Beware of “Voodoo Urbanism”

Over-focusing on the wealthy cores of cities only fuels inequality, displacement, and other runaway urban problems — and degrades the cores too

Portland, Oregon — currently a textbook case of voodoo urbanism going wrong. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Truflip99)

The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work – and even seem to exacerbate the problems.

That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.

Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, and for an obvious reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for those at the top, and in past decades, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, we have begun to see very destructive results — creating cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole” – build some social housing here, see more affordability problems pop up over there.

In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”.

Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller industrial cities have suffered marked decline, with a predictable political backlash from the “white working class”. Lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to even more peripheral locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.  It is a gap in urban justice too — and it is not just bad for those in the peripheries, it’s bad for the city as a whole.

This more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development.

In the USA, authors like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida have come to prominence by promoting the undeniable economic power of city cores. Florida’s “creative class” ranks alongside concepts like “innovation districts” to promote a critical mass of talent and interaction. Glaeser’s “triumph of the city” points to the environmental efficiencies of compact living, as well as the economic benefits.

These and other authors have cited as inspiration the urban economics of Jane Jacobs, who did indeed champion the remarkable capacities of cities, and their synergistic “agglomeration benefits,” as creative engines of human development. But Jacobs also warned against the kind of “silver bullet” thinking that imagines that the benefits of an innovation district or a downtown creative class is will automatically trickle down to the rest of the city and the countryside. On the contrary, she pointed to the dangers of any form of concentrated “monoculture” – including even the partial monoculture of an innovation district or of a creative class.  (More recently, Richard Florida has expressed the same sober re-assessment of his own earlier work.)

Instead, Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted.  In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.

This is a point that Ed Glaeser  and the fans of “innovation districts” might not yet comprehend. Glaeser for one has been harsh in criticizing Jacobs’ defense of old buildings – for example, in Greenwich Village – which he sees as a sentimental preservation instinct that only feeds gentrification. His formula has been to demolish and build new high rises.

But Glaeser and other critics seem to miss Jacobs’ point. For Jacobs, the answer to gentrification and affordability is not an over-concentration of new (often even more expensive) housing in the core. Rather, we need to diversify geographically as well as in other ways. If Greenwich Village is over-gentrifying, it’s probably time to re-focus on Brooklyn, and provide more jobs and opportunities for its more depressed neighborhoods. If those start to over-heat, it’s time to focus on the Bronx, or Queens. Or Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans…

There is almost no end of existing good urban fabric, in the US and in other countries, that is ready for some positive gentrification, the kind that increases diversity and opportunities for human development. (As we also offer targeted protections against displacement for existing residents.)

At the same time, it seems more important than ever to provide good urban fabric in the suburbs too, where increasing percentages of the population live (including increasing numbers of the displaced poor).  “Good urban fabric” means walkable, mixed, transit-served, with expanding opportunities in older as well as newer buildings.  It means the same kind of geographic as well as other kinds of diversity, achieved through conscious strategic actions to dampen, incentivize, catalyze, and use other kinds of tools.

It is not wise to over-concentrate on the existing cores, in the belief that this “voodoo urbanism” will magically benefit all of the city’s residents.  Like George H.W. Bush’s “voodoo economics,” this approach reveals a naïve faith in  the capacity of the top of the economic pyramid (or the core of the city) to generate wealth that trickles down to all the rest.  (In this light, it is ironic that so many supposedly progressive city administrations are lured by this approach.)

A second, related issue is the scale of urban plots or lots. Here too we need diversity at the smaller scales, just as we need geographic diversity at the largest scales of the city. Just as old buildings tend to be more affordable, accommodating smaller businesses and startups, so too, small plots and lots tend to be more affordable for those same users.  There are other strategies for providing a diversity of opportunity too.

But as the cores experience hypertrophic growth, often the pressure to build very large buildings on very large sites also becomes financially irresistible. A mix of small and large plots, established by zoning code, can help to tamp down this tendency. At the same time, other tools can manage overheating of the core, and steer growth into new locations. For example, we can use land value tax to dampen speculation in real estate — so-caled “Georgist” policies. As Jacobs recommended, we can also use new public projects in new locations to serve as catalytic “chess pieces” to redirect growth into more benign forms.

These and many others are examples of Jacobs’ “toolkit” approach – one that is badly needed today, to cope with the dynamic challenges of rapid city growth around the world.

The lesson is that we need to become wiser stewards of urban diversity, in both scale and location, so that we can counteract the effects of our current overheated urban growth. There are ample lessons in the past successes of cities that offer us effective tools and strategies.  By doing so, we can support a more even and equitable growth of smaller businesses, and viable employment for lower and middle classes. Out of that creative exchange, we will continue to get unimaginable marvels of innovation, and we might also get the next new world-famous startup. But we will also get many thousands of other healthy and creative businesses, forming the backbone of great cities.

One Reply to “Beware of “Voodoo Urbanism””

  1. The writings of Jane Jacobs to urbanists are like the Bible to Christians, who pay homage to the book while lazily claiming it supports everything they already do and believe. Mehaffy brings some much-needed depth of analysis to the Jacobs belief system.

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