Character: In Cities

City management for vibrancy and livability.

Over the last few decades, cities have regained their luster, attracting residents and spurring growth. Yet, while urban environments have drawn people for both jobs and excitement, it takes firm management to maintain a city’s character and livability. Mismanagement can lead to declines in quality of life, and a city’s reputation will suffer.

For example, cities have been lauded as places that breed creativity and innovation. Yet, there’s evidence this is at risk in certain mega-cities such as London, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo, which have become so expensive that they push out creative people who contributed to the cities being unique and vibrant to begin with. This needs to be managed within cities if they are to remain attractive places to live. Creatives and entrepreneurs need affordable living and work space to allow them to pull off their ventures. Is it any wonder that Lisbon, Portugal, a more affordable city, has attracted more artists, and Los Angeles has become the home of New York City transplants?

Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” recently wrote a book to bring attention to the issues that have arisen due to the success (some may say gentrification) of such cities. The book is called, “The New Urban Crisis: How Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It.” Critics blame Florida for the mess we’re in based on the philosophies he preached to urban planners. Yet, who wouldn’t argue that most cities are more exciting to live in today than in decades past? Plus, is it really the practices Florida recommended, as opposed to cities not properly planning for growth? In addition to the book, Florida writes his own response in this Wired magazine article, “Tech made cities too expensive. Here’s how to fix it.”

One thing Florida champions is local governments and organizations taking the lead, recognizing that these problems won’t be solved on a national level. Often times these are locally created problems anyhow. For example, in the Bay Area, local governments haven’t supported enough housing development. And while the area leans liberal and one would think general public consensus would be in support of lower and middle-income residents, there has been push back on more dense housing developments to help drive costs down, as was reported by Conor Dougherty in The New York Times.

Cities need to start being more proactive in their plans to maintain the vibrancy and livability for diverse income levels within its cities. This article speaks to variables espoused by famed urban planner Jane Jacobs who wrote “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Through data mining, the researchers confirmed key aspects of what makes a vibrant city including a diverse physical environment, smaller city blocks with dense intersections, sufficient density of people and buildings, diverse buildings in age and form, and having districts with more than two functions. While not comprehensive (for example, affordable housing is not mentioned), these are all factors that could be proactively managed to ensure continued vibrancy of a city.

Another critical component to a well-functioning city is its transportation infrastructure and plans. Some cities have thought ahead and managed this well. A visit to Tokyo will stun you with its ability to efficiently move 20 million people around its districts. London has put in place a plan for growth over the next 25 years considering new transportation lines and increasing walking and biking zones and paths. This includes the recent $20 billion investment the city made in its Crossrail subway that features a high-capacity, high-frequency train line, which will partially open this year. Contrast this to New York City with recent reports of its subway crisis and diversion of funds away from transportation infrastructure investment. The city’s citizens are suffering from a severe degradation of the system.

While it might seem like it’s a global issue, climate change is a vital focus for cities. Not only are more people being drawn to cities, they generate a disproportionate amount of economic activity. With that economic activity comes an impact on the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change. Consider, as well, that most major cities are on water sources and will be at risk with changes in sea levels and inconsistency in weather patterns. Thus, cities need to be a part of the solution to climate change. Luckily, many cities have already taken up this mantle and committed to the Paris climate accord.

Some believe that cities need to take on such issues, because nation states have become obsolete. Why? Consider this quote in the article from Bruce Katz, Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC:

“Cities are not subordinate to nation-states, they are powerful networks of institutions and actors that co-produce the economy. Power in the 21st century belongs to the problem-solvers. National governments debate and mostly dither. Cities act, cities do. Power increasingly comes from the cities up, not handed down from the nation-state.”

Former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg provided this example:

“Mayors especially tend to be pragmatic problem-solvers. They recognize the benefits to taking action and they are. In New York City, we cut our carbon footprint by 19 percent while also far outpacing the nation in job growth.”

Jerry Brown, California’s governor, has also been trying for some time to line up additional “sub-national” support for a climate agreement with other states and local governments in the U.S., according to Politico. But after this year’s wildfires, even a state like California and the cities around the Bay Area and Los Angeles understand that things have changed, and climate change is causing unexpected and unpredictable crises. As articulated in this article from Alex Steffen, cities need to be prepared for unpredictable crises.


The Economy & Industry Forecast: Help me do my part to sustain cities for economic growth and livability.


 

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