Monday, February 1, 2010

"Welcome to the Urban Revolution" Navigates the Essentials of Successful Cities

By 2050, 70% of the world’s people will reside in cities, and the world’s population will likely peak at over 9 billion.    While people have been migrating to cities since the advent of agriculture the final phase of this migration will occur in the coming decades.  During this final phase, the world is organizing into networks of increasingly interconnected cities that are challenging nation-states for world influence.  By the middle of this century,  Jeb Brugmann envisions an interconnected Global City, which he explains in "Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World".  

What makes cities successful and migration from rural to urban areas so inevitable?   Brugmann identifies four urban advantages that attract migrants and drive prosperity:  density, scale, association and extension.  Urban enterprises that involve large numbers of people or goods in close proximity benefit from cities' density and scale.    Similarly, urbanites migrants have the opportunity to associate with a greater volume and variety of people relative to their rural counterparts.   The final urban advantage, extension, hinges on the superior urban communications and transportation infrastructure, along with familial and communal  relationships that persist through diasporas.  

City residents can combine the four urban advantages very powerfully through the organic or intentional practice of urbanism.   The citysystems that result are tightly coupled value networks that nurture and exploit the economic, social and cultural assets of urban residents.   Brugmann describes the migration of rural cattle herders to Dharavi, a suburb of Mumbai.   Urban migrants and their descendants use their familial and communal connections  to procure hides from the countryside. Dharavi leather industry workers produce high-quality goods in the dense, multipurpose neighborhoods in which they live and work, often in mixed use structures.  Their finished leather  goods find markets in the upscale stores of Mumbai, but are also distributed globally through Mumbai’s port facilities.  While this example of urbanism is organic, or unplanned, Brugmann sees intentional urbanism as critical to sustainable urban futures, and his book serves as a primer to aspiring urbanists.

Citysystems are robust, durable and adaptable, since they are owned, nurtured and governed by their residents.  But if the local establishment denies its communities

opportunities to build or nurture their own citysystems, they are likely to form powerful and persistent insurgencies that fully exploit the four urban advantages.  Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the MS-13 gang that began in Los Angeles and spread to other US cities are examples of urban insurgencies that persist in the face of massive suppression efforts by powerful governments.

What are the alternatives to citysystem development?  City model development creates suburban tract housing, upscale residential high-rises and condos, commercial office space, shopping malls, and the like that typically evoke or emulate some features of traditional cities.  For example, in the mid-nineties, I spent a few weeks working in “Times Square”, a gleaming new multistory mall and office tower in Hong Kong.  Nearer to Portland, the "Bridgeport Village" is an uncovered shopping mall of national chains sprinkled with a few public amenities like fountains and benches.  While city model developers may adopt and vigorously market strategies like transit-oriented or mixed-use development, their primary purpose is to turn a profit.  The scale and homogeneity required for attractive investments, however, typically precludes the dense and diverse urban settings required to fully exploit the urban advantages. 

Another development form is master-planned cities, which typically manifest the vision of an autocrat or public-private partnership on a grand scale.    The plans for these developments are typically blunt, standardized instruments sufficient to attract capital and secure permits, but insufficient to attract and interweave urbanisms that constitute sustainable local communities.  The ultimate master planner was Robert Moses, whose bridges, highways and parks irrevocably shaped the New York Metropolitan area to the detriment of mass transit, racial and socioeconomic equity as well as some thriving, traditional communities.    
While some master-planned developments do indeed work pretty well—I grew up in one called Rochdale Village that still appears to be thriving--they often represent a lost opportunity compared to the richness and vibrancy of the Strategic Cities that are Brugmann’s paragons of urban development.   A strategic city, like Curitiba, Brazil; Chicago, Illinois or Barcelona, Spain, is one where public and private stakeholders have organized themselves into an urban regime that weaves together economic, social, cultural and infrastructural (e.g. mass transit) systems to produce sustainable advantage.  These urban regimes are coalitions of government, business, and nonprofit organizations that transcend electoral cycles.  

At the other end of the spectrum, Cities of Crisis like Mumbai and Detroit are whipsawed between conflicting urban strategies.  In Mumbai, slum development by urban migrants and their allies is in direct conflict with city model slum clearance and redevelopment, resulting in a corrupt and often violent method governance of slum clearance and other municipal activities.  In Detroit, incentives like tax breaks and federally funded highways, along with a globalizing auto industry, sucked industry and residents from the center city, some parts of which are reverting to prairie

In the middle of Brugmann’s urban scale are Great Opportunities Cities, which may have a variety of urban assets, but have not assembled the urban regime that advances a distinctly local urban strategy.   Brugmann includes his native Toronto, as well as Los Angeles, Sydney, and Santiago, Chile in this category.

Where type of city is Portland, Oregon?   The Rose City has leading-edge public transit, an ever-growing number of appealing neighborhoods with thriving retail centers, an urban growth boundary, an innovative regional government, along with industry clusters such as apparel, high-tech and food.   However, city model and master-planned developments have damaged or destroyed many of its ethnic communities, and Portland’s urban regime has struggled and split over critical initiatives like adequately funding public services and attracting the industry necessary to fully employ its residents.   For those like me who aspire to help turn Portland from a Great Opportunity City to a Strategic City, this book provides crucial insight and practical guidance.  

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