YIMBY and Production Theory

Two years ago, at a Breakthrough Institute conference, I met Tory Gattis in real life for the first time, having known him on the Internet for maybe ten years. He was doing a debate with Kim-Mai Cutler, except they mostly agreed, and I think the reason for the agreement is their conception of production theory.

Tory’s opening was the most illuminating part, and only then, in 2018, did I understand why in 2008-9 I was so interested in reading him even though he was always pro-car, an unabashed Houston booster, and a fan of Joel Kotkin. He opened by defining himself in opposition to three ideas from the 2000s: smart growth, New Urbanism, and Richard Florida’s conception of the creative class. And there is clicked: these three ideas are all about cities as loci of consumption. Before YIMBYism, when Market Urbanism was an obscure libertarian blog, there wasn’t a lot in there for people who think in terms of urban job and residential growth, who think that consumption follows production and not the reverse.

New Urbanism and Richard Florida’s theory both hold, in different ways, that if cities make themselves nice to specific (different) classes of people, they will attract people who are morally and economically better to have as residents, stimulating further growth. In New Urbanism, this is about designing cities based on principles that are held to be objectively nicer for residents; this quickly boils down to the “when we’re expensive this proves we’re desirable, when you’re expensive this proves you’re unaffordable” principle. Ironically, the blog Old Urbanist holds something similar, it just posits a different (generally better) set of design principles. Richard Florida is less about physical design and more about community amenities for groups that in the 2000s he held were more creative, like gay people, for whom he prescribed more gay bars.

The irony is that even as he has increasingly repudiated the creative class theory, Florida maintains his attachment to consumption theory of cities. The difference is that 18 years ago he thought that building New Left-coded amenities like bike lanes and gay bars would attract creatives and increase social and economic outcomes and now he believes the same except that the final outcome is to raise rents. Tory was critiquing the idea already in the late 2000s, pointing out the anemic outcomes of cities whose development policy was consumption-based – it’s not that they were creating jobs but their rents was rising, but rather that they kept having low job growth and net emigration.

Smart growth is somewhat different, in that it is not explicitly an endorsement of consumption theory. However, in practice its effect is always to make development harder, not easier. The contrast is with transit-oriented development, which in theory means the same thing but in practice counts dwellings build near train stations and not dwellings prevented from being built far from train stations. California celebrates smart growth and smart growth celebrates California, and in practice the effect of California’s housing policy for the last 50 or so years has been to make all housing hard to build, creating a supply shortage.

In comes YIMBY. The central policy proposal of YIMBYism is to build more housing in rich, expensive cities. But the central tenet of YIMBYism is that people’s decisions about where to move to are driven by production rather than by consumption – that is, that people move for work rather than for the sort of consumption amenities that urban policymakers focus on.

This does not mean consumption amenities do not exist. They clearly do, but they operate at different levels from that of neighborhood activism. Albouy-Ehrlich-Liu find extensive consumption effects on urban desirability, but these are almost all geographic, like mild weather and proximity to the coast; only one is affected by policy, air quality, and that is a regional rather than local variable. Other policy-relevant consumption variables may be crime and education, neither of which is that responsive to local-level policy, especially when it pertains to development. People like New York and London and Paris, and maybe they’ll like them more if they provide public services like clean air better, but they’ll certainly not like them less if they replace 150-year-old 4-story buildings with 50-story ones. What people like about New York and London and Paris is not the architecture or the size of the buildings, but the dense job networks.


  1. Eric2

    Great article.

    “What people like about New York and London and Paris is not the architecture or the size of the buildings, but the dense job networks.” I would phrase this as “What gets people to move to New York and London and Paris”. People really do like the architecture of Paris, which is why they visit so often. But they also like the architecture of Santorini, which they also visit. The reason people *stay* in Paris and not Santorini is the job networks.

    • electricangel

      You make a good point. Cohesive urban design, like Haussmann’s 19th century Paris, has its own value in beauty. It’s just hard to quantify, so the logic of replacing graceful Beaux Arts structures with cheap but more capacious modern structures holds.

      I’ve long thought letting people on the street vote on beauty of a building, and taxing ugly structures more, might go to incentivizing the construction of the sorts of modern, high rise buildings we could all support. 15 Central Park West is new, denser than what was there before, and beloved.

  2. Cirratus

    [New Urbanists say] “when we’re expensive this proves we’re desirable, when you’re expensive this proves you’re unaffordable”
    [you say] “People like New York and London and Paris … they’ll certainly not like them less if they replace 150-year-old 4-story buildings with 50-story ones .. [what they like is] the dense job networks.”

    What do you mean exactly by “people like city X” ?

    And how can we measure it ? Rent growth ? Population growth ? https://www.lexpress.fr/emploi/un-parisien-sur-deux-pret-a-quitter-la-capitale_2007456.html ? All these methods have very obvious shortcomings, and it’s all because it’s never clear if people make their choices because “they like it”. For example, yes, people go to the big cities for work, but this fact can be seen as “they like the dense job networks” or as “they are forced to move because of the collapse of jobs networks everywhere else”.

    • Alon Levy

      I look at income, mostly, and also at housing costs. Occasionally there are caveats for places where it’s genuinely hard to import construction materials, like Hawaii, but that’s a rare case, and usually if housing construction costs are high, as in San Francisco, it’s because there’s such a housing shortage that construction workers require more money to afford to live in the area, and over time zoning liberalization would lead to reduced construction costs.

      This isn’t just about big cities. New Urbanist developments like Seaside clearly have it and this suggests, to me, that there should be more development in Seaside, whereas CNU would instead suggest more development elsewhere with the same built form as Seaside. The same is true of resort towns like Aspen, which in the name of smart growth choked development, leading to high housing costs and long working-class commutes.

      Polls are not terribly relevant – huge cities generate huge numbers of people who want to move in and huge numbers who want to move out. You see the same in New York – many say they’d like to leave, many people in the rest of the US say they’d like to move there.

      • Eric2

        Also, many people who’d like to leave NYC, would like to leave because of the housing costs. Build more housing, and they would lose their reason to leave.

    • Mike

      Some of New York City’s attractions are unique to New York: its 400-year history; the Broadway show industry; its founding Dutch influence of anything-goes commerce, diversity and tolerance, and not fearing large cities. Other things could easily be replicated in most American cities as they are in Europe and Asia, but they’re not due to cultural/political issues: ubiquidous public transit, self-contained walkable neighborhoods that have everything you need, pedestrian-oriented medium and high density. Some people move to New York because their job is there. Others move to New York because it has amenities that are hard to find elsewhere in the US, and they find a job that allows them to stay there. The unique attractions and the generic attractions are probably half and half.

  3. df1982

    Mid-20th century American history is littered with examples of once thriving medium-density neighbourhoods that were gutted by towers-in-the-park-joined-by-highways schemes. This even happened to parts of New York City, which went through a deep decline even though the jobs-hub of Wall St and Midtown remained largely unscathed throughout this period (the employees just moved out to the suburbs).

    The question comes down to how do you best accommodate the need for housing growth? There are basically three realistic options (ignoring isolated cases where dense neighbourhoods can spring up from nothing):

    1. low-density development in greenfields areas
    2. developing suburban areas into medium-density
    3. upzoning existing medium density areas to high-rise

    Everyone here is agreed that option 1 is bad, because it leads to urban sprawl, car dependency and the withering of the public realm. The issue is whether 2 or 3 is preferable for quality of life. And what is the priority: giving people neighbourhoods they like living in, or accommodating them as close as possible to where jobs are.

    It would seem on the face of it that in the US there is a severe market under-supply of medium-density walkable/transit-oriented neighbourhoods with vibrant street life, since the ones that do exist usually end up becoming impossibly expensive to live in (initially New York and San Francisco, but now this is happening in inner neighbourhoods all over the country). So they end up turning into playgrounds for the rich.

    The existence of a sizeable number of reverse commuters living in dense historic cores and working in ex-urbs (e.g. San Francisco-Silicon Valley, New York-Stamford, etc.) also suggests that there are people who value neighbourhood quality over job proximity, and are even willing to pay a significant premium (in terms of higher rents and longer commute times) for the privilege. Of course this primarily happens among a small, well-to-do, mobile elite. Most people don’t have the luxury to make these choices in the first place and basically have to make do with their existing situation, no matter how inadequate.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not really right to attribute what happened in New York in the 1970s to high-rise construction. The Upper West Side got towers (on a base, not in a park), and against Jane Jacobs’ prediction became one of the city’s richest neighborhoods. Stuy Town, a segregated white project designed for the middle class, didn’t turn into a hotbed of crime and neither did Co-op City, whereas the entirety of Harlem and the South Bronx did, projects as well as mid-rise streets with a continuous street wall like Edgecombe and St. Nick. The problems were poverty and racial segregation, and not how tall the buildings were.

      The reverse-commute issue is not quite consumption-based. It comes from any of the following issues:

      – In the suburbs that generate the most high-end reverse-commuting, like Silicon Valley and the edge cities north of New York, housing is even more expensive than in the city.
      – Many people have two-body problems.
      – The industries in question are not ones of lifetime employment, and living in the city makes it easier to switch jobs.

      Of note, the neighborhoods people live in for reverse-commute purposes are not necessarily the most desirable for other purposes, for example Fordham in the Bronx.

      • Eric2

        “Towers in parks” get a bad rap because they were usually built as public housing for the poor, so naturally they ended up as slums. However, I can’t think of a single *privately* built tower, in a park or otherwise, which has become rundown. I challenge the readers of this comment to name one. In the meantime I will assume that free market towers in parks are completely desirable.

          • Eric2

            Touche. I would say though that “end of apartheid” is a kind of shock that few cities nowadays have to go through. Any examples outside South Africa?

        • Herbert

          There are plenty towers in parks that are in private ownership nowadays. What about them?

          • Herbert

            Like, they were built by “the state” (whatever that means) but have since been privatized… Look at Dresden-Gorbitz, for example…

          • Eric2

            These complexes were often badly designed (not in response to market forces) and cheaply built. Often their “park” is roped off to prevent use by residents. Many of their residents have subsidized rent that prevents market rate residents from moving in later on. And of course any gentrification process takes time, rich people aren’t going to move into a slum, but rather into an already somewhat-desirable area. All factors which prevent from them becoming desirable the way purpose-built private towers are desirable…

          • Herbert

            Slumlords wish to make a buck while spending nothing on maintenance. Most towers in parks were bought by slumlords, not gentrifiers.

          • michaelrjames

            Most towers in parks were bought by slumlords, not gentrifiers.

            The thing is that there’s little distinction between slumlords or gentrifiers because with property there is always a stark imperative to maximise corporate profits to the max, which is often so excessive–via excess rent increases and/or skimping on maintenance–that it drives such places towards the precipice of irreversible decline. It’s the nature of this particular “industry” where “investor” (speculator) expectation is way beyond reasonable returns. Two prominent examples of middle-class (note to Eric2) high-rise housing come to mind. Parkchester in the Bronx, and Stuyvesant Town & Peter Cooper Village on the northern border of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Both were developed in the immediate post-war period by MetLife with city assistance which makes the rapacious behaviour of modern owners even worse. As with so much that is acclaimed as what great things the private sector can do, it turns out they didn’t do it, and could not have done it, without public assistance, in this case intended to help returned servicemen gain housing. When ownership changed hands the new owners were predatory, because they (Tishman Speyer) had over-leveraged debt to outbid the tenant’s bid (which itself was initially not allowed by MetLife until forced by legal action to consider it). This over-paying for assets in flakey property booms is vulnerable to small changes in economic conditions and this happened to both of these–ie. the 2008 GFC almost brought them down. The assumptions underlying the $5.4 billion 2006 valuation were extremely aggressive; the valuation assumed that the income from the properties would triple by 2011, only possible due to lapsing of rent-control. In 2010 Tishman Speyer had the largest commercial mortgage default in U.S. history, and its investors lost $3.3bn. But as the world and NYC recovered over the next 5 years, the sharks picked up the scent again:

            Stuyvesant Town is “so big, it’s so well located, there’s still so much upside in it that someone is still going to make a lot of money if you hang in there,” said Peter Hauspurg, chief executive officer of brokerage Eastern Consolidated, who isn’t involved in the deal.

            Parkchester, which was the immediate prototype for Stuy-Cooper, has also survived but only by the narrowest margins. With a change of owner, who stopped spending on upkeep etc possibly in an attempt to get rid of long-term tenants to break the rent-control (rents can go to commercial rates with a new tenant), it went into a big decline. But it was rescued in the nick of time–by the state/city of course.

            The world’s biggest hedgefund, Blackstone (a division of BlackRock) bought Stuy-Cooper in 2015 with an agreement hashed out between the city and residents that would keep almost half of the more than 11,000 apartments affordable for 20 years. We’ll see. This shows the effect of a middle-class estate with its intrinsic advantages over poorer estates. And to be fair, ones like Heygate (or the American equivalent Pruitt-Igoe), were so poorly built and poorly maintained that they may deserve demolition but the city then should be morally obliged to provide an equivalent of affordable units in the new development that replaces it. With Heygate there was more than enough profit margin to cope with this but the property industry knows no such reasonableness, and in a system (the Anglosphere) which has distorted values, the poor and the city will always be losers. I think it is instructive that in October last year, Berlin rent increases have been frozen on 1.5 million of the city’s 1.9 million homes. Typically Merkel’s ‘Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed his belief that the rent freeze is illegal, as it would “distort” national laws’ but jurisidiction re rental law remains unclear. It was Merkel’s CDU who oversaw privatisation of ownership of so many properties that were previously state-owned social housing. As with other big cities, as Berlin became hip and desirable, big property money moved in, and in a big way. (Feargus O’Sullivan in CityLab:) Deutsche Wohnen owns 110,000 apartments in Berlin, and has developed a reputation for raising rents sharply by finding loopholes in Germany’s fairly strict rental laws. In the meantime, the firm invests almost half as much as state housing companies do to keep its homes in good condition.

            It just further shows that housing should not be the domain of anonymous big-money interests. There is no easy solution except it is clear that so-called market mechanisms don’t work. Which is why the Vienna model is gaining plenty of interest. The Berlin experiment will be interesting to follow but what hope for residents in London, NYC, SF or Sydney (or Hong Kong, where the only ‘relief’ might come from a total collapse in confidence)?

        • Mike

          Towers in the park as I understand them are alternating high density and zero density, with nothing in between. The zero-density surroundings were originally envisioned as a park or countryside with crisscrossing highways, but in actual practice the surroundings have largely been parking lots and ornamental open space that nobody uses or wants to be in. It’s not just bug public-housing projects, but office buildings everywhere. Even lowrise office parks have that abrupt moderate-density, zero-density alternation. Whereas a better design would not have density drop off so precipitously. The surroundings would be more active and intimate-scaled, and people would linger there; and maybe the buildings wouldn’t be quite so tall and ultra-dense.

          • michaelrjames

            Whereas a better design would not have density drop off so precipitously. The surroundings would be more active and intimate-scaled, and people would linger there; and maybe the buildings wouldn’t be quite so tall and ultra-dense.

            That is exactly what is being done in London as they demolish the hi-rise housing estates built in the 50s-70s. The notorious Corbusian neo-brutalist Heygate Estate (next to Elephant & Castle, so actually excellent location) featured in so many Brit low-life crime shows etc. (see Michael Caine movie Harry Brown; pensioner as Charles Bronson avenger against local drug thugs!). Of course, even with it physically deteriorating and riddled with crime (rendering unusable the main pedestrian underpass across the main adjoining artery) many of its 3,000 residents still liked it. But they were shifted out and everything demolished and replaced with mostly low-level modern apartments at much higher ground coverage on ‘normal’ streets or sidewalks (instead of the notorious elevated concrete walkways and unkempt open space) and sold to middle-class at absurd London prices (£569,000 for a studio, or £801,000 for a two-bed flat). The developer had promised a lot of “affordable” housing but welched on it so that in the end there were only 74 such apartments. It shows how ridiculous the towers-in-a-park design was that the replacement, with bigger apartments and lower profile actually almost doubled the residency –to >5,000 IIRC.

          • michaelrjames

            That doesn’t look anything like the usual artistic mockups that I last saw here:

            Yeah, a bit absurd really. Artistic impressions with people strolling along a cobbled and treed pedestrian way and a kid’s creche under a giant tree (!), and all surrounded by unthreatening 5 to 7-storey apartment buildings with balconies. Could almost be a modern ZAC in Paris, that do actually look a bit like that!

            However it is not clear to me if those buildings in your GE streetview are either residential or part of the Heygate redevelopment. The whole zone is undergoing big change. I hunted around those streets onscreen but couldn’t get a clear fix. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went supersized compared to early plans and intentions. The project was a mess in all possible ways involving local government corruption (grossly underselling the public interest) and total perfidy by the developer. In other words, business as usual for the Anglosphere …

            Also, from those streetviews, what a bloody mess and typically modern British. Maybe it’ll improve in another 5-10 years development but I strongly suspect careful urban planning is not really in the mix. It looks like rampant barely controlled development. Heygate is the first of about 90 such estates around London that will be demolished and rebuilt, though it is one of the best located. Next off the starting blocks is Aylesbury Estate, also under the same council, Southwark. The usual has begun, making derisory offers to the current owners.

            Development Has Been Sold to Foreign Investors
            When the Heygate Estate was demolished there were promises of social housing and a “community feel”, but it’s all fallen through.
            By Andy Jones, 13 April 2017
            Sales of these properties began in Singapore on the 11th April 2014, with flash brochures and slick marketing conferences. Not a single unit was for sale in London at this time. Lendlease don’t even seek to hide the fact they are selling investment opportunities, not homes, as they list exactly how much rental income – around £25,000 a year for the cheapest – foreign investors can cream off without ever touching the front door.
            In fact, this slow, dirty war against home owners is exactly what developers want, says Heygate campaigner Jerry Flynn: “If you’d said to Heygate residents way back in 2001 the new development would have nearly zero social housing, the cheapest unit would cost £400,000 and would be mostly sold overseas, they just wouldn’t have believed you. But these sagas are an integral part of the redevelopment process because people get tired and, eventually, despite how awful it is, they accept whatever they are offered. People get bored of arguing and stop caring how much affordable housing is being built or who makes the profit out of it.”
            Lendlease, Southwark council and Riseam Sharples were contacted multiple times for comment and did not respond.

          • fjod

            I agree Heygate’s planning was a complete mess – I remember reading about its mismanagement for years. Those streetview shots are definitely of the redeveloped estate (if you use the rewind function you can see the old blocks pretty clearly). The area south of Heygate Street is the only one that’s been finished so far, and it seems fine to me. Nothing special, but classic New London Vernacular (irregular blocky form, modest but intricate brickwork, repeated rectangular motifs, cut-out balconies, generous proportions). The lack of active frontage is a problem but not a massive one. Definitely miles better than what came before. Raising density through towers in a well-connected, central but historically unremarkable area isn’t too bad IMO; shame that the social housing provision wasn’t kept or increased.

          • michaelrjames

            Right, but that wasn’t the Streetview you linked to? (It was a slick hi-rise that looks more like an office building.) Looking around I did see something vaguely matching both the old artist drawings and your description. So maybe it was the token bit of New Urbanism to get their project up and PR etc.
            Anyway my major objection is almost entirely from p.o.v. of street-level urbanism (other things being equal). Of course new buildings these days generally will be acceptable (though flammable cladding…), even from the design aesthetics p.o.v. but context is all. As I wrote, maybe when this whole zone is closer to being finished, it might be much better but I was very turned off from what I saw. Equally, as you know, I have my biases which don’t predispose me towards anything in London or the UK. I find their high streets to be appalling, even Oxford’s Cornmarket (=main street, the actual High Street has no retail so is lifeless) which may be marginally better than most but is still wall-to-wall usual tatt of 100% identikit chains and choked with traffic (despite being a nominal pedestrian zone!). I walked thru it twice a day for about 6 years and every single time I was struck by the ugliness and the incongruity that they allowed it in a UNESCO zone! So it’s burned into my brain, and I see the same crap on almost every Brit tv show or news item. None of the vibrant stimulating chaos of Hong Kong, Tokyo etc but pure depressing drudge and shoddiness, and it induces the same behaviour in its denizens. Then to top all this anti-urbanism in London the majority of any new build apartments are sold to foreigners purely as an investment strategy that keeps feeding the absurd rents.

      • michaelrjames

        The problems were poverty and racial segregation, and not how tall the buildings were.

        That can be true, but the form of those post-war housing projects all over the western world did have an effect on the lack of community they bred, quite independent of poverty. The big open completely sterile and unkempt spaces between buildings were to no purpose and became part of the problem. With the tall buildings, often in unrelenting long stretches of uniform facades (that today is outlawed by planning regs.) created an inhuman and bleak aspect. You cannot believe that it doesn’t have a damaging psychological effect over time.

        • Nilo

          Despite your claims, surveys of both Stockholmers and Singaporeans who live in high rise public housing find they like it quite a lot despite the protestations of aestheticists like yourself. But in some sense this discussion is pointless you are convinced high rises are inherently degrading. Jesus could return for the second coming, proclaim high rises good, and I’m 100% certain you’d ignore the divine intervention.

          • michaelrjames

            surveys of both Stockholmers and Singaporeans who live in high rise public housing find they like it

            Both of those cases concern people who have almost no choice. In Stockholm those are public housing for people who might otherwise be in slums or cheap exurban locales. Likewise in Singapore, but in fact a lot of the housing including the stuff you refer to is privately built, but also quite a lot is not what I call high-rise but medium rise and Singapore does these things reasonably well, especially the overall context–walkability, transit, green, garden feel. And apart from the very earliest stuff (now mostly demolished) it’s pretty good quality.

            My point is that the same people could have been housed in non-high-rise, using no more, sometimes less ground, which, in general and less dependent on external factors, will produce better urbanism–a better local environment for humans to live in . In fact some of that Singapore housing does this. In any case, if you give all these people the choice–with all other things being equal, especially location & price–between that high-rise and my version of urbanism I’m pretty sure of which they’d choose. Of course this theoretical exercise is confounded by lack of experience by most people, and I’ll make the infuriating claim that I have experienced many of the different forms from my suburban Australian upbringing (though not today’s exurban McMansions 50km from the city), to inner-Paris Haussmannian to high-rise (Paris, Tokyo, NYC) to medium rise inner-city, and that is why I consider my opinions are informed, not just assumed. Or by divine intervention!

            You should try to overcome your own prejudices. My criticism are about alternatives and how too much, especially in the Anglosphere is one extreme (SFH in far distant exurban hell) or the other (high-rise, now super-high-rise). Incidentally, I can’t quite remember what I said about Copacabana for which you will never forgive me, but I am sure it wasn’t worthy of your bile. I find it ok, but a bit too high and it gives the quarter a bit of an looming, slightly oppressive feel which is perhaps accentuated by the fact it is in the sub-tropics (so prone to deep contrast shadowing). But I understand why, and in the context of Rio or other big south American cities, excellent (it’s a bit like inner Buenos Aires?). FWIW I think it is lucky it was built when it was, because if it was done today it would clearly be far worse. Maybe as these buildings age, it will begin doing the usual, with supertalls or whatever. Certainly it is vastly better than Brasilia and neo-Corbusian Niemeyer’s inclinations. And he’s yet another starchitect who chose not to live in what he designs for everyone else to live in; IIRC he had a hyper-exclusive house in the jungles of Tijuca.

          • yuuka

            In addition to michaelrjames –

            I think I’ve said it before, but urbanism is viewed as a necessary evil over here, and it’s how Johor property developers get away with selling so much landed housing. For what it’s worth, not too long ago they were building “town centres” with low-rise housing and commercial uses on the ground floor, in what I assume is an attempt to copy European inner-city land use policies.

            The reasons why I presume there aren’t much more super-high-rises of the Hong Kong kind around here is a combination of practical height limits from the need to maintain an air force and airbases around the island for national defense, along with an arbitrary height limit based on “plot density” allowed in an area or 280m, whichever is less.

          • michaelrjames

            not too long ago they were building “town centres” with low-rise housing and commercial uses on the ground floor, in what I assume is an attempt to copy European inner-city land use policies.

            I’m struggling with understanding that a bit. Surely the Asians never had to copy this as they have always spontaneously generated such activity. It’s a natural human inclination, and it requires active regulation and enforcement to prevent it, like American zoning laws and nutty notions such as BigBox Malls with gigantic car parks to sequester such activity “somewhere else”. I can’t quite remember if Corbusier picked up his notions, of leaving the ground floor empty under his pilotis to generate such activity, from the Asians but it is something they have done with their MFH, whether medium- or high-rise.
            Perhaps LKY had learnt from his time in the UK that it was a good idea to avoid the shocking sterility and crime incubators/community dysfunction of tower-block project housing. Note that Heygate Estate was opened in 1974, which is pretty late in the day–we are institutionally slow learners. Herbert needs to comment on this but this bleak sterility at ground level also bedevils ostensible more upmarket developments like Märkisches Viertel (1963-74). Deja vu, as I am sure we had long exchanges on this last year. I discussed many of these estates including more recent ones, even in Copenhagen, as covered by Florian Urban in his “Slab and Tower” (2011) and “The New Tenement: Residences in the Inner City Since 1970” (2017). I am pretty sure I cited tracts of his but I can’t find them now. Here’s a tiny bit that captures the problem:
            The Märkisches Viertel was criticized as a textbook example of modernist hubris that entailed both ugly architecture and bad planning. The lack of daycare, transportation, and shopping opportunities–many of them were planned but not yet finished–was denounced as a fundamental defect of tower-and-slab developments. The Märkisches Viertel was also criticized on an aesthetic basis: the buildings were too big, as were the “dead” spaces between them, and the standardized forms were too monotonous.
            The student’s criticism was eagerly published in Germany’s most eminent news magazine, Der Spiegel, which censured the Märkisches Viertel as “the bleakest product of concrete architecture.” The diagnosis: “This is a gray hell!” The periodical followed up with a cover story five months later, quoting frustrated inhabitants of large prefab settlements all over Germany: “I feel like I am in a prison camp,” “I will die in this monotony,” and “Every night when I come home I curse the day we moved into these barracks”. The projects were indicted as “monotonous orthogonal high-rise towers,” “inhospitable square mountains,” “shabby dwelling cubes” and “bleak groups of barracks.”
            …. The criticism targeted different aspects. The works were often shabby, the apartments relatively small. The endless repetition of the same forms was perceived as monotonous, the scale as inflicting insecurity upon the inhabitants. The vast green spaces rarely served as the meeting places that the architects had envisioned; indeed they were dangerous to cross at night. The dissolution of old neighbourhood structures and the anonymity in the huge towers led to mistrust and neglect of public spaces.

            Re Singapore’s more medium rise than super-talls as in Hong Kong, it’s because it doesn’t have the same space pressures as Hong Kong which derive from its topography. Though both city-states generate new land by very expensive sea reclamation, Singapore has more developable land. There also appears to be conscious planning to achieve more human-scale developments but I yield to yuuka’s local knowledge on that. Singapore has very high economic inequality but seems to have so far avoided the kind of extreme inequality in housing like seen in Hong Kong. At the same time I cannot help think that the economics of extremely tall residential towers–like the series ranks of 64-storey towers in Tung Chung new town opposite HKI airport–are counter to providing affordable housing for the lower-SES, especially in the likes of Hong Kong. And therefore that Singapore’s lower profile housing helps reduce that problem; not that Singapore is an inexpensive housing market but HK is stratospheric (towers and prices!). At any rate, we seem so slow to learn (Nilo!) that building high-rise has never solved these problems, either in the rich east or west.

    • Eric2

      There are 17 subway tracks entering Manhattan, versus 5 regional/intercity tracks. Given the cost of building in NY, these numbers are not going to change much in the forseeable. This means that most building in the future will have to be in the city.

    • Nilo

      The existence of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio, the UWS and UES sides in NYC, the entirety of Miami, and the Lakeshore in Chicago should dispel us of any notion that high-rise living is disliked by people and inherently less desirable than mid rise living. On this issue I’m always struck by the fact that Swedish architects and intellectuals reviled public housing developments in Stockholm that hit 17 stories in height, but when residents of those same projects were surveyed they loved them.

      • df1982

        Nobody’s saying that high density is inherently undesirable. But I think it’s clear that the greatest mis-match between supply and demand in the US is in medium-density, non-car dependent neighbourhoods: there are so few of these that the ones that do exist have mostly become over-priced.

        The UWS is a good example of retaining the street character of medium-density while densifying, but even here most of the neighbourhood away from Central Park and the waterfront is pre-WWII medium density. By contrast, my experience of the Chicago Lakeshore (I have in-laws who lived there) is that it’s a pretty desolate place despite the high population density. People pay top dollar for a view of the water and a short commute, but that doesn’t make it a successful urban environment.

        • adirondacker12800

          They think it’s a sucessful environment or the rents would be as high. May not be to your tastes but they like it.

        • Nilo

          As Adirondacker says people love it so clearly there’s something successful about it. Anyways I don’t think anybody has ever called Copacabana or Ipanema desolate.

        • michaelrjames

          The UWS is a good example of retaining the street character of medium-density while densifying, but even here most of the neighbourhood away from Central Park and the waterfront is pre-WWII medium density. By contrast, my experience of the Chicago Lakeshore (I have in-laws who lived there) is that it’s a pretty desolate place despite the high population density. People pay top dollar for a view of the water and a short commute, but that doesn’t make it a successful urban environment.

          Precisely, and as I have said on this blog many times. The UWS typology is predominantly perimeter-block (Blockrandbebauung) of about 10-12 floors, which I what I label ‘New York Haussmannian’. Note that one of New York’s and the world’s most famous apartment buildings, The Dakota, has 8 floors and was overtly modelled on Paris. Of course it is changing and has changed but arguably not an improvement re urbanity. The fact that the UWS became popular among the younger, middle-class professional types (during its rehabilitation phase in the 80s & 90s) proves that it is in fact both preferred and more affordable than, for example the UES which got stuck with ugly post-war hi-rise with questionable aesthetics and low ceilings etc. The hi-rise incursion that Alon mentions is a small zone, barely qualifies as UWS (it borders the Lincoln Center) and the noise and fuss over its construction demonstrates the existing residents’ appreciation of the old form. As Wiki says:

          With the construction of Lincoln Center, its name, though perhaps not the reality, [the UWS] was stretched south to 58th Street. With the arrival of the corporate headquarters and expensive condos of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, and the Riverside South apartment complex built by Donald Trump, the area from 58th Street to 65th Street is increasingly referred to as Lincoln Square by realtors who acknowledge a different tone and ambiance than that typically associated with the Upper West Side.

          In fact, as far as I can tell, it is actually excluded from the UWS by a bit of gerrymander squiggling on the map as shown by Wikipedia.
          Wiki’s description of its early-twentieth century development confirms everything I have banged on about on this site:

          The stately tall apartment blocks on West End Avenue and the townhouses on the streets between Amsterdam Avenue and Riverside Drive, which contribute to the character of the area, were all constructed during the pre-depression years of the twentieth century. A revolution in building techniques, the low cost of land relative to lower Manhattan, the arrival of the subway, and the democratization of the formerly expensive elevator made it possible to construct large apartment buildings for the middle classes. The large scale and style of these buildings is one reason why the neighborhood has remained largely unchanged into the twenty-first century.

          Interestingly, with its 214,744 residents on 4.9km2, its density of 43,800/km2 is marginally higher than the UES at 42,100/km2. Dare I mention these are almost identical to the entirely low-rise (Haussmannian 6-7 floors) of Paris 11th (152,500 in 3.7 km2 ≈41,600/km2)

          Re your comment on Chicago’s Lakeshore, I have made the same observations. Even the high-priced Gold Coast district (18,836 on 0.54km2 ≈ 25,114/km2) with its famous hi-rise modernist apartment buildings is pure dormitory with a lifeless streetscape. Mies van der Rohe who designed the influential 860 & 880 Lakeshore Drive apartment blocks, briefly lived in one of those twin buildings but soon moved out, to three blocks away, into a “1916 Italianate six-story brick apartment house …of no special architectural merit” where he lived until he died in 1969. Just like another famous starchitect champion of hi-rise, even supertall living, Le Corbusier chose to live, between 1934 to his death in 1965, in a very modest 7-floor block on the very edge of Paris-16 (24 Rue Nungesser et Coli, nr Porte Molitor).

          • Alon Levy

            Other than the part where Paris averages 31 m^2 per resident (and the 11th must average less, it’s lower middle-class) and New York averages 50 (and the UWS averages a lot more, it’s high-income and full of overhoused retirees on rent control), sure. The spread in residential space per capita between the two areas is likely more than a factor of 2.

          • michaelrjames

            Et alors?
            Doesn’t that mean that the attraction and advantages of living in intramuros Paris is even that greater? Same as those who choose to live in Manhattan versus joining the bridge-and-tunnel brigade for less rent/more space.
            In fact I knew this bloke who insisted that he had to live in intramuros Paris rather than the nearby suburbs–where you get twice the space for the same rent–for the unconvincing reason he had to catch a certain RER … He wouldn’t ever admit it was the architecture but it was certainly something other than what he claimed. And everyone understands that as a rational choice.

          • michaelrjames

            Alon: where Paris averages 31 m^2 per resident

            Jan Wiklund: every time the area per person doubled, the productivity of a city decreased 2-4%

            Indeed its density has been a factor in its success for about 5 centuries.
            In fact the 31m2 per resident seems higher than I might have guessed. Think about it: it means a couple would have 62m2 which is perfectly fine, especially living in Paris. Also, I think another factor should be applied instead of simple floor area: volume. Thirty square metres under a ‘modern’ ceiling of about 2.4m is far, far worse than with a ‘old’ high ceiling with high windows.

          • Alon Levy

            You misunderstand the paper. It’s not physical floor area – if so, then where is the immense wealth in overcrowded third-world cities with 8 m^2/person? – but density per unit of land area, which can be provided through overcrowding or through tallness (or both, in Hong Kong’s case).

            Also, where the hell do modern buildings have 2.4 m ceilings? My 2015 building is 3 m with way bigger windows than 19c buildings, and HLMs are 3 m as well.

          • michaelrjames


            Obviously it is not cause & effect, but a correlation in very productive rich cities (or their cores). But those developing-world cities with 8m2 pp, overall, in general, they aren’t denser than Manhattan or Paris. They’re flat and low. OTOH, perhaps Kowloon Walled City was one of the most productive places? (but to be clear, it wasn’t “flat and low”).

            If your Berlin apartment has 3m ceilings then the only explanation I can imagine is that, being in the old city there are probably building regs that make it conform to the district and neigbhours including the floor-lines, window-lines with those neighbours and 19th century designs. Possibly an enlightened thing brought in in the immediate post-war reconstruction? I’d be surprised if Herbert’s apartment in Märkisches Viertel had such high ceilings.

            Even in Paris any post-war new-build, has low (‘standard’) ceilings. Thus, while conforming to the overall Paris building heights, they can squeeze in up to another two floors relative to Haussmannian etc. (the exception being the mansarde rooms). The only HLMs in Paris that would have 3m ceilings would be the pre-war HBM/HLM built on the land of the Theirs Wall, and perhaps some other infill that were still built largely to Haussmannian or Belle-Epoque standards. The 31-floor towers in the 13th and the upmarket towers of Front-de-Seine (BeauGrenelle) all have low modern ceilings. All the medium-high-rise HLMs in extramuros Paris have the same low ceilings. These standards were set in the modern era and more or less “enforced” by it being adopted by the industrial building products industry, like plasterboard and board in general (being 2.4m x 1.2m), windows (esp. floor-to-ceiling glass sliding ‘walls’) etc.

          • Alon Levy

            Developing-world cities often are denser than Manhattan and Paris. Or, rather, they have the same density as Manhattan and Paris averaged over the built-up area, rather than just in a small core surrounded by lower-density residential areas. Usually you can find sections of them that are denser than the 11th or the Upper East Side.

            Of course, you can find sections of Manhattan and Paris that are denser than the 11th or the UES. But they go tall, like London Terrace, or blocks on the former Thiers Wall. London Terrace looks like it has slightly higher built-up density than KWC, it just has a fraction of its population density because it’s a wealthy part of a wealthy city and KWC was a working-class squat in a then-middle-income city. (Class is important – Seine-Saint-Denis actually has slightly less residential space per capita than the city, because the lower rents are countermanded by far lower incomes.)

            I’ve never been to MV, but the other postwar housing projects here, on both sides of the Wall, look like 3 m ceilings.

          • michaelrjames

            @Alon: “I’ve never been to MV, but the other postwar housing projects here, on both sides of the Wall, look like 3 m ceilings.”

            Plattenbau–the dominant form of public housing in East Germany from 1972–are definitely not high ceilings and will be the minimum standard, as all prefab structures are.
            Where’s Herbert when we need him? I am beginning to wonder if you have a misconception about what a 3m ceiling is–we’re not talking the height of one storey.

            Re slums in the developing world, I don’t believe many of them are that dense. They are spoken of in those terms, and the media throw around loose descriptive terms but the actual density often can’t be anything like claimed. Take Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, often claimed as the densest place in … take your pick, Mumbai, India, Asia, World … but when you dig, it all relies upon wild population estimates like one million. And there aren’t anything like one million people there; that would mean one person has 2m2 and it’s nonsense. Or KWC which also exaggerates the residents to 33k which is an unverified estimate, compared to an earlier official census which came in at less than half that; and no need to exaggerate because it was genuinely very dense. But note, apparently not nearly as dense as Dharavi which is almost entirely single-level hovels versus KWC’s 12 to 14 floors across the entire site. Those two observations are not compatible. I’ve been to the Rio favelas–at least the inner city ones on the slopes of Tijuca (ie. your better class of favela)–and while moderately dense, again they are not as dense as most of Paris or Copacabana for that matter.

          • Alon Levy

            Mumbai’s average residential space per capita, including not just the slums but also the single-family skyscraper, was 9 m^2 not too long ago. (This is mentioned in Bertaud, who’s very much a secondary source and who I think is citing older data, but when I try looking it up in present-day Indian media it doesn’t seem a lot better.) Another way to think about it is that in Robert Allen, the global subsistence poverty basket is set at 3 m^2/capita of residential space, and some people are still below it.

            KWC at 33,000 residents would be 1.26/m^2, which at something like 75% lot coverage and 14 stories would be 8 m^2/person, which I can completely believe for a poor section of 1980s Hong Kong. The median in Hong Kong today is 161 ft^2, or 15 m^2 (link).

          • michaelrjames


            But don’t you see that you’re mixing concepts. Mumbai houses a huge amount of its city population in MFH including medium to high rise. Likewise, you find KWC’s purported absurd density to be credible because it was up to 14 floors etc. That’s my point. These slums and favelas are decidedly low-rise, usually a single level on the ground and structurally unable to support anything. (Well, those long-established hillside inner-city prime-site favelas in Rio are much more developed. But I drove past the huge low-rise favelas in Rio and Sao Paulo and they are single-level corrugated-iron and cardboard shacks.) That is what most of Dharavi is. I saw an hour-long doco on it in which the reporter walked around, interviewed people in their hovels, workplaces etc. and while busy it wasn’t remotely 2m2 per person (note, that is not living space but all space in the 2km2 including streets, walkways, workshops etc.) Water was only a limited number of standpipes and toilets non-existent (gravity drop to a canal). Absolutely impossible to be 1 million nor half that. I reckon these things get started by journalists shrugging and adding a zero or two to spice up their stories. Who can contradict them. No one actually knows. Similar thing for KWC for which the only quasi-official real count was under 15k, which is plenty dense enough without spicing it up to double.
            Here’s what 400,000 people (or a portion of them) and 1 person per 2 sqm looks like when they’re all at ground level:

          • Alon Levy

            Mumbai has a very low floor area ratio (“floor space index”) – until a few years ago it was zoned for a maximum of 1.33 citywide, compared with 2.5-3 in most Continental European cities. Third-world built-up density just isn’t high, but they compensate by having overcrowding and narrow streets; if KWC managed to go above 1,000,000/km^2, it’s not hard for a low-rise squat to hit 200,000.

          • michaelrjames

            Good catch. It turns out that I misread my files. I couldn’t find a residency or density so (ages ago) I had made an estimate based on av. occupancy of apartments which worked out to between 18,836 to 25,114/km2, which yesterday I failed to read properly/remember. I suspect it is the lower figure because such hi-end apartments tend to have lower occupancy (more singles and childless couples and more part-time occupancy).

            I also remember trying to find out some information on thermal performance of those apartments. I just can’t imagine how much energy must be used to make them liveable in Chicago’s horrendous winters and almost equally awful summers. Glass curtain walls like that (and I can’t think they were double-glazed?) must powerfully suck the heat out, combined with metal frames (which I recall were a problem for MVDR’s early examples). I know many American apartment buildings include heating in the monthly charge (ie. without limit), which means some people leave it permanently on in winter!

        • Alon Levy

          The UWS is high-rise on all avenues and all of the major streets, and overall it has the highest average residential FAR in the city, 4.2. The buildings on the non-major streets are smaller, which is why it’s 4.2 and not 10, but that’s because the major streets and avenues are more desirable, stimulating more real estate investment; developers have even been quoted in trade media saying “you can’t charge avenue rents on a street.”

          And what’s desirable isn’t a built form. That’s the thing. Nothing about the built form of (say) Scarsdale is particularly impressive. House prices are high because people like the easy access to city and White Plains jobs and the municipal services provided by the extremely high-income tax base. The first one is about location and not built form, and the second is purely positional.

          • adirondacker12800

            If Scarsdale was purely positional they would live in the Bronx.

          • Alon Levy

            Positional, not locational. Positional in economics means based on one’s position in the income distribution.

          • adirondacker12800

            So there’s something intangible about Scarsdale that encourages them to pay more. It may not be to your tastes but no one is forcing you to live there either. I haven’t been in Scarsdale for decades but glanciing at the demographics information on Wikipedia, not much has changed in that time. New Urbanist’s wet dream suburb. Elevator buildings near the station petering out into dense single family that peters out into post World War II riding-mower-land.

          • Alon Levy

            The intangible is “rich people liked it in the 1920s.” That’s all there is to it. It gets reproduced through a segregated school system that relies on local funding, plus the desire of the Little Boxes types to live near other Little Boxes people.

          • michaelrjames

            New Urbanist’s wet dream suburb./blockquote>
            I wouldn’t call it that. Not least because it is essentially illegal to walk there! And nowhere to walk to anyway. Well, my experience was singular. On my first ever trip thru the US I had been invited to stay with a family there. I arrived at the bus station on a Greyhound from Boston and because the woman had a newborn, and it was snowy winter, I didn’t want to impose on her to drive and pick me up. So I walked–or tried to. I only got maybe one km before a cruiser pulled over, checked my id, then “offered” to drive me to the address–where they watched until I was admitted into the house!
            For a few days I travelled into the city each day with the man–yes, some kind of investment banker–and the routine was a car-pool to get to the rail station for the train to Grand Central. Reverse at end of day. Thus a very regimented life from which I probably subconsciously picked up certain lessons. Alon is right. The houses are big in the American way but nothing luxe, and it was I imagine mostly to have a SFH and with good schools etc. The commuting wasn’t necessarily that much of a grind, except for the relentless regimentation and inflexibility.
            Actually it was New Rochelle, next to Scarsdale. I remembered it from the Dick Van Dyke show because it is where his character lived.

          • adirondacker12800

            Most of them don’t want to live in little boxes stacked next to the elevator. Some of them do, within walking distance of the station. It’s not to you tastes, no one is forcing you to live there.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s socially acceptable to walk in the Northeast and people do. Even in the Google Streetview pics of downtown Scarsdale. The kind of downtown New Urbanist’s dream of. With bicycles in the racks and people lounging on the benches. Alon blurtged out that there is nothing in Dobbs Ferry, a while ago. So I called the neighbor who spent most of her life in Ardsley and she said there were lots of trips to Dobbs Ferry, for the retail. Where they parked the car and walked. On the street. It’s like most railroad suburbs in the Northeast and Chicago. where people walk even though it’s not Times Square.

          • michaelrjames

            Sorry, but where you drive to some retail centre where you may walk, is not the (New Urbanist or anyone else’s) definition of a walkable neighbourhood. Next, you’ll be describing your local WalMart or Big Box shopping centre surrounded by 10 acres of surface parking as “walkable”. Also, New Urbanism does acknowledge the need for higher density than standard American SFH suburbia, even if it ends up as those twee, and expensive, New England style multifamily 3 storey homes etc arranged around a town centre to which you can walk via actual sidewalks and narrow laneways between houses etc.

          • adirondacker12800

            Ya live in Ardsley where there isn’t much retail you have to drive to places like Dobbs Ferry or Tarrytown where there is a dense walkable downtown where the people who live there walk. Everyone doesn’t have to live in a tower block or even a triple decker.

    • Onux

      Why isn’t medium density development in greenfields an option? This was the default way in the US up to the Depression, (and I believe still done elsewhere) true even for residential areas; Brooklyn brownstones were laid out with 10-15 lots per acre, continuous row houses, frequent duplexes/triplexes, and apartment buildings at corners or commercial streets. The notion of all new development as low density is a post-war artifact, not immutable law.

      More broadly, your options reflect a notion that development progresses through stages, seen in the FormCode/Transect model (frequently cited by StrongTowns). This organic growth ideas is better than choking growth through zoning but makes the mistake of assuming linear growth in even increments. Organic processes are non-linear and chaotic, showing short bursts of activity after long dormancy, or vice versa. The FormCode/StrongTowns approach recognizes a benefit to the market determine density (instead of fixed zoning) but balks when the market wants to jump ahead and build areas more densely from the start.

      In urban areas with a housing crisis, there is plenty of demand to justify building mid-density at the start, or high density out of low density suburbs, where conditions are right (access to jobs, transit, etc.)

      • Eric2

        “Why isn’t medium density development in greenfields an option?”

        Because all the greenfields nowadays have extremely long commutes.

  4. Henry Miller

    Where people live is a compromise. People love camping, but they are glad to be home overall with solid walls, air conditioning, a stove… People love the space of rural areas where they can keep a horse if they want to (not to be confused with keeping livestock because farming is their job). People love dense cities where anything they can dream up is close. People love suburbs where they can afford a large house yet the shops they want are not too far away.

    There is no rule I’m aware of that says you can’t have a large apartment that is affordable. However the reality in my experience is that apartments are generally smaller than the house you can get for the same monthly payment (which includes taxes and insurance, the latter an additional cost for renters). Here I’m referring to the Des Moines market, small enough that rents

  5. yuuka

    What do you think about the current pandemic-inspired moral panics about people abandoning cities and fleeing for the suburbs and/or countryside just because they can now “work from home”?

    • df1982

      It’s the opposite: big cities tend to be a magnet for people who work from home. Not least because if you don’t have socialising opportunities in your workplace you probably want to live somewhere that offers them.

    • Tonami Playman

      This is very alarming to me, but in my opinion will only be short lived fad. Most are making that decision on their current pay remaining the same while being able to live in a lower cost location.

      Once companies start adjusting pay to remote locations, people will realize they no longer have the amenities they were used to and will return back to the big cities.

      • Henry Miller

        Or will companies decide that big city cost of living isn’t worth paying extra for and quit paying extra money for the same results. (you will note that I live in an urban area with a population less than 400,000)

  6. Herbert

    Noise and the visual impact of highways are an aspect that majorly affects rental prices which you fail to mention…

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but only within a very narrow radius. For example, when the Embarcadero Freeway was removed, property values right on the waterfront rose, but in Chinatown the lack of convenient motorway access meant that they fell, leading area activists (chiefly, Rose Pak) to demand some substitute transportation, which created the Central Subway disaster.

  7. Herbert

    Why do people pay higher rents in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg than in Märkisches Viertel?

    • Alon Levy

      Because it’s a lot closer to Mitte jobs? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kreuzberg went from a place where people feared being robbed in the 1990s to a place where people fear being robbed by Biomarkt prices today – during division it was far from City-West jobs, but as the city has rebuilt Mitte it’s now very close to city center jobs. Neukölln is similarly gentrifying as Kreuzberg spillover around Hermannplatz, where U8 provides easy access to Mitte, whereas the rest of the neighborhood, especially from Karl Marx-Strasse east, has white flight. For the same reason, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain are desirable neighborhoods even though in the 1990s their housing stock was not great, while East Berlin outside the Ring is full of resentful Ossis who vote AfD.

      • Herbert

        So buy apartments in MV and speculate that they’ll extend U8 – eventually…

        • Alon Levy

          If I’m buying real estate, it’s at Gesundbrunnen – way better rail connections, and I believe that Germany is becoming less racist over time so that people will stop thinking that neighborhood is bad. Maybe also Neukölln, but U7-Neukölln doesn’t have as convenient access to Mitte, and U8-Neukölln already has people speculating on real estate.

      • fjod

        This is quite a different claim to the one you make in the post, as it’s about suburbs/neighbourhoods and not whole cities/metro areas. I think you’d have a hard time justifying that production factors are the main pull for neighbourhoods in most cases, given the obvious and numerous counterexamples: inner-city depopulation of the mid-20th century, hard-to-access but desirable areas (e.g. Dulwich in London), easily-accessible but undesirable areas (e.g. Schilderswijk in the Hague), etc.

  8. RossB

    So, people move to where the jobs are. Huh, who knew? Seriously though, this is pretty obvious, and I think Richard Florida and just about everyone else would agree. This begs the question though: why are the jobs there? Why are the jobs in San Fransisco, New York, and Seattle, instead of Detroit or Charleston, West Virginia? I’m sure Richard Florida would start by saying it is all about the universities. If there is one thing I remember from reading his articles in the Atlantic Monthly over the years, it is the emphasis on education.

    But is that it? Of course not. Businesses locate in areas where they can attract talent, and a good educational system is only one part of it. If Amazon moved to Corvallis Oregon, for example, I don’t think they would attract that many workers. To be clear, it is home to an outstanding university. Some would love the small town, rural atmosphere. But a lot of other people would hate it. There are other issues (like how businesses connect to other businesses) but if you are focused on attracting workers, then you need something more attractive than this: https://goo.gl/maps/qpPNiDmMCGMZRavs7. OK, to be fair to Corvalis, it isn’t that bad. By no means is it the worst place in America to live. But the point being that businesses locate in San Fransisco because they know they can attract talented people to San Fransisco, especially if they pay them a lot of money (and many tech companies are willing to pay their employees a lot of money).

    Then there is the interplay between the city and the suburbs. White flight hollowed out a lot of cities. Greater Detroit really isn’t abandoned, but folks moved to the suburbs. The businesses moved to the suburbs as well (a long time ago). The major university is outside of the city (which doesn’t help). But you could say pretty much the exact same thing about San Fransisco. Cal is in Berkeley, not San Fransisco. While most would consider it part of the urban core, it is on the edge of it. Stanford is in Palo Alto — clearly a suburb. Tech companies love the suburbs and located in “campuses” outside of town. San Fransisco avoided the fate of so many cities in part because it really is a nice to place to live. Even when crime rates were high, people liked living there. As a result, there are reverse commuters, as well as lots of businesses that have decided to add jobs right in the city.

    But you don’t have to be San Fransisco. Cities like Philadelphia and Cleveland have improved the pedestrian experiences and have thus attracted businesses that would otherwise locate in the suburbs (or pulled workers from the suburbs). Some suburbs, meanwhile, have transformed themselves (at least around the edges) developing what amounts to a “town center” or “downtown” in areas that were largely deserted not too long ago. Naperville, Illinois cleaned up their river, added parkland around it, retained and refurbished the old brick buildings and then built similar looking buildings right next to it. It is reasonably charming suburb (https://goo.gl/maps/Mij2TJgGp2BaKG4X6) as a result, so while most of the suburb still consists of big houses on huge lots, it nonetheless allows people a bit of an urban, or at least urban-ish experience without taking the train into Chicago. This has made it one of the more attractive places to live and open a business.

    These are all factors that are important, although the random nature of business play a big part in what cities grow and what cities don’t. The eastern suburbs of Seattle grew like crazy because Paul Allen and Bill Gates (who grew up in Seattle) decided to open their business there. Amazon is located in Seattle in large part because of the technical talent from Microsoft and the University of Washington. Without those two companies, Seattle would be much smaller, and might even be shrinking (as Boeing shrinks). But then again, it would probably be doing OK (similar to Portland).

    • michaelrjames

      The eastern suburbs of Seattle grew like crazy because Paul Allen and Bill Gates (who grew up in Seattle) decided to open their business there.

      Must have been a close-run thing because Paul Allen was working in Boston when he convinced his childhood friend Bill to drop-out of his freshman Harvard year to form Microsoft.

      • RossB

        Microsoft actually started in Albuquerque. (So my sentence was incorrect — I should have wrote “moved” instead of “started”.) They moved the company to Bellevue (a suburb of Seattle) a couple years later. Anyway, my larger point is that Microsoft could have located anywhere. They could have stayed in New Mexico, or moved back east, or moved to California. Their decision to move to the eastern suburbs of Seattle dramatically changed the region — a lot more than any public planning decision made during that time, although you could argue that they wouldn’t have moved to the Seattle area without the UW. Both of Bill Gates’ parents were on the board of regents at the UW; I’m sure he was well aware of the importance of hiring well educated people (even though both Gates and Allen were dropouts 🙂 ).

  9. Pingback: Job Sprawl as Deurbanization | Pedestrian Observations
  10. Pingback: Quick Note: Consumption and Production Theories of Berlin | Pedestrian Observations
  11. Jan Wiklund

    Did you see Jaison Abel, Ishita Dey & Todd Gabe: Productivity and the density of human capital, a research result from the Fed? In case not, you can download it at https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr440.html.

    They found that every time the area per person doubled, the productivity of a city decreased 2-4%. And doubling is rather little, if you consider the area per person in Barcelona compared to Atlanta, two cities of comparable population but Atlanta some 25 times as vast as Barcelona.

    I fully agree that productivity is vastly more important than upper middle class consumption. Cities exist because of division of labor: the more professions there are, the more productivity. But to stay productive, cities must also be able to link the professions together. The easier they are linked, the better they co-work. But this is better achieved if the distances are short. The cheapest is always to walk by foot.

  12. ericson2314

    I have no disagreement with the claims in this piece and your other “production theory” ones. But I also find Post-Keynesian economics very compelling, which insists on focusing on consumption when the neoclassical orthodoxy would focus on production. I think such heterodox economics doesn’t come a lot because those people tend to overlap a lot with the “costs don’t matter” camp, and I can’t speak to that, but I think some more headway can be made reconciling the production vs consumption arguments.

    One approach would be to say land is special. Certainly there’s finite supply, but we haven’t e.g. paved everything as suburbs and “run out” so a more sophisticated argument is needed. Probably a better one would focus not on the fixed total area but fixed (and low) dimensionality, and impossibility for everything to be close to everything else, which works for cities on the infinite plane too. *Proximity* is then the scarce resource, transit (and to a lesser extent dense development) the partial-remedy too expensive for decentralized economics to take care of on it’s one (especially good steady state unit economics to practice on). A neoclassical special case does start to emerge.

    Another completely different approach is say economics are ordinary enough, but have been distorted. One can point to the second industrial evolution through WWII is taken to be the heyday of city-building, and say there were many unplanned things that also went well, even semi-private transit. In that view, in the the US all zoning and mortgage “interventions” are heavily to blame, and without them and with more aggregate demand, things would be alright. In the extreme of this view, transit is somewhat secondary to land use, and symptom as much as a cause.

    A third approach might be that the city (and density in general) is the physical manifestation of the phenomena the post-keynsians are interested in. So nevermind if production or consumption “kicks off” the city, the degree to which the urban economy is closed illustrates the positive feedback loops, the production being cheaper and consumption being more enticing (sad loners in the burbs ordering amazon packages can not be the main mode of a industrial-consumer economy). Perhaps even the “hysteresis” of slow growth after fast contractions relates to proper functioning cities being easier to abandon than build. Or less apologetically, periods of surbanizatiton making future building less productive because one either needs to redevelop (loosing the return on the old poor development) or leave proximity network effects untapped.

    Thankfully even if the theory is tricky to reconcile the policy prescriptions are not.

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