Cities & Suburbs

A wonderful article from New Geography about the urbanologist’s dreams of the former and the realities of both.

An excerpt.

People care deeply about where they live. If you ever doubt that, remember this: they staged massive protests over a park in Istanbul. Gezi Park near Taksim Square is one of that ancient city’s most beloved spots. So in June, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to demolish the park to make room for his grandiose vision of the city as “the financial center of the world,” the park’s neighbors and supporters took to the streets. The protests were directed against what has been described as “authoritarian building”—the demolition of older, more-human-scaled neighborhoods in favor of denser high-rise construction, massive malls, and other iconic projects.

Other protests, usually more peaceful, but sparked by a similar revulsion against gigantism, have erupted in cities as various as Sao Paolo, Singapore, and Los Angeles. But what is most striking are the eerily similar reactions of mayors, city planners, architects, and developers, all of whom seem remarkably tone deaf to the wishes of their constituents.

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, is a tireless advocate for more density in the Big Apple. Along with many of the world’s leading academic, media, and real estate leaders, Bloomberg dreams of a future where urban dwellers live cheek by jowl in ever-closer proximity. Bloomberg’s notions are supported not only by developers but also a large cadre of academics, such as Columbia University’s Kenneth Jackson, who considers dissent from the mayor’s plans an affront to “Gotham’s towering ambitions” by reactionary “opponents of change.”

There’s just one problem with this brave new condensed world: most urban residents aren’t crazy about it. In the United States and elsewhere, people, when asked, generally say they prefer less dense, less congested places to live. The grandiose vision of high-rise, high-density cities manifestly does not respond to the actual needs and desires of most people, who continue to migrate to the usually less congested, and often less expensive, periphery. And as the people’s desires continue to run counter to what those in power dictate, the urban future is likely to become increasingly contentious.

Protests over urban development priorities similar to Istanbul’s occurred earlier this year in São Paulo, where the government is accused of putting mega-projects ahead of basic services such as public transport, education, and health care, particularly in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Singapore, often held up as a role model for densification, has seen growing concern about the destruction of historic structures, ever-more crowded subways, escalating house prices, and lack of open space. Similarly in Los Angeles, neighborhood councils have rallied against attempts to build denser buildings, which generate more congestion and erode local character. In London, too, attempts to build what the Independent describes as “the tall, the ostentatious, the showy and ‘iconic’” have been widely criticized for undermining the human-scaled nature ofLondon. Densification may be revealed religion to British planners, but this faith is not well accepted by citizens who live nearby. Novelist Will Self noted the “Wizard of Oz–hollowness” of these structures that seek to inspire but also “belittle us” with the mass, scale, and stand against this great city’s historic grain.

Even in Manhattan, the red-hot center of American ultra-density, eight of the island’s 10 community boards oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to densify midtown. The midtown project has prompted Yale architect Robert Stern, a devoted urbanist and no opponent of density, to warn that too much high-rise development creates a dehumanized aesthetic that chases away creative businesses and tourists, while preserving older districts attracts them.

Voting With Their Feet

The growing disconnect between people and planners is illustrated by the oft-ignored fact that around the world the great majority of growth continues to occur on the suburban and exurban frontier, including the fringes of 23 out of 28 of the world’s megacities. This, notes NYU professor Shlomo Angel in his landmark book A Planet of Cities, is true both in developing and developed countries.

In Europe, immigration has slightly boosted populations in urban cores, but the flow of domestic migration still heads towards the periphery. The evidence is even more telling in the U.S. In the last decade, nearly 90 percent of all metropolitan growth in this country took place in suburban locations, up from the previous decade. At the same time, a net 3.5 million people left our largest metropolitan areas—those over 10 million—while the majority of growth took place in cities under 2.5 million. Between 2000 and 2010, a net 1.9 million left New York, 1.3 million left Los Angeles, 340,000 left San Francisco, and 230,000 left both San Jose and Boston.

This is not what you read regularly in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Young reporters, virtually all of whom live in dense, expensive places like New York or Washington, believe the world is the one they know first-hand, the one in which they and their friends reside. Yet most Americans are not young, highly educated Manhattan residents. Many downtown areas may have experienced a substantial boost in numbers over the last decade, but this accounted for less than 1 percent of the 27 million in population growth experienced by the nation between 2000 and 2010. The total population increase in counties with under 500 people per square mile was more than 30 times that of the increase in counties with densities of 10,000 and greater.

All of this flies in the face of the argument, made by a well-funded density-boosting industry, that people want more density, not less. Lobbies to force people back into cities enjoy generous funding provided by urban land interests and powerful multinationals that build subways and other city infrastructure to bolster the cause of ever greater density.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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