2.15.2018

Toward a Unified Theory of Cities


We are in the midst of a tug-of-war between different kinds of communities – urban, suburban, rural – that has generational, racial, and political dynamics and that is at times contentious in nature.  I hope with today’s ramblings not to add heat but perhaps to shed light.

First let me say that all kinds of communities are important and necessary to a vibrant nation, society, and economy.  And that is because different people have different preferences.  Sometimes we city-lovers, perhaps not realizing just how big a chip we have on our shoulders from all the city-bashing we’ve endured, can act as if people’s aversion to cities is due to ignorance or worse.  “If you’d just keep an open mind and try us out, you’d realize how awesome we are” is the sentiment.  And there’s truth in that sentiment.  But there’s also truth in the sentiment that different people have different preferences, and that some people prefer not to live in cities, and that preference has nothing to do with lack of exposure or close-mindedness.  It has to do with the fact that where you live is a bundle of goods, and that bundle looks different in different places, in ways that cause me to choose one place and you (with a different set of criteria for what is important and what is tolerable) to choose another place. 

Second, let me say that because all kinds of communities are important, it is important to be fair and balanced in making sure that all places have an opportunity to compete for resources – for residents, businesses, investments, and services – and that all places feel a sense of connection to other places.  We shouldn’t give up on certain communities, because we need them.  And we shouldn’t put certain communities against other communities, because there’s a lot of ways our respective wellbeing is connected such that somebody’s gain can also be somebody else’s gain.  Easier said than done in a time of scarce resources and rampant inequality, but no less true and therefore no less necessary to believe and implement.

Third, and at the risk of sounding like I am contradicting everything I have just now said, there is something to be said about the importance of cities and of investing in cities.  Since as far as we can look back, the concentration of people and activity that cities have represented has unleashed the best of human progress.  To be sure, that progress is uneven and not always equitably shared.  But density gives us the best chance for both innovation and inclusion rather than stagnation and segregation.  We are most innovative, not in a vacuum, nor when we are others like us, but when we are near others different from us and given many opportunities to intersect and iterate.  And we are most inclusive when we are given opportunity to, by choice and by accident, rub elbows with people different from us, from which we can realize how valuable and pleasurable it is to be exposed to new ideas (and foods and cultural practices and life perspectives). 

The nitty gritty of pulling this off in cities around the world is hard work involving billions of details.  But a few big-picture themes seem to warrant focus:

1. Mind the places and programming that allow different people to be together and exchange ideas.  Cities are full of people brimming with ingenuity; will we make it easy for them to find and connect with each other?  Or will we, through omission or commission, encourage more isolation and segregation?

2. Don’t make it hard to form new businesses, start new initiatives, or build new housing.  When physical and emotional space seems crowded, it can be tempting to be stingy towards the new.  But the urban form thrives precisely because it is dense and can get denser, so we need to be OK letting it do that.  Let a thousand flowers bloom!  Some may not survive, and that’s OK, but the rest will attract and engage a wider swath of people and expand the circle of participants and contributors further.

3. Invest in infrastructure of all kinds so that people can physically circulate freely, easily, and pleasurably.  The killer app of cities from Chicago to Shanghai.  Large concentrations of people and activity in one place can only happen when we invest in transportation forms that can scale accordingly.

4. Invest in education of all kinds so that people can professionally circulate freely, easily, and pleasurably.  Just as transportation infrastructure allows people to physically move around, education allows people to move freely professionally and vocationally, yielding huge returns to them and to society as a whole as they weave in and out of ideas and industries. 

That’s my unified theory of cities.  What do you think?

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