll speak for Cleveland when I say: A list? What list?

So many lists, so little energy to defend oneself (especially when you’re constantly fighting off muggers).

-AS

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Filed under Crime, Headline

Cleveland Wins $15M for Co-Op Revitalization Strategy

This is a very big deal. Big.

The city of Cleveland was chosen as one of five cities to share $80 million in grant funding through the Livable Cities Initiative.

Funders were impressed, specifically, by the city’s efforts to establish cooperative workplaces to serve as suppliers to some of the region’s major employers–including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital.

We’ve written before about the Evergreen laundry, where workers from the impoverished Hough neighborhood are earning a stake in the company while putting in hours doing laundry for local institutions. That organization was seeded by the Cleveland Foundation as part of an innovative employee-owned business structure that has come to be known as ‘the Cleveland Model.”

Works at the Evergreen cooperative laundry earn a share of the company for their hard work.

The Cleveland Foundation has been looking to expand cooperative ventures in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods–most of which also happen to be near an important employment node–University Circle.

Their latest venture is a massive, 10-acre indoor lettuce farm. Between that, the laundry and a solar power operation, they hope to someday employ hundreds or even thousands.

The grant award goes a long way to justify Cleveland’s nonprofit urban revitalization capacity, which is driven by the local philanthropic organizations and is considered one of the country’s most sophisticated.

Detroit; Baltimore; Newark, N.J.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. were also selected for funding by the cooperative of 22 major philanthropic organizations.

-AS

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Filed under Economic Development, Great Lakes, Green Jobs, Headline, Labor

Watch Sprawl and Segregation Transform St. Louis

We’ve been writing a lot about sprawl and race relations lately. I think that is because these issues are tremendously important to the discussion of the current conditions in Rust Belt cities.

Well, I’ve got to thank UrbanSTL for pointing me to this illuminating interactive map that shows how white flight and sprawl transformed the metro area over the course of decades.

You have to visit this site to see it unfold. I think this really mirrors development over the past six decades for Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Youngstown, Buffalo and many other Rust Belt cities.

Notice how the application is called Mapping Decline.

-AS

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Filed under Headline, Real Estate, Rust Belt Blogs, sprawl, Urban Planning

Richard Florida Questions Shinking Cities’ Strategy

I think this is the most important article I have seen on the Rust Belt urban condition since this blog began.

Kain Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council has raised questions about the wisdom of mass demolitions in “shrinking cities.” In this article, he points out that leading urban thinker Richard Florida has joined him in this perspective.

Detroit: a wonderful place for agriculture.

Detroit: a wonderful place for agriculture?

Benfield makes the point that Detroit, Cleveland and other shrinking cities are being hollowed out, not by regional population loss, but by sprawl. Returning urban areas to quasi-rural will simply lengthen commute times as investment and population continue to flow to the periphery.

Metro Detroit, the poster child for these supposedly shrinking places, actually grew in population from 1990 to 2003; the population did decline between 2000 and 2008, but only by six-tenths of one percent.  The real problem is that the footprint of its suburbs was allowed to grow during that period, at the expense of the central city.  With demolition and conversion of urban land to neo-rural tracts, that pattern will only be exacerbated, with serious consequences for transportation emissions and the surrounding landscape.

I think this is a very, very good point. From a regional perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to invest a bunch of resources to convert city land into agricultual use while in the meantime investing a bunch of money in the exurbs to convert agricultural land into housing.

How can we stop the destructive pattern of outmigration? The problem is in Cleveland is there is just no political will for this. Everyone seems content to live in a suburban bubble 6 miles from urban apocalypse.

Someone told me yesterday that there is a 24-year difference in the life expectancy of someone who lives in Cleveland’s inner-city Hough neighborhood and someone who lives in the nearby suburb of Lyndhurst. 24 years! Why is this kind of inequality tolerated in Cleveland? Fear? Racism? Complacency? Cosy ties between politicians and developers?

Our cities need to stand up for themselves. Their problem isn’t caused so much by de-industrialization as by their own suburbs. Urban agriculture, to me, is a conciliatory strategy because it doesn’t address the true cause of urban problems it only treats the symptoms.

Check out what the city of Cleveland has done to its now popular entertainment district. My friend Matt sent me these photos. And he asked, what was gained?

Cleveland's Warehouse District today

Cleveland's Warehouse District today

-AS

Cleveland's Warehouse District 1960

Cleveland's Warehouse District 1960s

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Filed under Art, Featured, sprawl, the environment, Urban Planning