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.