Stuff on Density, Innovation

View of San Francisco, one of America’s densest cities.  Source:

I’ve learned a lot from my blogging colleague Jim Russell.  Starting with his own blog Burgh Diaspora and now writing for Pacific Standard, Jim has taken an iconoclastic, unconventional approach to economic development and metropolitan growth, based on his experience growing up in and working in Rust Belt cities.  I’ve written about Jim on at least a couple other occasions, and I’d say the gist of his worldview is this:

  • Cities must “do the fail”.  Metro areas do themselves a great disservice when they try to prop up losing economic sectors that they previously dominated.  Globalization changed the game, and metros that initially prospered in one sector need to find another one.
  • Churn is the key.  As a geographer, Jim brings a perspective on migratory dynamics for metros that few urbanists even consider, let alone include in their analysis.  For many, the end-all in the zero-sum game we call economic development is absolute population growth and absolute job growth.  Jim has shown me that it’s never as simple as that.
  • “Brain Drain” is a fallacy.  Related to the points above, many metros are deeply concerned with the net loss of highly educated professionals, and are devising strategies designed to keep them in place.  Economic development professionals argue that losing the highly educated means losing job creators and innovators and that keeping them home increases their chances of doing so locally.  Jim argues that “people develop, not places,” and that actually creating more brain drain means your metro develops a reputation as a developer of human capital in a global society that puts a premium on it.

 Without a doubt Jim’s perspective has influenced my views on economic development and metropolitan growth, decline and revitalization.  Coming from an urban planning background with an emphasis on community and neighborhood development, I always understood that whatever we as planners tried to do at the local level was impacted by much larger and stronger global, national and regional factors, and that any success at the local level would only happen if the proposed strategies were in sync with the broader factors.  And I did see plenty of examples of local strategies that were doomed to failure because they ran counter to trends at larger levels.

In a post from last year I saw the light:

I’m no migration expert, but I think I better understand where Jim is coming from.  Moreso than the number-padding exercise of counting heads to determine population growth, the constant and consistent flow of people into your city is crucial to its sustainability.  Flow is essential.  I view it like water in a river.  Inflow can sustain a city even if it has a substantial outflow, just like the biological diversity that can be found surrounding a waterfall.  When the inflow slows to a trickle or stops altogether, or the lack of outflow impedes movement, cities should become worried.

In fact, I can envision a flow hierarchy that goes against the grain of population growth conventional wisdom:

Representative City
New York City

You may agree or disagree with the representative cities, but what I’m trying to suggest is that metros travel along this spectrum. Portland, for example, often derided as the “place where young people go to retire” due to the oversupply of talented yet unemployed or underemployed young adults, may suddenly find its inmigration rate sink.  It could well become the kind of low/low metro that Cleveland is now.  On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s development as a talent production center is attracting more highly educated people to the Steel City.  That’s the leading edge of Pittsburgh’s economic resurgence and its conceivable that Pittsburgh could develop the high/low migration profile that Portland now enjoys.  I get this and this is a refreshing approach to economic development (related: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s recently announced plan to attract 50,000 immigrants willing to relocate in Detroit over the next five years is representative of this approach).

But Jim has started to articulate another viewpoint that I understand, yet only partly agree with.  Jim is trying to detach ideas of building dense, walkable and amenity-filled urban environments from economic development orthodoxy.  Using the phrase “people follow jobs, not sidewalks,” Jim criticizes conventional urban planning thinking this way:

“Urban planning trends are conclusions in search of justification. Thanks to Richard Florida, the end-as-starting-point is usually Jane Jacobs’ New York City. Laudable goals such as greater diversity become causes instead of effects. Greater diversity will catalyze more innovation. Jobs follow creative people. More walkable neighborhoods promote economic development.

Jim is building the case that, counter to what Richard Florida or Jane Jacobs say, creating more livable communities is not an economic development strategy.  Creating more livable communities does not on its own create more innovative or economically vibrant cities.  In fact, he suggests that cities and suburbs with a reputation for lacking in livability can be as innovative as the next guy:

“All cities are powered by the exploitation of ambition. Migrants are ambitious, risk-takers. Migration, not urban density, promotes creativity and innovation. If all the talent is pouring into suburban Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, then that’s where the action is. “Good urbanism” has nothing to do with it.”

 Hold on there, Jim.

I agree that the Richard Floridas of the world overstate their case when they say that creating dense and walkable communities is a catalyst for economic development.  In fact, I would say that argument is as spurious as saying that publicly-funded stadiums and arenas for privately-owned professional sports teams stimulates economic development.  More and more data and stories are out there showing how wrong this is, but it keeps happening.

But density, walkability, amenities — urban design — does have its merits and value.  Livability matters, but not as an economic development strategy.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a creature of the Midwest.  More specifically, I’m a creature of the Great Lakes band of the Rust Belt.  Born in Detroit, spent several years in Indiana, and been in the Chicago area for 27 years now.  When the Rust Belt circa 1890 went all in on industrialization, one of the things that happened was that it allowed the industrial economy to shape the look and feel of its cities.  If there is a common thread among most Rust Belt cities, it is that they are often lacking in the quality of their built environment.  I wrote about Detroit’s housing quality in this blog’s very first post, about Detroit:

“Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality. 

The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes.  The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. 

True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices.  But it also has many more homes that simply don’t generate the demand that higher quality housing would.  That is a major contributor to the city’s abundance of very cheap housing.”

And I said as much about Detroit’s commercial corridors at the same time:

“Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places.  Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping.  Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking.  Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings.  The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. 

Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring.   But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure.  That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.”

The point is, Rust Belt cities created a utilitarian built environment to support simply the environment they inhabited.   And one of the reasons that cities from Saginaw to South Bend have endured the decline they have is because they lack appeal and often don’t meet contemporary standards of quality.

A new book, Happy City by Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery, seems to capture the importance of this (I say seems because I haven’t read it).  In an interview with the Atlantic Cities, Montgomery touts quality urban design as a way to improve the quality of life of a city’s residents, and that psychologists and neuroscientists are looking at how a well-designed environment impacts how we live.

Restaurant reviews are always about the quality of the food.  But without question, the quality of the food is enhanced by the quality of the environment.  While crappy food can’t be disguised in a fantastic environment, excellent food can certainly taste a lot worse in a substandard environment.  We go to the restaurant for the food, but the environment matters.

I got all the way to the end of this before I realized that I addressed this pretty well last November.  Back then I said:

Density is an outcome, not a goal.  A goal worth pursuing, yes, but it should be a marker of your city’s success, not an element of its strategy.  Density does not produce serendipity; serendipity produces density.

6 thoughts on “Stuff on Density, Innovation

  1. As someone newly trying to understand issues of urban planning and New Urbanism I found your blog was clear, concise and it touched on some areas where I felt some disconnects between theory as I understood it and application. With accreditation would it be ok to quote you? I found your remarks to be particularly applicable to the situation in our city.


  2. Pete,

    I agree livability and quality urban design matter. Greater residential density does, indeed, have a dividend. As you once remarked on my blog, the extent of impact depends on the scale of analysis. I lived in Longmont, CO where I was a planning and zoning commissioner. I lived in one of the poorest parts of the city and got around primarily by walking. Pushing a stroller 20 blocks to go grocery shopping made me a quick study of the value of walkability. These experiences informed how I performed my duties as commissioner. But the city did not lack that kind of input. Nobody, not a soul, thought in terms of inter-regional impacts on struggling neighborhoods. In that light, what are the opportunity costs of focusing on pedestrian infrastructure?


  3. Jim, I don't think I'd approach this in quite the way you suggest. I couldn't begin to do a quantitative analysis on the economic benefits of walkable density; in fact I've always been skeptical of attempts to do so.

    My argument has been for the creation of “complete” communities that meet the needs for a broad spectrum of residents. One big reason folks left cities for suburbs or Rust Belt for Sun Belt was that people preferred the single family home oriented development both had. Cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, couldn't compete with that, just like they couldn't compete in the shifting economic landscape. They often developed poor examples of faux suburbia that didn't work.

    Today we're seeing another shift in preferences: people are showing a greater desire for small lot or attached housing with nearby commercial and transit. There are places that have these assets already and have the ability to build on them, but aren't doing it. They'll find themselves missing out on growth (this is place level I'm talking, not metro level).

    Best example I can give is what I've written about Silicon Valley. There are global economic factors that could push tech industries to other locales. I realize that. But the SV towns don't currently appear to be reacting to the existential threat to them that the Google bus controversy presents to them. Keeping the tech industries in SV may include creating a physical environment that is more appealing to its workers.


  4. If the knowledge economy is converging (diffusing), then it won't matter what SV towns do. People will live in the most inhospitable of places if it means access to economic opportunity. Immigrants deal with intolerance. Talent moved to NYC despite the awful reputation and fear of crime. People will and do leave walkable neighborhoods in droves.


  5. Jim, I can't buy the 100% “It's the economy, stupid” theory of cities. Sure, people will live in the most inhospitable of places for economic opportunity. They call places like that Mumbai and Bangalore. But why should they?

    Cities are as much social creations as they are economic ones. Maybe moreso. I want cities to be as economically strong as they can be, but also as livable – for all people and preferences – as they can be.


  6. Perhaps the economy can explain all of some Rust Belt cities' demise, but it cannot completely explain it for all Rust Belt cities. If cities are social creations as much as economic ones, they require social solutions as much as economic ones. Focusing solely on economics puts cities completely as the whims of the economic trends of the time. We see how that worked out for Rust Belt cities before.


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