Human capital in the city. Coutesy of Michael Mehaffy.

A tale of two futures

Urbanism will play a key role in a choice between an “age of human capital” and an age of depletion and division.

Before she died, the great urbanist Jane Jacobs was known to be working on a book project about a subject she referred to as “the coming age of human capital.” This work seemed to represent a culmination of her earlier writings on urban economics and regeneration, and her later focus on human creative development in relation to natural systems.

The apparent optimistic tone of this work was in stark contrast to the gloomy outlook of what would stand as her last book, Dark Age Ahead. In that earlier volume (2004) she warned of the dire consequences of a technocracy run amok, and a slow collapse of the problem-solving capacities of critical human institutions. In their place would come ideologically driven retreats into simplistic approaches that were doomed to fail. This was a prophecy, but not a fatalistic one: Her point was that we do have a choice of the path ahead.

The kind of economic problem a city is

Most planners and architects know Jacobs as an early champion of compact, walkable mixed use, and in that respect, a thought leader of the New Urbanism. (Through her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.) But in her later career, her work increasingly focused on the economic underpinnings of human life, and the integral role of cities as shared places where economic creativity and organization can grow.

Her model of urbanism was a profound rebuttal of the “modern” industrial conception of cities that had reigned up to that time. In place of machine-like functional segregation she advocated diversity and mixing. In place of “loose sprawls” and “project land oozings” around towering modernist art-objects, she argued for coherent public space systems shaped by well-formed streetscapes, squares and parks. In place of super-block “projects” isolated by “border vacuums” she advocated a continuous fabric of interconnected urbanism.

Most of this is well known to architects and planners. But it is less well recognized that at heart, hers was an economic vision of the city – an understanding of the “organized complexity” of human activities and creations of wealth that the city makes possible. As we now understand from network science, this system gets its power not from a “command and control” approach from the top, but from a broadly interconnected, partly self-organizing network.

In essence, she argued, most of the economic benefits for the city are not generated by such a concentrated power center, but are actually the result of a broad kind of socio-economic interaction all across the city network, involving many small and mid-sized businesses and as well as start-ups. Their many small-scale innovations compound to generate the wealth of the city, in part by replacing imports and eventually creating new exports, and by making possible creative synergies that are often unexpected. (She gave the example of how Detroit, a ship-building city of many small companies and craftspeople, generated the unexpected innovations of the US auto industry.)

It is this capacity that offers opportunity for many different people at many different scales – and not only at the top, in the form of either big companies or big government programs. (These are the most common focus of “right” and “left” politics, both of which miss the deeper point.) This inherent dynamic of cities can, if we put it to work for us, take penniless immigrants (as it did, say, in New York, from Russia, Italy, Ireland et al.), and turn them into middle-class shopkeepers and manufacturers and professors and artists – and all the other economically and culturally creative people of the city.

The tempting (but wrong-headed) application of a “trickle-town” approach

It is true that much of the wealth of a city is temptingly visible at the top – and often in the city core, especially of late – but that does not mean it is wholly or even mostly generated there. But over-concentration of attention at the top, and in the core, not only fuels the wealth gap and the dynamics of gentrification, it distracts from the real engine of urban growth, according to Jacobs. The result is likely to be stagnation, loss of affordability, increasing segregation by income, declining quality of life, and a spiral of urban failure and recrimination. (My own home town of Portland, OR is going through this just now, as are many others.)

It is ironic that this “trickle-down” approach (i.e. concentrating attention at the top and in the core, in the hopes it will “trickle down” to all) is embraced by so many self-identified politically progressive city administrations, for whom favoritism towards the wealthy is hardly a pillar of their political approach. And yet it illustrates the extent to which top-down approaches of either the left or the right – for example, favoring big government, or big businesses – overlook the real engine of growth.

That real engine of growth, Jacobs argues, is powered by people interacting within the continuous fabric of physical spaces of the city, including the crucial public realm – the sidewalks and other spaces where people encounter one another, share information, pass along contacts, and create what are called “knowledge spillovers” that foster innovative expansion. Within this continuous fabric, private social spaces are important too, of course – within what the sociologist Robert Putnam has referred to as a “multi-stranded network” – but the “glue” that binds them all together is the critical public realm. The city becomes, in effect, a “socio-economic reactor” that generates wealth, in the broadest sense of the term (including cultural wealth).

This is a more diffuse and less visible form of wealth production, but it is ultimately a more powerful one. In fact Jacobs argues that it is the real wellspring of human development, and simultaneously, a way of increasing resource efficiency (because it is financially rewarded) and reducing ecologicial impacts. This dynamic goes a long way to explaining why cities can be, on a per capita basis, so much “greener” than other places, as my own research and many others’ has shown.

This approach does not, however, offer to City leaders the apparent “quick wins” of concentrated wealth. Instead, it demands a more subtle, more catalytic approach to urban development, and to achieving social goals and public benefits. It demands that we pay more attention to what Jacobs called “the kind of problem a city is” – not the kind that we perhaps imagined in our quest for economic “silver bullets” (the large company, the sports stadium, the soaring towers, etc).

Under this model, problems like affordable housing are less about diverting trickle-down wealth from the private sector into direct public investment – which ultimately becomes tokenistic, or produces other unintended consequences – and more about understanding and managing the socio-economic dynamics of the city.

It is true, as Classical economists are fond of pointing out, that soaring housing prices generally indicate that more supply is needed to accommodate demand – but the next question is, where and how should that accommodation occur? Some urban economists, like Ed Glaeser, tend to focus on the core, and they often propose to build ever higher – a strategy we might call “hypertrophy in place.” That is an unfortunate example of a “silver bullet” strategy. (Or a “silver tower” strategy, perhaps.) As a strategy to achieve affordable housing overall, that approach is doomed, because it fails to diversify. The more it contentrates on “hypertrophy in place,” the better it is at building very expensive, very profitable towers for the rich. (With perhaps a tokenistic set-aside of “affordable” housing.)

Instead, a better strategy is to diversify geographically and in other ways – to move into a system of polycentric complete neighborhoods, and find ways to catalyze more beneficial growth there. (In Portland there is a plan to foster growth in “centers and corridors” but there has been little successful effort to catalyze growth in the centers outside of the core.) In addition, diversity in types, ages and conditions of buildings is also important to maintain diversity in populations and incomes (something the central part of Portland has lost, as have the centers of so many other cities).

Furthermore, while public investment is still important under this approach, it is not used as a way to “socially engineer away” problems like affordability through direct expenditures, but rather, it is a catalyst for an alternative kind of pervasive growth that is more beneficial. This is an approach that treats the city as an organic whole, rather than a top-down money-making machine that can be tinkered with at will.

A pox on both their houses?

It is easy to criticize the demagogic claims of this election season, for example the manifestly implausible idea that somehow building walls and excluding people will restore jobs and economic might. But it is perhaps more important to see the emergence of these claims as the frustrated reaction to an equally deluded way of looking at urban economics, that growth is all about centralized stimulus and control. Hence if our group is not getting the goods from this centralized entity (be it big business, big government, or more likely a complex of both) then it must be because someone else is, and the only remedy is political revenge. But both the action and the reaction are rooted in an older, more primitive industrial conception of the world – one that is now dangerously obsolete.

What Jacobs prescribes is that we must look within, to our own capacities and the capacities of our own neighborhoods and cities, to generate new growth and new wealth. We must refrain from expecting large quantities to be delivered by large centralized entiities, and start to work toward more polycentric economies, and more polycentric governance systems.

There is another very important implication. Of course it is possible, up to a point, to replace the diversified, continuous public realm of urbanism, and the catalytic growth it produces, with a system of segregated, machine-like capsules: automobiles, isolated offices and campuses, suburban housing monocultures, and the like. It is possible, in other words, to trade away a “natural human-capital city,” for an artificial kind of city that is nonetheless economically productive, at least in the short term. Indeed, we can see many examples in the US (Houston, Atlanta, et al.) and many in other countries (Dubai, et al.)

But this economic development is only possible with massive injections of resources – notably fossil fuels -- at unsunstainable rates. The economic growth that such a city produces is ultimately illusory, because it is consuming the basis of its own future growth. It is the economic equivalent of “eating the seed corn.” I have previously referred to this model as the “crack cocaine” of urban development: it will produce a very quick and intense high, followed by a disastrous (ultimately planetary) hangover.

Moreover, this is a quantitative approach that fails to measure the qualitative. Its product is overall ugliness, with a bit of titillating beauty cloaked on here and there – like so much product packaging, on a toxic industrial product. The relation of this growing uglinss to a growing unsustainability is not a coincidence.

Two city models

This is the crisis that we now face. The world is rapidly urbanizing according to precisely this addictive model. We are on track to produce more urban fabric in the next five decades than we have produced in all of human history. What will be the model, if not this one? How will we avert the catastrophic collapse that seems inevitable under the current unsustainable path? New Urbanists will certainly be challenged to respond to this crisis. (For example, in implementing the “New Urban Agenda” that has just emerged from the UN conference on housing and sustainable development.)

Will we continue to stake our entire future on this economic “crack cocaine high” – and meanwhile, allow our politics to devolve into ugly shouting matches over who gets the next fix, and how much? That way lies a dark age ahead, according to Jacobs. Or will we take a more hopeful view, and see the city (and town) as an engine of sustainable regeneration, taking the steps needed to unleash its powerful urban dynamics? Will we make a transition to this new “age of human capital?” While much remains to be worked out, I think we can – and we must.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.