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National Geographic

Cities We Make

Posted by Guest Blogger in City Solutions on January 19, 2017

By Philip Yang, founder of Urbem

Every branch of knowledge is providing evidence that socially mixed urban areas are key to the future of cities’ cohesiveness and prosperity. Social and environmental sciences are showing both the opportunities of a deeper integration among different socioeconomic groups and the risks of dystopia generated by growing dissent and intolerance. Yet, all around the world, cities are engaged in producing urban territories that are ever more contributing to spatial segregation rather than connection. Is this a revertible trend? Are there other plausible ways to shape cities and the way people live and work in urban settings?

In an article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), economists C. T. Hsieh and E. Moretti showed that wage dispersion, i.e. the geographic distribution of workers across low- and high-wage areas, is a burden to economic growth. New forms of allocation of labor that are spatially more concentrated and socially more diverse would result in substantial output and welfare gains. According to them, if housing supply constraints were lifted in only three cities — New York, San Francisco, and San Jose — the total U.S. GDP could increase by 9.5%. More housing in highly productive cities would increase their work force, as earners of different wage levels would have access to areas which are now limited to the top of the income pyramid. Simply put, mixing it up socially would make us better off, both in economic and social terms.

“Markets and governments are inducing new forms of a tribal territorialism wherein exclusion and resentment are the norm.”

Despite these indications, what we see is a heightened ghettoization of cities. World metropolises such as London, São Paulo, Mumbai and Los Angeles have seen a proliferation of high security, fenced and privatized areas. This spatial segregation trend is further reinforced by policies that promote subsidized housing in distant parts of the cities. Put together, markets and governments are inducing new forms of a tribal territorialism wherein exclusion and resentment are the norm. And in addition to social consequences of geographic separation, urban sprawl imposes heavier carbon footprints and longer commutes.

These public and private actions conducive to spatial segregation are replicating basic instincts that create an “us versus them” mentality among groups of people. Worse, not only do these trends instill negative feelings, they also inscribe territories that underline discrimination. As social psychologists contend, humans as social animals are able to overcome implicit or explicit biases that we instinctively carry for protection and security if only we are exposed to interpersonal contact in settings that allow for cooperation. But real estate and urban trends are building the opposite: polarized pockets of wealth and poverty.

Everywhere, zoning laws, building codes and housing policies are lagging behind the need for more efficient and just uses of urban land. And the real estate industry largely sticks to known products, resisting the introduction of new formulas that could prevent further fragmentation of urban spaces. In short, cities are facing a double failure, from markets and governments.

What can we do about it?

The way out of this historical stalemate depends on an unprecedented convergence of public, private and civic forces and interests.

Spurring urban density and coexistence requires regulations that establish new construction rights on areas that have so far admitted few or no residential buildings. More conversions of underused properties, such as bank branches, empty industrial warehouses, inefficiently occupied government-built assets, and parking lots, true urban dinosaurs that are rapidly falling into disuse, would be an eventful outcome.

“More collective, sharing, inclusive values based on empathy rather than privilege seem to gain ground in larger proportions of the population, especially among the younger generations.”

A new set of values and concepts around housing tenure needs to emerge among developers, homebuyers, homeowners and society at large. Ideals of individual wellbeing and exclusivity have shown their limits — financial, environmental and social — as more collective, sharing, inclusive values based on empathy rather than privilege seem to gain ground in larger proportions of the population, especially among the younger generations.

But new, acceptable rules of spatial planning will arise only when government, market and societal forces reach a minimum consensus – and this is not an easy task. The social contract that oversaw the epic struggle between polities and markets in the past centuries is no longer effective. Large proportions of the populations feel underrepresented in traditional democratic frameworks. Street demonstrations all over the globe — appropriations of public space not for the celebration of commonalities but for protest — are expressions of this disconnect.

The world order is now an urban order, one in which a balance of power is negotiated not only among nations but also and increasingly among groups of citizens — networked urbanites who easily take over the streets — often with diffuse agendas which are loaded with rancor towards what is seen as an illegitimate dominance of economic or political power upon the populace. In this new complex system that is now taking form, coercive forces shall be much less effective than consensus, and the ongoing urban entrenchment encourages more stone-casting than confidence-building.

The stakes are high. For millennia, humanity has been the creator of the city. If we become incapable of imprinting “the stamp of purpose, the color of love” in our cities, as Lewis Mumford puts it, the revolt of the urban creature against its creator may just be a matter of time.

Cities are expressions of an era translated in space. They project in the territory what a collectivity aims to be in the present and in the future. City-making – the process in which we define the spaces where we live, work and play – provides an extraordinary opportunity for political, economic and civic forces to strike a new governance structure in which wealth-creation is more directly connected to the production of common goods, an urban fabric that binds us all together.

Philip Yang is the founder of Urbem, a “do tank” devoted to urban change. He holds a Masters degree in Public Administration from the J. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and served as a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Corporation’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning Visiting Committee (2012-2016). 

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