Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The Case for Global Cities

I was recently invited to give a short talk on why cities, and especially global cities, are so important to the world today and in the future. My case for an urban future generally is more quantitatively oriented, but my global city section focuses more on the unique role they play in our world. I also issue a challenge to understand and contextualize solutions to the things that make every global city (and every city period, actually) so unique and different from any other in the world.

This was at an event that was making a pitch for the importance of cities to religious mission, but my talk is secular. Other than a short mathematical analysis of the implications of urban growth for spiritual infrastructure investment, there’s no religious content in this talk and my case is applicable to any endeavor.

If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Globalization, Urban Culture

33 Responses to “The Case for Global Cities”

  1. Racaille says:

    “we are here this weekend to talk about why cities are important to Christian mission”


  2. Racaille says:

    Click……hang up

  3. John Morris says:

    Meaning Racaille didn’t bother to watch the video? Honestly, her sharp snide and hopelessly simplistic comments rarely help to make any case might be trying to make.

    Sorry, to get personal about this, but I can only describe most of her comments as rude.

  4. John Morris says:

    Getting to Aaron’s talk. I understand the problem of giving a very short talks on a very broad subject, but it does put out quite a few inaccurate ideas.

    The number of cities in america that are “stuffed to the gills” is pretty small. Even Manhattan has room for lots of new apartment buildings in Harlem. Brooklyn. Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island have lots of underdeveloped land along existing subway lines. Yes, a lot of infrastructure is needed.

    Post industrial Chicago & Philly certainly have many underdeveloped areas. It goes without saying that cities like LA and Houston have plenty of room for denser infill. D.C. has height limits. They are not stuffed to the gills.

    The comment about churches in China makes my point. Early Christianity grew through small gatherings in people’s homes and required no massive infrastructure investment. A lot of this is about making use of and rethinking the assets you have.

    All in all, still a great video. I doubt I could have covered so much ground better.

  5. Derek Rutherford says:

    John, you are right about the growth of early Christianity and China. Christian growth in China today resembles in many ways its early growth in the Roman Empire: the same quasi-legal/semi-persecuted ambiguity in its relationship with the state, and the same reliance on home-based organizations. The largest share of Christian growth in China is in “house churches” which are of necessity small and flexible. That means comparatively smaller infrastructure needs in the short/medium-term. Even if one assumes continued rapid growth in China, construction of many large churches/cathedrals is probably another 1-2 generations away.

    Aaron, I am again impressed by your willingness to be “outside the box” compared to most of the urbanist crowd.

  6. John Morris says:

    Sort of goes without saying that if you are being hunted, the last thing you do is spend capital and build obvious targets for persecution.

    A lot of the people who come up with numbers on required infrastructure don’t have a good idea of all the possibilities existing assets might hold.

    NY for example could cut peak commuter loads by creating more mixed business/ office districts and keeping trains full in both directions.

    If there is one lesson from the last 60 years, it’s how hard it can be to fix the wrong kinds of investments. How many cities still face the problems caused by waterfront freeways, or tower in a park public housing projects?

    Be sensitive, and open to change. Allow markets to adopt and reuse assets and human capital. Who knew the High Line would be one the great public parks?

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    I think my point on NYC and SF is that you aren’t going to see the huge percentage growth there that you see in those sprawlville suburbs around places like Dallas because development in place like that is just very tough to do.

    As for China, yes, they persecute Christianity and are very skeptical of independent mass movements, but they are perhaps not as hostile as they could be. They see Christianity as highly favorable to capitalist style development, and Christianity has long stressed submission to ruling authorities.

    By contrast, the Chinese government really hates the Uighurs and Tibetan Buddhists, who they see as separatists. They in fact are separatists, but that hardly justifies the type of actions the Chinese government has taken against them.

  8. John Morris says:

    Not allowing development, like San Francisco & D.C. is very different from being “stuffed to the gills” which implies possible development is maxed out.

    Places like D.C. are making a political choice to under use available infrastructure. Even if one assumes that San Francisco is maxed out- Is Oakland? How many cities build transit systems without changing zoning laws, height limits or parking minimums?

    These are largely political barriers to development, not infrastructure issues.

    Let’s be honest, spending 10 trillion a year in today’s buying power on urban infrastructure, is not very realistic. We are going to have to be much more savvy about using and adopting all available assets- which is why market forces have to play a much bigger role in decision making.

    I would like to see more posts about informal development inside and outside The U.S. Are you familiar with the economist, Hernando DeSoto?

  9. I am familiar with Hernando de Soto. But actually, from a developed world perspective, I’ve come to something of the opposite conclusion that he has. Namely, I think we’ve over-formalized the economy to the point that it’s a barrier to innovation and entrepreneurship. There’s probably a happy medium between what we have and what exists in the favelas wrt to regularization.

  10. John Morris says:

    I don’t exactly think that is Hernando DeSoto’s message. His first book, The Other Path looked at the role of informal operators at providing services like housing, transit, and manufacturing in Peru. Clearly, it was an exploration of the possibilities of grass roots development and market forces.
    All he advocates is harnessing this energy through property rights and rule of law.

    The first half of the book showed the vast red tape small entrepreneurs faced in operating the simplest business.

  11. John Morris says:

    Aaron, I seriously suggest you read his books again.

    The informal economies he studies are often a reaction to oppressive bureaucracy, corruption and institutional failure.

    Lots of laws does not mean, rule of law. Often it’s the opposite.

    One doesn’t have to go to Peru or Manila, to see small street vendors, food trucks or gypsy cabs fighting the same battles here. Your video of artists in Berlin, showed something that largely developed outside the normal legal structure.

  12. Jon Seisa says:

    I’m so glad, Aaron, that you mentioned the need for novelty and self-identity for a city over the homogenization of the New Urbanism Style. This has been my observation at the onset of this new urbanicity paradigm shift where this unaesthetic architectural design style and its design strategies, components and attributes are rather redundant and very much a cookie-cutter formula approach that robs cities of their uniqueness and relegates novelty to the curb. Across the board when viewing infill developments, walkability and complete-streets across America, they all look exactly the same and there is no distinction to discern what city you are in. This is the downside and tragedy of New Urbanism with its Xeroxed hodge-podge design style, because it is not classically enduring and it will look obviously outdated in 10 years time just as the 1970s cold and stark Darth Vaderism in architecture with its black Mylar boxes and also the Postmodernism, both hearkening to a formerly expired ill-style marring city skylines with urban blight. And what then? Build new facades over the dense New Urbanism?

  13. John Morris says:

    I’m not sure we can blame the New Urbanist movement alone for the amount of bland cookie cutter design we see. This is after all pitched as an alternative to bland sprawl. at least the basic street forms are OK. The buildings can always be torn down and upgraded over time.

    A lot of New Urbanism seems to about coming up something non threatening to people who know little about or are afraid of urbanism. Everything about it screams–safe.

    That said, the driving forces behind bland urbanism are similar to those behind bland everything. These designs don’t scare lawyers or community boards or accountants.

  14. John Morris says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like that many of these buildings will likely not stand the test of time. However, a bad building on a good street and urban form is a far smaller problem than a bad urban form.

    Look at Pittsburgh’s tragic Allegheny Center mess of anti urban buildings in a park that destroy the street grid. How do you fix that and restore any normal human, urban flow?

    Look at how all development on Manhattan’s Upper East Side still barely makes it past the grim anti urban housing projects even now.

    How does one fix the superblocks one sees in the Lakewood California pictures? New Urbanism is like sweet peas for kids who hate vegetables.

  15. xmal says:

    Hi Aaron–enjoyed the talk. Thank you for posting.

    You explain clearly why outside organizations should be attracted to global cities, but can you summarize what’s in it for the citizens living there? Why should they support further growth of their cities or the elites’ aspirations to be global cities.

    Maybe it’s an easy question, but often at community meetings existing residents see nothing but headaches in infrastructure projects that are intended to serve new residents. And you have reported on it yourself in the case of Chicago, where the growth is not serving the majority of residents. Thanks in advance for any insight you can provide.

  16. @xmal, thanks for the comment. I would say that population dynamism is critical to long term health. Places without “people flow” are in as bad a shape as people without capital flow. Chicago is an interesting case as it has lagged most other tier one cities in the past decade and one reason is that its population has declined so much while places like NYC, LA, and SF are at all time highs. That’s my take at least.

  17. John Morris says:

    I think xmal makes a great point, Cities like NY, San Francisco and D.C. are not “stuffed to the gills” in most cases but they seem to be very ambivalent about really allowing growth- even in the areas where a lot of the infrastructure is already in place.

    There’s a deep lack of confidence in the idea that growth can work for average people because in many ways it doesn’t right now.

    NY has reached the limits of what it can do without confronting basic urban issues like rent control, remaining zoning roadblocks, taxi cab monopolies, height limits etc…

  18. John Morris says:

    The Market Urbanism blogger guy pointed out that almost all of New York’s major new construction, in Chelsea, Hudson Yards, Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards & Waterfront Williamsburg/ Greenpoint has been in areas with few existing residents.

    Efforts to upzone current residential areas usually faces pretty fierce opposition.

    The Trillion dollar question is will NYC allow continuing development at the level needed to take advantage of infrastructure upgrades like the 2nd Avenue subway. Harlem and the Upper East side are starting to do that to some extent.

    Sadly I expect considerable backsliding.

  19. John Morris says:

    Likewise, Pittsburgh can’t reach the full potential of current infrastructure without confronting it’s urban renewal wastelands- stadium zones, Ohio River “Boulevard” (highway with a berm), Allegheny Center, parking minimums and general aversion to density in critical areas like East Liberty.

    Not saying that massive infrastructure investments are not needed like a huge upgrade of the sewer and storm drainage system.

  20. Jon Seisa says:

    Be aware, too, that one of the unforeseen and critically detrimental ramifications of extremely high urbanicity that zealous New Urbanists seem to ignore in discussion is the great potential for increase of suicide and mental depression levels as data and statistics from high density Japan have revealed, precipitated by the intrusion of ambient noise and other dehumanizing factors, i.e. claustrophobic confinement that facilitates a “prison mentality” in these urban dense environs. So, not all will be Paradise with the shift from rural living to dense population cores where people will be living and working on top of each other like being trapped in human ant colonies. In comparison, rural living close to nature and open spaces facilitates healthier living and far lower suicide and mental depression levels. Suicide and abuse of women in Japan’s urban jungles is particularly high, and depression is higher amongst Japanese teens and young adults compared to other less dense and less urban nations. So cognitive caution in this New Urbanism Movement needs to be exercised in order to create a pragmatic balance that fosters healthier living. An integration of rural and urban needs to be reexamined, which the “Garden City” of the suburban movement at least provided this amenity to some degree, though failed at its vastness and expansion that focused too much on vehicles rather than pedestrians, or human factor. In my analysis as a designer, something I call “Cloisturbs” need to be studied and developed where urbanism and suburbanism are merged into a new hybrid design that punctuates the best of both worlds.

  21. John Morris says:

    Honestly, Japan has some pretty huge issues with it’s economy and political and social culture that have a lot to do with the suicide rate. Please give more examples to show any alleged correlation. Japan also, I think has a very high rural suicide rate.

    Likewise, much of the noise we associate with cities has far more to do with car traffic than anything else and a lot of that could be eliminated or greatly reduced.

    Regardless of whether any of this so called rural bliss, truely exists (and it does for some), we cannot deny two facts- huge percentages of the world’s population are moving to cities of their own free will and there is simply no other alternative for a world with the kind of populations we currently have. Cities as Aaron states are the core incubators of innovation.

  22. John Morris says:

    I don’t know if I have time to bring in lots of data.

    Here is a post that rings true to me

    “In Japan, a nation with a culture steeped in ritual suicide, suicide rates for men living in cities dropped between 1970 and 1990. Over roughly the same period, rates increased in rural areas. Suicide rates among Japan’s rural elderly are much higher than its urban elderly, too. Similar trends show up on the other side of the globe. In England and Wales, more people between the ages of 15 and 44 living in rural areas took their lives compared to those in cities. Many studies in the United States have discovered the same.

    Suicide is also a significant problem in the Australian outback, where rates are two, even three times higher among men than their metropolitan analogs.”

    Certainly in NYC, many of the highest density neighborhoods like the Upper West and Upper East Side also have lower crime rates than most other areas of the city. Perhaps everyone is beating their spouse very quietly.

  23. John Morris says:

    By the way, the standard New Urbanist development hardly stands out for it’s scary density. It’s pretty rare to have apartment buildings much over 6 floors and even those rarely extend far off the main streets.

    A big problem with new urbanist planning is that normal plan requires ground floor retail for most apartment buildings even though the total density levels are not enough to fully support it.

  24. JGriffin says:

    Hi Aaron –
    Enjoyed the talk. Is there a website or book that you think provides a good list of standard definitions (and ideally metrics) for many of the terms used in the “urabanism” discussion? Terms like city, urban, suburban, rural, metropolitan area, global city, city center (i.e. downtown) etc.

    As a somewhat newbie to these discussions, I find it quite difficult to follow the variious usages of these terms.

    So, for example, in this video for instance, when you refer to cities and urban, are you referring to city centers (what I think of as downtowns or the places with the tall buildings)? metropolitan areas (which I think of as including a lot of suburbia)? places like my home”town” of 60,000?

    Guess I’m wondering because, depending on the definitions, isn’t the church already predominantly in and caring about cities/urban areas?

  25. @JGriffin,

    There are various international standards for how regions and such should be reported for data purposes, but I don’t have a link handy. I agree this can be confusing.

    Generally speaking, urbanization refers to metropolitan urbanization. That is, a central city with its surrounding suburban regions that form a united labor market. This is how metro areas are defined in the US (though the building blocks are counties, so generally some rural territory is included).

    Global urbanization is generally spoken of in terms of this type of metropolitan region. In the US, the term urbanization generally refers to central city areas. One reason is that from a metropolitan perspective, the US largely urbanized long ago. Also, the low density suburban form found in the US and Europe doesn’t exist to the same extent elsewhere, where even “suburbs” denigrated as sprawl in many global cities in fact are higher density than a lot of US central cities.

    For the purposes of my talk, urbanization refers to total metropolitan urbanization, with the exception of the US examples, which are designed to show the recovery of central city areas from their 70s and 80s low points. As for Global Cities, you can look on Wikipedia for a good start at the way various people have defined that.

  26. JGriffin says:

    Thanks for the response Aaron. That’s helpful.

  27. Jon Seisa says:

    @ John Morris – No, on the contrary, this wasn’t due to city street traffic from vehicles or anything like that, but from TVs or entertainment sound equipment played too loud. In Japan, I do recollect reading of incidences of mass murder suicides precipitated by such ambient noise intruding from adjacent living units into the private secluded living space of other residences. I recollect the article’s title was something like “Noise Can Be Lethal in Tokyo”.

    Besides that, in 2004 the British Journal of Psychiatry publish a comprehensive followup study, “Urbanisation and Incidence of Psychosis and Depression”, conducted by a Swedish research team headed by Dr. Kristina Sundquist from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm indicating a direct link of increased degenerated mental health and aggravated depression precipitated from highly dense urbanicity, and concluded that “a high level of urbanization is associated with increased risk of psychosis and depression for both women and men”, and that levels of urbanization should be considered by authorities when considering resources for psychiatric health care. Furthermore, it was determined that people living in the most densely populated areas had a 66% to 77% higher risk of developing psychosis, and a 12 to 20% higher risk of developing depression, than those living in least densely populated environments. Additionally, the connection was sustained after taking into account factors such as age, marital status and level of education. The 1996 study integrated the entire Swedish population of 4.4 million men and women aged between 25 and 64 years.

    Here is another corroborative 2008 study published by Turam and Besirli in the Anatolian Journal of Psychiatry – “Impacts of Urbanization Process on Mental Health”:

    Despite current trends of population shifts towards ever increasingly dense urban-cores out of socio-politico-economic necessity of logistics, it will still have its dark underbelly and negative ramifications. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect in this Fallen World; and there is always cause and effect of unforeseen consequences.

    I concur with your other points, but the rural suicide levels apparently are moreso associated with socio-economic depression and is stated in the Swedish study as having an isolated affect only amongst young men.

  28. John Morris says:

    Rural Suicide rates in Japan exceed urban ones as you acknowledge.

    Rural suicide in America also exceeds urban suicide rates.

    This seems to be the same for China. (Sorry no supporting links, want to respond and comments with lots of links don’t post right away)

    I tend to agree that lack of economic opportunity is one of the biggest driving factors. People are coming to cities for that opportunity.

    Even if there is some connection between urban suicide and extreme density, that type of density is very rare in the United States. The wide range of NY apartments I have been in often have privacy issues like windows a few feet away from each other but are not that loud since they were built to be quiet. No doubt there is a certain ambient level of noise one gets used to.

    Ironically, the shortage of housing in NY vs demand is bringing back, the poorly divided illegal apartment in large numbers.

  29. John Morris says:

    I would tend to agree, that substandard urban housing is a pretty huge and growing problem in magnet cities like NYC.
    The question is how much of this comes from barriers to meeting that demand legally in the market place.

  30. Jon Seisa says:

    Very interesting, John… Here is a fascinating article on various scientific study results on the effects of cities on the brain and the lack of nature in these unnatural dehumanizing environments is a critical factor for negative developments. Yet, these centers of concentrations of social interaction produces innovation and creativity, but there are quality of life and mental health drawbacks on the flip side of the coin.

    “…scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

    How the city hurts your brain
    …And what you can do about it
    By Jonah Lehrer
    January 2, 2009

    Additionally, in regards to your point, “Even if there is some connection between urban suicide and extreme density, that type of density is very rare in the United States,” My assessment is that will change, and change dramatically, via the Smart Growth social engineering polices aimed to accelerate the radical shift of population from rural-suburban to urban city core within time will dramatically transforms the landscape. The Oregon Model, a long paragon of Smart Growth, is a prime example of the ramifications and conversions on the horizon. Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute via this 2001 publication by the Cato Institute elaborates:

  31. xmal says:

    Hi Aaron—Thank you for your response earlier.

    @Jon, I would be careful referencing Jonah Lehrer.


  32. Jon Seisa says:

    @ amal – Thank you for your caveat and concern. The 2012 “Imagine” article was unfortunate, indeed, but since the “City/Brain” article was three years prior in 2009 and appears to cross-support other research, it seems applicable to the topic at hand. One should never throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  33. Jon Seisa says:

    ***@ xmal*** Apologies over the name typo.

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