Small is not Resilient

I wrote about how the future is not retro, and Daniel Herriges Strong Towns just responded, saying that traditional development is timeless. I urge all readers to click the last link and read the article, which makes some good points about how cars hollowed out what both Daniel and I call the traditional prewar Midwestern town. There are really two big flaws in the piece. First, it makes some claims about inequality and segregation that are true in American cities but false in the example I give for spiky development, Vancouver. And second, it brings up the resilience of the traditional small town. It’s the second point that I wish to contest: small is not resilient, and moreover, as the economy and society evolve, the minimum size required for resilience rises.

Small cities in the 2010s

In the premodern era, a city of 50,000 was a bustling metropolis. In 1900, it was still a sizable city. In 2019, it is small. The difference is partly relative: a migrant to the big city had the option of moving to a few 200,000 cities in 1900 and one of about ten 1,000,000+ cities, whereas today the same migrant can move to many metro areas with millions of people. But part of it has to do with changes in the economy.

In Adam Smith’s day, big businesses were rare. If you had five employees, you were a big employer. Then came the factory system and firm size grew, but even then companies were small by the standards of today’s specialized economy. A city of 50,000 might well specialize in a single product, as was common in the American manufacturing belt (Krugman mentions this on pp. 11-12 here), but there would be many factories each with a few hundred employees.

But as the economy grows more complex, firm size grows, and so does the interdependence between different firms in the same supply chain. Moreover, the support functions within a city grow in complexity: schools, a hospital, logistics, retail, and so on. The proportion of the population employed in the core factory is lower, as the factory’s high productivity supports more non-manufacturing employees. The upshot is that it’s easy for a town of 50,000 to live off of a single firm and its supply chain. This is not resilient: if the firm fails, the town dies.

Occasionally, cities of that size can have more resilience. Perhaps they’re suburbs of a larger city, in which case they live off of commuting to a more diverse economic center. Perhaps they happen to live off of an industry that cannot die so easily, such as a state capital or a university. On social media one of my followers brought up farming as an example of an activity whose towns have held up in the Midwest better than manufacturing towns; farming is in fact extremely risky, but it has been subsidized since the 1930s, so it has some resilience thanks to subsidies from more internally resilient parts of the country.

Large cities and resilience

I read Ed Glaeser not so much for his observations about the housing market – he’s a lot of things but he’s not a housing economist – as for his economic history. He has a pair of excellent papers describing the economic histories of Boston and New York respectively. Boston, he argues, has reinvented itself three times in the last 200 years after declining, using its high education levels to move up the value chain. New York was never in decline except in the 1970s, and has resiled from its 1980 low as well.

These as well as other large cities have economic diversity that small cities could never hope to have. At the time Glaeser wrote his paper about New York, in 2005, the city seemed dominated by finance and related industries. And yet in the 2007-9 recession, which disproportionately hit finance, the metro area’s per capita income relative to the national average barely budged, falling from 135.3% to 133.8%; in 2017 it was up to 137.5%. The New York region is a center of finance, yes, but it’s also a center of media, academic research, biotech, and increasingly software.

New York is extremely large, and has large clusters in many industries, as do London, Paris, Tokyo, and other megacities. But even medium-size cities often have several clusters, if not so many. This is especially evident in Germany, where Munich, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt are not particularly large. Munich is the center of conglomerates in a variety of industries, including cars (BMW, far and away the largest employer, but also MAN), general industry (Siemens), chemicals (Linde), and finance (Allianz).

What’s true is that these large cities have much more knowledge work than menial work – yes, even Munich, much more a center of engineering than of menial production. But the future is not retro in the mix of jobs any more than it is in its urban layout. The nostalgics of the middle of the 20th century taxed productive industrial cities to subsidize farmers, treating industrial work as the domain of socialists, Jews, immigrants, and other weirdos; the nostalgics of the early 21st century propose to tax productive knowledge economies to subsidize menial workers, and in some specific cases, like American protection of its auto industry, this has been the case for decades.

Small cities as suburbs

In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, unlike in the United States or France, there is a vigorous tradition of historic small cities becoming suburbs of larger cities while retaining their identity. This doesn’t really involve any of Strong Towns’ bêtes noires about roads and streets – in fact pretty much all of these cities have extensive sprawl with big box retail and near-universal car ownership. Rather, they have tight links with larger urban cores via regional rail networks, and German zoning is less strict about commercialization of near-center residential areas than American zoning. There was also no history of white flight in these areas – the white flight in Germany is in the cores of very large cities, like Berlin, which can replace fleeing whites one to one with immigrants.

In this sense, various Rhineland cities like Worms and Speyer do better than Midwestern cities of the same size. But even though they maintain their historic identities, they are not truly economically independent. In that sense, a better American analogy would be various cities in New England and the mid-Atlantic that have fallen into the megalopolis’s orbit, such as Salem, Worcester, Providence, Worcester, New Brunswick, and Wilmington. Many of these are poor because of the legacy of suburbanization and white flight, but their built-up areas aren’t so poor.

However, the most important link between such small cities and larger urban core, the regional railway, heavily encourages spiky development. In Providence, developers readily build mid-rise housing right next to Providence Station. If the quality of regional rail to Boston improves, they will presumably be willing to build even more, potentially going taller, or slightly farther from the station. Elsewhere in the city, rents are not high enough to justify much new construction, and Downcity is so weak that the tallest building, the Superman Building, is empty. In effect, Providence’s future economic value is as part of the Boston region.

The relatively even development of past generations is of less use in such a city. The economy of a Providence or a Wilmington is not strong enough that everyone can work in the city and earn a good wage. If the most important destination is a distant core like Boston or Philadelphia, then people will seek locations right near the train station. Driving is not by itself useful – why drive an hour from Rhode Island when cheaper suburbs are available within half an hour? Connecting from local transit would be feasible if the interchange were as tightly timed and integrated as in Germany, but even then this system would be oriented around one dot – the train station – rather than a larger walkable downtown area.

A bigger city is a better city

Resilience in the sense of being able to withstand economic shocks requires a measure of economic diversity. This has always been easier in larger cities than in smaller ones. Moreover, over time there is size category creep: the size that would classify a city a hundred years ago as large barely qualifies it to be medium-size today, especially in a large continental superpower like the US. As global economic complexity increases, the size of businesses and their dedicated supply chains as well as local multipliers rises. The city size that was perfectly resilient in an economy with a GDP per capita of $15,000 is fragile in an economy with a GDP per capita of $60,000.

Usually, the absolute richest or more successful places may not be so big. There are hundreds of American metro areas, so a priori there is no reason for New York to be at the top, just as there is no reason for it to be at the bottom. Nonetheless, the fact that larger cities are consistently richer as well as at less risk of decline than smaller cities – New York is one of the richest metro areas, just not the single richest – should give people who think small is beautiful pause.

Whatever one’s aesthetic judgment about the beauty of the upper Mississippi versus that of the lower Hudson, the economic and social system of very large places weathers crises better, and produces more consistent prosperity. Economically and socially, a bigger city is a better city, and national development policy should reject nostalgia and make it possible for developers to build where there is demand – that is, in the richest, most populated metro areas, enabling these regions to grow further by infill as well as accretion. Just as 50,000 was fine in 1900 but isn’t today, a million is fine today but may not be in 2100, and it’s important to enable larger cities to form where people want to live and open businesses.


  1. Herbert

    There is a consistent theme of “not letting rural areas die” in German media and politics. In part “rural resentment” is cited as a reason for far right political gains.

    This could be observed in the whole lignite debate with a “compromise” being found that sinks insane sums of money into economically moribund areas for no good reason whatsoever…

    Instead of investing the money into affordable housing in the big cities where people do want to live…

  2. SB

    At what point is big city too big?
    Or is the end goal to have of most of humanity live in one mega metro?

    • Nilo

      When we can’t let everyone live within a reasonable commute time of their job. This probably the first place to look would be Tokyo, with its large regional train infrastructure and enormous size. I don’t think it’s there, but I’m not sure a metro of 60 million would work well right now.

      • Kenny Easwaran

        Why not? A metro of 60 million might be difficult if most of those people worked in a single center. But if it’s spiky and has multiple centers connected by very efficient transportation to each other, and to their regions within the big metro, I don’t see any reason that there should be a limit on size.

  3. michaelrjames

    I agree.
    I struggled thru reading to the end of Daniel Herriges’ piece. I suppose I might have to read the book Strong Towns (Oct 2019), but it seemed like an overdose of wishful thinking including retro, and denialism (and of course denial that it is retro).
    I don’t like spiky but cannot (1) deny it is happening or (2) see any compelling evidence for their retro small town revival. Well, I suppose their let-out is that they apparently embrace suburban Tokyo but there’s very little evidence of that in LA or Houston as they suggest is possible. I have my doubts that the kind of spiky development happening in those places will produce the kind of urbanity even Americans (arguably) desire. The pictures in that article are retro too. The one of a twee English town is sourced from Oast House Archive and is all well and good, until you visit most medium-sized British towns and find their identikit High-streets with depressing trashy chain stores traffic. Even in UNESCO-listed Oxford!

    The evidence is all against the Strong Town fantasy. In a demographer’s piece today is a revealing graphic, a map of the US census data by county, showing the changes 2000-2018. The great swathe of rural and flyover territory is red (for population loss) with the usual suspects showing growth. (There’s a map drawing tool on the US Census website but I couldn’t master it to produce this map, and the article is behind a Murdoch paywall.)

    • Herbert

      Population loss in rural areas is a fact. Had been for most of industrialization.

      The question is: do we try to stop it and if so why…

      • Alon Levy

        Because the people who voted Nazi and vote AfD are morally more important to the nostalgics than people with weird names like Levy and Yang and Mansour and Altuğ.

        • Oreg

          In Eastern Germany (except Berlin) there simply are more far-right voters than migrants.

        • fantomex9

          Sadly so, and this (IMHO) is a result of the nostalgia boom of the ’80’s for the ’50’s and ’60’s nurtured by the entertainment industry for the sake of Bob & June Baby Boom, which the United States (and Canada, where I’m typing this response from) needs to get away from if both nations are to survive the 21st century.

      • michaelrjames

        Population loss in rural areas is a fact. Had been for most of industrialization.

        Sure, but the map makes it seem as bad as ever. I, perhaps naively, thought it might have stabilised in the US as the corporatisation of farming was pretty much done since decades. It would be interesting to see the same map for Europe. I doubt Germany would show the same thing. France perhaps not quite as extreme; those expat Brits keep a steady stream of immigrants to the provinces! Spain and Italy would be bad.

        • Herbert

          The rural east is already deep red in all “population loss is red” maps. Even some eastern cities lost population in the nineties, but most have bounced back at the cost of even faster decline in rural areas.

          Those western rural areas where demographic lag has kept population growing are looking towards a future of population loss. The cities are resurgent, the bigger ones more than the smaller ones…

          • michaelrjames

            Over the last two decades there is a thing in Australia called “Sea Change” (named after a famous tv soap), and then Tree Change, in which retirees (often early retirees, ie. fiftysomethings) from the cities snap up prime space along the coasts (or latterly inland), usually within 3 hours drive of the major cities. Byron Bay is the prototype (with latest superstar resident: Liam Hemsworth en famille) and its hinterland which caters to the Woodstock generation (“Nimbin” in Oz) of dropouts for lifestyle reasons. (Singer-rapper-songwriter Iggy Azalea is from such a background, in Mullumbimby (20 minutes inland from Byron Bay) a hippie town to this day, and which the hippies saved from ever declining like so many others. Mind you, Iggy ran away to LA at age 16!)

            This is similar to the expat Brits going to live in France.

            I suppose the modern day movement in the US is FIRE, (Financially Independent, Retire Early). Probably all too niche to make a demographic impact. But given the much smaller distances in Germany, actually more feasible? The relevance being that we boomers are a big demographic and a relatively prosperous lot.

          • Herbert

            Görlitz is said to be trying to attract retirees… Of course Görlitz has a largely undestroyed historic city center and a tram going for it…

          • michaelrjames

            Yeah, but does it have “Mullumbimby Madness” the finest .. product … this side of Hawaii …. Organic, grown locally. (The cops got bored with raiding Nimbin sometime in the 70s so it became de facto decriminalised. Now they take tourists from around the world on bus-tours thru there!) Of course Australian sea-changers get warm water and world-class surf, so not very Germanic! On that point, I am pretty sure Biarritz-Bayonne are not shrinking–indeed some of the same people spend time in both places, ie. Byron and Biarritz, in their different seasons.

          • michaelrjames

            Herbert, by letting my error go un-noted you have shown you are as hip as me! I simply can’t keep my Hemsworths in order.
            A letter in today’s Saturday magazine or last week’s story:

            Like many other Byron residents, I recently moved from the town. Not only has it been loved to death by almost two million visitors every year, but the once quiet residential areas are now overwhelmed by holiday letting. Most locals have zero interest in Chris Hemsworth, which may be why he lives there.

          • Sascha Claus

            “Even some eastern cities lost population in the nineties”
            Some? I’d say all (except maybe Berlin), even when accounting for suburban flight. Are there counter-examples?

            “but most have bounced back at the cost of even faster decline in rural areas.”
            If you define ‘most’ as a few swarm cities or include vast swoops of suburban annexation in ‘bounced back’ (and make it ‘mostly bounced back’).

          • Herbert

            Name one eastern city above 100 000 (2011 census) that’s still losing population…

  4. Eric

    It’s worth mentioning that in NIMBY-controlled cities, poor people are forced out by the high housing prices. So average income in the cities is high, but the cities are not as good for society as that would seem to indicate.

    A useful test case is Dallas and Houston (very large cities with growing economies, which don’t have meaningful housing restrictions because expansion continues horizontally). Their average incomes are relatively high, but not as high as the NIMBY coastal cities. Thus, the gain of being in a large city seems lower than what this post would imply.

    • Alon Levy

      Dallas and Houston are not as economically productive as New York and San Francisco, and the falling construction rates in Houston as oil prices came down are not auspicious.

      Re poor people being forced out by high housing prices, there’s IRS data on the average income of US taxpayers moving in and out. In the 2000s, such migration barely raised California’s income, by just 1% for the entire decade, and in New York State it actually slightly lowered it. And that’s without counting immigration of people who were not US taxpayers before moving in, i.e. most immigrants. While people who leave California are indeed poorer than people who stay in California, the difference isn’t so large to make a big difference in the state’s overall income – and again that’s not taking immigration into account, although it’s plausible that in the 2010s the average immigrant *to the Bay Area* is richer than the average native.

      • oevans82

        I am completely a zero about matters like this so this may be completely wrong, but how much of the Superstar Cities’ vaunted productivity (in terms of economic activity per capita, presumably?) simply a reflection of their higher costs?

        For example, a Skanska employee working on, for example, a bridge overhaul project in New York probably comes out a lot more “productive” in terms of numbers than if the same employee were working on a project of similar scope in Charleston South Carolina.

        Am I misunderstanding what the meaning of economic productivity is?

        • Alon Levy

          The high costs of these cities are mostly housing, and even though the statistic I brought up in this post (per capita income) is not corrected for housing costs, the statistics I usually bring up – Eurostat’s primary balance of income and the US’s household income – are so corrected. Eurostat counts market income from all sources but subtracts interest and rent payments, whereas US household income only counts income from work, and not from capital or from non-market sources like welfare.

          The Skanska employee may not be more productive in New York than in Charleston, but there are two sources of productivity difference. First, the mix of industries in the two regions is different – New York just has far more work in high-productivity industries like finance and tech. And second, in some specific industries, the productivity really is higher in New York – for example, in tech there’s a large mix of coders who can exchange ideas.

        • Sascha Claus

          If the employee in Charleston is as productive as the one in NY, then why dies Skanska has an office in such an expensive location? Somehow, it must be worth it to them.

          This might not be proof of more productivity, but it is at least proof that economy believes in more productivity.

  5. Mateusz

    Alon, I read both of your pieces as well as the Strong Towns response, and I think you may have misunderstood the resilience point that Strong Towns was making. It seems to me that you’re talking about resilience in the face of a standard economic shock, like a major recession, in which case you are fully correct that small towns are not at all resilient and only larger, more diversified areas will survive intact.

    However, I think Strong Towns’ idea of a shock is much more apocalyptic than what you are considering in your piece–they seem to be imagining what sort of urban form would be resilient in the case of general social or technological collapse (see for example, their allusion to the power grid going down). Strong Towns seems to be imagining something much grander than a mere capitalist recession, perhaps a systemic decline in social complexity as a result of runaway climate change or whatnot. Burkean capital C Conservatives (a group which I think Strong Towns falls well into) are invariably concerned with creating and preserving structures which are resilient through such collapses, at least to a larger extent than liberals are. In such a case, I’m sure you would agree that a compact, walkable town built in the pre-motorist style would be more resilient as an urban center than a larger metropolis, which necessarily relies on massive movements of goods, water, and electricity to keep it going. A small town could feasibly feed itself on the farmland within a day’s walking distance of town limits–good luck to any million-person metropolis trying to do the same?

    The point is, the two sides here are talking about entirely different types of resilience, and both are correct within their own definition, but are largely talking past each other here.

    • Steven H

      Sure, but an economic recession has a 100% chance of happening. A large and permanent power grid failure? Not so much. And if it does, DC’s power grid is too important to fail for too long, but no one cares if South Bend’s goes offline for a few weeks or months or years. If you told me that half of Indiana has gone without power for the last month, I’d believe you.

      OK–that may be facetious, but If you told me that most of Baltimore’s rail network went offline for a month, and that two whole stations simply disappeared into the Earth overnight and nobody really noticed (and certainly nobody in DC or Annapolis noticed), I’d be right to believe you. Economic resiliency and political resiliency are too important to ignore.

    • Nathanael

      This is correct. Strong Towns is thinking famine and food crisis. A city of 50k surrounded by farms, fine. A megacity dependent on imports, very bad,

      Spiky development is still preferable to sprawl, since sprawl destroys farmland.

  6. samw

    Interesting corollary to your thesis in the final section of this point: metros really do have to grow or risk dying.

  7. Oreg

    There will probably always be people (if decreasing in number) who prefer to live in rural regions and there are industries that need too much space for city locations, think agriculture and manufacturing. The people in these regions expect not to be cut off from infrastructure, which is a political problem. The fewer they are the more expensive it is to provide this infrastructure, so it requires subsidies. But that grates with city dwellers whose high rents for smaller apartments are not being subsidized—another political problem.

    As always in politics a compromise must be found. This compromise will change over time.

    • keaswaran

      I don’t see why you need subsidies for this expensive infrastructure. If these industries are relevant to the general population, and they need this expensive infrastructure (or they need to be located in places where their employees need expensive infrastructure), then these industries will be able to pass on those costs to their customers and pay the cost for their employees to pay for that infrastructure, without any extra subsidies.

      • Oreg

        In economic theory, yes, but that’s not how politics works. In reality, farmers get massive subsidies and infrastructure (highways, power lines, telecommunications, railways) is built with tax money.

        • Alon Levy

          FWIW, farm subsidies in the early 21st century may not be so preordained. Canada and Australia don’t have them (though Canada is very protectionist in agriculture – not sure about Australia). I have a suspicion their main draw in the US is that Iowa goes first in the primary: the subsidies in the US are extremely Iowa-centric, e.g. subsidizing corn and ethanol particularly, and from time to time you see liberal politicians make noises about cutting them, IIRC Kerry floated a trial balloon in 2004. Farmers remain a powerful constituency for nostalgia and tradition but the US has 4 million of them and around 326 million non-farmers, so the focus of subsidizing the past is shifting to heavy industry.

          • adirondacker12800

            And sugar tariffs make corn sweeteners attractive. It does have vague national security ramifications. If the ethanol and HFCS plants are in place, we have them when supply chains are disrupted.

        • Herbert

          No military alliance that isn’t food self-sufficient can long endure a war with blockading enemies. Hence farm subsidies

          • Alon Levy

            Farm subsidies are often about restricting production to guarantee price floors rather than about encouraging more production. This was the case in the New Deal and is the case in the Israeli kibbutz subsidy regime. In the EU, likewise, the main power pushing for the CAP price supports is food exporter France rather than food importers Germany and Britain.

  8. Aaron M. Renn

    If you classify US “superstar” cities as New York, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles/Southern California, San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle, then those are five of the six largest CSAs in the US. (Only Chicago isn’t a true superstar, and Seattle is a bit smaller).

    • Alon Levy

      Yep. And Chicago, too, is doing a lot better than other old industrial Midwest cities. I forget whether it’s you or Pete Saunders who noted that even with the crime rate and population decline, Chicago isn’t Detroit and even the South Side is not Detroit. (And demographically Chicago has a ton of immigration, which doesn’t generally happen in economically weak regions like Detroit.)

  9. Henry Miller

    The risk of farming for a small town is not the same as the risk of farmers. . When a farm fails (which happens all the time!) some other farmer will come in and take over the farm. Farming is inherently distributed, and [until perfect automation] so all farms have value even after they fail repeatedly. They just need better management to handle the risks. Of course different farms have different soils and weather patterns so they are worth different amounts to great management, but they are generally valuable and replaced: thus there is no risk to a town when the farm fails.

    The risks to small farmings towns is consolidation. Bigger is more efficient up to a point, and as the products and services grow better that point gets larger all the time. As a result small farm towns tend to die because there are less farmers. However medium farm (population 5000) towns are still growing (slowly) because there still needs to be someplace for the farmer to get supplies and services and there is only so far that it is reasonable to drive for that. Those towns are just large enough to support one other small industry supported by the farm support industry. If your industry needs cheap land and cheap labor it is a great place to locate (most industry needs expensive labor) because the cost of living.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem is that it’s possible for many farms in one area to fail at the same time. A lot of the risks can affect an entire region at once: bad weather, change in crop prices (since usually the crop mix in each region is fairly uniform), blight, change in consumer tastes. For example, the US-China trade war is causing a collapse in the prices American soybean farmers can charge, wrecking a large swath of the American rural Midwest.

      • Henry Miller

        The world population is growing, both in numbers and wealth. More people need more food, and wealthy people want more expensive food. Both of those generally mean that when farms fail in an area someone will come along to buy them for cheap. There will be good times and bad times for the farm. However the town supporting the farms is somewhat isolated because the next farmer still needs supplies. The town will see a downside with the economy, but it won’t be as big for the town (the teachers are still paid the same…). Farm insurance (subsidized, but not as much as you might think) exists as well to help farmers who manage their books well ride out weather.

        What towns are not isolated from is farm consolidation. Farms cannot support as many towns, but they still need them.

      • Nathanael

        This is why areas with diversified, non monoculture farming are much more robust.

        I live in one.

        It synergizes well with having a university town. Ag schools. This was a deliberate 19th century US program which actually worked.

        Rail links from “farm and college” towns to big cities matter too, though. In non crisis conditions, the city is the market for the farm produce and the source of college students.

  10. RossB

    Politically, America is divided along urban and rural lines. Population density and Democratic votes line up extremely well. Republicans cling to power based on Gerrymandering (or just high concentrations of people) to win races in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, it is just the arbitrarily drawn State lines (if there was only one Dakota, there would be two fewer Republicans in the Senate). The electoral college is a combination of both. Democrats have won a plurality, if not a majority in 4 out of the 5 five Presidential elections. Yet Republicans won 3 out of 5 contests.

    But with all of that, I don’t think the subsidies that prop up rural America are a problem. It really isn’t that much money. The bigger problem is stratification in general, and stratification of American cities. Detroit might be more resilient, but it isn’t doing well. Pictures of Allentown (where they’re closing all the factories down) were heartbreaking, but the only reason they got more sympathy is because of the racial as well as urban/rural divide. The same factories closed down in Detroit — with the same heartbreaking stories — but somehow Black people are responsible for their own demise. The same thing has happened with Crack and the Opiod epidemic of course (its a lot easier for America to treat it as a health problem when there are middle class, white junkies). My point is, we should worry less about whether the small towns are doing OK (or are subsidized to a high extent) and more about whether we can afford to have big cities fail. To be clear, Detroit is not a clear failure. It is “resilient” in that the overall population (including the suburbs) are doing OK. But a hollowed out city is not a popular place to live. Jobs don’t move there. They move to a handful of cities, with very expensive housing prices. That is not good, either for those in the few successful cities, or those in the failing ones.

      • RossB

        I don’t see much of a correspondence. Silicon Valley has done really well, despite poor transit options to the area. Chicago has much better transit than the surrounding suburbs, but a lot of the job growth has been out there, not in the central core. It was Atlanta, not Seattle, that decided to build a subway in the city, yet Seattle has done much better over the years. If anything, it is the other way around. Cities that have done really well in their core can afford to spend more on transit, creating a virtuous cycle. Cities that struggle can barely afford decent bus service, let alone tunnels.

          • RossB

            Sorry, it is where I live.

            By the way, you still haven’t made your case. Saying that a city with a better public transit system is more resilient is obvious. The same could be said for a city with a better police force, or better roads, or a better sewer system. Or maybe a lower crime rate, or a better Gini coefficient, or a better health care system. Or, I don’t know, how about a superior education system.

            You have made a statement, and you have yet to back it up with a single, solitary case — anywhere — and you criticize my choice of counter-argument examples because they are too focused on the Anglosphere?

          • Herbert

            There’s loads of small towns in the east that kept their tram whose decline hasn’t been terminal precisely because of that. Tramless eastern towns fared far worse…

        • adirondacker12800

          There are 4 million people in metro Seattle and 6 million in metro Atlanta.

          • Herbert

            No sane person would say Atlanta’s public transit is superior to Seattle’s…

          • adirondacker12800

            6 million people are more than 4 million people? or 50 percent better?

          • adirondacker12800

            There’s more to life than the actual commute. There’s 6 million people who like Atlanta enough to live there and 4 million in Seattle.

          • Herbert

            By that measure a lot of pretty… Uh… Challenged cities around the globe beat out places like Monaco or Nice because more people live there…

    • Michael

      It’s not the rural subsidies that skewer places like Detroit, it’s the suburban subsidies. The biggest advantage that cities have over suburbs is spatial efficiency & economic productivity.

      The way that states like Michigan work is that cost of spatial inefficiencies have all been smoothed out to everyone. The government provides level of service A roads to everyone regardless of the inefficiency of their land development pattern. Utility rates are equalized to everyone via state public utility board. Telephone, broadband, natural gas, drinking water. It doesn’t matter that there’s 200 rate payers living on a 5 acre city block, versus 1 rate payer in their 5 acre mini-castle. All the inefficiencies of large lot living have been smoothed out to everybody.

      Then, regarding economic productivity, the state siphons off the income taxes on business and wage earners, not the municipalities. And while MI has a 6% local sales tax, the city gets ZERO. So even though City of Detroit was hosting some of the most profitable businesses in the world at the time, the City was totally broke. There was nothing in it financially for Detroit ever.

      City of Chicago, on the other hand, has fared substantially better despite similar economic headwinds because Chicago & Cook County control Illinois. They’ve made the rest of the state pay closer to full boat for roads. And they take a hefty local cut of the economic productivity that they’ve sowed through substantial local sales tax.

  11. myb6

    I don’t think you’re actually discussing the Strong Towns article, where “small” is referring more to the size of the development-unit (not the metro) and where the author specifically spends a whole section supporting *Tokyo*.

    Strong Towns does cover small-metro issues, but IIRC that had more to do with “big-metro issues are covered thoroughly elsewhere” and less to do with “metros should be small”. If my memory is totally deceiving me here, my apologies.

    • Alon Levy

      I’m referring more to the idea of traditional urbanism, which I associate with prewar Midwestern small cities and which Daniel accepts as a Midwestern urban form (although he treats most of its aspects as timeless and I don’t).

      • Nathanael

        Hmm, I guess when I think traditional urbanism I tend to think prewar Eastern small cities, which were denser than Midwestern, and higher populations, and more rail links, and more diversification economically.

  12. Jonathan Salmans

    So far as I can tell from reading various strong town articles, they define a strong town as one that can sustainably fund their long term infrastructure maintenance out of local property tax revenue. I haven’t seen a justification for why this is necessarily the correct or best way to fund infrastructure, and limiting infrastructure to that source means the level of public infrastructure is a lot less than what I think most people would prefer.

    Strong towns correctly identifies a flaw in state and federal funding formulas that prioritize the construction of new infrastructure over maintenance, with the expectation that maintenance be paid for by local funding. This is fine for regions with growing populations but creates big problems with areas that have stagnant or declining populations like in the midwest. However, instead of arguing that state and federal governments should change their infrastructure funding practices, strong towns argues for building more affordable infrastructure, which in general means less infrastructure.

    I am not sure whether the urban form recommendations that strong towns recommends are the best to achieve their stated goal.
    However, it is a moot point because their goal does not correspond to how to make the municipality resilient and their residents prosperous.

    • Nathanael

      Almost right. Strong Towns will accept any local tax revenue (in NY for instance all localities charge and receive sales tax).

      Their main point is that suburban sprawl converts economically productive taxpaying farmland into tax draining economic drag housing or strip malls. Infrastructure costs increase faster than the tax revenues from the property.

      • Alon Levy

        Okay, but Midwestern farmland isn’t particularly productive per unit area (per unit of labor, sure), it’s not the Netherlands. And once we treat farmland conservation as a big concern, it starts clashing with concerns over tall buildings and such, because in South Asia, you either turn Delhi into Tokyo (and I don’t even mean Nishi-Tama, I mean an endless Toshima) or pave over Haryana and a decent chunk of UP. Doing this without skyscrapers in formerly low-rise areas isn’t even really feasible in a metro area the size class of Stockholm or Amsterdam, let alone something that’s approaching Tokyo’s population today and can plausibly expect to breach 100 million people this century.

        • Nathanael

          Yeah, tall buildings are good. When Strong Towns fetishizes low-rise development, they go on the wrong track.

          We want to avoid the failed “towers in a park” model, but the park was the problem there, not the towers.

  13. charlie

    In 1950 the ten largest cities in the country were NY, Chicago, Philadelphia, LA, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, DC, and Boston. Aside from LA didn’t the others perform poorly relative to the nation as a whole in the next few decades? What are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis like today? If Manhattan’s offices don’t fill up in the next year or so, if work from home becomes more permanent than Dimon and other employers in the city are planning, how will NYC handle losing a major industry (offices)? Would NYC prove resilient in the face of a half million or million upper income residents moving somewhere with more space once they can permanently WFH?

    • Alon Levy

      “Sometimes big things shrink and are replaced by even bigger things” is not a “small is resilient” argument. Small cities that did not become a big city’s suburbs have had way bigger population loss in the same era – compare Chicago with, say, Gary.

      • charlie

        I guess my point was less that small is resilient and more that I’m not sure that larger cities are especially resilient.

        National population rank in 1950, City name, Pop in 1950, Pop in 2000, Pop change, Pop 2000/Pop 1950, grouped by state

        7 Cleveland, Ohio 914,808 476,574 -438,234 0.520955217
        18 Cincinnati, Ohio 503,998 331,258 -172,740 0.657260545
        28 Columbus, Ohio 375,901 715,971 340,070 1.90467969
        36 Toledo, Ohio 303,616 313,691 10,075 1.033183363
        39 Akron, Ohio 274,605 216,853 -57,752 0.789690647
        44 Dayton, Ohio 243,872 166,179 -77,693 0.681418941
        57 Youngstown, Ohio 168,330 82,026 -86,304 0.487292818
        89 Canton, Ohio 116,912 80,806 -36,106 0.691169427

        Columbus boomed, Toledo did alright, Akron, Dayton, and Canton held up better than the largest cities in 1950, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Youngstown fared worse.

        3 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2,071,605 1,513,800 -557,805 0.730737761
        12 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 676,806 333,703 -343,103 0.493055617
        75 Erie, Pennsylvania 130,803 103,717 -27,086 0.792925239
        83 Scranton, Pennsylvania 125,536 74,415 -51,121 0.592778167
        96 Reading, Pennsylvania 109,320 81,207 -28,113 0.742837541

        Erie and Reading held up a bit better than Philadelphia, Scranton lost fewer people than Pittsburgh.

        10 Boston, Massachusetts 801,444 590,433 -211,011 0.736711486
        50 Worcester, Massachusetts 203,486 172,648 -30,838 0.848451491
        61 Springfield, Massachusetts 162,399 152,082 -10,317 0.936471284
        87 Cambridge, Massachusetts 120,740 101,355 -19,385 0.839448402
        93 Fall River, Massachusetts 111,963 91,938 -20,025 0.821146272
        97 New Bedford, Massachusetts 109,189 93,768 -15,421 0.858767825

        Boston lost more people than the other cities in the state.

        2 Chicago, Illinois 3,620,962 2,895,671 -725,291 0.7996966
        94 Peoria, Illinois 111,856 112,936 1,080 1.009655271

        5 Detroit, Michigan 1,849,568 945,297 -904,271 0.511090698
        55 Grand Rapids, Michigan 176,515 197,937 21,422 1.121360791
        60 Flint, Michigan 163,143 124,943 -38,200 0.765849592

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