By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Cities
Bigger is not better when it comes to population growth, writes Joel Kotkin. Here's why he says megacities are detrimental and avoidable.
Are dense megacities even desirable?
Writing in Foreign Policy, Joel Kotkin suggests -- rather sensationally, by default -- that reports of global urbanization are far from a sure thing.
In fact, he suggests that the city -- that tried-and-true economic engine -- is a rather undemocratic, rigid affair that is beat by the lawns and driveways of suburbia. And the World Bank report that says that density equals economic success is, well, wrong.
Yes, the percentage of people living in cities is clearly growing. In 1975, Tokyo was the largest city in the world, with over 26 million residents, and there were only two other cities worldwide with more than 10 million residents. By 2025, the U.N. projects that there may be 27 cities of that size. The proportion of the world's population living in cities, which has already shot up from 14 percent in 1900 to about 50 percent in 2008, could be 70 percent by 2050. But here's what the boosters don't tell you: It's far less clear whether the extreme centralization and concentration advocated by these new urban utopians is inevitable -- and it's not at all clear that it's desirable.
Kotkin's reasons? That top-tier megacities such as Tokyo, London, New York and Los Angeles are "nestled in relatively declining economies" that suffer "growing income inequality and outward migration of middle-class families."
Worse, developing megacities such as Mumbai "face basic challenges in feeding their people, getting them to and from work, and maintaining a minimum level of health."
The answer? Spreading everything out, rather than concentrating it, Kotkin suggests. His reasons: a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment and a "lifestyle conducive to creative thinking." (Quick, someone page Richard Florida.)
In fact, Kotkin takes Florida to task for his urbanism, debunking his theories as follows:
- Cities aren't creative because creativity requires economic success to fuel it. Trade centers beget arts and culture meccas, and all of today's "capitals of culture" started as economic powerhouses.
- Downtown urban cores are overrated. "Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center." Examples: Cambridge versus Boston; Silicon Valley versus San Francisco; etc.
- Cities are bad for the environment. They may be more spatially efficient, but the heat island effect counteracts some of that.
- The gap between the wealthy and the impoverished is greatest in cities. "Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries." Kotkin cites New York, London, Toronto, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Jakarta, Cairo, Nairobi and Manila as examples.
As if that's not enough, the rise of the megacity may itself be a myth, Kotkin writes, citing New York University professor Shlomo Angel's research showing that the percentage of the world's population living in the 100 largest megacities actually declined almost 5 percent as the world's urban population grew from 1960 to 2000.
Urban population densities have been on the decline since the 19th century, Angel notes, as people have sought out cheaper and more appealing homes beyond city limits. In fact, despite all the "back to the city" hype of the past decade, more than 80 percent of new metropolitan growth in the United States since 2000 has been in suburbs.
The smart way to grow, according to Kotkin? A distributed network of smaller cities -- think the Netherlands -- that decentralizes the economy and preserves livability and global competitiveness.
What do you think: are cities smarter than suburbs?
Illustration: John Norden's 1593 map of Tudor London.
Aug 18, 2010
The potential energy efficiencies of city living, along with the access to education and jobs, have convinced world governments that migration to the world's megacities is a good thing, but if these cities don't have strong sustainable models to follow (which they generally don't being the fastest growing cities around) and prosperity-building technology to use as they ramp, they're in more trouble. Sustainable cities, with knowledge-based economies, and, yes, generally they are smaller cities - like Ottawa, Ontario - can offer technologies and strategies to megacities. With its strong, cluster-focused technology sector, Ottawa is a leading global city. In 2010 the city was named one of the world?s top seven intelligent communities by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF). Megacities / densification is the future. Yet, megacity economies need solutions / models to build overall prosperity to the levels of today's "mini"cities. See what Ottawa is doing in Mexico City here: http://bit.ly/cvOvyx
Good comments. If Dallas is a mega city then I have lived in all of the types as well. I now live in Oklahoma City (~1.5M people) and think cities like this are the most livable. Big enough to have most of the services you want every day. Close enough travel wise to go to the Mega Cities when I have need to. Really, how many people in New York/New Jersey go to more than 1 broadway play a year. Mostly they are there from inertia, not because of any need to be there (no offense, people tend to stay where they are whether its NY or Cheyenne). As one commented earlier, because of Internet/Communications technologies a lot of work can be distributed and the "need" for density is diminished. I rarely have to go more than 4 miles to get anything I need/want. Traffic is relatively light compared to larger cities. My productivity is high (except for right now:-) because I dont spend a lot of time travelling to/from work.
Ok live in the burbs and drive 100 miles each way to work and back. By the way which oil company suggested this study?
You can think of it in terms of an engineering problem. Cities are thought of as more efficient because shorter communication lines waste less energy. With the rise of multimedia computer networks, that argument fades back a bit. But you still have the problem of connecting people to the places they work. It is fairly obvious that if people live closer to where they work, the energy needed to move them around is reduced. This I think is the major challenge of creating an efficient urban area. It not size so much as arranging the flows of people and products in an optimal way. Beyond a certain density, the urban environment tends to become distasteful. So there are limits to density that have to do with human considerations. The urban/suburban model is wasteful, but building an entire city into a single super-dense structure would probably also be unworkable.
I agree with: DavidMichaelMyers - about the manners of NYC residents. Seattle is the opposite of NYC in that respect, but many cities are places where civility (and safety) has actually devolved, hence the truly civilized are in the suburbs and the country. misceng - about "planned cities". They have been tried as megacities (Bras?lia) and as suburbs (Reston, VA). One is an enormous botched up mess, and the other is a creepy Stepford- like controlled environment. Neither is desireable. By the way, I was a big fan of archologies when I was young, but I know they will never be built. kdoylekeenan - about telecommuting. Want to increase the capacity of our infrastructure and save money too? Take all information and office workers off the road. It's ridiculous that there is no tax incentive right now to encourage telecommuting... but maybe that will interfere with the agenda to shove us all into little cages in the megacity. gdstark13 - about the bomb. All it will take is *one* and the people will flee their mega-tombs. Even a *slight* problem causes hours of traffic backups in the cities... imagine the permanent gridlock of a real disaster. As for myself, there have been studies on rats that show the more crowded you make their environment, the more aberrant their behavior becomes... some become aggressive, some non- responsive, some trembling uncontrollably. Sounds about like an average mix of megacity residents to me. And about the so-called "culture" available in the urban jungle. Be honest... it is available only to the rich, or maybe once a year as a special event for the less than rich who constitute most of the population. In fact, NYC has become a haven for the ultra- rich, with a huge portion of it's economy now dependent on servicing these pampered few. "Can I powder you butt sir?"... it's disgusting if you think about it. Face it... the urban dream is a dehumanizing nightmare. Let's use technology to telecommute and let's further develop our distribution networks (UPS, FedEx, Supermarkets and big box stores) to bring the goods we need to our doors instead of making us drive somewhere to get them. And go next door to actually meet your neighbor.
Distribution is a problem not planned for in urban/suburban development. The myth of government's eternal intervention promotes flawed planning. People, goods, pollution, power, water. These distribution issues are compounded in megacities and suburban development. If taken into account from the onset, rather than allowed to develop organically, either can be managed.
I first heard that American inner cities were dying in 1967. It doesn't appear to have happened yet. In Africa, where I live now, urbanization has brought its problems (shanty towns -- informal settlements, infrastructure that can't keep up), but it also reduces population growth and provides more economic opportunities and better health provision, among other benefits. How big does a city have to be to provide this transition? I don't know, but I doubt that cities can be limited to the minimal size, because people can move more or less freely.
The urban heat island effect issue is a canard. They may have some regional effects but they have essentially zero effect globally.
It is telling that they keep citing as an issue the disparity of wealth in the cities. This is not an objective study, but a study with an agenda. First argue that cities must spread out. Then, of course, they come up against the defenders of the ecology; because, in spite of the article's rhetoric, having urban centers clear across the countryside is going to interfere with croplands more than any urban heatsink. The only way out of the conflict between these two forces will be, presumably, population control. The answer to this issue is the Arcology. With modern and future technology, urban areas can slowly transform into huge, centralized arcologies. It's a simple, anthropological fact that in times of economic downturn people migrate to urban areas. There are reasons for this. Getting rid of megacities is going to be a lot easier to argue about than actually accomplish.
Notice that in every disaster movie you never see people fleeing TOWARD any city -- the first thing people do is FLEE the city! There is a tipping point where the size of the city starts to cause more problems than it solves. And it seems to start around 300,000 people - above that people start to complain more about the cost of living them compared to the tangible and in-tangbile benefits which they pay for by them living in it.
To totally embrace the mega-cities model you would have to abandon key investment areas: primarily housing and automotviie manufacturing. The whole premise of moving to a mega-city is un- American.
I don't get the "Cambridge vs. Boston" comment (here, not in the Kotkin article). They don't seem so totally different from one another to me with regard to the urban core. The only time sprawl is mentioned in the article is in a comparison of CO2 production rates, but as people are pointing out here, there are profound lifestyle considerations beyond that. Perhaps he finds miles and miles of congested paved roads and declining strip malls an environment conducive to creative thinking, but that seems strange to me as a resident of suburbia.
I want to pick and choose with whom I associate. I worked in NYC for a couple of years. I never before in my life saw such a bunch of hostile, aggressive-defensive people in my life. As a "country boy," I was used to acknowledging and greeting people, even strangers, with a nod, a smile, a tip-of-the-hat. Have you seen the "Crocodile Dundee" movies and the way "Crocodile" greets everyone with a "Gud-die Mite"? That's what I mean. New Yorkers are fine people when you get to know them, but their everyday "street manners" are akin to two Tasmanian Devils thrown together into a small enclosure. They're instantly at each others throats. If you want "culture," in this world you must choose those with whom you mingle, cultivate, and enjoy; I don't want to be greeted with "What the f--k you want, motherf-----r?" if I happen to take a "cross-eyed" look at someone. No, thank you, I can visit the parts of NYC and the people who live there (whom I wish to engage) by using my telecommunications. So long as the barbarians do not destroy the infrastructure, I can keep my distance, yet be as intimate as I desire by voice or text. When face-to-face is desirable, I can then make the trek, fight the crowds, snooker the muggers, malingerers, and panhandlers until I get with the one(s) whom I seek. I prefer the reality and nature of Nature. Mankind did not evolve with concrete and MacAdam beneath his feet. How many New Yorkers have ever seen a cow from a distance of three feet? much less ever touched one? Those who wish to "preserve our planet" better realize that our planet is mostly green and blue with grass, trees, and water. Fortunately the cankers of humanity are concentrated in (relatively) small areas of the Earth.
Britain had this problem after the war. To stop London expanding new towns would be built which would form complete self contained units with services and public transport etc. A few were built but the idea faded as people did not like them. The main reason was that they were designed by architects who called themselves town planners even though they had never planned a town before and would themselves remain living in the better parts of London.
It is high time to consider this. We have heard how wonderful it is to have high density with public transportation for some time now. Don't mention the subsidies required to support the public transportation. Some things do have an economy of scale, but many other problems are simpler when people are more spread out.
Barring enslavement of the people, apparently a goal of the Administration and other current leaders, it won't happen in the US because people can move. The inner cities are collapsing from the mismanagement of those in control and even there people are starting to decide to get out. Dependency has kept there but the promises are coming up empty. Where there is no where to grow the cities will get bigger and safety problems will arise.
In looking into the future 100 to 150 years from now, Constantinos Doxiadis (1913?), representative of the Greek government at various international organisations, urban planner and architect, initiated an ambitious study of human growth and its consequences, in ?The City of the Future? and concluded that humans will live in a huge city of 20 billion inhabitants, ecumenopolis. see: Constantinos A Doxiadis ? City of the Future ? http://www.doxiadis.org/page/default.asp?id=18&la=1
How I see here is that cities usually upgrade faster, technology wise. In the city its easy for technology to move fast. In NewYork most places are complexes wired from the start for Internet. It's simply more efficient to live in cities. I actually live in what you would call the boonies of Tucson, Arizona and while the city enjoys fiber I enjoy 1.5 Mbps 20th century internet. Eventually I will get fiber out here. But it will probably be around the time when we are overpopulated and the only way for humanity to survive on this planet due to overpopulation is to basically live in layers, what we call cities. Think about it each story of a building is another person basically occupying the same spot as the people above or below him. So what one person usually takes up Hundreds of people can occupy. The sky is literally the limit. If we can finally grow crops inside of buildings like we should then we dont need farm land because that one level of farming actually has 200 others just like it hundreds of stories above it and maybe hundreds of stories below it. This will probably be the only destiny of humanity until we find other planets and the population can decrease.
I live in Seffner, a suburb of Tampa, FL. It...not to put to fine a point on it...SUCKS. There are several of those memorial discs on short signposts where people have been struck by cars on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (SR-584) leading out to it because it's a two-lane high-speed road with no sidewalks and no bike lane. The subdivisions mostly have sidewalks (only because most of them were built within the past 10 years), but there are no bike lanes anywhere. If you want to go anywhere, you're most likely to survive the trip with an automobile of some sort. (I'm not blaming the county planning commission for the fact that driving a small car is a bad idea, but it is. People cannot drive out here.) All the culture, what there is of it, is in Downtown Tampa, 20 miles away, and it all shuts down at 9 pm on weeknights. I'm actually a bit stunned we have a bookstore that isn't a Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, or Borders (those are all in nearby Brandon), but Donna's Books closes at 5 most weekdays. However, I have to ask the question: does my suburb suck because it's a suburb, or because Hillsborough County sucks?
A slight correction to your comment, with context: The now-gentrified Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City (which the city attempted, but essentially failed, to rename "Clinton") remains at least as dense as before, if not more, thanks to the increase in number of (luxury) skyscrapers in the area. Density within a single unit and density per square mile are two different measurements. Hell's Kitchen now and then demonstrates that there's no causal link between density (per sq. mi.) and poverty.
IMO, having live in San Diego, then Coronado CA, then Chicago proper, close to the loop and then on the edge of the city, I honestly feel that the reasons given in the article are so far off from reality that they only discuss one part of a large demographic of peoples that determine where one wants to live (excepting of course, the poorest of the poor and the ex-urbian dwellers, as the article does. The cities have everything you could want most of the time and often it's within walking distance (well, excepting CA; nothing is within walking distance there - hasn't been for decades - another excepton to the rule - high density spread I call it). But once I could afford to be a 'burber, I loved everything about it except for having to drive farther for anything you wanted most of the tme. But once I could afford it, and made enough money, it was nice to live in the 'burbs. Then I went to Chgo which more closely matches the kind of cities in the article - and lucked out by buying a house in a great neighborhood and a home that I was smart enough to make sure I could afford as long as I kept working and advancing up the ladders. I have my doubts about every statistic given here as none of them seem to have reality or even a good scientific control group to know what happened/is happening. IMO it just doesn't work to tally all these things into un-verifiable numbers with statistics that can be made to say just about anything you'd like to "prove". We now live in Small-Village, New York, about a mile and a half from the actual village limits, and love it here. I constantly kid my wife that when I die she can simply dump me into the leech field out back. And I half-fast mean it. EVERY place I've lived, I did so for specific reasons but NEVER because it was urban or suburban or exurban or country oriented. I knew/know very few people wishing they could move to/from the city, burb, et al; they all have different for their locations but it isn't city/burb/et al that's drawing/pushing them toward it.
This isn't just a lifestyle choice, we have to build sustainably and not impact future generations with what we do today. That is the basis of everything we are supposed to do, blend in with the environment that sustains all life. The unfortunate thing about academia being blind to temperature is we have created this big economy off building development. Buildings are a science and require properly trained professionals to complete that "sustainably". Buildings are designed, insulated, energy requirements, etc based on regional temperature extremes. Unfortunately buildings are signed off as compliant with building codes without verification. Building codes tell us to watch out for solar radiation because UV and other light could cause buildings to be radiated depending on the materials used. Here is a link to show you how a 100 million dollars of development is blending in. It is 89 deg. F being reported by the weather station, look at how buildings reached 199 F. http://www.thermoguy.com/blog/index.php?itemid=42 They aren't insulated for those temperatures and we are responding with excessive energy waste with more emissions treating symptoms. It just couldn't be seen before and unless architects consider solar interaction with whatever is built on the surface of the planet, we are superheating the atmosphere changing weather while we produce more emissions.
Let the free market guide the way. The communications revolution will decentralize populations. If I can create and live in Shangri-la and still communicate with those to whom it makes a difference, I'll do it rather than subject myself to the impersonal beehive of a city of any size. Just think of all the sewage that flows under the streets of New York and in the streets of Mexico City. And think of all the noise and BS that emanates from the mouths of millions of unthinking slobs. Communications is the key to civilization, creativity, productivity, and progress. Physical proximity is not necessary unless telecommunications is knocked out by the barbarians.
That was an area of squalid tenements, many w/o running water (or cold only), where people were crammed into such tiny spaces that the stresses imposed on them caused a veritable smorgasboard of health problems, both physical and mental. Later psychological and sociological experiments with lab animals (mainly rats) produced many of the same problems. This confirmed that the high density living conditions, while "efficient" in many ways, was extremely detrimental to people. As others here have noted, the problem with many suburbs is that they aren't "user-friendly". Businesses can neither afford to (nor want to) build multiple locations that would allow more foot and bicycle traffic to frequent their facilities.
With today's technologies, people shouldn't even have to leave their homes to perform "thought-based" work such as management, design, research, etc., etc. If more companies allowed teleworking as a routine means of working, we'd slash gasoline consumption and GHG emissions dramatically. People would be more relaxed if they didn't have to battle the traffic, and studies have shoen that teleworkers actually spend more time "at work" than commuters. Just saying...
Check out Arcology: http://www.arcosanti.org/theory/arcology/intro.html and James H Kunstler dissects suburbia TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/james_howard_kunstler_disse cts_suburbia.html for some forward thinking on possible directions to head for that goes way beyond two dimensional either/or thinking usually brought to the conversation and provides inspiration for action that is in our collective best interest.
Check out Arcology: http://www.arcosanti.org/theory/arcology/intro.html and James H Kunstler dissects suburbia TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia.html for some forward thinking on possible directions to head for that goes way beyond two dimensional either/or thinking usually brought to the conversation and provides inspiration for action that is in all collective our best interest.
There is an third alternative to cities or suburbs not mentioned here, and that's small town America. As someone who's resided in all three types of living arrangements, I have to say that small towns have it over both cities and suburbs. Our town (pop. ~ 3600) is economically viable, unlike all the big cities and suburban areas. There's much less crime because everyone knows everyone else's business. It's a cleaner environment with better schools and friendlier people. A small town has all the benefits of urban/suburban living without any of the detriments. I think that all the factors that originally led to big urban environments developing have been mitigated by modern technology. The mega city has seen its day. Now, if we could only get a handle on our population growth, we could set about to make the planet a much better place.
He's right...decentralization is inevitable, but not only for the reasons mentioned. It will also happen as a response to nuclear terrorism. A dire prediction? Absolutely. But remember...nuclear proliferation is increasing, not decreasing. Oh, and overpopulation is not helping matters either. gary http://www.UnitedDemocraticNations.org
Sorry folks .. I love my burb!!! 3.5 mile commute to work; every type of shopping within 5 miles; loads of restaurants; and sidewalks and parks and pools and ... and I can still drive into the city for all of the pro sports and performing arts that I could ever want. Room for improvement? You bet ... but you can keep your loft apartment, and I'll keep my yard and my Great Dane!
Here in the auto-centric western US, you hear many people say that they want the large lots that are only possible suburbs. And that they don't want to live in stacked housing. Personally, I agree with CptMatt. The politics behind land development often seems to overwhelm governments ability to guide it. In short, large fortunes are made converting undeveloped land into suburbs. The wealthy & influential people who know how to make money that way don't perceive similar opportunities within cities.
Kotkin's ideas are WAY out of context. The typical American suburb is the absolute worst design of productive, imaginative and sustainable living. This has been proven six ways to Sunday. Hours per day wasted in polluting automobiles, negotiating traffic to get anything done. Physical isolation from the rest of the community. Zero integration with other people, cultures and backgrounds. While the "mega-city" may have its own problems... the revitalized urban city-centers of America, Europe and Asia are a dynamo of energy, creativity, economy and living/working options. I live and work in downtown Denver. I spend NO time sitting in traffic. I walk to work, to the store, to eat, to see a show or movie. The energy, efficiency, productivity and overall quality of life living in a true urban environment is light years ahead of the suburbs. The suburbs are dying and there's no way around it. Guess what would happen if gas prices skyrocketed to $5 or more per gallon due to a major crisis? Folks in the suburbs are SOL. Stuck at home. Its the people and businesses on the urban grid that would survive. The city centers will be here long after the suburbs are a distant memory of a wasteful past.
How will the deurbanized areas support cultural fuctions that historical required a large urban area for funding such as Broadway, the Opera, first class museums, teaching hospitals, and financial exchanges. You cite the Netherlands, however, if want any of the foregoing you go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Personally, its either the city or the country for me; suburbia has all of the bad things associated with the city and little of the good.
I had to live in a Chicago suburb for several months recently. Better than a city? No way. There were no sidewalks, so you were focred to walk in the street, and if a cop came along he'd ask what you were doing in the street. Little or no public transportation. Support stores (grocery, cleaners, drug stores, etc) are all so far apart, that you must use a car to run any kind of errand. Suburbs are not geared towards the same sort of foot-friendly environment as a city. They force you to use gasoline for the smallest of errands.
It's true. And many of those "edge cities" are worse off than their big brothers. Examples: Camden, N.J. (vs. Philadelphia, Penn.); Gary, Ind. (vs. Chicago, Ill.); Flint, Mich. (vs. Detroit, Mich); Compton, Calif. (vs. Los Angeles); etc.
The cities catch up to the burbs. What happens is as metropolitan areas expand, they absorb their suburbs. North American cities all have inner-ring suburbs -- still rural in the 1950s-60s when built -- that are now, for all intense and purposes, urbanized as well. Many have coalesced into what are called "edge cities," with many of the same amenities and problems found in core cities.