I’ve thought and read about cities for decades so it is extremely cool to encounter a new idea.  I’m currently on vacation in Ithaca NY, and before hand I wandered into the Architecture library at work to pick up a book about the Finger Lakes region.    That book was a disappointment, but nearby was a big thick book confidently called City about New Haven Connecticut and as is my wont I picked it up too.  City: Urbanism and Its End by Douglas Rae adds two new, to me, pieces to the puzzle of what happened to the American cities.

My father used to tell a story about a scholarly study of what climate is most suited to civilization.  The scholars plotted latitude of the great civilizations down through the ages.  Fitting a curve to their data they showed conclusively that the current optimal location of a civilization was New Haven Connecticut.  Needless to say the scholars were at Yale.  I grabbed the book in the hope it would turn out my father’s story wasn’t entirely tongue and cheek.

Geography does shape civilizations of course.  The presumption that Yankee thrift and innovation is a consequence of the Puritan culture, to take a common example, is thrown into question by the story of how the Puritans who migrated to Central America at the same time  ended up being slave owning oligarchs.  In that case the distinguishing factor appears to be labor availability.  In New England labor was dear, land wasn’t; while in the Central America it was the other way around.  Dear and innovation go hand and hand.

The thesis of “City: Urbanism and Its End,” beautifully and delicately presented in the first chapter, states that cities, like New Haven, made sense as a coordinating device only for a short period, less than a century.  It’s conventional to say that the automobile killed the center cities and in models of that kind the primary driver of how concentrated our settlements are is the transportation system used to glue them together.  Old cities in Italy have narrow streets because they were used on foot while modern urban spaces care more about tractor-trailers than tricycles.

The usual complement to the transportation based models of city concentration are ones about endowment.  First there were the natural endowments, a good and defensible harbor or along an existing trade route for example early London or New York’s are examples of that.    Later cities became their own endowment; aggregating social networks, capital, functional governance, etc. etc.  San Jose, and Silicon Value, is a modern example and Venice or Amsterdam a older one.  This model of cities as aggregating increasing returns in their endowments is my preferred model for what shapes the concentration of populations into cities; in part because it seems to fit well the power-law distribution of city sizes.

In the years prior to the rise of cities like New Haven the population was concentrating into what he calls Fall Line Cities, i.e. cities build along a river that was rapidly descending so as to take advantage of water power.  Labor, capital, expertise, the whole complex knot needed to make industrialism work, had to migrated to the power source.  That changed with the advent of steam power, railroads, coal, etc.

So that’s new to me.  Energy was no longer dear, or at least no longer immovable,it could no longer command all the other elements of the party to show up where ever it happened to be.  Once energy stopped being the key endowment other factors became the hard thing coordinate.  The city became the party.  One consequence of that insight is to wake up to the key role that electricity plays in blowing apart the 20th century central city.  It is, possibly, just a critical to the story as the automobile.  Before electricity you wanted to be near a rail or flat water to get your coal, to run your steam engines.  This reminded me of another of my father’s stories.  He had a friend who started a company making fiber optics, and that factory was carefully sited to be adjacent to a high tension power line near a small New England town with a concentration of optics expertise.

But there is yet another part to the story that is new to me.  Some years ago I was shocked to watch how real estate interests in Massachusetts were able to override the governance of the states principle cities using a statewide proposition.  Rae highlights how cities are seriously handicapped in the US by how their governance is structured.  In 1907 the Supreme Court wrote: “The State .. at its pleasure may modify or withdraw all [city] powers, may take without compensation [city] property, hold it itself, or vest it in other agencies, expand or contract the territorial area, unit the whole or a part of it with another municipality, repeal the charter and destroy the corporation.  All this maybe done, conditionally or unconditionally, with or without the consent o the citizens, or even against their protest.  In all these respects the State is supreme.”

That’s why, for example, suburban and rural voters could pass a referendum over the objections of city dwellers in Massachusetts.  That’s why New York city can’t get it’s hands on a half a Billion dollars from the feds for congestion pricing without sharing a large portion of the money with the rest of New York state.  Why New York is attacked by terrorists and we send money not to cities but to states where it buys toys for rural police departments rather than improved harbor security.  It’s why when the automobile began to undermine the numerous endowments that cities has accumulated they had such a hard time fighting back; and it goes a long way toward explaining why European cities were more successful in tempering the displacement of those endowments.

Of all the endowments cities have the diversity and richness their social and knowledge networks are the ones I find most fascinating.  My father’s friend needed electricity and a pool of optics expertise he could draw upon.  I’ve thought that eBay and Google couldn’t have happened in any other situation; they desperately needed the pool of expertise that only the bay area could provide.  These endowments are the ones that Jane Jacob’s emphasises in her works.  By the time she was writing cities were created innovation but as firms grew they threw their factories out into the periphery.  Just as Apple manufactures in Taiwan, or Google puts it’s servers next to hydroelectric plants.  It is, just possible, that the Internet will displace these social/knowledge endowment as well.  While I don’t know how that will play out for cities what I do know is that it’s harder than it looks replicating those in on the fabric provided by the net.

4 thoughts on “City

  1. James

    In Australia the capital city councils are banding together in an effort to get money direct from the federal government. Regardless, cities in Australia do better than American cities, because there’s one per state which is also the capital, so a lot of state investment flows there anyway. “Suburb” is less pejorative and means “neighbourhood”, despite them being broken up into municipal councils, since it’s all one metropolitan area, there’s much less jockeying for primacy as everyone knows where the center is.

    Who Rules America: Power at the Local Level has some interesting notes on real-estate coalitions’ role in shaping cities.

  2. adamg

    For a current example of this principle in action, see the fight between the Suffolk County DA and the Boston police commissioner over who should run homicide investigations in Boston. That the DA is legally in charge of all such investigations is probably more a vestige of anti-Irish sentiment in the state legislature back in the early 1900s than a well thought out approach to crimefighting.

  3. bhyde

    Adam – As you know the county system in Massachusetts is a vestigial organ; in fact I thought we had torn it down entirely – but apparently sheriffs, DA, a few other functions remain. But meanwhile there are numerious ‘regional authorities’ that exist to overcome the governance problems that arose once it became impossible for the urban core to continue swallowing the land around it as it grew. I wrote about that here:

    There is a whole subplot of that I wish I could read a short outline of – i.e. how police powers are allocated around the region. For example exactly why can the campus police at UMass in Boston issue traffic tickets, what can a guard at the mall get away with, and why do we have a county sheriff, a state house police, etc. etc. I suspect like most institutional structures, it all made reasonably good sense at the time.

    James – US cities sometimes show the same pattern you outline above. Rhode Island for example has so much of it’s population in it’s cities that it controls the state. The posting I mention above talks a bit about why we ended up having city/suburb so polarized. But there are other reasons, including in particular race and mortgage lending:

  4. James

    Ben: The Frustating condensation post nicely crystallised my understanding of cities vs metropolitan areas in the US. I wonder if a partial solution to this is to place more power with the county, rather than to aggregate city powers into regional authorities differently for each service.

    Australia is currently experiencing strong housing prices leading to much speculation as to the cause, the solution and whether it’s even a problem that needs solving. Oh, and whether the blame lays with state or local government, or the availability of more credit. This post notes “The Maroochy Shire Council won’t sanction release of that land for development for fear of flooding the real estate market and dragging down prices. Heaven forbid that speculators should face additional risk. It’s also interesting to note just how many of those speculators, developers, architects and planners are actually on local councils. It happens. All too often.”

    The comment (which I spent far too long trying to find, part of which was trying to remember the word ‘yeoman’) gives some more reasoning for the differences between the US and Australian cities: “OZ has NEVER, since 1788, been anything other than an urban society, unlike any other on the planet. Even the amerikan colonies were more rural, almost from the day the coffin ships hit port. Not OZ, because this ‘vacant’ continent was settled in a uniquely different historical period, for a specific purpose, and sturdy indepenent yeomanry was NOT it.”

    The police powers aspect leads to things like the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority’s police department. Due to a police shortage the Perth Public Transport Authority was given the power to have its own Transit Officers patrolling the trains.

    Slightly related is this article on childhood lead exposure and crime levels (source journal article, requires subscription) which notes that inner-city children were the most likely to be poisoned by lead.

    Meanwhile, a Google search for [rural small property city village] turns up a lot of sites hocking Bulgarian property. And thanks for letting me ramble on in your comments.

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