Category Archives: Cities

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to pull together some recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a very current and smart view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe) .

On cities: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that have made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am convinced that the Charter Cities concept will work, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

Building the Digital City

Building the Digital City, here's an excerpt from this fascinating review by Alejandra Rangel Smith of the multidisciplinary conference Building the Digital City:

…New York City has transformed itself into one of the most dynamic and safest places globally, providing a high quality of life paired with a diverse, well-paid and innovative job market. Part of that high quality of life includes walkable neighborhoods, a 24-hour transit system, great schools, culture and entertainment. As a result, New York City not only attracts talent; sometimes that talent then refuses to move elsewhere. According to Craig Nevill-Manning, Director of Engineering at Google in New York, the company wanted to “desperately hire” some people from New York in 2002, but the potential hires would not move to San Francisco. That, coupled with the fact that Nevill-Manning wanted to move back to New York just as desperately, initiated the move. At first, Larry and Sergei were “dubious that there were at least 15 good people to hire in New York,” but today the 3,000-person office has proven otherwise.

Source: http://urbanizationproject.org/blog/building-the-digital-city

 

3 great housing policy ebooks: The Triumph of the City, The Gated City, The Rent is Too Damn High

The past year has seen three sharp minds applied to revolutionizing housing policy – I recommend them all. If you are new to this topic you will probably find Ryan Avent’s Kindle Single to be the most approachable.

Ryan Avent: The Gated City $1.99

Matt Yglesias: The Rent is Too Damn High $3.79

Ed Glaeser: The Triumph of the City $12.99

Robocar Oriented Development and the New City

Brad Templeton has done more work on the implications and impacts of robocars/self-driving cars than anyone I know. There are dozens of thoughtful essays on his site, and he is now a consultant to Google’s self-driving car team (can’t talk about that of course – too bad). This longish essay speculates on the impacts of robocars on patterns of city development. 

This essay examines the potential future big changes to cities as a result of robocars. Most of these changes will be inspired by one key element of robocars: because they can drop passengers off, and then go do other work or park themselves densely in more remote lots, the need for large amounts of parking surrounding commercial buildings should diminish greatly, particularly in suburbs and non-central urban areas. If the land devoted to parking can be repurposed, what does that mean for the city?

See Brad’s main robocar page: Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us. I learn something every time I visit.

Cities are key to global carbon limits

Harvard’s Ed Glaeser was interviewed by the European Magazine. Ed is author of the excellent Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. There are many important points, including the possibility that development policy could significantly reduce the per capita energy intensity of the ongoing urbanization. The future much richer Chinese peasant could require an energy footprint more like Hong Kong than Houston.

Such an ultradense pathway is not a sure thing – just look at the sprawl of Beijing and Shanghai, which have less than one tenth the density of NYC and half the density of LA. The challenge for the West is to help the Chinese, Indians et al achieve the French path (of 80% nuclear electricity).

Here’s an excerpt on that point:

The European: Could moving people into cities be a sustainable solution for emerging economies dealing with the issues resulting from growth?

Glaeser: From an environmental standpoint it seems very clear that it needs to be done. But you have got to do it in a way that makes sense: Part of the issue with African poverty is that as long as people remain rural, they will be whipsawed by every environmental hazard that comes along. By engaging in subsistence agriculture, there is no way to for them to take advantage of the global trading system. I want to make it clear that I am not an environmental expert, but some regions may end up losing as a result of changes of the environment and others regions may end up benefitting. Areas that now are cold may end up being easier to grow on just as areas that are hot now may end up being worse to grow on. If you are part of the global trading system, you will be able to take advantage of wheat grown in Canada or in Siberia. If you are not, if you are a subsistence agriculture country, then every famine that hits rural Nigeria will leave thousands dead. It is easy to see the benefit that comes from a transition out of agriculture towards a more urban future.

Concerning the environmental impact, it is clear that if everybody remains in rural poverty, there won’t be much going on in terms of carbon emissions. But I don’t think we can possibly hope for that. If you compare countries that are more than 50% urbanized with countries that are less than 50% urbanized, incomes are five times higher in the more urbanized countries and infant mortality rates are less than a third in the more urbanized countries. The path of rural poverty really is awful. But there are different paths and if for example the great growing economies of India and China see their carbon emission levels rise to the level seen in sprawling United States, global carbon emissions will go up by 120%.

But if they stop at the level seen in hyper-dense but still prosperous Hong Kong, global carbon emissions go up by only 25%. So, density is a way of managing growth so that it involves less carbon emissions in the future.

Highly recommended. Read the whole thing »

Detroit’s Decline and the Folly of Light Rail

Harvard’s urban economist Ed Glaeser wrote this little essay last spring. US president Obama and his advisors really need to spend some time with Glaeser. Here’s a fragment of Ed’s concluding paragraph:

(…) The defining characteristic of declining cities is that they have plenty of infrastructure relative to the level of demand. Detroit didn’t need the People Mover—an expensive monorail that glides over empty streets. And today, a Light Rail project is being pitched by the federal government, which seems to have learned nothing from the failures of past follies.

Neither Detroit nor the U.S. suffer from any profound transportation problem that can only be fixed with vast federal spending. The country doesn’t need more People Movers. It needs unleashed, educated entrepreneurs—and they will only be held back by taxes being funneled into fanciful make-work projects in a futile attempt to fix our economic malaise.

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Paul Romer

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion (TED Talk)” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in a rough, non-linear relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). Zero-carbon energy that is cheaper-than-coal has to be the foundation of that pyramid.

The purpose of this post is to pull together some recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is Steward Brand’s Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald, Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (text interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe) .

On cities: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that have made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am convinced that the Charter Cities concept will work, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

“When ideas have sex” is a key theme of Matt Ridley’s 2010 book The Rational Optimist. I do not agree with all of Ridley’s themes. But his riff on ideas is good – sample his TED Talk When ideas have sex. I also recommend the longer Ridley lecture/discussion titled Deep Optimism at Stewart Brand’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title.

Enjoy!

 

The locavore’s dilemma

Don’t miss Harvard’s Ed Glaeser on the fantasy of “urban agriculture.” Isn’t it odd that most people seem to appreciate that it doesn’t make sense to make their own shoes, pencils or iPhones. But somehow it is a “good thing” to grow their own food. As a hobby, of course, gardening is satisfying, relaxing. But somehow this is generalized into the locavore philosophy of “local food good, agriculture bad”.

The locavores might learn from interviewing a few African farmers on how wonderful it is to grow their own food.

(…) The connection between higher density living and less energy use is strong. Urban farms mean less people per acre which in turn means longer drives and more gasoline consumption. Shipping food is just far less energy intensive than moving people. If the First Lady wants to help the environment, she should campaign for high rise apartments, rather than plant vegetables.

Ed Glaeser: Why Cities Rock

Another excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3]. I’m looking forward to reading Glaeser’s new book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. From the blog:

When Edward Glaeser looks at a map, he sees something different than many people. Glaeser’s world is one in which cities are the engines that drive the world. Wide-open spaces are nice, but when people live atop one another, they exchange ideas, create wealth, and live longer and happier lives as well. Glaeser is an economist at Harvard and, while his work celebrates the success of city life, it also questions why we have so many incentives opposed to it — tax breaks that encourage people to buy single-family homes in the suburbs, subsidies for roads and high-speed rail that help create sprawl. We spoke to Glaeser about his new book, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.” In this podcast, he tells the story of how the young naturalist Henry David Thoreau inadvertently destroyed a big patch of nature, and why Glaeser believes that blacktop is greener than grass.

[From Why Cities Rock]

Is “to Kindle” in the vocabulary yet?

How skyscrapers can save the city

Harvard real estate economist Ed Glaeser has an excellent essay in The Atlantic. The analysis and history is largely based on NYC, but the principles are universal. Example:

The relationship between housing supply and affordability isn’t just a matter of economic theory. A great deal of evidence links the supply of space with the cost of real estate. Simply put, the places that are expensive don’t build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren’t expensive. Perhaps a new 40-story building won’t itself house any quirky, less profitable firms, but by providing new space, the building will ease pressure on the rest of the city. Price increases in gentrifying older areas will be muted because of new construction. Growth, not height restrictions and a fixed building stock, keeps space affordable and ensures that poorer people and less profitable firms can stay and help a thriving city remain successful and diverse. Height restrictions do increase light, and preservation does protect history, but we shouldn’t pretend that these benefits come without a cost.

(…) But one of the advantages of building up in already dense neighborhoods is that you don’t have to build in green areas, whether in Central Park or somewhere far from an urban center. From the preservationist perspective, building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other, older buildings. One could quite plausibly argue that if members of the landmarks commission have decided that a building can be razed, then they should demand that its replacement be as tall as possible.

The cost of restricting development is that protected areas have become more expensive and more exclusive. In 2000, people who lived in historic districts in Manhattan were on average almost 74 percent wealthier than people who lived outside such areas. Almost three-quarters of the adults living in historic districts had college degrees, as opposed to 54 percent outside them. People living in historic districts were 20 percent more likely to be white. The well-heeled historic-district denizens who persuade the landmarks commission to prohibit taller structures have become the urban equivalent of those restrictive suburbanites who want to mandate five-acre lot sizes to keep out the riffraff. It’s not that poorer people could ever afford 980 Madison Avenue, but restricting new supply anywhere makes it more difficult for the city to accommodate demand, and that pushes up prices everywhere.

Again, the basic economics of housing prices are pretty simple—supply and demand. New York and Mumbai and London all face increasing demand for their housing, but how that demand affects prices depends on supply. Building enough homes eases the impact of rising demand and makes cities more affordable. That’s the lesson of both Houston today and New York in the 1920s. In the post-war boom years between 1955 and 1964, Manhattan issued permits for an average of more than 11,000 new housing units each year. Between 1980 and ’99, when the city’s prices were soaring, Manhattan approved an average of 3,100 new units per year. Fewer new homes meant higher prices; between 1970 and 2000, the median price of a Manhattan housing unit increased by 284 percent in constant dollars.

Bad land use is not just a western problem. E.g., dynamic cities such as Mumbai are being crippled by wrong-head regulation. You know the traffic and congestion in Mumbai is mind-boggling. Did you know that this is largely due to a 1.33 maximum floor-to-area ratio?

The public failures in Mumbai are as obvious as the private successes. Western tourists can avoid the open-air defecation in Mumbai’s slums, but they can’t avoid the city’s failed transportation network. Driving the 15 miles from the airport to the city’s old downtown, with its landmark Gateway of India arch, can easily take 90 minutes. There is a train that could speed your trip, but few Westerners have the courage to brave its crowds during rush hour. In 2008, more than three people each working day were pushed out of that train to their death. Average commute times in Mumbai are roughly 50 minutes each way, which is about double the average American commute.

The most cost-effective means of opening up overcrowded city streets would be to follow Singapore and charge more for their use. If you give something away free, people will use too much of it. Mumbai’s roads are just too valuable to be clogged up by ox carts at rush hour, and the easiest way to get flexible drivers off the road is to charge them for their use of public space. Congestion charges aren’t just for rich cities; they are appropriate anywhere traffic comes to a standstill. After all, Singapore was not wealthy in 1975, when it started charging drivers for using downtown streets. Like Singapore, Mumbai could just require people to buy paper day licenses to drive downtown, and require them to show those licenses in their windows. Politics, however, and not technology, would make this strategy difficult.

Mumbai’s traffic problems reflect not just poor transportation policy, but a deeper and more fundamental failure of urban planning. In 1991, Mumbai fixed a maximum floor-to-area ratio of 1.33 in most of the city, meaning that it restricted the height of the average building to 1.33 stories: if you have an acre of land, you can construct a two-story building on two-thirds of an acre, or a three-story building on four-ninths of an acre, provided you leave the rest of the property empty. In those years, India still had a lingering enthusiasm for regulation, and limiting building heights seemed to offer a way to limit urban growth.

But Mumbai’s height restrictions meant that, in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, buildings could have an average height of only one and a third stories. People still came; Mumbai’s economic energy drew them in, even when living conditions were awful. Limiting heights didn’t stop urban growth, it just ensured that more and more migrants would squeeze into squalid, illegal slums rather than occupying legal apartment buildings.

Singapore doesn’t prevent the construction of tall buildings, and its downtown functions well because it’s tall and connected. Businesspeople work close to one another and can easily trot to a meeting. Hong Kong is even more vertical and even friendlier to pedestrians, who can walk in air-conditioned skywalks from skyscraper to skyscraper. It takes only a few minutes to get around Wall Street or Midtown Manhattan. Even vast Tokyo can be traversed largely on foot. These great cities function because their height enables a huge number of people to work, and sometimes live, on a tiny sliver of land. But Mumbai is short, so everyone sits in traffic and pays dearly for space.

Is it a surprise that Singapore has so few of these planning mistakes? Read the whole thing »