Cities and Multiple Equilibria

A growing idea among emergent urbanists is that there’s a natural form to the city, one that maximizes activity and that thrives in the absence of regulation. In this view, any sort of urban planning, from postwar suburbia to the Manhattan grid, is just a constraint that makes cities less livable, and in contrast, there is an urban form that people have a near-universal taste for, and all others are some response to bad regulations. Social problems are caused by bad urban form, and the reason American reformers wanted to move everyone to the suburbs was just that the cities failed to look like European cities.

There is an implicit ideology in this view, which is only occasionally hinted at: the ideology of single equilibrium. It holds that there’s just one stable state of nature, and all attempts to change it will just lead to an eventual return to equilibrium, and the greater the change, the more violent the return will be. If there’s a persistent situation away from the equilibrium, it’s a result of pernicious regulations. In economics, it’s the neo-classical school, shaken only by the Great Depression and by the Keynesian argument that depression is every bit an equilibrium as full employment. In every environmental controversy, it’s the individualist cultural bias holding that nature will always return to equilibrium, contrasting with the egalitarian view that nature is inherently fragile, the hierarchical view that it tolerates change within some boundaries to be determined by the experts, and the fatalist view that it is capricious.

Reality is of course more complicated than that. Cities can have multiple equilibria. Unplanned Tokyo and London are happy just the way they are; so are New York, Atlanta, Singapore, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Moscow, each planned in its own way. If people in those cities dislike the current situation, it’s not out of dislike of the present urban form but out of discontent with unemployment, living costs, economic inequality, and other social ills. And if people in mature cities dislike situations that are caused explicitly by their urban layout, then it comes from narrow urban and transportation issues, e.g. California’s air pollution problem.

Historically, this view was more associated with suburbanization and urban renewal. Of course those involved a hefty amount of zoning, but the same could be said of e.g. Christopher Alexander’s support of height limits. In both cases, problems that are really about social relations and poverty are associated with urban design and are used as an excuse to heavily modify cities; that, and not the tenement urban form, was what drove New York’s elite to want suburbanization. Indeed, suburbanization happened in almost all developed countries; the romanticism for the countryside by residents of the rich cities is part of 19th century nationalism, and happened across the first world, regardless of how cities actually looked like.

Nearly every combination of urban form and social class exists somewhere in the world. Just because Americans like some unplanned urban neighborhoods and are gentrifying the cities does not mean that there’s a universal desire for anything, or that people in suburbs are just repressed about how bad their social environment is.

To deal with the fact that people like urban environments that are very different, and that there are persistent cultural tastes determined by a few decades of policy, people who believe in single equilibria have to stretch reality more and more to get the achieved picture. James Howard Kunstler is an especially egregious example: since people don’t mind sprawl and city development that he doesn’t like (he views Manhattan as “despotically mechanistic” and sympathizes with Lewis Mumford for hating cities based on his experience on the Upper West Side), he’s spun a fantasy in which peak oil is going to create ruralization and destroy the suburbs, while also doing so in peaceful enough a way that he’ll survive to see the resulting utopia. But he’s really not doing anything Mumford didn’t do. Mumford couldn’t stand cities and thought their inhabitants just didn’t know they needed urban renewal; Kunstler thinks the same about post-1830 urban development.

Conversely, development that’s generally considered good but violates the rules needs to be shoehorned into the rules. That’s where you get people claiming that Paris is traditional urbanism, where in reality its wide boulevards are every bit as planned as Manhattan’s, just along a radial plan rather than a grid.

Because of the association between this view of nature and political libertarianism, we see defenses framed in terms of nature very frequently. It’s not only individualists or libertarians who do this (read most environmentalist tracts), and there are emergent urbanists who hint at desirability more (for example, Charlie Gardner), but this view and the insistence on natural law are still correlated. The idea inherent in this view is that what’s desirable is what the market wants, and what the market wants should be divined by looking at cases in which there is no government intervention.

The problem is that it’s very hard to really disentangle the economy from politics. It’s easy enough when it comes to consumer goods and other cases in which markets clearly work, but when it comes to infrastructure and collective decisions, it’s much harder – hard enough that Randall O’Toole can pretend that government regulations of parking and subsidies for roads are trivial and call himself a libertarian. The obvious response is to point out the opposite, how government subsidies permeate the opposing view, which is easy enough with a person as dishonest as O’Toole. But in reality it’s often impossible to distinguish political from economic actions, and the cases where there is a clear-cut difference are rare enough that they can be shoehorned into a single theory ad hoc; most urbanist theories have more serious proponents than the people who’ve become the spokespeople of suburbanism.

The reason I insist on consensus as a decision-making tool is that it avoids this assumption that all cities have to look essentially the same. And the reason I did a mini-experiment asking commenters where they grew up and what kind of urbanism they’re comfortable with is precisely that people are different. Formal community structures of course privilege some people and ignore others – most importantly, they elevate existing long-term residents and ignore transients and people who are priced out of the neighborhood. They also lead to unpredictable results, depending on hyper-local issues of culture and history or on charismatic local leaders. But the idea of having different people come together and talk about how they’d like their city to look like is much more powerful than trying to derive a natural order from first principles and treating all other orders as deviations.


  1. Danny

    There is plenty of nuance between an anarchic or purely libertarian approach to urbanism and the consensus based design you propose. Just like you probably would not advocate general ballot measures to determine the color of carpet that a developer should install, most libertarian (small l or large L) would not advocate a complete withdrawal from all planning. I’m probably the most conservative bastard that I have ever seen posting on urbanist blogs, and even I wouldn’t advocate a total withdrawal of planning. That isn’t to say that I agree with “planners” at all, just a statement acknowledging that it isn’t driven by some sort of religious belief.

    To give a nature-based analogy, think of the following actions (consider us humans as the planners):
    -Letting a field grow wild
    -Planting seeds in a wild field
    -Planting seeds and pulling weeds that threaten the nascent seeds
    -Diverting a stream for irrigation
    -Digging a well for irrigation
    -Eliminating natural species and fertilizing, irrigating, and spraying pesticides
    -Slash and burn farming
    -Genetic modification of seeds
    -Lab-isolated creation of organic matter

    It is one thing for a planner to say “Build anything you want, as long as it isn’t a strip club or a thermometer factory”, and another thing altogether for them to say (far too often I might add) “On this plot of land, you may only build a retail sales entity that sells non-grocery items, and is painted off-white with a stucco exterior while using only architectural elements derived from the Late Spanish Colonial style”.

    A desire for the elimination of zoning isn’t the same thing as letting the field grow wild. It merely means letting people decide for themselves where they live, work, play, shop, etc. It doesn’t mean that cities shouldn’t build streets or sewer systems, or even structure incentives for social benefit.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right, but I was talking more about decision-making than about the desirability of zoning (which I believe is just about none). The issue is really that there are multiple ways cities can orient themselves and be happy with. I’m unapologetic about preferring Manhattan’s urban form featuring high-rise offices and mid-rise residences, but there’s an enormous difference between preferring something and arguing that it’s the natural order of things and there’s a near-universal taste for it. It boils down to:

      1. Many urban forms, even objectively bad ones, can exist and persist over centuries. (Even the postwar cul-de-sac has some precedent in medieval Arab cities.)

      2. There are many different urban tastes, and even minority tastes should not be considered deviant.

      3. Tastes depend on culture and familiarity: Americans think cities have inherently worse crime and schools, Parisians think the same of the suburbs. In particular, government policy can move society from one equilibrium to another.

      4. The multitude of different views is such that the only way to have a process that represents everyone is by democratic consensus.

      • Steve S.

        1. Agreed–but–what counts as “objectively bad”? As long as the scale is (relatively) pedestrian, and interconnectedness rather than disconnectedness at that scale rules, you can in fact build very suburban forms in an urban matrix. Your Arab culs-de-sac are one example; another example would be the curvilinear streets of Britain’s Georgian suburbs.
        2. Agreed. But it becomes thornier. Picturesque suburbia was clearly a minority taste in the Victorian era–albeit one of the affluent–which suggests that in a loosely-regulated marketplace, a marketplace with quite different conditions than the United States’, places could and would be found for minority tastes.
        3. This is a different claim entirely. While educational quality and crime rates do seem to be correlated, I would also suggest that a good deal of it is also due to catchment affluence. In other words, since America’s suburbs are traditionally affluent, more effort is made to produce better schools there; the obverse is, of course, Parisian. This would also explain why the throwing of Federal money at “problem schools” does not seem to work–because although school quality and crime rates are correlated, school quality seems more strongly correlated to how much the local community is willing to sink (usually volunteer) time and effort into their school (via PTAs, etc.), activities which more affluent parents are more able to afford. Which brings us back to the correlation between school quality and affluence being the ruling correlation…
        4. Agreed. But remember, going back to regulation (and public control in general), remember that in a certain sense regulation is a subversion of democracy where society makes a collective decision (usually prodded along by something out of their control) that it is better to give up some individual rights for a common good (like keeping food safe, for example). As such, public control can only be considered useful (or good) so long as the value of public control outweighs the risks implicit in the public sector; when it fails to–that is, when enough parties find failing in the degree of public control or how the public control is being handled–it turns bad and needs to be reassessed. In this perspective, one can range from the idea that public control is always superior to private risk (socialism, for instance) to the idea it is always inferior (libertarianism). Most people will fall somewhere midway between the two–the public control of basic infrastructure and guarantees of workplace and food safety, for example, are usually considered a good thing, while the functioning of most sectors can be left to the private, er, sector.

        • Alon Levy

          1. I would say that things that reduce connectivity (e.g. cul-de-sacs) or decimate the street wall (e.g. Singapore’s HDB towers) are objectively bad…

          2. Sure, no argument there.

          3. Yes, exactly. The point here is that many Americans are taking the current situation in which suburbs are richer than central cities and much richer when we’re only considering long-term residents, and treating it as a global principle. And of course, the reverse is true in areas where the opposite geographical income distribution works, such as Paris, or Israel.

          4. Exactly.

  2. Emily Washington

    I’m going to agree with Danny that you’ve oversimplified the libertarian view of cities. My view on urbanisim is derived primarily from Austrian economics, which doesn’t suggest that all cities would necessarily have the same equilibrium form in a free market.

    To the extent that any land use restriction is effective at changing behavior, it limits entrepreneurs’ ability to seize profit opportunities by creating urban forms that people like and will pay for. Therefore, regulations make cities worse from a utilitarian perspective. But cultural and geographic differences, wealth, and all sorts of uncountable variables would impact urban forms around the world as well as urban forms within a single city.

    I would agree that “any sort of urban planning, from postwar suburbia to the Manhattan grid, is just a constraint that makes cities less livable,” but I don’t see where that leads to all cities taking the same form in the libertarian view. I think that consensus-based decisions making is a very dangerous policy to support, as it favors concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. I think this is a very interesting post and you have a good point about this trend among emergent urbanists, so I hope to have a longer response to you over at Market Urbanism soon.

    • Alon Levy

      Emily, I’m going to play the annoying neo-liberal here and say I agree with the gist your criticism of consensus, but there are ways out. (The annoying neo-liberal part refers to how Friedman tries to anticipate criticism and incorporate it into a grand overarching theory, foregoing any attempt to actually deal with ideological conflict; it’s not meant in opposition to consensus governance.)

      Namely, people tend to be less selfish alone than in groups. Elite consensus is inherently a consensus of entrenched groups, but democratic consensus doesn’t have to be. If you look at the list of demands of the housing protesters in Israel, you won’t see much concentrated-benefits-dispersed-costs problems. You’ll see plenty of bad ideas, led by rent control, but in a country with 70% home ownership, it’s less a case of dispersed costs; it’s more about hidden costs and lack of comparative international knowledge about the consequences to New York and other rent-regulated cities. On the contrary, small groups tended to make demands that are neutral or positive toward the rest of society, for example Arab and Bedouin demands for legalizing new construction in their villages, which the government purposely forbids in order to avoid making life bearable for non-Jewish minorities. This was more a consensus of different social movements coming together and combining their grievances than one of screwing everyone a little bit to appease special interests one at a time. Even at the much worse-organized and worse-directed Occupy Wall Street, we don’t really see demands with dispersed costs, such as special subsidies of various flavors.

      It’s actually much harder to maintain consensus by patchwork of policies targeted at different groups than by broadly supported policies. One key feature of egalitarianism is that there are no barriers to exit, so that people who are annoyed at something are free to leave without immediate consequence. Thus egalitarians tend to be far more cautious about everything and avoid giving offense. The patchwork of special interests is more a feature of hierarchy: it’s forged by an alliance of various interest groups, which have enough power in the system and formal decision-making mechanisms making exit difficult, and that’s how it can write 20-point platforms knowing that most supporters will love 18 and hate 2.

      Back on subject, there’s planning, and there’s planning. Having the government quickly map out streets and lots and let private developers build what they want on their property is planning, but it’s a different flavor of planning from zoning. You could even make an argument that it opens the city to more spontaneous development in the future, which is not true of most other planning: the important feature of the grid is that it doesn’t specially favor some nodes over others, and therefore can adapt more readily to new developments going on anywhere, which is especially important for good surface transit.

      • Nathanael Nerode

        “It’s actually much harder to maintain consensus by patchwork of policies targeted at different groups than by broadly supported policies”

        I think this is a crucial fact. Even if you don’t really believe that consensus governance is viable, the elites who do govern should damned well remember how to remain loved and popular… which is by making broad-based policies which benefit practically everyone.

        Outside the realm of transportation, this is why “social security” (everyone gets it) is better politically than “welfare” (some people get it), and is one of several reasons why Medicare for All is better than a patchwork of systems. For two really simple examples.

  3. Simon

    I’d call myself a follower of “emergent urbanism”, but I’ve never toed some hard-libertarian line – in fact I’ve always assumed that certain ground rules get laid, and an order (or equilibrium) emerges from that. So of course there are multiple equilibria, because there is never a purely regulation free world, and only fools would want such a thing.

    Start with deciding on the desired equilibria, and work back from there to figure out the ground rules (or incentives if you like) that would produce such an equilibria. It’s just ole-fashioned technocratic pragamatism.

  4. Wad

    Wow, there are so many points to digest here.

    I’ll begin with Kunstler’s utopian small town fantasy. He obviously feels people should “return” to small towns, but there’s no way possible societies will “return” to small towns. It’s virtually unknown in human civilization for a society to revert to an earlier state of economic development through their own choosing (there have been many cases of conquered civilizations who were subjugated as the result of war). When an urbanized area goes into decline, the residents seek out another urban area that can afford similar opportunities. They won’t resume agriculture, assuming that they were acclimated to a rural way of life in the first place.

  5. Wad

    The idea inherent in this view is that what’s desirable is what the market wants, and what the market wants should be divined …

    This is not an economic argument; this is a theological one.

    “The market” has strong monotheistic connotations. “The” means one, and when market is coupled with a verb, like “wants” or “decides”, we perceive the market as a metaphysical being.

    So, instead of economics being a system composed of individuals, matter, actions and cause-effect relationships, economics as a whole is a subordinate process that seeks to bargain with a supreme, central being.

    Does “the market” as a supreme, central being have desires it expects mortals to fulfill in return for a material reward or the avoidance of wrath? “The market” doesn’t do any of these things.

    Man created economics in his own image, to fulfill his own desires, and made up the rules as he went along.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, pretty much. One of the distinctions I’m hinting at here is between individualism and individuality. People can believe in private enterprise and profits and no government involvement while also thinking that people different from themselves are deviant; we could take the easy way out and name Ayn Rand and Lew Rockwell, but in reality far more powerful people in city halls and corporations are like that, only less brazenly. Conversely, if you go to communities and events that celebrate individual weirdness – Burning Man, freight train hoppers, any alternative sexuality – you’ll see a good mix of individualists and egalitarians.

      I think part, though but by no means all, of this distinction is what underlies the “This is what the market/society/nearly everyone wants, and if you disagree, you’re just a weirdo” attitude I see in emergent urbanism. (And just as the Infrastructurist and the Urbanophile are remarkably self-conscious and transcend my criticisms of small-letter infrastructurist and urbanophile boosters, both Old Urbanist and Philadelphia 2050 can accommodate multiple desires; it’s the people they sometimes quote who are rigid.)

    • Danny

      There are plenty of collective nouns that don’t refer to metaphysical beings. The family, the community, the electorate, the union, the couple, the company. I know you want to portray a desire for free markets as some sort of religion, but its not working.

      In the real world, most people that clamor for free markets fully understand that there is no unified market want. Businesses refer to gaining market share…not the market. Even people who think they own or want to own the market for something, they will refer to it as 100% of the market, or the whole market.

      And you have a severe misunderstanding of economics. I would encourage you to take an economics 101 class at your earliest convenience. The most simple and ubiquitous Supply and Demand chart is an explicit acknowledgement that there is no unified market want. Even the most ideological of economic theories, such as the Efficient Market Hypothesis or Rational Choice Theory state their assumptions using the words “… most people…”.

      • Wad

        @Danny wrote: “I know you want to portray a desire for free markets as some sort of religion, but its not working. … And you have a severe misunderstanding of economics. I would encourage you to take an economics 101 class at your earliest convenience.”

        As of this writing there have been only two replies to my original post about the market, Alon’s and yours. One difference is that your reply was laden with snideness, which says that, yeah, my portrayal did provoke a reaction out of you. Now, I don’t know you so I don’t have any idea of how you conduct your behavior in real life, but if it’s anything like how you act here, I consider it a privilege to have avoided you.

        My alleged “severe misunderstanding of economics,” as you perceive it, comes from the very advice you’re giving me. Since I have taken a year’s worth of econ courses in college, much of which were introduced and covered in high school, I know more than enough to declare you wrong. I also know that economics, like other disciplines, is useful for what is explainable and understandable in its field, but is not useful for what isn’t explainable or not understandable. That’s where the melange of broad-based general ed requirements — political science, philosophy, history, biology, chemistry, English, religious studies and even the humanities — help to know more about more.

        Economics is an explanation but it isn’t The Explanation that renders everything else we know and study junk. And besides, I am the kind of person that seeks questions, not answers, the more I study a subject.

        So don’t assume I said what I did because I didn’t study economics. You know what they say about “assume,” it makes an ass out of you and … no, it’s just you.

        • Danny

          I read a snide broadcasted comment that disparaged the intelligence of millions of intelligent people. I responded with a snide directed comment that disparaged the ignorance of one. Congratulations on your moral superiority.

      • Wad

        And @Danny, the point is that the family, the community, the electorate, the union, the couple, the company constitute a market. They are physical beings capable of their own wants and wills.

        Coupling an action verb with them is appropriate and correct. The family plans a budget. The community proposes a library, and the electorate votes on a bond measure. The union and the company negotiate a contract. In these cases, you have actual people determining what to do with real, tangible material.

        Now a market, or “the” market, cannot do any of these things. A market cannot desire nor will a budget, a library or a contract into being.

        Yet people, consciously or subconsciously, ascribe active-voice verbs to “the market.” I entered the phrase “Let the free market decide” in quotes in Google and got back about 255,000 results. That’s quite prevalent. That statement declares that “the free market” has a will and has the ultimate say.

        • Danny

          When I was in a union while working for a grocery store as a teenager, the union decided that 30% of my compensation would come in the form of benefits like life insurance and health insurance. Being a minor with no dependents and health care provided by my parents, I would have preferred cash.

          When my company decided to give campaign funds to a congressman that had a deregulation agenda and a penchant for anti-Mexican rhetoric, about 20% of the company left.

          Active voice verbs used by collective nouns, at best, represent a consensus action from multiple individuals, and in reality are often far more chaotic in nature. But that doesn’t mean that they have wills. Letting a free market decide on an issue doesn’t mean we hand things over to some god that decides for us. It means letting people decide for themselves whether something makes economic sense for them.

          I would love to let the free market decide on HSR. If someone thinks it can make money and can organize the people and capital to make it work, great. If not, great. In either scenario, I didn’t waste my money, so I am happy. Letting the free market decide merely means letting individuals decide for themselves whether something make sense, and letting them act on it. There is no magical deity making authoritative decisions there. You are imagining some belief that simply does not exist.

        • Emily Washington

          In general, I think that when people use the phrase “let the free market decide” they are referring to all of the individuals who are either buyers or sellers in the market. Unlike families or communities, no one has control over the market process in determining supply, demand, and price. The price emerges without anyone determining what it will be. So of course the abstract market does not decide anything for itself — that’s exactly the point. Individuals acting based on their own wants and will determine market outcomes, and saying the the market decides is merely shorthand for explaining the market process.

          • Nathanael Nerode

            Except that, in real markets, there are a limited number of buyers or sellers with market power — cartels with monopsony or monopoly — or there are externalities which “put a thumb on the scales” of the market process; decisions regarding which externalities to internalize and which not to amount to the decisions which control the market. Et cetera.

            The phrase “let the market decide” hides the question of who is really deciding, and seeing who really decides is much more revealing.

            Danny gave some excellent examples. Given the power to decide whether everyone in the company gets health insurance or whether people get cash (which would not be enough to pay for individual health insurance, because of group discounts), the union leaders made one choice; Danny would have made the choice which hurt the other employees. Who decides? Not “the market”, that’s a copout.

          • Emily Washington

            To take the example of employer provided healthcare as an example, it’s important to acknowledge that nothing about our healthcare and health insurance systems are in any way free market. Because employee-provided health insurance is subsidized, our insurance is tied to where we work. In a free market, this would not be the case, and it’s likely that unions (which would likely be unsustainable in a free market) would have nothing to do with healthcare. I think that many examples of group decision making that we find disturbing are not in fact symptoms of the market process.

  6. Steve S.

    Dude, you’re setting up a straw man here. Lumping me together with Charlie Gardner was the right thing to do, but you’re approaching this problem from the wrong way. I’m not saying that there’s a single equilibrium to cities–quite the opposite, in fact: my barbs at Gardner and (especially) Nathan Lewis are arguing that there are different natural urban equilibria and forms. What I am saying is that cities are an example of organized complexity, and thus that the proper way to approach them, from a theoretical perspective, is that of complexity, e.g. the approaches of Stephen Wolfram or Terrence Deacon. Nor am I saying there is no place for planners. (If I did that, I’d be writing myself out of my own area of expertise, for God’s sakes.)

    Yes–I am arguing against regulation I see as bad. You did know that once we took it upon ourselves to regulate street width? Or that we regulate how close to the street buildings can be built? I am not arguing that our cities are failing because they fail to conform to European or Asian norms–this is plain old false–but I am arguing Americans are not getting the built environment they want because our regulatory paradigm prevents such places from being built in the first place. In this regard I am a New Urbanist. But I am also arguing that, to remain viable and successful, cities need some room to breathe–they need to change to changing needs.

    Finally, Alon, I suggest that you look closely at how ad hoc conurbations–informal settlements like Brazilian favelas, Turkish gecekondular, et cetera, work. Why do such places work the way they do while places of similar vintage, especially in the United States, fail to? One of the better answers I can think of is “you can build a city for people or cars, but not both”, and I think that’s one of the cruxes of what I’m trying to say…There are many ways to build a city for people (multiple equilibria), but you still have to build a city for people, a place you feel comfortable in, especially on foot.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, the US doesn’t have any informal settlements, so it’s kind of obvious it won’t have anything like Rocinha. New York actually had a lot of these in the 19th century, but they were all wiped out. The main reason is that Anglo-American common law is much less tolerant of squatting than Brazilian and especially Turkish law. Robert Neuwirth’s book doesn’t make it completely clear whether the squatter settlements in New York were aligned with the grid, but the impression is that they were. In addition, the location of the favelas and the gecekondular is not so prime, and therefore there’s no intense slum-clearing effort as there is in Mumbai.

      Places succeed or fail based on so much more than street width. For example, if you look carefully at the main examples of successful unplanned cities – Tokyo, the inner area of Florence, the gecekondular – the biggest commonality is that they’ve never been urban-renewed. The same is of course true of the successful planned cities: Paris proper, New York ex-projects, Vancouver, Toronto. Sometimes those cities successfully resisted urban renewal (and here I’m lumping renewal with freeways, even though historically their proponents were at odds with each other); other times urban renewal was too expensive or illegal, and yet other times the city was not treated as a problem to be solved externally. The appeal of Jacobs to me is not her urban design principles, which are hit-or-miss, but the fact that she wants to work with existing communities and knows better than to subordinate pedestrian observations to a set of rules.

      The other thing is that there really isn’t such a thing as European or Asian norms. Every urban form that exists in the US and Canada also exists in other developed countries, except for the rigid grid (less rigid grids are attested in Beijing, Tel Aviv, Mannheim, and Kyoto). If you go to a fair number of successful European cities, you won’t see really narrow streets. You’ll see streets in the 10-12-meter range, but you won’t see anything like what they have in Tokyo. And often, e.g. in Mannheim and Tel Aviv, those streets have the same amount of space for cars as New York and Philadelphia, and compensate by letting cars park with two wheels on the sidewalk. Those cities are perfectly fine, modulo later additions such as Tel Aviv’s ill-timed pedestrian signals; so are New York and Philadelphia.

      • Steve

        Well sure, the common-law jurisprudence of these places are different (gecekondular, for example, exploit a loophole in Turkish building law), but what I was suggesting was a comparison in the urban life between these places and American cities.

      • Nathanael Nerode

        Don’t you think the massive razing of buildings in Paris to build the boulevards of the “planned city” qualifies as urban renewal? Hell, London had similar “knock down the slums and build new Victorian-style slums” programs in the 19th century.

        Are you really just saying that the particular form of urban renewal practiced in the 1950s, focused on cars and a vision of low-rise buildings, was really dumb? Because if so, then other forms of urban renewal are clearly OK.

        • Alon Levy

          I think it does qualify as urban renewal. That said, several things distinguish it from postwar urban renewal:

          1. The urban form it created – consistently mid-rise with continuous street wall and mixed uses – is objectively better than that created by postwar modernists.

          2. The razing was done in the 1860s and the city has been intact since, allowing communities to redevelop. It’s similar to the eviction of squatters and their replacement with tenement housing in New York around the same time.

          3. After the razing, the city was populated with the middle and upper classes, and therefore was spared disinvestment and treated as an organic city rather than as a social problem for leaders to solve.

    • Andre Lot

      Illegal settlements of favelas and the likes are inherently un-sanitary, extremely easy to be controlled by gangs, immensely difficult to be provided with amenities like sanitation, trash collections, ambulances and, as so, should be demolished and eradicated from the face of Earth as Brazil and other countries that are getting richer are doing.

      • Alon Levy

        You’d think, but they’re actually thriving. The local gangs provide better security than the Rio de Janeiro police, which is like a big violent gang and shoots unarmed civilians at rates that would make Rudy Giuliani blanch. Neuwirth found a jewelry store in Rocinha that relocated from Copacabana because of safety concerns – Copacabana has a lot of robberies, and the only way to be safe there is to hide in gated buildings.

  7. Charlie Gardner

    Alon: I agree with what you say here about making generalizations about people’s preferences, notwithstanding Glazer’s quote, which I was not endorsing in its entirety. The very idea of a preferred form is of questionable relevance anyways given that choice in housing is guided by numerous factors, most of which are not directly related to form (cost, schools, safety, commute, etc.), although they may figure as more important. A better measure is simply land value, which can tell us something about preferences. Thus we frequently hear that the price premium for walkable and/or transit accessible neighborhoods reflects scarcity relative to preference, or so it’s thought. It’s only a starting point for analysis, but it’s definitely better than arguing from anecdote or presumption.

  8. Pingback: Cities and Cultural Theory | Pedestrian Observations

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