As an armchair sociologist and rabid opponent of urban sprawl, I really appreciated Paul Krugman’s musings on energy consumption and civil planning yesterday. In the column—which marked the converging problems of high gas prices, big-box driving culture, and American failure to adequately and efficiently conurbate—one comment jumped out:
there are, as always in America, the issues of race and class. Despite the gentrification that has taken place in some inner cities, and the plunge in national crime rates to levels not seen in decades, it will be hard to shake the longstanding American association of higher-density living with poverty and personal danger.
A couple thoughts in response: That “association” has always struck me as an American eccentricity; in few other countries is the denser, more diverse metropole the undesirable place to be. The disenfranchised Parisian suburbs are perhaps the most well-known inversion of this trope of the “inner city.” And beyond the race and class dynamics (the stuff of every American political argument these days), the mere availability of suburban geography is pretty unique to North America.
And, further, rural to urban migrations are driving economic growth and civic culture in just about every large developing nation (China, South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, India) and many post-industrial ones (Japan, Ireland). Latin American immigration to US cities likewise proves the point. Why—in only 2006, the UN reported that the earth’s population was cleft in two: 3.2 billion humans in the cities, and another 3.2 billion living in rural or exurban sites. Today, we have tipped from that knife-edge, and a distinct majority of earthlings are choosing the opportunity and diversity of city life. American manifest destiny—transmuted into the desire for 40 acres, a riding mower and a hot tub—has, outside the US, morphed into a desire for strap-hanging and skyscrapers.
Second, and more importantly: What are we doing to meet this demand? Environmentally, it ain’t pretty. George Packer’s phenomenal reporting from Lagos in 2006 proved an ode to the modern megacity—those centers (New York, Cairo, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Kinshasa and Mumbai, among others) whose populations are well over 10 million and mounting daily. In the must-read piece, Packer marks the extreme disarray of public infrastructure, and laments the ways in which people are forced to reckon with badly planned, often half-finished structures and byways that are, in Lagos at least, effectively lost to reform.
Rather than responding as poorly as such failed city-states, lovers of civilization must make a push to accommodate the changing—and naturally more energy efficient—ways in which people choose to live. Krugman drifts into narrow platitudes at the end of his column (“Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives”). Matt Yglesias head-fakes in the proper direction in his response to Krugman, by noting “one piece of very low-hanging fruit is to promote denser development near our existing [rail] stations.”
But this is halfway stuff. Ideally, you’d want an urban infrastructure that reduced everyone’s work/play/life “commutes” to 20-minute walks, bikes and buses—if not shorter. This isn’t unheard of; in the South Bronx in the 1960s, for example, many residents walked to work in factories by the river, and now-vanished local grocery was prevalent. To reclaim this history at scale, we’d have to rezone and rebuild existing cities to offer more low-carbon lifestyle options—but also develop entirely new, densely urban areas. This means growing the “second cities” of the planet—the Auroras, Sacramentos, and Omahas; the Krakows, Rotterdams and Mombasas—in ways that will allow us to live more densely than today, but more sustainably than in, say Lagos. This decentralization is happening naturally (see the incredible recent growth of all the named cities) but could also use some concerted pioneering from public and private developers.
In another interesting piece yesterday, Michael Malone reported that in 1893, period historians believed “so much of the nation had been settled that there was no longer an identifiable western migration. The very notion of a 'frontier' was obsolete.” It would be nice to prove that wrong all over again.