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The city and the state: American urban planning and the role of government

Author: Hornick, Sandy

Hornick, Sandy. "The city and the state: American urban planning and the role of government." Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 4, July-Aug. 2011, p. 164. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities. By Witold Rybczynski. Scribner, 2010, 256 pp. $24.00.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. By Edward L. Glaeser. Penguin Press, 2011, 352 pp. $29.95.

In the years after World War II, New York City decided to get rid of its East Side Gashouse District, a bleak landscape of towering gas storage tanks and six-story walkup tenements. It replaced it with Stuyvesant Town--a modern "suburb in the city," as its planners described it. The creation of Stuyvesant Town represented a watershed moment in what would become a decades-long movement to revive and modernize the American city. In the 1940s and 1950s, many parts of U.S. cities were crowded and rundown, a condition that stood in stark contrast to the country's emerging suburban utopias. President Harry Truman called attention to the problem in his 1949 State of the Union address, pointing out, "Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others." After Truman's speech, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal financing for urban renewal and increased the Federal Housing Administration's role in providing suburban mortgages, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system. The federal government had placed itself squarely in the midst of urban policy. It remained there until the 1970s, when political power became firmly ensconced in the nation's ever-growing suburbs. Although federal programs have remained important to cities, Washington's central role ended when President Jimmy Carter failed to honor his promise, made standing in the rubble of the Bronx's Charlotte Street in 1977, to rebuild it. Three years later, Ronald Reagan, campaigning for president, stood at the same spot and made the same promise--with the same result.

After several decades during which scholars also tended to focus on the suburbs, two insightful recent books, Witold Rybczynski's Makeshift Metropolis and Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City, celebrate the importance of the American urban experience today. Rybczynski's is a study of the changing forces and ideas that have shaped urban settlement, whereas Glaeser's is an explanation of why the critics of cities throughout history have been wrong and why dense settlement is the key to progress and the source of innovation. Although both books have much to offer, they share two flaws: they intertwine the discussion of and data for cities and those for their suburbs, and they are overly distrustful of government planning.


Makeshift Metropolis follows the evolution of thinking about urban reformation, a movement that began in response to the condition of cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Back then, cities were crowded and unhealthy, and with the advent of the car, they became traffic-clogged as well. Rybczynski centers his account on what he calls "three big ideas" about urban planning: the City Beautiful movement, the Garden City movement, and the Swiss architect Le Corbusier's vision of "towers in a park." The first two of these emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. The City Beautiful movement rejected the nineteenth century's laissez-faire approach to urban settlement and sought to promote civic art in building design, sculpture, and urban layout. After its dramatic public debut in the form of the White City, a cluster of neoclassical buildings that formed the centerpiece of Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the vision came to dominate public building through the Great Depression. It left a legacy of much-beloved Beaux Arts architecture, including New York's Grand Central Terminal and San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts.

The Garden City movement, in contrast, was interested in creating self-contained urban environments limited to around 30,000 people. These would include a great deal of open space and would be surrounded by farmland--essentially, a town in a garden. Founded by the British urban theorist Ebenezer Howard, this vision, as Rybczynski describes it, allowed residents to enjoy the benefits of the country in the city. But it has evolved into not living in cities all. In early examples of the style, such as Hampstead Garden Suburb in London and Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, New York, neighborhoods of single-family homes included denser town centers. But these ultimately gave way to the more dominant legacy of the Garden City movement: low density. The garden trumped the city, and suburbs became the norm.

Rybczynski spends the remainder of Makeshift Metropolis taking readers through the various, and mostly misguided, efforts to reform cities in the mid-twentieth century, campaigns that were advanced by the towering urban thinkers Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, all of whom disliked the densely built cities of the industrial West. Mumford and Wright both wanted to take advantage of the freedom of movement offered by cars to spread cities out, but their ideas never gained much traction. Le Corbusier, meanwhile, envisioned rebuilding cities as towers in a park, clearing out large areas of cities and filling them with tall buildings surrounded by open space and connected by high-speed roads. None of his master redesigns, according to a historian quoted by Rybczynski, "stood the slightest chance of being adopted," but they nonetheless became the model for the midcentury juggernaut of urban renewal that, in clearing out lower-income neighborhoods and replacing them with inhospitable housing projects, left so many scars on American cities.

Although Rybczynski criticizes Mumford, Wright, and Le Corbusier for what ultimately amounted to an anti-urban bent, he is not critical enough. Rybczynski neglects to point out that the very urban attributes he advocates later in the book--including density and walkability--were missing from these theorists' thinking. It is not that towers in a park are inherently bad. After all, Stuyvesant Town, built on the towers-in-a-park model, has been a sought-after place to live since it opened in 1947. It works, however, because it is located in the midst of a dense city with buildings crowded together along walkable urban streets--characteristics that Le Corbusier and the other midcentury critics detested. Moreover, Rybczynski is too kind when he asserts that New York's desirable housing in the apartment buildings that line Central Park somehow reflects Corbusian thinking. Apartment living next to Central Park dates back at least to the completion of the Dakota in 1884--three years before Le Corbusier was born.


Jane Jacobs, a writer and editor with no training in city planning or architecture, was one of the first to observe that the Corbusian ideal was a failure, publishing The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Rybczynski describes Jacobs as "widely recognized as the most influential urban thinker of her time," and she emerges as a heroine in his book for recognizing the value of traditional cities. He does, however, note that she was not alone in opposing the bulldozing of neighborhoods, nor was she always right. (For example, she believed automobile-oriented cities were more prone to crime.) Unlike the great thinkers who imagined what cities should be, Jacobs explained what cities were, reaching her conclusions after observing how real people interacted in urban environments. She preferred intersecting streets lined with buildings, which created opportunities for human interaction.

Whereas Mumford, Wright, and Le Corbusier thought traditional cities needed to be replaced, Jacobs and her supporters reveled in cities precisely because they were imperfect. Later innovations in urban planning, virtually all of which were influenced to some degree by Jacobs, never generated nearly as much controversy as earlier ones, nor did they address the larger questions of how cities should be organized. Although the rediscovery of the urban waterfront, festival marketplaces, iconic architecture, and other innovations contributed to urban vitality, as Rybczynski discusses, their overall record is mixed. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, for example, became the modern prototype of a successful icon after it almost single-handedly brought the world's focus and millions of visitors to the formerly industrial city.

Rybczynski points to the destruction of New York's Pennsylvania Station--which was the prototype for grand train stations throughout the United States but was demolished 54 years after it opened--to show the limits of iconic architecture. In the process, however, he misses the real lesson of Penn Station. It was built as the focal point for a great business: the Pennsylvania Railroad. As the railroad lost its value (it declared bankruptcy in 1970), the station became a beautiful white elephant. Turning it into a festival market station (one with shops, restaurants, and entertainment, as in Washington's Union Station) might have revitalized the structure, but the notion was still decades away. It was demolished not because its iconic architecture failed but because iconic architecture does not work unless it serves a valuable activity. Baltimore's pioneering Inner Harbor is a tremendously successful festival marketplace that has been copied in Boston and elsewhere, but it has not stopped the city from losing more than 30 percent of its population since the project began in the 1970s.


Glaeser's approach to the study of urban planning, as befits an economist, is to apply his analytic tools to what has worked and not worked in cities. His book is a strong defense of cities against those who criticize them as being too crowded, slum-ridden, and environmentally unfriendly. Glaeser defines cities as "the absence of space between people and firms," and his most basic observation is that the contact created by this proximity fosters new ideas and technology, generates economic activity, and is good for the environment. The concentration of poor people in cities, he argues, reflects the opportunity for advancement that cities hold for rural migrants. The interplay of people, businesses, and ideas is an important reason why cities with diverse economies do better than industrial monocultures. The poor, along with everyone else, benefit from this economic and intellectual dynamism.

However, by conflating the terms "cities" and "metropolitan regions," and commingling the data for each, Glaeser introduces significant flaws. (Rybczynski is more aware of the problem, but he, too, succumbs to it, as when he cites a ranking of "global cities" that is in fact a ranking of metropolitan regions.) True, the political boundaries that divide cities and suburbs are often just historical accidents, and employment and housing markets, air quality, and traffic are regional. From the sky, it is almost impossible to spot where most cities end and their suburbs begin. But distinctions between cities and their suburbs are very real. With few exceptions, most big-city mayors are struggling to manage the costs of maintaining and investing in infrastructure as the economic activity in cities (and their resultant tax revenues) shifts to the suburban portions of metropolitan regions. Another problem with Glaeser's argument is that the environmental benefits he ascribes to cities are not generally achieved in the car-dependent suburbs. Nevertheless, the economic benefits of concentration are achievable in the suburbs even of declining cities. Indeed, most economic and population growth in the United States have been concentrated in suburbia. Even cities with declining urban populations, such as St. Louis, Missouri, still have growing suburbs.

In conflating cities and their suburbs, Glaeser overlooks one of the central issues confronting cities for most of the last century: their competition with suburbs. Glaeser sees the competition as primarily between cities that restrict growth and those that accommodate it. He unabashedly favors less restrictive zoning regulations and the more limited application of landmark protections, which effectively limit density. "There is a land shortage . . . throughout much of coastal America," he writes, "but that shortage is the handiwork of regulation, not nature." In arguing the point, he contends that Houston, Texas, is somehow more popular than New York City because it has fewer building regulations. Less regulation, Glaeser argues, keeps housing costs down and allows the average owner-occupied housing unit in Houston to be valued at $126,000, compared with $496,000 in New York. Yet it is not higher-density housing that Glaeser cites when discussing Houston, as one might expect if density-limiting regulations were the problem. Instead, he focuses on the easy availability of single-family suburban homes. It is not that regulations do not drive up housing costs or that municipalities should not accommodate growth. But the higher values for homes in New York City, as Glaeser recognizes elsewhere in the book, also reflect the greater desire of people to live there. His assertion that Houston is growing faster than New York leaves much unsaid: although Houston's growth rate has been greater than New York's, the absolute gain in population in New York (officially at 166,000 between 2000 and 2010, but probably more, given the undercounting in immigrant communities in Brooklyn and Queens) has been greater than Houston's (146,000). Describing New York as less popular is a bit like Yogi Berra's comment that "no one goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

Moreover, although Glaeser ascribes Houston's growth to a lack of regulation, in fact, it has more to do with the availability of land for low-density development. The part of Houston that is growing quickly is its suburbs--precisely where it is easy to produce large amounts of single-family housing. In the last decade, Harris County, which contains Houston, grew by 20.3 percent (almost 700,000 people), but the city itself grew by only 7.5 percent. In emphasizing metropolitan Houston's ability to accommodate relatively inexpensive single-family housing, Glaeser ignores an important distinction. New York, Boston, and many of the California coastal cities that allegedly suffer from too much regulation have been accommodating suburban growth for 60 years or more. The land available for low-density development has been largely filled--by low-density development. Only later in the book does Glaeser acknowledge that even Houston's suburban growth will ultimately run up against the limits of congestion as more and more people fill out a constantly growing region.

The weakness of the claim that regulation impedes population growth can also be seen in Glaeser's comparison of Chicago and Boston. Glaeser commends Chicago for issuing 68,000 building permits between 2002 and 2008 and chides Boston for issuing only 8,500--about half Chicago's rate considering their relative sizes. But Chicago's liberal issuance of building permits did not stop the city from losing more than 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010, even as its suburbs continued to grow. Over the same period, the smaller and purportedly more restrictive Boston grew by more than 28,000 people, or nearly five percent, and its housing supply grew by more than eight percent.

One of Glaeser's strongest points concerns the importance of investing in human capital, particularly by funding education. He contrasts successful cities, such as Bangalore, with declining ones, such as Detroit. Bangalore's success, like that of Silicon Valley, owes to the founding of an engineering school, the spinoffs of which produced a dynamic knowledge-based economy. In contrast, Detroit had relied on an industrial monoculture: producing cars. But this explanation of decline seems incomplete. Detroit was in trouble long before its main industry fell apart. Its population started declining in the 1950s, when the automotive industry was booming, and it is still falling today. That decline was mirrored in virtually every other older American city affected by the postwar suburban boom. The greater Detroit region, however, has continued to grow, with its population climbing from 3.3 million in 1950 to a high of 4.8 million in 2000, in spite of the hollowing out of its central city. Detroit's suburbs even managed to grow by two percent in the last decade, while the city's population declined by a staggering 25 percent. Even before its prime industry went into a tailspin, Detroit was a prototype for cities that had lost the battle with their suburbs -the very battle that New York took on when it cleared the Gashouse District to create Stuyvesant Town.


Although Rybczynski argues that it would be beneficial for cities to be denser to reduce their environmental footprint, he does not see future growth focused on downtowns. Manhattan-style settlements, he believes, are not a model for most Americans. They prefer dispersal, and almost all recent technology--the car, the cell phone, the Internet--has fostered dispersed settlement. This is why Rybczynski believes that the suburbs, where he expects the overwhelming share of future growth to occur, should be filled out. Making them denser would constrain growth from spreading out indefinitely and allow these thickened settlements to take on attributes of urban living: providing places to walk to and environments one would want to walk in, reducing reliance on cars, and increasing sustainability.

But Rybczynski never explains just how this would happen without government planning; perhaps influenced by Jacobs, he, like Glaeser, is not a fan of governmental planning. (The underappreciation of government planning is a problem that runs through Rybczynski's book; for example, he sings the praises of Manhattan's Battery Park City while ignoring that it is very much the product of top-down government planning.) To achieve the benefits Rybczynski seeks requires planning for what is called "clumpiness," which results from clustering density at locations that can support transportation hubs instead of increasing it everywhere. Getting the public to accept clumpy development requires planning for open space and amenities such as libraries. And carrying it out requires the use of regulations, such as zoning laws, to impose varying levels of density. Glaeser, too, wants more density, and he argues that the government should reduce regulation, educate its citizenry through charter schools, and create economic incentives for neighborhoods to become denser--even as he wants to give neighborhoods the "power to protect their special character." Putting aside that protecting the character of neighborhoods is the basic objective of much of the regulation that Glaeser objects to, for areas with multiple property owners, making them both dense and livable can be accomplished only through successful government planning, whether in New York or Singapore.

Rybczynski's and Glaeser's examinations also leave out several factors that have changed the character of cities. They underplay the role of immigration in repopulating cities and fostering economic growth, processes that have been invaluable in New York's revival. They make little note of public safety, a drop in which played a major role in Detroit's decline and a dramatic improvement in which, under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, played an equally large role in New York's resurgence. And they nearly ignore problems with infrastructure, which is often aging in cities and is too spread out in suburbia. The books also do not devote enough attention to the efforts of the urban planner Edward Logue (who built a patch of suburbia on that devastated site on Charlotte Street), the East Brooklyn Congregations (which reclaimed devastated areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn with low-rise row houses), and others who offered affordable housing to middle-class families. These innovations transformed decimated inner-city areas into stable and desirable neighborhoods.


The future of American cities will depend on how the tension between cities and their suburbs is resolved. It is doubtful that the allure of cities that Glaeser documents would induce even someone as attuned to urban issues as him from altering his choice, which he made as his family grew, to raise his children in the suburbs. Modern life offers too many of the benefits of proximity to non-city dwellers, who can pick up a phone, chat online, or get all the face time they want by driving from one suburb to another. The economic powerhouse of Silicon Valley is proof that the benefits of agglomeration, other than environmental sustainability, are available in a suburban model. And for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be places, such as suburban Houston, that have not yet grown too congested to absorb more suburban growth.

Cities and suburbs can coexist, and in a mutually beneficial way. The key is for regions to strengthen the centrality of the center by investing in access to it and making it more appealing. Governments should plan for activities that make sense in the center, from high-end office uses to entertainment and cultural attractions, all supported by 24/7 communities of people who want to live an urban lifestyle. They should ensure public safety and encourage immigration, which not only helps repopulate cities but also brings entrepreneurship and economic growth. Indeed, more people are living downtown than have done so in many years, and the number of places they are willing to live downtown precisely because they are urban--not just in New York but also in Portland, Oregon; Miami; Phoenix; and even West Palm Beach--is on the rise.

To make cities more accessible, centers need to be linked to suburbs by public transportation as well as by highways. These suburbs, as both authors suggest, should be thickened, but not randomly. Instead, the thickened locations need to compose a web of subcenters that are linked to the city center and to one another. Glaeser is correct that the regulatory framework needs to provide for more growth, but it needs to do so in ways that take into account these linked subcenters of density. Outside older cities, suburbs grew up around village centers, which had access to regional transit systems. These are logical places to clump future suburban growth. Around newer cities, these conditions may have to be created from scratch, but there is no reason that could not be done. Such a plan would allow most people to live where they want to in the suburbs and also have more choices when it comes to where to work, eat, and shop. Those options, meanwhile, would be only a short train, bus, or car ride away.

In the New York region, the city government and its suburban counterparts in New York State and Connecticut (along with several regional nonprofit organizations) have just received a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to jump-start just such a process of reshaping regional development priorities toward growth along transportation lines. With this grant, government and nonprofit planning organizations will promote development in areas that are linked to the center city (Manhattan) and to one another. If this can be shown to work in the long run, it may offer the promise of mutually supportive growth in both urban and suburban communities. But undertakings like this will require applying the lessons about planning's successes and failures that Rybczynski describes and the type of growth-accommodating regulatory structure that Glaeser seeks. Only the intelligent application of public planning for private-sector growth can accomplish that.

SANDY HORNICK is Consultant for Strategic Planning to the New York City Department of City Planning.


COPYRIGHT 2011 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

DMU Timestamp: February 20, 2024 23:51

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