Why Cities Matter

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Why Cities Matter
by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard

Pretty much everybody doing anything today has to be thinking about how to respond to urbanism, especially in a global but also a developed world context. While it’s clearly too early to proclaim the “death of the suburb” clearly cities have experienced a resurgence. New York, LA, and San Francisco are at all time population highs. The District of Columbia and Philadelphia grew for the first time since 1950 according to the latest census.

Religion has been one of those movements that has to respond to urbanism. Christianity was traditionally an anchor of cities, especially the Catholic Church which was a key agency of assimilating of immigrants into American society, among other things.

However, in recent decades the urban church went into decline while the heartland of Christianity moved to the suburbs (along with rural and small town environments where it had always been strong). The growth of mega-churches to some extent parallels the rise of the mega-mall. Those steeped in this more suburban milieu need to have adjust their thinking if they want to succeed in penetrating a more urban one.

The book “Why Cities Matter” by Stephen Um of Citylife Church in Boston and Justin Buzzard of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley is an attempt to provoke that thinking. It’s fairly brief at only six chapters (of which I’ll talk about five), but covers some interesting ground.

The first couple of chapters make the case for why cities are important in general. I actually think this is a pretty good general purpose overview of the case for urbanism quite apart from any religious context.

One thing that really caught my eye was when they tackled the matter of why some cities fail. They seem to anticipate the objection that if cities are so great, why are so many of them like Detroit so screwed up? The answer they give is diversity – in the broadest sense of the word. Detroit is very racially diverse, but lacked economic diversity. As they put it:

The one phenomenon guaranteed to stifle the power of density is homogeneity. In other words, if everyone in a city does the same thing for work, thinks along the same lines, and lives relatively similar lives, no matter how densely clustered they may be, that city will lack the necessary innovation capital needed to sustain itself over the long haul.

Or as they put it in a way I’d never read elsewhere:

Density + Diversity = Multiplication
Density – Diversity = Addition

In effect, the non-diverse city is simply scaling horizontally as it grows. And when that growth stops, as it inevitably will, the authors note the obvious implication: “When the bottom falls out on a density-minus-diversity city, population addition becomes subtraction and there is no platform left on which to rebuild.”

The third chapter is a Biblical case for the city. I think this is particularly key and is something far too many people trying to adapt to cities and urbanism – the auto companies, for example – haven’t really done. What the authors are doing is re-telling the narrative of their own movement in an urban context. It’s not just that cities are important. But you have to be able to see how what you do has some authentic urban component to it so that you see the city as part of you, not just some foreign country you have to go figure out.

Having taken a look at the narrative of Christianity as authentically urban, they then turn for two chapters towards how to contextualize Christianity to serve the city. This starts with understanding the city itself on its own terms. In short, it starts with knowing the city’s story. Some questions they suggest asking include:

1. What is your city’s history?
2. What are your city’s values?
3. What are your city’s dreams?
4. What are your city’s fears?
5. What is your city’s ethos?

I’ve noted before how urban church leaders like Tim Keller have been willing to ask themselves the tough question of what they need to do adapt their ministry to the needs of their city, in contrast to too many urbanists themselves. How many urbanists really ask themselves these questions? How many of them go on an anthropology mission to understand their city? Too often, it doesn’t seem like many do. Because so frequently it’s the exact same “school solutions” that are proposed in city after city with little to indicate they’ve been seriously thought about in relation to the city in question: light rail, bike lanes, tech startups, mixed use, density, etc., etc., etc.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these or that sometimes you can’t just import a good idea once it’s been perfected elsewhere. Lots of mass consumer products succeed. However, if your entire plan for your city is based on off the shelf ideas from elsewhere, it’s probably going to fall far short of your ambitions.

I find it ironic that it is religious leaders, who I would expect might argue that they are selling the Ultimate Product, actually seem to be more advanced in seeking to contextualize what they do than do some urbanists themselves.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.



















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That is very interesting

That is very interesting Smile I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing this great article. top loader washing machine

The 5 questions

1. What is your city’s history?
A war history with many losses.A hard history to listen
2. What are your city’s values?
I don't know if somebody value something or someone in this days.
3. What are your city’s dreams?
We dream to evoluate to rise i guess...
4. What are your city’s fears?
The future is our bigger fear.
5. What is your city’s ethos?
We lost our ethos from at least ten years.
http://www.ecargame.com/31/motorcycle-games-1.html

I sort of agree with their:

I sort of agree with their:

Density + Diversity = Multiplication
Density – Diversity = Addition

But as far as ethnic diversity is concerned how do they account for places like Minneapolis, Portland, Austin, Seattle, and Denver? Three of them are established regional hubs and the home of many fortune500 companies, that power the national economy. The other two are much praised, up-and-coming superstars amongst the urbanist crowd. And while two of them rank amongst the lowest with regards to foreign-born population, all five are the whitest, and politically progressive and socially insular populations in the country.

And as far as economic diversity is concerned, it seems that the only case for a place like NY to diversify beyond finance is to allow more equal access to a larger portion of the income ladder, instead of just being a playground for the rich and the super rich. Which I don't know if NY has any interest of doing... but then again, there are housing markets throughout the tri-state area that can attract and sustain a middle class. I am curious what Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard would prescribe for NYC.

I think Density is not necessarily better served by cultural and intellectual diversity.... but what's good for a society isn't always what it wants. And while the growing pains of inculcating various groups of differing views is very often heartbreaking...(I'm thinking of certain, immigrant-rich, parts of LA, Seattle, and SF and the gang violence as well as the hardships they've faced), if done right, the emerging insularity is far more respectful of the diverse cultures that gave birth to it, there is a cultural medium of values that every group affirm and place higher then their respective group, and you have a more moderate atmosphere.

Not to mention, an elevated food culture, an enriched arts and performances scene, and the entrepreneurial spirit that often accompany these immigrants. But the dynamic of the city vis-a-vis immigrants, can be thwarted if these immigrants settle for mediocrity. Which many do. Which is comfortable. But unhealthy. And is the problem facing some latino groups, south pacific islanders, and even many native-born whites and blacks. It is as much a problem in South LA as it is throughout the rust belt and the midwest whole.

Planners, square pegs, round holes.

Your point about cultural diversity "done properly" is good "...there is a cultural medium of values that every group affirm and place higher then their respective group, and you have a more moderate atmosphere...."

The USA has always done this better than Europe. Immigrants to the USA have usually been expected to accept a set of norms re tolerance of others, that defines the USA (a legacy of its founding by religious refugees), and furthermore, immigrants overwhelmingly come to the USA because of the opportunity to fulfill their own potential. Multicultural cringing just creates more problems, now evident in Europe - many immigrants are the opposite of what they were intended to be; that is, they do NOT fill the gap left by Europe's failure to sustain its population by reproduction, they are merely an additional drag on an economy already burdened by demographics.

I really like the thesis of Um and Buzzard drawn attention to by Aaron Renn. I agree with it. Your point is kind of "what about these exceptions?" - especially NYC. But Ed Glaeser has authored an op-ed entitled "Wall Street Isn't Enough", warning NYC against relying on a non-diversified economy for too long. I strongly agree with this. A Tobin tax alone, would seriously affect NYC and London and any local economy heavily based on global finance. Interestingly, these less economically diverse cities are heavily diverse culturally.

The culturally more homogenous cities you mention are actually nowhere near as undiversified economically as Detroit, and that lack of economic diversity in Detroit did lead to a certain homogenisation of "local culture", even if there was more of a mixture of skin colours. The middle-class respectability that was an objective of all races was a phenomenon in Detroit while it was economically strong. I think it is economic diversity or homogeneity that is Um and Buzzard's main point.

"....They seem to anticipate the objection that if cities are so great, why are so many of them like Detroit so screwed up? The answer they give is diversity – in the broadest sense of the word. Detroit is very racially diverse, but lacked economic diversity. As they put it:

The one phenomenon guaranteed to stifle the power of density is homogeneity. In other words, if everyone in a city does the same thing for work, thinks along the same lines, and lives relatively similar lives, no matter how densely clustered they may be, that city will lack the necessary innovation capital needed to sustain itself over the long haul...."

Ed Glaeser makes a point something like this in "Triumph of the City", re Detroit. But he says re NYC, that its garment manufacturing sector was even more of a homogenous source of economic activity than car making was in Detroit - fortunately for NYC it got something else to make up for losing this.

I agree very much with your point:

"....but then again, there are housing markets throughout the tri-state area that can attract and sustain a middle class...."

Wendell Cox makes this point repeatedly in his writings: "NYC" is not a "local economy", it is municipal boundaries on a map. The "local economy" is more what you see from an airliner at night - the cluster of lights on the ground. The "New York" spatial economy is many times the size of the NYC metropolitan boundary. But serious problems with housing affordability are spreading throughout the area due to anti-growth ideology and regulations.

I agree very much with what Aaron Renn says here:

".......so frequently it’s the exact same “school solutions” that are proposed in city after city with little to indicate they’ve been seriously thought about in relation to the city in question: light rail, bike lanes, tech startups, mixed use, density, etc., etc., etc.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these or that sometimes you can’t just import a good idea once it’s been perfected elsewhere. Lots of mass consumer products succeed. However, if your entire plan for your city is based on off the shelf ideas from elsewhere, it’s probably going to fall far short of your ambitions......"

I say the USA is far ahead as a national economy, because it has such a diversity of cities. Land markets that are more "free" than in the UK and Europe have resulted in much higher productivity.

See:

http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2013/04/manufacturing-productivity-rocke...

And:

http://www.economist.com/node/21564536

Concrete gains.
America’s big cities are larger than Europe’s. That has important economic consequences.

PhilBest Said: "The USA has

PhilBest Said:

    "The USA has always done this better than Europe. Immigrants to the USA have usually been expected to accept a set of norms re tolerance of others, that defines the USA (a legacy of its founding by religious refugees), and furthermore, immigrants overwhelmingly come to the USA because of the opportunity to fulfill their own potential. Multicultural cringing just creates more problems, now evident in Europe - many immigrants are the opposite of what they were intended to be; that is, they do NOT fill the gap left by Europe's failure to sustain its population by reproduction, they are merely an additional drag on an economy already burdened by demographics."

Exactly! That's why the US has to be constantly espousing what it's vision for its people is, and champion that vision amongst the world, to whomever may also want to partake in that same vision. We can't just take people in just to take people in… It has to be purely ideological. In Europe, they offer benefits to immigrants of third world countries, and that is there large draw.

The Americans, to contrast, has always drawn on idealism and opportunity, in telling the world the ideological underpinnings that gave birth to, and continues to sustain, the American way. We have to reconnect with that. If the message ever becomes that our large draw amongst immigrants is opportunity to have a subsidized living, instead of opportunity to create your own future, and be the captain of your own ship, then we will have lost our way, and undo the American experiment entirely.

PhilBest said:

    "I really like the thesis of Um and Buzzard drawn attention to by Aaron Renn. I agree with it. Your point is kind of "what about these exceptions?" - especially NYC. But Ed Glaeser has authored an op-ed entitled "Wall Street Isn't Enough", warning NYC against relying on a non-diversified economy for too long. I strongly agree with this. A Tobin tax alone, would seriously affect NYC and London and any local economy heavily based on global finance. Interestingly, these less economically diverse cities are heavily diverse culturally."

I read Glaeser's opinion on City-Journal. My only question is: What about NY surviving not just because of Finance, but Entertainment and Media, and Tech? It already hosts one of the strongest tech scenes outside Silicon valley, with a great film and music scene? Alongside propping up a side economy of Eds&Meds that contributes to the overall health of the city? And what about the NYC Tri-State area which can then be what NYC is not..., while still empowering NYC's economy due to its proximity and being part of the greater NYC metro area's economy? This is all in addition to NYC being a cultural and tourist draw. What is our argument to NYC then?

It may be that this city might be in a position not to change its current trajectory. It has Finance as its most powerful draw, but Tech, Media/Entertainment, Eds&Meds, and tourism provide, in my opinion, enough of a cushion, to allow it to remain a playground for the rich, and one that does not have to diversify its economy, nor empower the poor minorities in its borough's to have upward mobility, thus pushing them away from, and out of, NYC. I see Brookland, and I see just the beginning of what's to come vis-a-vis NYC's poor neighborhood, as they are made new by gentrification to be a playground for the aspiring rich, or the children of the rich… What is our argument to NYC then to diversify?

And I'm asking this as one who wants NYC to change, but I don't know what arguments I can say about the issue, given NYC's current reality, and what I see are the advantages that it has that sort of shields it from having to change.

PhilBest said:

    I agree very much with what Aaron Renn says here:
    ".......so frequently it’s the exact same “school solutions” that are proposed in city after city with little to indicate they’ve been seriously thought about in relation to the city in question: light rail, bike lanes, tech startups, mixed use, density, etc., etc., etc.
    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these or that sometimes you can’t just import a good idea once it’s been perfected elsewhere. Lots of mass consumer products succeed. However, if your entire plan for your city is based on off the shelf ideas from elsewhere, it’s probably going to fall far short of your ambitions......"

Urbanism is an end game. It is an end, in and of itself, and thus, a religion as well. It has its dogma, it promotes faith in the unseen/unproven, it has it's priestly class of interpreters, it has its rituals, its crusaders & evangelizers, and, in my opinion, the only way to battle a religion is to question their motives, premises, and cast doubt on the whole endeavor. It is not enough to simply say they are wrong, and back it up with data. That has never worked in any exchange between theists and atheists, it certainly won't work with urbanists, as it'll only sure up the resolve of their faith in their cause… and they will do what any devout religious person whose losing an argument will do - replace our intellect and arguments with the motives of the devil: Greedy, on a corporation's payroll, knows better but simply lowers one's self as a sell-out for selfish reasons. This reaction that many urbanists instinctively feel doesn't deal with the intellect of our arguments, at all. It simply assumes our motives, and frames us in accordance to those, less-then appealing motives, to detour the faith and consideration of its flock of sheep, in our arguments. "They're good, they care, they are smart. We're bad, we don't care, and any level of intellect we may have had was used to foster deals with developers to pave over paradise, for a profit or power."

And I'm speaking as a devout theist. I find any ISM that will be an end in and of itself has all the capacities of religion, from communism to environmentalism, to pop-culture icon worship. And a very often side affect of divorcing intentions and motives, from results and reality, is the ability to champion something because you have faith in it and find it Good, irrespective of the fallout or consequences. We must battle their ideas by going after their faith in these ideas. And we're not really battling Urbanists and its evangelizers. We are instead battling for the hearts and minds of the countless municipalities, residents, and city-planners, just trying to find a way to make their city something that they can be proud of. That... and the simple reality that their is a war of ideas going on, and we have to have a dog in the fight, or horse in the race.

This discussion is getting very interesting

Thanks for your well-informed comments. Colin Clark (urban economist and a great influence on me) liked an old proverb, "The Owl of Minerva (wisdom) flies at dusk". That is, we tend to start to understand a paradigm just as it is going out of date anyway.

Yes, NYC might well be in the process of reinventing itself and already replacing or augmenting the finance sector. It has far less regulatory obstacles in the way of its local economy than London or any UK or European city.

I agree that urbanism is an end in itself, and a religious values system. It is utterly disconnected from scientific objectivity.

The way I try to shame these people, is this. They have nil understanding of economics. They are living proof of what Hayek said, that the kind of mind attracted to "planning" as a profession, seems to inevitably lack any capacity for basic economics; price signals; supply and demand; "rationing"; and so on.

The consequences of their policies is NOT actually to alter variables such as resource consumption in the direction in which they intend. Simple taxes would achieve this anyway, and the actors in the economy could work out the most efficient responses to the price signals created by the taxes. This might not involve more compact urban form at all. There are plenty of "sustainable living" approaches that involve LOW density living, not high density. Even if the forced changes in urban form occurred, it would take 100 years, whereas the reaction to the tax on resource consumption is immediate.

But what the mandates relating to urban form do, is to only minimally affect household and business locations, but they DO have massive impacts on urban land values. I like to guesstimate that the effects of the growth boundaries and the "TOD" and the mass transit "investments", is expressed 10% in changes in behaviour and location, and 90% in capital gains to well placed property owners and land owners.

I say that the accusation that the apologists for "sprawl" - like myself - represent "vested interests", is utterly scandalous. The profits, made in the form of capital gains and increased rents, by these property owners, is orders of magnitude greater than the profits made by suburban fringe developers in a genuinely competitive market. And the former is completely "unearned", while the latter is modest and honest, and involves honest supply of products for which there is genuine demand, and in the course of which honest employment for manual workers is created. Even the suppliers of petrol, make profit margins that are not extraordinary given the level of capital investment involved.

The property owning rentier class does not even supply an honest product in return for the massive sums that are gouged out of society by them. The first home buyer, the renter, the new business start-up; is paying these people many times as much as they might be paying for, say, petrol in their lifetime, and getting NOTHING in return.

One single large CBD property investor has a rational incentive to spend MILLIONS on advocacy of urban growth containment and "smart growth" and "TOD"; let alone dozens of such property investors. I say it is high time some genuine investigative journalism was done to work out what side the REAL "vested interests" are on. I say it is time the advocates of smart growth were shamed into oblivion.