The "Smart Cities" Fallacy, Revisited


I don’t think I made my point too clearly in my last post.  Let me try to elaborate and clarify.

Here’s what I said last week about Fast Company’s Ten Smartest Cities in North America:

“Where I have problems with this is with the indicators used to determine the “smart” factors, and their impact on the entirety of cities.  I get the distinct feeling when looking at at 2013’s list of smartest cities that we’re simply comparing the “Talented Tenth” of each city, without fully examining the reach that these efforts are making into all parts of the city.”

Advocates of the Smart Cities, Creative Class and New Urbanists movements are opening themselves up to widespread resentment from the alienated middle class, working class and poor residents who comprise so much of our metro areas.  If they want to improve cities and entire regions, they must reach wider and deeper.

Let me offer a little historical perspective.  I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning in the mid-80s, and got my master’s degree in 1990.  As I’ve mentioned at this site before, I was attracted to the field of urban planning by its potential to address urban revitalization, and develop answers for places like my hometown of Detroit.  But it was very clear that at the time I entered the profession, cities were in the very early stages of finding a workable revitalization model, and suburbs were still ascendant.  Urban revitalization was in its infancy.

What cities began to realize in the ’90s was that they could not — should not — compete with suburbs on their terms.  They could not offer acres of free parking; they could not offer direct highway access to all spots; they could not offer homogeneous and sanitized environments.  Cities began to realize that they could market a niche of their own.  Even at their worst, cities had an energy and dynamism that was lacking in suburban environments, often propelled by an eclectic mix of uses, a diversity of housing types, and a cadre of unique businesses that stuck it out in the city and stood in contrast to the more corporate and franchise businesses often found in suburbs.

A demographic was identified that would be attracted to the new city niche.  Like most everything else urban in America, it was in New York City that the notion of Yuppies originated, in the ’60s.  Following on the heels of artistic types in edgy neighborhoods (the term “hipster” wasn’t in wide use at that time, either), young urban professionals, often working in businesses firmly rooted in the city, sought to take advantage of the dynamism of the city.  Soon, young urban professionals in cities across the country followed suit, and their success has become the leading indicator of successful urban revitalization.  Richard Florida’s Creative Class theory is rooted in this transformation.

Today, nearly all of America’s major cities have some semblance of a creative class demonstrating remarkable growth and serving as a catalyst for revitalization.

But two decades into this, and after a devastating recession that’s recalibrated the economic landscape, we’re finding that a rising tide does not lift all boats.

Witness New York.  The financial services-fueled transformation that began in the late ’70s under Mayor Ed Koch, and accelerated under mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg, has brought wealth and redevelopment to places that few New Yorkers thought it would reach.  But it has not reached all, or even most, New Yorkers.  Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s platform of “two New Yorks” resonated with the working class and poor residents of the city.

Witness Chicago.  The Windy City has undergone its own incredible transformation. Led by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who passed the baton to Rahm Emanuel 2 1/2 years ago, Chicago made huge strides in redeveloping wide swaths of the city, chiefly in the Loop and neighborhoods to the north, west and near south.   But at the same time a Chicago paradox has emerged — despite Loop and inner-ring neighborhood growth and redevelopment, communities outside of the growth area have been plagued with rampant violent crime.  Overall, violent crime in Chicago is at 50-year lows, but there are neighborhoods within Chicago where violent crime rates surpass those of the late ’80s-early ’90s “crack era”.

The paradoxes presented here lie at the heart of the problems I have with the creative class, smart cities or even New Urbanism movements.  Sadly, I’m finding that today’s yuppies/creatives/smart city advocates are more interested in comparing the quality of similar scenes in different cities across the country.  This series at the Atlantic Cities exemplifies this.  Author Nona Willis Aronowitz lists nine cities across the country that could appeal to Millennial generation measures in one of four categories: Small Ponds for Big Fish; The Gems Next Door; Towns Luring Back Their Townies; and Budget Boom Towns.  This is all well and good, for Millennials interested in only the 10% of the metro area they will ever come into contact with.  Compare the creative scenes in each metro area, the author seems to say, and find the category that fits you best.

The truth is, there are greater differences within metro areas than there is between them and if we fail to address the differences we do so at our own peril.  This point was driven home to me by British public health researcher Richard Wilkinson in a TED talk presentation he did a couple years ago.  Although his presentation was about inequality measures among nations — he found little correlation between per capita GDP and life expectancy between nations, for example, but found strong evidence of a correlation within nations — the same is true at the metropolitan level.  Let’s look at the Chicago metro area, for example.  According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median household income in 2011 for Flossmoor, IL, an upper-income community in Chicago’s south suburbs, was $110,083.  Not far away, in the impoverished community of Ford Heights, the median household income is $21,075.  This, in a region where the overall median household income is $61,491.  River Forest, a western suburb, has a median household income of $122,854.  River Grove, nearly adjacent to River Forest, has a median household income of just $46,799.  There are likely social disparities that are every bit as great as the income disparities.  And this just looks at differences between suburban municipalities without looking at Chicago neighborhoods, where differences could be even more stark.

Smart City advocates should not be motivated by the quality of the creative scenes between metro areas.  The success of metro areas must be measured by the ability to affect broad parts of the metro’s populace.

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