This is somewhat of an addendum to my post before about dispersal of urban networks toward cheaper cities. I addressed the question of dispersal from rich, expensive metro areas, especially San Francisco, to cheaper ones, as a way of dealing with high housing prices. But more common is dispersal within metro areas: gentrification spilling from a rebounding neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods that remain cheaper, and office space spilling from the primary CBD to the edge cities. I am going to address the latter issue in this post.
CBDs are expensive. They have intense demand for office space, as well as high-end retail and hotels. In many cities, there’s demand for office space even at the construction costs of supertall skyscrapers, going up to about $5,000-6,000 per square meter in privately-built New York towers. Zoning regimes resist the height required to accommodate everyone, and this is worse in Europe than in North America and high-income East Asia. Paris proper has many towers just above the 100 meter mark, but only three above 120. On a list of the tallest buildings in Sweden, not a single one above 100 meters is in central Stockholm, and the tallest within the zone are not in the CBD but in Södermalm; compare this with Vancouver, a metro area of similar size. But in the US, too, expanding CBDs is difficult in the face of neighborhood opposition, even in Manhattan.
The solution many cities have adopted is to put the skyscrapers in edge cities. Paris famously built La Defense, which has far more skyscrapers than the city proper does; Stockholm is building skyscrapers in Kista; London built Canary Wharf; Washington, the major US city with the tightest CBD height limits, sprouted skyscraper clusters in several suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ryan Avent proposed this as one solution to NIMBYism: in new-build areas, there are few residents who could oppose the new development. In contrast, near zoning-constrained CBDs, not only are there many residents, but also the land is so desirable that they are typically high-income, which means they have the most political power to oppose new development.
The problem with this solution is that those secondary CBDs are not public transit hubs. In Paris, this has created an east-west disparity, in which people from (typically wealthy) western suburbs can easily reach La Defense, whereas people from poorer ones need to take long RER trips and often make multiple transfers. In every transit city, the CBD is unique in that it can be reached from anywhere. To give similar accessibility to a secondary center, massive investment is required; Paris is spending tens of billions of euros on circumferential regional rail lines to improve suburb-to-suburb connectivity, expand access in the eastern suburbs, and ameliorate the east-west imbalance (see for example isochrones on PDF-pp. 20-21 of the links here). Those lines are going to be well-patronized: the estimate is 2 million daily passengers. And yet, the east-west imbalance, if nothing else, would be a lesser problem if instead of building La Defense, Paris had built up Les Halles.
The situation in other cities is similar. Kista is on one branch of one subway line, two stops away from its outer terminus. Living in Central Stockholm, my coworkers and I can get to KTH on foot or by bike, but a coworker who teaches at KTH’s satellite campus in Kista has a long commute involving circumferential buses (taking the subway and changing at T-Central would be even longer because of the detour). While many individual sub-neighborhoods of Central Stockholm are quite dense, the overall density in the center is not particularly high, certainly not by the standards of Paris or New York. A similar problem happens in Washington, where the biggest edge city cluster, Tysons Corner, is traditionally auto-oriented and was only just connected to Metro, on a branch. This always affects poorer people the worst, as they can’t afford to live in the CBD, where there is easy access to all secondary destination, and often are pushed to suburbs with long commutes.
There is a political economy problem here, as is usually the case with zoning. (Although in the largest cities skyscraper heights are pushing beyond the point of constant marginal costs, purchase prices at least in New York are much higher than construction costs.) The people living near CBDs, as noted before, are usually rich. The displacement of office space to the suburbs affects them the least, for three reasons. First, if they desire work within walking distance or short subway distance, they can have it, since their firms typically make enough money to afford CBD office rents. Second, since they live in the transit hub, they can access suburban jobs in any direction. And third, if the transit options are lacking, they can afford cars, although of course traffic and parking remain problematic. Against their lack of incentive to support CBD office space, they have reasons to support the status quo: the high rents keep it exclusive and push poor people away, and often the traditional mid-rise buildings are genuinely more aesthetic than skyscrapers, especially ones built in modernist style.
These concerns are somewhat muted in the US, where rich people decamped for the suburbs throughout the 20th century, and have supported zoning that mandates single-family housing in the suburbs, instead of staying in the city and supporting zoning that keeps the city mid-rise. This may have a lot to do with the formation of high-rise downtowns in American cities of such size that in Europe they’d be essentially skyscraper-free.
However, what’s worse in the US is the possibility of short car-free commutes to the edge cities. Where La Defense is flanked by suburbs with high residential density, and Kista’s office blocks are adjacent to medium-density housing projects for working- and middle-class people, American edge cities are usually surrounded by low-density sprawl, where they are easily accessible by car but not by any other mode of transportation. This is because the American edge cities were usually not planned to be this way, but instead arose from intersections of freeways, and developed only after the residential suburbs did. As those edge cities are usually in rich areas, the residents again successfully resist new development; this is the point made in Edgeless Cities, which notes that, in major US metro areas, growth has been less in recognizable edge cities and more in lower-density edgeless cities.
As with the possibility of dispersing innovation clusters from rich, expensive metro areas to poorer and cheaper ones, the already-occurring dispersal from city centers to edge and subsequently edgeless cities has negative effects. It lengthens transit commutes. Although in Tokyo, long commutes first arose as a problem of a monocentric CBD, and the city developed secondary CBDs as a solution, the situation in European cities an order of magnitude smaller is very different. It worsens housing segregation: the development of an edge city tends to be in the direction of the favored quarter, since that’s where the senior managers live, and conversely, higher-income workers can choose to move nearby for the short commute. Although nearly all metro areas have favored quarters, decentralization of jobs thus tends to lengthen the commutes of poor people more than those of rich people.
This is not quite the same as what happens when entire metro areas are forced to disperse due to housing cost. The agglomerations generally stay intact, since an entire industry can move in the same direction: smaller cities have just one major favored quarter with edge cities, and larger ones still only have a few, so that industries can specialize, for example in New York, biotech and health care cluster in the Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick edge city. Moreover, the specialized workers are usually high-income enough that they can stay in the central city or migrate to the favored quarter. San Francisco’s programmers are not forced to move individually to faraway poor neighborhoods; they move in larger numbers to ones near already gentrifying ones, spurring a new wave of gentrification in the process; were they to move alone, they’d lose the access to the tech shuttles. The negative effects are predominantly not on richer people, but on poorer people.
The problem is that even among the poor, there is little short-term benefit from supporting upzoning. If Paris, London, and Stockholm liberalize housing and office construction, the first towers built of both kinds will be luxury, because of the large backlogs of people who would like to move in and are willing to pay far in excess of construction costs. I am going to develop this point further in two posts, on what is best called NITBYism – Not In Their Backyard – but this means that the incentive for poor and peripheral populations is not to care too much about development in rich centers. The marginal additional building in a rich city center is going to go to the upper middle class; sufficient construction would trickle to the middle class; only extensive construction would serve the working class, and then not all of it.
In the US, the marginal additional building may actually displace poor people, if no new construction is allowed, simply by removing low-income apartments. It may even create local demand for high-income housing, for example by signaling that the neighborhood has improved. In San Francisco, this is compounded by the tech shuttles, as a critical mass of Silicon Valley-bound residents can justify running shuttles, creating demand for more high-income housing.
The amount of construction required to benefit the bottom half of the national income distribution is likely to be massive. This is especially true in France and the UK, which have sharp income differences between the capital and the rest of the country; their backlogs of people who would like to move to the capital are likely in the millions, possibly the high millions. Such massive construction is beyond the pale of political reality: the current high-income resident population is simply not going to allow it – when forced to share a building with the working class, it pushes for poor doors, so why would it want zoning that would reduce the market-rate rent to what the working class would afford? The only political possibility in the short run is partial plans, but these are not going to be of partial use to the working class, but of no use to it, benefiting the middle class instead. As a result, there is no push by the working class and its social democratic political organs to liberalize construction, nor by the small-is-beautiful green movement.
Ultimately, the attempt to bypass restrictions on urban CBD formation by building edge cities, like every other kludge, is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem of rich people making it illegal to build housing nearby is not solved, and is often made even worse. The commutes get worse, and the inequality in commutes between the rich and the poor grows. Office space gets built, where otherwise it would spread along a larger share of the medium-rise CBD, but for most workers, this is not an improvement, and the environmental effects of more driving have negative consequences globally. And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation. What seems like a workaround and an acceptable compromise only makes the situation worse.