Thursday, September 29th, 2011
I read articles out on the net with the general theme of claiming that a cabal of planners is conspiring to force us all to move back into overcrowded tenements in order to recognize their dream of reurbanizing America. There’s no doubt that plenty of progressives write about how people ought to more or less be forced back into the city and would gladly do it if they had the power. And I’m sure in some places there are planning rules designed to achieve this effect, like urban growth boundaries. But if you ask me, the practical reality in most of the United States is exactly the opposite situation. Virtually every piece of planning regulation I see acts to discourage urbanization and especially to reduce densities below market demand.
If you want people to live more densely, no nefarious planning rules are necessary. In fact, simply remove a lot of the ones we have and American cities would get much more dense in a hurry. The free market wants more density.
If you look at zoning laws across America, almost all of them specify maximum densities, such as residential units per dwelling acre, that put a cap on buildout. Additionally, there are a host of other planning regulations such as minimum parking requirements, setback requirements, etc. that have the same effect. And don’t get me started on historic districts.
The truth of this proposition can easily be verified by simply showing up at your nearest neighborhood meeting or planning hearing when ever a new development is proposed. Almost inevitably, the developer wants to put in a certain number of units, and the neighbors think it is too many. Frequently, developers are forced to scale back their projects in the face of objections.
And this isn’t just in the suburbs. Nor just in smaller cities. This affects even larger and nominally very progressive cities too. Chicago, for example, has down zoned extensively in the city. Neighbors complained about densification, such as by replacing two story, two unit buildings with four story, three unit buildings, and got large tracts of popular neighborhoods down zoned. In a previous era tony Lincoln Park saw the development of many high rise apartment buildings, including ones on neighborhood commercial thoroughfares like Clark St. It seems unlikely these will be permitted again. Minimum parking requirements have turned much of the city into strip mall nation.
Consider even ultra-progressive Toronto. A recent proposal for a 42 story high rise condo building with no parking was recommended for a “No” vote by planning staff. The staff was actually overruled on this one – so far. But again, it seems the planners are on the pro-car, not anti-car side here.
Bigger cities can survive this perhaps. But smaller cities are often devastated by it. For example, an anti-density mindset in Indianapolis has rendered most of the central city, even those areas nominally revitalized, sterile. Many neighborhoods have tidy rows of well kept and attractive single family homes, just like you would find in any Indiana small town, but few pedestrians and few businesses that survive without relying on suburban patrons or commuters. The reduction in density forced on developers has also led to much of the downtown housing stock being unaffordable by local standards since each unit has to carry a lot more land value.
Developers are in business to make money. They obviously have some reason to believe that the market will absorb more density and less parking. They certainly aren’t proposing things out of any purely altruistic motives. Now, certainly some of the initial proposals might be something the development company itself never had an intention to build, all the better to give away in the form of concessions as the planning gauntlet ballet plays itself out. But there is no doubt in my mind we would frequently see greater density if we only allowed the market to operate. No heavy handed planning required.
This post originally appeared on September 29, 2009.
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
I can’t resist yet another great urban time lapse, this one of San Francisco. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2011
Racial segregation is one branch in a thicket of economic and quality of life issues that together form the challenges of the day for Milwaukee. As Part 2 of the series suggested and as various researchers have shown, segregation is both cause and effect of such challenges as income disparity, wealth accumulation, brain drain, unemployment, education disparities, health disparities, and so on.
Oftentimes it seems that civic leaders don’t talk of the problems of racial segregation, and instead focus on non race-centered issues that relate to it, such as jobs and education. These are more tangible and politically sensible, but the fact of the matter is that Milwaukee’s thicket of issues is a package deal, and ignoring racial segregation imperils efforts to attack the issues that relate to it. Jobs aren’t gained or lost in a vacuum, and our childrens’ education can’t be separated from the structure of the communities that our children reside in. For Milwaukee to truly move on its issues, the battle against segregation has to be waged alongside the battle for jobs and education.
To make this point clear, information on segregation and income described in earlier articles in the series can be viewed together to see how they are connected. The metric used for segregation in the graphs below is the average metro black/white segregation ranking, which was taken from the U.S Census Bureau’s study on segregation (see Part I). In this metric, recall that metro Milwaukee was ranked as #1, the most segregated metro area in the country.
In the graphs below, each blue dot represents a different metro area and the trend line shows the overall correlation between segregation and the other statistic. Also, each graph can be clicked on to see a larger view.
Segregation can most easily be connected to black family income. As previously discussed, low average incomes in the black community bring about segregation. Meanwhile, segregation decreases black income in part because it limits access to employment.
The connection between segregation and black income is significant. If a city were to improve by ten spots in the segregation rankings (e.g. going from 1st to 11th), that would correlate to a rise in black median family income of over $3,800 per year.
This is not surprising. In the famous Gautreaux housing mobility experiment, statistically identical groups of low income families were either assigned to live in low-income housing in segregated areas or were given vouchers to live in mostly white suburbs. Those families that moved to the suburbs saw higher employment, higher income, and better results in education compared to the families that remained in segregated environments.
Segregation decreases the black community’s piece of the pie. Seven of the top ten metro areas that had the worst income disparity were also in the top ten for most segregated metro areas. One of the three exceptions, Kansas City, is just outside of the top ten, at 11th most segregated. If you want the black community to stay poor relative to whites, keep the black community highly segregated.
Gross Domestic Product
While decreasing segregation correlates with higher black income, what needs to be emphasized is the fact that decreasing segregation benefits the entire metro area. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure of economic activity for a metro area. Since metro areas with larger populations will naturally have more economic activity than metro areas with smaller populations, GDP per capita* can be used to make apples-to-apples comparisons between metro areas. When politicians talk about growing the economy, they are talking about increasing Milwaukee’s GDP per capita.
Less segregated places tend to have stronger economies than more segregated places. For the average metro area, a ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings correlates with a GDP per capita increase of over $1,600 per year. Suburban communities suspicious of any talk of decreasing segregation should be apprised of this.
* The number used here is the average metro GDP per capita between 2001 and 2008, in chained 2001 dollars.
Those who have put in hard work trying to uplift the black community often run into resistance from suburbs that consider community uplifting proposals to be a direct attack on their own quality of life and well-being. However, it has to be stressed that decreasing segregation benefits everyone, this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Good strategies that reduce segregation would directly benefit white households as well as black households. A ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings translates to an increase in white median household income of over $1,300 per year.
Advancing mutually beneficial policies that would decrease segregation requires the entire community to understand that they have something to gain from this effort. Unfortunately, in a catch-22, metro Milwaukee’s segregation separates people and makes it difficult for us to see our shared fate.
Ever since the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opened up comments on its online articles, there have been many examples of the sorts of outrageously ignorant, racially-tinged comments that could only be made by individuals who have no understanding or experience with people who don’t look like them. Here are a few unedited examples:
I suggest building an enormous wall with borders of 43 to the east, 94 to the south, 84th st to the west and brown deer to the north and then pull all city services out of that area and let the inhabitants figure it out for themselves. I’m so sick of hearing how bad they have it and about the terrible crime it is such BS. Stop making excuses for your inability to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps like every other immigrant that came to america over our 235 year history. Even the mexicans have made something of themselves, they might be just as violent but at least they aren’t lazy and many of them can’t get welfare so they bust their asses trying to make a better life for their families.
-poundsb27, 2/27/2010, City’s mean streets hard on young blacks
This is a character issue and all about common decency; a civil society must follow the rules that are in place. It just so happens that the people in this society that have the most problem with common decency are black. Its just a fact, society has to deal with this every day.”
-OneTug, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy
Get all these stupid liberals together in one spot, load them on a bus, and ship them all out of town. When the hell are blacks gonna stop ruining the city and get their crap together?
-SkylarTatlock, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy
We can only work together on our problems when we can look at our fellow citizens and see a reflection of ourselves. Decreasing segregation would help increase this sort of shared understanding, but increasing the shared understanding is required to collectively agree to do something about segregation. It’s a chicken and egg problem.
With good reason, Milwaukee’s most preeminent civic leaders are falling over each other talking about jobs. Whether by advocating for the magic of tax cuts or by celebrating the bribery of businesses, jobs are the main issue. But in case we start losing sight of the forest for the trees, or the rhetoric and ribbon cutting for the reality, we need to note that metro Milwaukee lost over 30,000 civilian jobs from December 2007 to December 2009. Jobs are obviously critical. Creating them and obtaining the socioeconomic benefit that comes with higher employment will be fleeting at best if Milwaukee’s segregation is not addressed.
Milwaukee’s job loss since the beginning of the recession (December 2007) represents a 3.85% decrease in the number of civilian jobs in the metro area. Most communities have been hit hard by the Great Recession, but as always seems to be the case, Milwaukee has been hit harder than most others. No local politician can control local job growth. The global economy can and does overwhelm even the best laid local plans at a moment’s notice. Local leaders can only be responsible for ensuring that Milwaukee fares better through the ups and downs of the global economy than other metro areas. Instead of making promises that only an uncontrollable global economy can make good on, our local leaders should be working on ensuring that metro Milwaukee outperforms our competitors.
In this effort, our local leaders have failed. Metro Milwaukee had the 6th worst civilian job loss amongst the 36 cities that were measured on segregation. Using a different metric and comparing metro Milwaukee to the 38 areas that have a workforce of at least 750,000, Milwaukee had the 3rd worst job loss in 2009.
The reasons for this are surely complex, but what has to be understood is that Milwaukee’s segregation puts it at a competitive disadvantage in today’s global market. Until it is adequately addressed, we will continue to see metro Milwaukee underperform relative to other cities.
This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on March 8, 2010.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
Metro area college degree attainment, 2010
This week the Census Bureau released its 2010 data from the American Community Survey. The ACS is what contains many of the core demographic characteristics that are frequently opined upon, such as college degree attainment, commute times, etc.
It used to be that the Census Bureau collected this information during the decennial census using the so-called “long form” that went to one out of every ten households. But that was discontinued as of this census and has been replaced with with the ACS. The ACS reports data more frequently (annually for geographies larger than a certain size), but has a smaller sample size and so there’s lot of statistical noise that I don’t think we are used to dealing with yet. For example, in 2008 the Indianapolis metro area ranked #3 in the US for growth in college degree attainment over the course of the decade to date among metros greater than one million people. But in the 2010 data Indy ranked #28 on the same measure. There are fluctuations year to year and the margin of error needs to be accounted for in serious statistical analysis. Nevertheless, this is what we have to work with.
I’m going to roll out a series of posts covering the highlights of some of this data. I’ll start with educational attainment, since that is something that is so key to upward social mobility and urban economic success.
But first I’ll put in a brief plug for my Telestrian tool. The Census Bureau site for distributing this data is a disaster. As one Brookings senior fellow put it, “Lots of Census data yesterday, today. Lots of angles, stories, conclusions. One shared sentiment: new American Factfinder is AWFUL” and “New Factfinder making mainframe punchcards look appealing.” Telestrian is designed for very rapid basic analysis and comparative benchmarking moreso than simple fact lookups (though it can do that do). In fact, I generated every table, graph and map in this post in ten total minutes with it. Even if you aren’t in the market for a commercial product, there’s a no credit card required free trial period, so if you are interested in perusing the ACS data and don’t want to beat your head against the wall with the Census Factfinder, I encourage you to check it out. Telestrian doesn’t have every data element, but it has a lot of interesting stuff.
College Degree Attainment
College degree attainment (the percentage of adults with a bachelors degree or higher), is one of the most critical factors in urban success. If you’d like to know more, just check out all the great research on it under the heading of “talent dividend” over at CEOs for Cities.
The map at the top of the post is 2010 college degree attainment for metro areas. Here are the top ten, among those with a population greater than one million, showing total number of people with degrees and the attainment percentage:
|1||Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV||1,758,297 (46.8%)|
|2||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||558,519 (45.3%)|
|3||San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA||1,317,354 (43.4%)|
|4||Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH||1,335,276 (43.0%)|
|5||Raleigh-Cary, NC||301,012 (41.0%)|
|6||Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX||429,163 (39.4%)|
|7||Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO||651,661 (38.2%)|
|8||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||822,321 (37.9%)|
|9||Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA||867,193 (37.0%)|
|10||New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA||4,613,445 (36.0%)|
And here’s the bottom ten:
|1||Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||499,663 (19.5%)|
|2||Las Vegas-Paradise, NV||278,387 (21.6%)|
|3||Memphis, TN-MS-AR||209,987 (25.1%)|
|4||San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX||344,247 (25.4%)|
|5||Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN||224,392 (25.8%)|
|6||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||513,182 (26.2%)|
|7||Birmingham-Hoover, AL||198,856 (26.3%)|
|8||New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA||209,916 (26.8%)|
|9||Jacksonville, FL||241,801 (26.9%)|
|10||Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ||731,643 (27.2%)|
While we are on the topic, here is a map of college degree attainment by state:
State college degree attainment, 2010
And here is county level college degree attainment for those counties covered by the 1-year ACS:
County college degree attainment, 2010
Changes in College Degree Attainment
Beyond just the raw 2010 numbers, it’s interesting to look at which places are growing their college degree attainment the most. That is, which places are growing their talent base. So here’s a look at metros by their change in college degree attainment over the last decade:
Change in percentage of adults with college degrees, 2000-2010.
Some places already have very high college degree attainment, which can make it tougher to grow even higher. Speaking of which, the US as a whole raised its college degree attainment as well. To some extent, this is purely a function of demographics. Older generations have lower educational levels than younger ones. (None of my grandparents had a college degree, and my father’s parents never even finished high school. I don’t think that was atypical for their day).
What might be more interesting to look at is whether places are increasing their college degree attainment faster or slower than the US overall. There’s a measure that does capture that. It’s called location quotient, and is used in economic analysis to measure the concentration of industries in certain locations.
An economist told me once that he likes to look at this for all sorts of things, not just industry clusters. The formula works for other stuff. I really haven’t seen this used before, so caveat emptor, but here’s a look at shifts in location quotient for metro areas over the course of the decade:
Metro area change in location quotient for college degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.
The blue metro areas had a higher concentration of college degrees relative to the nation as a whole in 2010 than they did in 2000. The red ones a lower concentration. This is certainly an interesting area for further exploration.
While I’m on the topic, here’s the same chart, only limited to graduate and professional degrees. There’s some interesting variability here.
Metro area change in location quotient for graduate and professional degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.
A Closer Look at Indianapolis
Just as one more granular example, I wanted to take a look at the Indianapolis vertical. Here’s 2010 college degree attainment for the city, metro, state, and America as a whole:
College degree attainment, 2010
As we know, urban regions tend to be more highly educated. Here we see that while Indiana is one of the lowest states in terms of college degree attainment, the Indy metro area actually beats the US average. However, the city of Indianapolis falls short of the US average. Because Indy is a consolidated city-county government that includes a lot of inner ring suburban areas, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the true urban core, but it does seem clear that the center is less educated than the periphery of the metro.
Now lets look at the change in attainment for the decade:
Change in the percentage of adults with a college degree, 2000-2010.
Here we see that the rich get richer, as Indy metro not only started out on a higher base, but had the best showing in attainment growth as well. OTOH, going back to our LQ measure, Indiana actually boosted its LQ while the Indy region was stagnant. That’s because this is a percentage point change, not a percentage change, and growing from a low base makes it easier to boost LQ. It’s one of the quirks of that formula.
The poor showing of the city of Indianapolis is something that should definitely be worrying. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis for other metros, but alas that’s all for today.
Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
My latest post is online over at New Geography. It’s called “The Texas Story Is Real” and talks about the economic and demographic performance of Texas in the last decade across a variety of measures: population growth, unemployment, job growth, GDP, personal and household income, and poverty.
I’m not monolithic in what I think works. You may note that I recently posted a positive piece on New York. But although many urbanists don’t like it, I think it is undeniable that Texas is doing something right. It added huge numbers of people and jobs, and did it without diluting the quality of its jobs. Most other places can only dream of being so fortunate.
Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
I’m taking a brief departure from my normal routine of providing absolutely free urbanist analysis for a brief commercial message. If you are interested in supporting the mission of the Urbanophile and keeping it a viable platform for serious urbanist discussion in a way that also adds a lot of value to your organization, there are a number of ways you can do so.
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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
[ This week we continue with our Race Matters in Milwaukee series by Nathaniel Holton. Please keep in mind when viewing that they do not have a zero origin - Aaron. ]
Racial segregation is a phenomenon with complex historical roots. The legacy of slavery, discriminatory housing policies, redlining, employment discrimination, tax inequity, racist covenants, and a wide variety of other practices swirled together to create a segregated Milwaukee. For an exhaustive documentation of Milwaukee’s history of segregation, I highly recommend “A Report on Past Discrimination Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” by Ruth Zubrensky (available in most Milwaukee Public Libraries). We won’t know where to go until we understand how we got here, and Zubrensky does a wonderful job of tracing that path.
While Milwaukee’s history is unique, social forces and government policies created and fortified residential segregation throughout the country. So why is it worse in Milwaukee than most anywhere else?
Income Disparity and Housing Disparity
On average, housing in the area’s suburbs is considerably more expensive than housing within the City of Milwaukee. In looking at the ten biggest municipalities in metro Milwaukee, the recent median selling price of housing in the City of Milwaukee was well below every other municipality.
That suburban housing is more expensive than city housing isn’t unique. What distinguishes metro Milwaukee from other areas is the incredible racial disparity in median household incomes in metro Milwaukee, which prevents many minorities from being able to afford suburban housing. According to the most recent American Community Survey, metro Milwaukee has the 2nd worst black/white household income ratio amongst the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The median white household earns $79,145 while the median black household earns $33,273. This amounts to black households earning 42 cents on the white dollar.
Riverside, CA had the best ratio at 85 cents on the dollar, twice as good as Milwaukee. The bottom of the chart was dominated by Midwest cities, who tend to have relatively similar socioeconomic issues. However, even amongst this less competitive group, Milwaukee is still underperforming.
The income disparity reveals Milwaukee’s unique racial issues. One explanation for it is the education disparity. Just in the city alone, blacks are about twice as likely as whites to not have a high school diploma, and are almost three times less likely to have a college degree.
Worse yet, metro Milwaukee has the largest disparity between black and white unemployment in the country! This disparity can be partly explained by the spatial mismatch between black residents and jobs (which, in a circularity, is largely a result of racial segregation). Literally all of the net job growth in metro Milwaukee over the last several decades has taken place outside the City of Milwaukee. Meanwhile, black residents are concentrated in the city’s northside and are far less likely to own a car. This is especially important because public transportation in metro Milwaukee is sorely lacking. It’s hard to have a job when you can’t get to it.
(from Milwaukee Urban Atlas)
Yet another reason for the racial income disparity is brain drain. Many of black Milwaukee’s brightest young minds leave the city to pursue an education and never come back, resulting in the cream being continuously skimmed off the crop. Oftentimes, they wind up in the south, where racial income disparities are less extreme and where educated blacks can feel at home in many cities. Many educated blacks look at Milwaukee as a city in decline, a city with awful race relations, and a city where educated blacks have few peers and fewer opportunities for career advancement (I know folks in this boat, and I was formerly in this camp as well). In yet another circularity, segregation is bred by income disparity which is bred by black brain drain which is bred by a negative racial climate which is bred by segregation.
Just this cursory look hints at the complexity of Milwaukee’s racial income disparity. Each of the mentioned elements, along with others unmentioned, cause and affect each other and perpetuate segregation. But even this web of income disparity-linked socioeconomic issues cannot fully explain the extreme degree of Milwaukee’s segregation. Higher incomes for minorities do not protect against segregation, as segregation nationally among blacks with incomes over $60,000 is almost as large as the overall racial segregation that persists.
Much of the area’s segregation is the result of personal preference. The Public Policy Forum conducted a local survey on housing preferences in 2004. Significant majorities of whites, blacks, and Latinos agreed that “most people” take racial characteristics of the community into account when deciding where to live. When speaking for themselves, the survey revealed that the racial or ethnic makeup of a neighborhood was of great importance to 32% of blacks, 25% of Latinos, and 12% of whites.
A majority of whites who gave an answer said that, in their ideal neighborhood, nearby black families would be less than half of the population, only a few in number, or nonexistent. A majority of blacks who gave an answer said the same thing about nearby white families.
A separate 2006 survey found that a majority of whites and 60% of blacks believe it is common sense for whites to avoid non-white neighborhoods. On the flip side, over 40% of both blacks and whites believed it was common sense for blacks to avoid white neighborhoods.
Just as with the income disparity, personal preference is a cause and an effect of segregation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who grow up surrounded by people who all look like them end up preferring to live amongst people who look like them.
Milwaukee Residency Requirement
Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.
More to the point, black city and MPS employees represent a sizable share of black residents with enough income to afford to live outside of the city. According to the American Community Survey, there are approximately 16,000 black households with an income over $50,000 in metro Milwaukee, a range that will capture most public employee households. According to the above sources, the City of Milwaukee and MPS collectively employ somewhere around 3,500 black residents. If one assumes that some of these employees are married to each other, such that 3,500 employees make up 3,200 households, this means that 20% of metro Milwaukee’s mobile black households are forced by their employer to live in the City of Milwaukee.
These are “back of the envelope” calculations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that Milwaukee’s residency requirement is a contributing factor to segregation in metro Milwaukee.
Of course, direct discrimination still has a negative impact on segregation. Exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and discrimination in homeowners insurance are all causes of Milwaukee’s segregation.
Employment discrimination persists. People with “white-sounding” names on their resume are 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than those with “black-sounding” names on an otherwise identical resume. A study done in Milwaukee showed that white felons were more likely to get a call back from a potential employer than black applicants who have clean records. Those that blame black people exclusively for Milwaukee’s income disparity should mind these examples of overt and explainable-only-by-racism discrimination that persist in our society. That said, focusing too much on discrimination makes it acceptable to avoid personal responsibility in the black community. Things won’t improve until personal responsibility is broadly embraced.
The above list of segregation causes is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it’s enough to provide a framework for further discussion. Feel free to add in other causes and elements of Milwaukee’s segregation in the comments section.
This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on February 1, 2010.
Sunday, September 18th, 2011
Sagrada Família via Domus.
Training his agile thoughts volatile as air,
He’s civilized the world with words and wit and law…
Distinguished in his city when law abiding, pious,
But when he promulgates unsavory ambition, citiless and lost.
And then I will not share my hearth with him.
I want no parcel of his thoughts. – Sophocles, Antigone
Without a doubt the highlight of my trip to Barcelona a couple years ago was touring the work in progress that is Sagrada Família, the final masterwork of architect
Sagrada Família has been entirely funded by donations (today mostly in the form of admission charges to tourists, I believe). It was originally projected to potentially take some hundreds of years to complete. However, with modern design and fabrication techniques, the current projected completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Though still unfinished, the church was consecrated on November 7, 2010.
Sagrada Família via Domus.
Back in March Domus magazine published a fantastic essay on Sagrada Família called “In-Finite Architectures” by Oscar Tusquets Blanca. Blanca was very forthright in admitting his own change of heart towards the building over time.
At the start of 2002, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect Antoni Gaudí, Domus asked me to write an article on the controversial issue of the continuation of construction work on the Sagrada Família Church. Published in May of that year, my article explained that, in the early 1960s, while I was still at university, I had been one of the instigators of a manifesto against the continuation of the church, which received the unconditional support of all the intelligentsia of the day—from Bruno Zevi to Giulio Carlo Argan, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier…..How could we have been so wrong? This wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago. It would have remained a ruin or it would have been finished by an in-vogue architect of the time….I do not know whether it is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three.
Sagrada Família photo by The Urbanophile.
While one can never attribute ultimately pure motives to anything or anyone, clearly the Christian religion was a major inspiration for Gaudí. It’s difficult to imagine such a project even being conceived, much less executed, absent the reality of faith.
Which immediately raises another question. We sense in our gut as we tour this place that it is a product of another era, one closer perhaps to that age which produced the medieval cathedrals than our own, no matter what the calendar might say. Will there ever be another buildings like this created again? Perhaps there will be, but the mere fact that such a question can be asked in all seriousness shows the change in our world.
Angkor Wat (12th century). Originally a Hindu but now Buddhist temple currently located in Cambodia that is the world’s largest religious building.
Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of 1610)
In ages past it almost went without saying that the greatest artistic works of humanity were in large part inspired by the religious impulse. Certainly not all artworks were so-inspired, and certainly art of a religious nature might also be inspired in part by temporal matters such as advancing the career of the artist or symbolizing the earthly power of the king or church. Nevertheless, the power of faith was often very real in the life of the artist – Monteverdi became a priest and Bach was a devout Lutheran – and the spiritual often informed the scope, theme, content, form, etc of the work not just for the artist, but for the audience.
The Parthenon (5th century BC). Image via Wikipedia
JS Bach, Mass in B Minor (1749)
Today it is quite a different story. Even among those who profess passionate religious faith, that faith no longer seems capable of inspiring the greatest creative endeavors of the human spirit. Indeed, listen to prominent Evangelical Christian leaders and they practically brag about how little money they spend on facilities. I’ve yet to see a mega-church structure that in any way impresses architecturally. Syrupy contemporary Christian music often can’t even match the simple profundity of the hymns, much less approach the great masses and other religious works of serious creators past. Evangelical Christianity is not exactly noted for its production of high art.
The rationale is frequently that of accessibility and investing in mission versus grandiose edifices. Yet in the process we have a movement that has become unmoored from the transcendent and the overwhelming glory of God. This is perhaps faith that can inspire good works, but not great ones.
The more passionate strains of Islam fare no better. Though the discouragement of representational art in Islam closed off some fields of creative endeavor, Islam produced some of the most striking works of architecture in human history, as well as many fantastic non-representational works. Yet today I’m unaware of any powerful artistic movements in fervent Islam to match its religious passion.
Süleymaniye Mosque (1558), Istanbul
Interestingly, non-religious art has fared not much better. I’m generally a contemporary art skeptic. Even at its best, this work tends to be idiosyncratic and highly context specific (anchoring it to a particular time and place rather than to the universal). Too often in degenerates into cheap political statements and pretentiousness. How many contemporary art works do many of us really believe represent the highest and greatest achievements of which humanity is capable? How many do we really think will be marveled at hundreds or thousands of years from now, except perhaps as examples of our age? As for too much contemporary serious music, don’t get me started.
Lest I sound too much like a curmudgeon, architecture has fared perhaps a bit better. I suspect many of our buildings will stand the test of time. But even here we see self-indulgence and an excessive fascination with novelty. Yet above all what these buildings lack is any sense of transcendent purpose.
New York City
It’s not surprising to me to see what we so-often get today when motivated by purely humanistic concerns, namely the tall building. The author of Genesis seemed to get that in his gut when relating the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet despite their impressiveness, these buildings generally lack any larger spiritual purpose.
We seem to have forgotten the creation of sacred space as an essential function of the city. Our cities themselves no longer satisfy the longing of the human spirit for transcendence, to be part of a cosmic order greater than ourselves, to inspire extravagant gestures that seem to defy the strictures of our existence. Today, we seem satisfied with simple commercial success and the basics of production and consumption.
Nietzsche mourned when he said that God was dead, not because he believed in God, but because he understood what the passing of God meant to our modern world. With the death of God, something in the human spirit perished along with Him, even for those who still actually believe.
As for the question of whether we will ever produce another great artistic statement for God, perhaps we won’t even finish the last one. As Blanca noted:
The second and certainly more serious problem is that of finding contemporary artists capable of executing the Master’s figurative designs. Gaudí wanted the facades to explain the Holy Story in pictures, the way medieval cathedrals had done. That was already a difficult demand by the start of the twentieth Century but the genius of Gaudí solved the problem on the—almost kitsch—Nativity facade with walls that fold into figures, many created from casts of real people and animals (George Segal 50 years earlier). The pitiful result of the Passion facade, commissioned to the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, shows the huge difficulty of pursuing the same course of action. The main Glory facade has yet to be built. Finding a contemporary artist anywhere in the world capable of taking on this task is the biggest challenge now faced. Figurative art is having a difficult time, that with a religious content even more so and an art that can express the Glory of the Resurrection is now extinct. Contemporary art has given us many crucifixions but no remarkable resurrection.
Related: Religion and the City
Friday, September 16th, 2011
Crain’s New York Business recently released its 2011 City Facts compilation and chose to title it, “New York Stands High” as they found much to celebrate in the numbers. Among them:
- The most incredible stat to me is that NYC jobs in 2011 fell only 56K short of their all time peak in 1969. If the economy ever gets back on track, this seems likely to only go up.
- Despite its roots in a financial crisis, Crain’s labels the recent recession as “The Great Recession That Wasn’t”, describing it as “one of the mildest since WWII” in terms of NYC job losses. This will no doubt infuriate bailout skeptics.
- The number of companies operating in downtown Manhattan now surpasses its pre-9/11 total. Rents have been stagnant, however and vacancies are projected to climb.
- The tech sector finally surpassed its dotcom/Silicon Alley level peak in 2000, and NYC is on the verge of overtaking Boston as the #2 destination for tech venture capital investment.
- Though some claim many people were missed, the 2010 census showed an increase in NYC population and the city is now at an all time population high.
- The population is increasingly diverse, with, for example, Asians now accounting for over one million city residents.
- The population of downtown Manhattan grew by 150% between 2000 and 2011. Downtown apartment prices have more than doubled since 9/11.
- Between 2007 and 2011, national home prices dropped by 19.1% from peak, while Manhattan apartments actually went up 9.1% in price.
The numbers aren’t uniformly good for the city, but it has performed very well comparatively. I think this illustrates more than anything the emerging two-track economy of which we’ve read so much, which is fueling an ever widening income gap, etc. What’s good for NYC isn’t necessarily good for America, and the model of success represented by the city (as well as other outliers like Washington, DC) simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. Thus these places don’t really represent a model of success for others to emulate, and they have only a limited amount to say on what urban policy should be elsewhere. Nevertheless, in a global economy, America does need places like NYC and Silicon Valley to be as competitive and prosperous as they can be. The challenge is how to bring about a more broad based prosperity that provides jobs and upward mobility to average Americans.
Wednesday, September 14th, 2011
The BEA yesterday released advanced 2010 numbers for metro area GDP. This of course measures what was happening last year, not today as with the more current national GDP numbers. But it is still worth reading.
The headline is that after a 2.5% drop in GDP in 2009, there was a 2.5% rise in overall metro GDP in 2010. That’s good news from an economic output perspective. Here’s the BEA’s quintile chart of 2009-2010 changes:
From a national perspective, among large metros San Jose was a runaway winner, growing by 13.4%, nearly doubling up on second place Austin at 7.0% This clearly shows the recent tech boom in action. Here are the top ten cities (among metros of more than a million people, on a real GDP percent change basis).
|Rank||Metro Area||2009||2010||Pct Change|
|1||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||147,860||167,661||13.39%|
|2||Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX||76,698||82,043||6.97%|
|6||New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA||1,096,869||1,147,917||4.65%|
|9||Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT||75,969||78,880||3.83%|
Per capita values are not available at this time as the BEA is still benchmarking to the new Census values.
Of course, economic output growth is one thing, job growth – arguably what we need most – is another. San Jose, which blew up the charts in output growth, didn’t grow jobs much at all. Ryan Avent discusses this case study specifically over at his blog in a post called “The Gated Valley.” He attributes the discrepancy to the inability to expand the housing stock. I’m sympathetic to this, but there are other barriers to employment growth in California, and the tech industry has seen a significant change in its employment patterns as even the most successful companies often don’t have that many employees. Whatever the case, don’t assume that all the top cities in this survey necessarily have healthy job markets.