Urbanization: Protest against gigantism
By Joel Kotkin
Excerpts from a longer article. See website for full version.
People care deeply about where they live. If you ever doubt that, remember this: they staged massive protests over a park in Istanbul. Gezi Park near Taksim Square is one of that ancient city’s most beloved spots. So in June, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to demolish the park to make room for his grandiose vision of the city as “the financial center of the world,” the park’s neighbors and supporters took to the streets. The protests were directed against what has been described as “authoritarian building”—the demolition of older, more-human-scaled neighborhoods in favor of denser high-rise construction, massive malls, and other iconic projects.
There’s just one problem with this brave new condensed world: most urban residents aren’t crazy about it. In the United States and elsewhere, people, when asked, generally say they prefer less dense, less congested places to live. The grandiose vision of high-rise, high-density cities manifestly does not respond to the actual needs and desires of most people, who continue to migrate to the usually less congested, and often less expensive, periphery. And as the people’s desires continue to run counter to what those in power dictate, the urban future is likely to become increasingly contentious.
The growing disconnect between people and planners is illustrated by the oft-ignored fact that around the world the great majority of growth continues to occur on the suburban and exurban frontier, including the fringes of 23 out of 28 of the world’s megacities. This, notes NYU professor Shlomo Angel in his landmark book A Planet of Cities, is true both in developing and developed countries.
All of this flies in the face of the argument, made by a well-funded density-boosting industry, that people want more density, not less. Lobbies to force people back into cities enjoy generous funding provided by urban land interests and powerful multinationals that build subways and other city infrastructure to bolster the cause of ever greater density.
Yet rather than re-think density, planners and powerful urban land interests continue to force ever higher-density development down the throats of urban dwellers. In the already pricey San Francisco Bay Area, for example, municipal planners have embraced what is known as a “pack and stack” strategy that will essentially prohibit construction of all but the most expensive single-family homes, prompting one Bay Area blogger to charge that “suburb hating is anti-child,” because it seeks to undermine single-family neighborhoods.
Rather than concocting sophisticated odes to misery, perhaps we might consider a different approach to urban growth. Perhaps we factor in what exactly we are inflicting on people with “pack and stack” strategies. Planners often link density with community, notes British social critic James Heartfield, but maintaining that “physical proximity that is essential to community is to confuse animal warmth with civilization.” When University of California at Irvine’s Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey conducted 15,000 interviews across the country, they found that for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week goes up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status, or age. In 2009, Pew recently issued a report that found suburbanites to be the group far more engaged with their communities than those living in core cities.
A market—or simply human—approach would permit a natural shift towards smaller, less dense cities and, yes, the suburbs, where more people end up wanting to live. Those who prefer high-density living would still have their opportunity if they so desire.
The primary goal of a city should not be to make wealthy landlords and construction companies ever richer, or politicians more powerful. Instead, we should look for alternatives that conform to human needs and desires, particularly those of families. Urbanism should not be defined by the egos of planners, architects, politicians, or the über-rich, who can cherry-pick the best locales in gigantic cities. Urbanism should be driven above all by what works best for the most people.