Paul Romer’s Alternative Narratives about Chinese Urbanization

Paul Romer does a much better job than I could of discussing the NYT piece on Chinese urbanization. Here’s my favorite quote:

Alternative Narratives about Chinese Urbanization | Urbanization Project:

The narrative about forced migration — with its charged language about “top down” approaches (not once but twice,) its reference to the “disastrous Maoist campaign to industrialize overnight” — has an obvious emotional appeal for a popular audience that is comfortable with narratives about good guys and bad guys.

The alternative narrative — one about governments all over the world that are trying to cope with the billions of people who want to move to urban opportunity — better captures the deepest and most important undercurrent in the global economy the we and our children will face.


Two picks from JUA suggesting that suburbs aren’t what planners think they are

Two picks from the upcoming issue of The Journal of Urban Affairs:

These are unfortunately paid links, but you might be able to find drafts if you look on Google. Please let me know in the comments if you do find a link to a free pdf.


ABSTRACT: This paper examines the location and growth of creative industries within metropolitan areas. In recent years, the creative industries have been increasingly sought after as potential engines of metropolitan economic growth. Although some research has been done on the location decisions by such firms and workers, it has primarily focused on interregional and intermetropolitan disparities. We use establishment-level data to investigate intrametropolitan (central city versus suburban) location and growth for creative industry establishments in 40 of the top 101 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). We compared the number of employees and total annual payroll in each location, and categorize them by region, population size, and creative employment growth. Findings suggest that although creative industries are more centralized, they are decentralizing faster than other industries in general, but this rate, and even the direction, varies widely across MSAs.


ABSTRACT:  A wealth of data drawn from cities and their nearby suburbs show that, consistent with place stratification theory, African Americans live in poorer quality communities than similarly affluent members of other racial groups. Yet, few have examined whether these trends are playing out in the rapidly growing exurbs, places that emerged in the post-Civil Rights era. Through a case study of African American migration to Los Angeles’s exurban Inland Empire, this article tests the applicability of place stratification theory by triangulating evidence from interviews with 70 movers with U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. Both sources reveal that the gap in neighborhood conditions among similar income racial groups is much narrower in the exurbs than inner city Los Angeles or its nearby suburbs, an outcome that participants attributed to the region’s rapid housing construction, relative lack of a history of who lives where, and resulting neighborhood diversity.

Sprawl and decline, and reversing the directions of causation

Aaron Renn, the Urbanphile, has a post up arguing that cities are broke because of sprawl. Oh boy. Go read.

I have trouble believing that Buffalo is going broke because of sprawl. It’s such an extreme case of industry loss over the last 40 years that it’s hard for me to use it as an exemplar for any urban phenomenon other than “a place where the weather makes Dr. Schweitzer want her mommy.”

So what’s my point about the direction of causation? In a place like Buffalo, where populations began to decline due to employment loss and demographic shifts, land prices go down, and so larger lots become comparatively more affordable to the people there who remain a) employed and b) in the housing market. My friend who teaches in Rochester, for example, routinely sends me the absolutely beautiful homes she thinks about buying.

This is what you can buy in the Fillmore area of Buffalo for $115,000. SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH that’s a big honking house on a big honking parcel of land.

Voila Capture37

For comparison, I looked for comparable 3,800 square foot houses anywhere in the Bay Area, and it’s just not happening. I don’t know that market as well as I know LA, so looking there, I find this little darling (holy buckets) in Sherman Oaks:

Voila Capture38

Ok, apples and oranges, and all that, but still: $115K in relatively suburban Buffalo versus $1.5 million in suburban Los Angeles. Yes, wages are different, but I am pretty sure I don’t make 15 times as much as a university professor at SUNY Buffalo.

And in Buffalo, your suburban life really carries few transport-housing costs trades, either, because as population goes down, your travel costs go down (no congestion of any real magnitude). Fuel costs, yes, the costs that Buffalo winters take out of vehicles, yes, but time costs–low. The incentives for individuals in these places to consume land is nicely set, and the city/regional government is not in a strong position to implement growth controls when they are not growing.

I suspect that Detroit is rather like Buffalo’s story; decades of industry decline and outsourcing leave very few reasons for young people to stay there, or for immigrants to move there. Other than it’s cheap.

But Renn’s claim about Chicago is hard to reconcile. The Chicago metro area grew, and Chicago is a region with multiple urban centers (like most thriving metros).

The city of Chicago has been a darling amongst planners for doing everything right for past decade: they cleaned up their downtown, you can’t turn around without hitting a pedestrian walkway, public art smacks you in the eyeball every time you look up from your iphone, pocket parks galore, and they have invested heavily in every part of their transit. If that’s a pro-sprawl, laissez-faire central city government, I’m a size 2 (hint: I ain’t). So what’s up with that? Chicago usually ranks pretty low or moderate on sprawl indexes as well. So either those policies aren’t working, which is bad news, or something else is going on. According to one of the commenters, Chicago’s policy and planning methods haven’t had enough “teeth.” What teeth, exactly, can the city use to try to starve it suburbs? And how smart would that be? Most New Urbanist and Smart Growth tools are voluntary, incentive and amenity-based strategies. They are not widely implemented with teeth. How do you lay down an urban growth boundary when your city is surrounded by other cities? If you think regional governance is the answer, you have never ever attended a meeting at the South Coast Association of Governments.

The bottom line is that investments in infrastructure on the fringe of declining regions make little sense–that’s Renn’s major point, and of course he’s right–but I can’t credit his connection between being broke and sprawl. There’s probably a connection between tax aversion and suburbanization, but I don’t think Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo are suffering from the same urban malaise, unless that malaise is “too damn much snow for the human mind to fathom.”

If sprawl is the reason we’re broke, why are states having trouble financially? The Federal government? It’s not like they pay for water infrastructure to serve irresponsible, bloodsucking suburbanites.

Deborah and Frank Popper on Shrinking Cities in Shelterforce

The dialogue on shrinking cities and triumphing cities has me interested, if a bit flummoxed, about how you capture such phenomena–a bit like our decades old discussion on sprawl, which often bewildered me; there is clearly a definitional and subjective element to it that does really work: you recognize it when you see it, but it’s hard to define in words or numbers.

The Census numbers give us something to hold onto, but like population density, it’s hard to understand what densities mean, or, in this case, what percentage losses mean. Often, there are neighborhoods within a population-losing region that are economically viable; not all parts of Detroit are the same. Similarly, there imminently walkable subareas of Los Angeles, and sprawl-y parts of New York and San Francisco.

Deborah and Frank Popper describe the less quantifiable ideas around shrinking places in this piece in Shelterforce. The overall tone captures the zeitgeist of shrinking: that people have moved on from this place, and it’s not just deserted: it’s left behind, abandoned. And the people are not coming back.

The Poppers argue that places must plan to shrink rather than let the process go, suggesting (among other things) that places use ecological restoration to build up the quality of life for those residents remaining and to keep the place from sliding further.

Reading Richard Arnott

I’ve just been reading the last few days, and as such I was reminded of Richard Arnott’s** urban economics work. What unbelievably good work. Here are my favorites:

Anas, A., Arnott, R., & Small, K. A. (1998). Urban spatial structure. Journal of Economic Literature, 36(3), 1426-1464.

Arnott, R., de Palma, A., & Lindsey, R. (1994). The welfare effects of congestion tolls with heterogeneous commuters. Journal Transport Economics and Policy, 28(May), 139-161.

Arnott, R. & Kraus, M. (1998). When are anonymous congestion charges consistent with marginal cost pricing? Journal of Public Economics, 67(1), 45-64.

**And yes, he’s just as kind as he appears in that picture. He doesn’t always suffer fools gladly, but it would be hard to suffer fools when you’re that freaking smart.

What I learned from Marlon Boarnet about walking in the suburbs

Marlon Boarnet of UCI gave a seminar in our school yesterday on some of his collaborative research on walking in the suburbs. I took the following from the talk:

1. Suburbs have various spatial forms, and some of those may be conducive to walking in polycentric regions.

2. Those spatial forms may be difficult to divine empirically, but business number and–perhaps–service diversity may be one way to define a center/cluster.

3. Centers and clusters in the polycentric city can foster walking and dampen driving, though the latter effect appears weakly significant in this test.

4. There is a potential tradeoff between making retail clusters that serve nearby residents who walk becoming greater draws to the larger region that can generate auto traffic into the neighborhood.

5. Successful scholars experiment with cutting-edge ideas and analogies, some of which work, some of which don’t, but from that experiment new concepts and measures emanate.