Big City Sparkplug–an Introduction

Why are America’s major cities relevant, over its suburbs and towns? And why particularly are they in a country that still romanticizes the agrarian ideal over the concrete jungle? This is what I asked myself before starting a blog about how to revive them, because it begged the question of whether doing so is really an economic priority.

It can after all be argued that Americans answered this question with their own feet well before World War II, when federal funds were used for suburban housing. Within decades cities deteriorated, while economies grew and living standards improved across the nation’s metropolitan peripheries.

It wasn’t until the last two decades that people began moving back, due to a positive shift in how cities were being governed. But even this has proven somewhat a façade. For every success story like Manhattan, there are Potemkin villages like downtown Detroit, where shiny cultural attractions are but a thin gloss over a troubled city. And of course these examples don’t counter the fact that most American housing is still characterized as single-family detached, and is bought by a populace that prefers this over apartments. It’s indeed symbolic that one of America’s most dynamic industries the last 30 years—computer technology—underwent much of its innovation within the suburban cluster of Silicon Valley. This was a change from the nation’s industrial past, and implied future growth would continue into new regions.

So are America’s major cities—particularly the dense ones—still a priority? I believe they are, and will explain why in my blog, Big City Sparkplug.

On one hand is their economic importance. Despite America’s suburban growth, large cities, because of their compactness, are still vital in sparking innovation and upward mobility—and in fact lubricating these very suburbs. While places like Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Massachusetts may have arisen outside big cities, they wouldn’t have without the infrastructure and educated workforces that existed within them. Second is the environmental importance of cities, since they cluster people, and thus maximize existing services rather than duplicating them further out. This is embodied by New York City, which is the nation’s densest city—and has the smallest per capita carbon footprint.

But another importance of cities, although sometimes considered distant from the pulse of Middle America, is their cultures. In many of them unique ones have emerged that have crept into the vibe of the streets and the character of the citizenry. Just contrast the bohemianism of Portland with the gritty ethnic melting pot of L.A.; the faux brashness of Boston with the very real criminality of Oakland; or the mix in Chicago between cosmopolitanism and Midwestern conventionality. Whether or not these cultures determine national values—and many of them do—they at very least determine whether their respective cities will continue as mainstream living choices, or suffer decline.

For proof, just look at the Millennial generation—or what’s considered tomorrow’s mainstream. Much of this generation has countered recent tradition by moving from their suburban upbringings into cities. And while sometimes jobs dictate this, so too do lifestyle preferences. Thus dense, dynamic cities like New York or San Francisco are sought, particularly by young educated types, over ones like Houston or Dallas, where sprawl has sabotaged cultural life. This notion—that there’s something special about city rather than suburban culture, and that dense cities are more appealing than sprawling ones—will be a resounding theme of the blog.

In the blog I’ll argue that for cities to meet the demands of these incoming Millennials, they need to channel two mindsets. The first is for them to shun their left-leaning traditions and embrace pro-growth policies, particularly in respect to vertical construction. But they also need to have the aesthetic sensibilities of architects and planners, by funding the amenities—from pedestrian malls to waterfront parks to light rail—that take the sharp edges off a fast growth rate, and that ensure livability decades into the future. The common thread between the two mindsets is the embrace of change, rather than the hostility to it that informs so much of urban policy today.

But in addition to policy proposals, my blog will of course also focus on urban culture—the food carts, the street characters, the public spaces—and how such culture is fostered by built density. Because culture itself is what makes cities great, and what makes the policies that affect them so crucial. I hope during my ruminations that readers recognize their importance, and join the discussion.

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4 Comments

  1. I like dirt roads in the sticks!

  2. Every argument supporting urban sprawl can be disputed with an argument in support of American wildlife, agriculture and self-reliance. Urban sprawl is encroaching onto undeveloped land at lightening speed. This threatens animal and plant life, pollutes the environment, destroys natural beauty and valuable farm land. It has a negative impact even on the humans who cause it. If it continues unabated, it will continue to spread and damage just about everything in its path.
    Please speak to the effect urban sprawl will have on the plants and animals that will be destroyed to the point of extinction? Urban sprawl destroys natural habitats, feeding grounds, and even blocks migratory bird paths.
    Development of cities and destruction of farm land and open spaces decreases our ability as a country to be self reliant and develop our own resources, such as food and natural fuels. This could certainly cause the price of food and fuels to go up. We can then expect to have an ever growing national debt that our children will have to pay for.
    Although many would think to the contrary, urban sprawl increases car use, which in turn increases greenhouse emissions and air pollution. It also reduces rainwater absorption, which poses its own problems.
    While your arguments are well researched and I appreciate your passion on the topic, I would have to disagree with you and express my sympathy to future generations that are less able or unable to provide for themselves and are dependent upon another country for survival.

    • Daryan, by using the term “urban sprawl” I believe you’ve tangled, through semantics, two opposing concepts. “Suburban sprawl” is the inefficient devouring of land and resources that will further lead to the catastrophes you are predicting. Urban density, which clusters people and infrastructure, does not completely alleviate sprawl, but is one way to reduce it. Trying to encourage this latter form of development, through the loosening of government regulations and a change in consumer preferences, is largely the point of my blog. A lot of why I advocate it is because, like you, I care about the environment. But I also think density is good for the economy, and produces the “critical mass” of people that enables strong cultures. Having now marked this distinction between urban density and sprawl, I would appreciate any other input you have on my future posts…

  3. Hey Scott,
    Well done! This is Great!
    I am so glad I happened upon your blog. I look forward to reading your work and responding. I am assuming that you will be back for Christmas. Continue your safe travels!

    Hiram


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