After the crisis: Cities are the future

There is a great deal of anxiety about Covid-19 but in many ways we're much better off than we would be after a natural disaster: the water will keep flowing, the power will stay on, the sewers will keep working. The University of Auckland's Bill McKay makes a case for city living. 

Once the Covid-19 lockdown was announced, many, at least those in the fortunate position of having that option, packed their cars and headed for the hills. Or, by many reports, packed their yacht and headed for some sheltered island bay

This has caused controversy, given that should they become unwell, those people could be putting extra pressure on already over-stretched and under-resourced services, including health services. I’m staying in town and perhaps this is a good time to reflect on why so many of us live in the city; half the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population are predicted to do so. 

The benefits of living in the city have been well-argued by American urban economist Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, one of the first books I picked up off my bookshelf to re-read after the lockdown was announced. 

While I’m familiar with many urban design theories and principles of what makes a good city, it’s interesting to read about this from an economist’s perspective. While cities are frequently thought of as dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime-ridden, expensive and environmentally unfriendly places, Glaeser marshals evidence from all over the world that in even in the poorest slum-filled cities, city-dwellers are healthier and more prosperous than their village or rural counterparts.

Living in a city, he argues, gives people more access to opportunity: work, education, health facilities, libraries, art galleries, day-to-day human interaction, and the safety nets that a decent city provides. It allows for smart, innovative, creative people to conglomerate in one place, which contributes to the city being an engine of invention, innovation and activity.

It’s important though, he argues, that cities don’t put all their eggs in one basket. One of the most crucial features of what constitutes a good city is allowing for and encouraging diversification rather than specialisation. Detroit had all its eggs in one basket and when the auto industry ended, so did the city’s prosperity. In these Covid-19 times, it makes me think of the situation that towns such as Queenstown and Wanaka are in, so reliant on the tourist market or other towns dominated by a single industry such as a timber or mining.

What makes a good city? Glaeser argues for densification: high-rise living that makes accommodation more affordable and closer to work, education and leisure facilities. Density does this through simple maths: the high cost of land when divided by more dwellings, reduces land cost per household.

He is not opposed to the suburbs however; they allow people to live as they choose, but much emphasis on the suburbs can lead to a hollowing out of cities. He argues poor policies often promote suburban living at the expense of creating livable city centres closer to where people work, learn and play. My view is the current housing crisis is an opportunity to build more of a range of options for an increasingly diverse population; we actually already have a lot of suburbs in New Zealand so let’s build more medium and high density options close to public transport routes.

You might think that one of the major problems with cities is inner-city poverty and crime, which is more visible there than in small towns, villages and rural areas. Glaeser argues it isn’t because cities make people poor, but that cities attract the poor because of economic opportunity they offer. And yes, cities might be associated with greater crime, but that could relate to cities offering a greater spectrum of possibilities from the legal to the illegal. Economic opportunity comes in myriad forms, not all of it legal! 

Glaeser’s book, being several years old, has a blind spot regarding sustainability and climate change. He points to Houston which, without much in the way of zoning rules, massively expanded while the housing remained affordable. But the result is a sprawling city reliant on cars and air-conditioning that isn’t sustainable in terms of energy use and emissions and climate change.

He is also a Chicago School economist, and of a laissez faire/market-led economist’s orientation. I agree with many of his arguments, but would also argue for the need for good policies and rules to facilitate well-designed cities. Cities, since time immemorial, have always had rules and protocols to govern the way we live together; Manhattan might be the land of free enterprise but it’s also one of the most rent-controlled places on Earth. Of course, there are numerous examples of bad cities, but good policy and governance is essential so that these machines of interaction and innovation prosper as they have done since humans first started gathering together. 

This is particularly pertinent at the moment for Auckland, with Auckland City Council’s decision to disband the Auckland Design Office. As Glaeser argues, it is crucial that cities “have policies that make our cities more livable”, and good people with the resources and skills to deliver on that. Density is good but “there are demons that come with densification” and a good understanding and commitment to urban design is essential to ensuring our cities are places we want to live. 

There is a great deal of anxiety and nervousness about Covid-19 but in many ways we are much better off in this crisis than we would be after a natural disaster: the water will keep flowing, the power will stay on, the sewers will keep working and food will continue to be in supermarkets. After this, let’s get on with ensuring our cities are well-designed and operated in ways that makes us happier, healthier and successful. 

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