Alex Marshall on the Underside of the City

Amongst the pop culture urbanists like Richard Florida and Jane Holtz-Kay, there are some that do good, accessible, interesting work and others that produce self-indulgent jeremiads (not to mention any names cough JamesHowardKuntsler cough …). Alex Marshall belongs in the former category. His book on suburbanization, How Cities Work, is both intelligent, accessible, entertaining, well-written, and delightfully non-histrionic in world full of repetitive screeds about the evils of American suburbs.

His latest book is Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities, and I was reading it for my class on the The Urban Context this past week. Since I am not going to teach the class, I won’t be using it, but I had to talk about it. It’s a wonderful look at 12 cities: New York, Rome, Paris, Moscow, London, San Francisco, Cairo, Syndey, Tokyo, Bejing, Chicago, and Mexico City. Here, he discovers the roots of urban density that go way, way back. He provides a timeline for each city with major events, and the best part: cross-sections of the city by infrastructure era. So for Moscow, you have ascending from the bedrock: the secret subway system, the subway, the secret tunnels, Ivan the Terrible’s secret library and torture chambers, the sewer, water lines, and river culverts.

His thesis is that density doesn’t come through design or through policy. It’s the product of centuries-long urbanization processes. So perhaps my beloved Los Angeles can be forgiven for its settlement pattern given the fact that no planner visiting here in the late 1950s could have foreseen the millions of new people who would arrive, en masse, over the next few decades. Perhaps we should check in after another 100 years and see what LA looks like then.

Cheap Commercial Land in Manhattan

I started off this morning reading through the new material sent me by Wiley Interscience journals. I subscribe to email alerts for new papers from a bunch of journals–one of the few ways that email has actually improved my life–and a paper in Real Estate Economics caught my eye for a couple reasons:

Wheaton, W. C., M. S. Baranski and C. A. Templeton. 2009. “100 Years of Commercial Real Estate Prices in Manhattan.” Real Estate Economics. 37 (1): 69 – 83.DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6229.2009.00235

I always pick up stuff from William Wheaton because he’s my academic grandfather–my advisor’s advisor–though we’ve never met. He’s also somebody whose work I’ve followed since before I went back for my PhD.

This is a particularly interesting manuscript. The abstract is short enough to include:

This article is able to put together a database of 86 repeat-sales transactions for office properties in lower and midtown Manhattan spanning the years from 1899 to 1999. Using this very limited database, decade-interval changes in real property prices are estimated—with varying degrees of precision. Our conclusions are two fold. First, adjusting for inflation, commercial office property values were 30% lower in 1999 than they were in 1899. Second, within any decade values often rise and fall by 20–50% in real terms. With these results, the long-term historic return to New York commercial property must mostly comprise yield with capital gains limited to general inflation. Other historical studies consistent with this conclusion are reviewed.

A perfect paper for an intro to urban economics or a class on urban sprawl, for it would be very counterintuitive for students, particularly planning students, who think New York is the poster child for a metro area that has not decentralized.

Those MIT peoples are smart.

Car-Free Downtowns: Green-ness and/or Economics or Both?

Kat Martindale sent me a link to this story about Sydney’s bid to take cars out of the CBD. Like the Times Square plan, this makes perfect sense from an economics standpoint: the land is too valuable to have space taken up through space-intensive modes like cars. Other very large, very congested cities who don’t regulate often go the same way through individual market sorting, with people taking to foot, bicycle, and scooter to slither through the cars sitting in gridlock.

Oddly, we may not know ultimately the environmental effect of these car-free zones. WHAT? ARE YOU STUPID, Dr. Schweitzer??? Anything that gets rid of cars is good, right? Well, we don’t know that these types of car-free zones actually get rid of cars and trucks, or whether the zones simply divert vehicles elsewhere, re-routing them and thus adding to VMT, idling, or just slower speeds–all of which can add emissions as easily as they can subtract them. Eliminating car trips isn’t as simple as disallowing them in various parts of the city. There will be local benefits to air quality and a bunch of other things, but we don’t know what happens for global or regional emissions.

There’s a nice manuscript, by researchers I respect immensely, on how Paris’ car suppression strategies have had mixed results for air quality:

Bouf, Dominique and David A. Hensher, The dark side of making transit irresistible: The example of France, Transport Policy, Volume 14, Issue 6, November 2007, Pages 523-532, ISSN 0967-070X, DOI: 10.1016/j.tranpol.2007.09.002.

Link in ScienceDirect.

Shrinking cities

I’m a bit late on commenting here, as the shrinking cities stuff was all over the news about a week ago. First off, some links:

Richard Florida on NPR
Ed Glaeser in the NYT

I get to save myself some work today, as I don’t have much to add that Glaeser doesn’t cover here. Park space for current residents is a better use the land.

What strikes me as interesting about the discussion comes from the original reporting in the UK Telegraph. It is the way in which Kildee conflates his idea with “fighting sprawl.” It’s almost like “fighting sprawl” is a magic legitimization of anything planners wish to do. Flint is hardly in the position of “fighting” to avoid excess land consumption. But, as Glaeser suggests, there’s nothing much interesting here, and Kildee’s self-promotion via changing land uses isn’t particularly sinister. Overall, it’s a sensible enough thing to do where land for housing is virtually worthless.

Congestion and the walking city

Paul Krugman notes on his blog that while he is favor of NYC’s move to turn Times Square into a walking only area, he’s not sure who the move is for, as “nobody goes there-it’s too crowded.”

Krugman references my favorite quote about congestion from Yogi Berra. As Brian Taylor pointed out in a very good paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Berra captured an essential conundrum from urban economics for urban planning newfound efforts to “contain sprawl.” That contradiction comes down to a) congestion is a sign of a successful place within cities (the “it’s too crowded” part), at the same time b) that same congestion and place intensity provides the demand for decentralization–the “nobody goes there” part.

This contradiction makes it difficult to deliver on the “congestion relief” promises that many people make on behalf of compact urbanization— one of the key elements of sustainable city ideas. Los Angeles may be everybody’s favorite whipping boy for auto congestion, but DC, New York, Boston and Chicago all have congestion both on the road and elsewhere: there’s never a seat any Starbuck’s off DuPont Circle, for example, and the sidewalks are uncomfortably crowded in New York at certain times of day. The Mexico City subway or the trains in Japan–or in most global cities other than LA—are simply jammed.

I’m not saying that auto congestion is the same for the environment as these other forms of congestion–it’s not–but as Taylor points out, places that we sustainable urbanists love–like New York–have pretty bad traffic congestion, and that traffic congestion is part of the place’s vibrancy and a measure of its success–not its failure.

Thus our sustainable cities of the future are likely to be crowded–very crowded if population growth continues. Most Americans, even those who live in New York, have no idea what real megacity crowding is like. The the demand for decentralization will grow stronger as we densify, even as we try to pack a whole bunch of amenities into our compact, walkable new developments, so long as there is income and wealth to support purchasing more space in a crowded world.

Taylor, Brian D. 2006. “Putting a Price on Mobility: Cars and Contradictions in Planning,” Longer View, Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(3): 279-284.