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William H. Whyte is awesome.

His 1988 classic, City: Rediscovering the Center, is a big book with big ideas–he discusses everything from the use and user-friendly design of plazas to the history of zoning in New York City to the emergence of company campuses (PRE-Garreau’s Edge Cities!) to pretty much everything we think of as contemporary urban design issues.

After so many keen observations, insights, and pronouncements about property city form, however, he concludes with a little bit of self-awareness.  Perhaps pointing out his own hubris is in fact a device which further contributes to it, but it is nevertheless an interesting statement on the role of the researcher in observing human behavior.  The perception of objectivity breaks itself down.

Here’s the final page, and a neat way to end a book:

“Let me append a methodological note.

“I have tried to be objective in this book, but I must confess a bias.  In comparing notes with fellow observers, I find that I share with them a secret vice:  hubris.

“Observation is entrapping.  It is like the scale models architects beguile you with; start lifting off the roofs and you gain the sense of power.  So it is with the observation of a place:  once you start making little maps of it, charting where people come and go, you begin to possess the place.  You do not possess it, of course.  The reality continues to exist quite independent of you or any thoughts you may project onto it.  But you feel you possess it, and you can develop such a proprietary regard for it as to become pettily jealous if anyone else arrogates it.

“A further temptation beckons us.  As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters:  100 percent conversations, prolonged goodbye, reciprocal gestures, straight man and principal.  Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well.  They are your people out there.  Sheer delusion, of course, but there is nothing so satisfying as to see them all out there on the street doing what you expect they should be doing.

“Three men on the corner are in a prolonged goodbye.  One of them is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.  No one else is.  At length, the man stops rocking back and forth.  I chuckle to myself.  I know that in a few moments another of the men will take up the rocking motion.  Time passes.  More time passes.  No one budges.  More time passes.  At length, one of the men shifts his weight; slowly, he begins walking back and forth.  I am very pleased with myself.”

William H. Whyte.  City:  Rediscovering the Center.    New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday,  1988 (1991).

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Just got back from a showing of the fully-restored version of Metropolis, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra (live!), brought to you by the fine people at Cornell Cinema.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)The music matched the movie pretty well – staccato militaristic drum, mechanical rhythm, scraping metal-on-metal, some kitschy chimes.  Both were melodramatic but pull you in nonetheless.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard the original score, but I’d venture to say this captures the spirit of the film if not the minute detail of historical accuracy.

Just a brief thought on the film itself.

There is the highly dominant message Lang wants you to leave with:  “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”  And there’s much to be said about the religious imagery, the portrayal of gender and sexuality vis à vis a woman-robot, etc.

Being a planner, however, I was of course more interested in what it had to say about the city.  One could read the “Mediator” as a planner, a community advocate, a voice bridging gaps between city and (disenfranchised) population.  That seems too easy and “feel good,” though.

Metropolis:  the City as Body as Machine.  On multiple levels, this metaphor plays out among the three.  The city has a Heart machine, a Brain, and (many) Hands, not to mention circulation (and a pleasure center).  Human bodies become machines, whether working in the underground city, contorting to move clock hands or gyrating on a club stage.  The actors themselves have a very mechanical quality, holding poses, stumbling rigidly, pointing to their head or heart to indicate feeling.  The transfer of life from Maria to the Maria-robot begins with the illuminated heart, then circulation system.  And the machine itself becomes a body in the not-so-subtle reference to Moloch (had to look that one up!), consuming other (apparently Phoenician) bodies so that the city functions.  And in the end, the city could only successfully function as an integrated body of head, heart, and hand.

I would love to hear a discussion about this movie in the context of post-war Germany, the large-scale industrialization of the U.S. and Europe in the 19th-early 20th century, the Art Deco and Futurist movements, Berlin in the 20s, and especially compared against Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).  Did Chaplin see Metropolis?  Was he spoofing it?  How did the Depression change perception of the City-Machine?  And was Metropolis a particular city?  It looked a lot like New York, and certainly not like Berlin or other European cities at the time!  Did Le Corbusier have a hand (ha) in the design?

A short thought-detour out of the city.

I was signing up for office-hours meetings today, that sheet on the professor’s door.  It’s never easy to write vertically with a standard office pen, and everyone’s name looks uneven and scrawled across the time slot line.  Even so, each person’s handwriting was distinct in size, shape, angle of inflection, and all those points and curves a writing analyst might study.  Then I realized – I don’t really know anyone’s handwriting!

This isn’t a problem of not being observant.  Being left-handed, I tend to glance around and take note of who’s holding their pen in the “wrong” hand – there are never that many.  Most of my classmates still take their class notes on paper, so opportunities are there when you tend to have the same neighbors.  Yet at times I’m a little struck and surprised when confronted with a handwritten item from someone I know, realizing that this ingrained and distinct expression of that person is something totally banal, yet someone I rarely (if ever) see and even less often consciously think about.  Whose handwriting can you recognize?  Family?  Friends?  Co-workers?

Computers must be to blame. So much of what we communicate is text, but specifically electronic text – E-mails, Word documents, instant messages and texts.  Our digital writing may begin to more closely resemble our speech patterns as we type our conversations.  Our finished documents all look alike because they use the same fonts – even the most distinctive font cannot easily be “owned” by a particular individual.  We even give “digital signatures” in lieu of inked ones, consisting only of our name and perhaps a second piece of personal data.  The act and form of the written signature, itself a piece of personal data, becomes lost.

While handwriting is a commonplace and unconscious production of self-expression, it is not really commonplace anymore.  While so much of my day-to-day communication is done through the written word, almost none of it is written out by hand.  The distinctive handwriting of my most frequent associates or closest chat-buddies, rather than being the easiest to recognize, becomes strangely hidden and surprisingly intimate when revealed in a casual note or scrap of paper or on a professor’s office-hours schedule.  Whereas handwriting was perhaps once the most widely-distributed form of one’s self-expression, it is now reserved for closest connections (notes to roommates on the refrigerator, cards and letters, project collaborators trading drafts) but also the most mundane, throwaway items (grocery lists, signatures on credit card receipts, administrative forms).  Recognizing someone else’s handwriting therefore becomes a significant act.

What strikes me most about this thought is not that recognizing someone’s handwriting is somehow a mark of friendship or privilege – certainly there was no point in time where that ability was a perfect measure of a degree of relationship.  It is the increasing disconnect between communication and handwriting – that it is possible, indeed the norm, to communicate (in writing) with someone regularly, perhaps every day, and have no idea how they would actually write the same words with pen and paper.  That a small piece of ourselves remains so mundane yet so hidden from those around us makes the discovery of that small piece all the more interesting.

“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.

… Possibly the most pretentious post title yet!

So it’s officially Week 7 that I’ve gone without a car . . . that is, it’s still in the shop with transmission problems.  (The lesson to be drawn from the past two summers’ worth of car problems is, do not buy a Subaru without a good warranty and a steady income!)  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on public transit going one place or another, and have taken advantage of the lovely service of the public library.

Earlier in the summer I was avoiding “work” reading (planning-related books), in favor of easy fiction and those random books that had been on my list for a while.  As I reluctantly realize summer is ending, however, I’ve started turning back to the city books.  Rationale:  there’s a long list of planning-related things I should read.  I won’t want to read them during the school year, because that’s all I’ll be doing anyway; light fiction and some “escapist” stuff (easy to pick up and put down and pass out in the middle of a chapter at the end of the day) will be a better idea.  Therefore, better do it now!

One book I picked up (per a friend’s suggestion) is Nan Ellin’s Postmodern Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 rev. ed.).  It’s pretty theoretical and there’s a fair amount of academic name-dropping — even some stuff from the old cultural history reading list!  Hobsbawm! — but it makes some interesting claims about the goals of (post)modern design, what it’s actually doing, and why it’s ultimately still part of the Modern Project.  That is, it might look different than modernist buildings, and it might attempt to return to pre-industrial city form, but it still takes a rational and technocratic approach to achieving its aims.  And it inescapably operates within a market-oriented, consumer-based structure which essentially dictates the outcome of design and planning exercises, however inclusive.  [Insert lots of David Harvey block quotes here.]

Here are a few things to think about.  I still am.

“Recent urban design inarguably advances the modern project because it refuses to relinquish the vast possibilities offered by the new technologies because it is embedded in larger market forces.  Despite its prevalent romantic imagery, its mode of production, distribution, and consumption remain highly rational as do the lifestyles of the people who use it (with a few scattered exceptions).  In architecture, an abandonment of the products and promises of the modern project would constitute an undeniable regression because its evolution has gone hand in hand with that of new technologies.  And a challenge to the modern project on the part of planners would violate the very bases upon which planning rests since the profession emerged during the modern period and is predicated on modernist notions of rationality and progress.  It is not surprising, then, that the architecture and planning professions have largely avoided reflecting too deeply on the continued validity of the modern project.

“Pressed to ascertain whether this recent swing of the pendulum in urban design theory and practice has actually posed a challenge to the modern project or whether it has affirmed it, we must concede that as long as architects and planners seek technical and creative solutions to social problems in pursuit of progress, they continue to pursue the modern project.  While contemporary urban design may break from the modern project formally and rhetorically, it actually continues it technologically, politically, and economically, perhaps with the exception of a growing sensitivity toward social diversity and toward the environment.  Symbolically, contemporary urban design both continues and breaks from the modern project for it suggests to the general public a re-valorization of history, urbanity, the vernacular, and the community, while in fact only cosmetic changes are effected.  In sum, while contemporary urban design may constitute a symbolic break from modernism, in actuality, it continues the project, as is revealed by architects’ and planners’ goals, their means for implementing these goals, their products, and their means of assessing the relative success of these products.

Rather than avoid the drawbacks of modern urbanism, then, architecture and planning since the 1960s are guilty of much the same, albeit unwittingly.  This is largely because the political economy of advanced global capitalism and the continued prominence of positivistic thinking (despite challenges posed to it) impose constraints that limit its actual divergence.  A reality which many architects and planners have preferred to ignore or minimize is that rather than following function, form has increasingly been following finance.  The prime mover, particularly in the more liberal economies, is less the architects and planners than the larger economic system in which they work and which functions according to the profit motive.  Like the initial claims of modern design to be populist, those of postmodern urbanism have also been subverted, perhaps even more so.  But designers are reluctant to acknowledge their ever-growing reliance upon the marketplace for it detracts from their potential for creative expression and for implementing change, not to mention their ability to preserve the legitimacy of their professions.” (212-213)

“Superficially, then, we have come full circle.  This time, however, the pre-industrial-looking landscapes (some of which are more convincing than others) are the product of hyper-rational efforts.  As such, postmodern urbanism might be perceived as dishonest or pretentious for trying to be something it is not.  In addition, its complicity with the political economy in which it is embedded often renders its intents unrealizable, or in the interests of capital rather than the larger good.  As a result, many contextual intentions are stymied and, even when realized, are judged unsuccessful by users and designers alike.  When successful, though, these efforts can result in environments that harmonize with the physical and social contexts and which people appreciate for their non-intrusive quality and formal interest.

“Although the lessons of modern urbanism have yet to be fully assimilated and postmodern urban design theory is inherently flawed, it nonetheless offers certain correctives to its predecessor and has generated some built environments that are widely recognized as superior to those which issued from the tenets of modern urbanism.  Most important is the renewed attention to fulfilling non-functional needs and tastes, as manifest in building on a human scale; reintroducing ornament, color, and whimsy; developing a mix of uses in one project; valuing public spaces of many kinds; and valuing experimentation with new typologies, morphologies, and modes of architectural production including various kinds of user participation, computer-aided design, and serial production techniques.  Some of this experimentation has undeniably enhanced the lives of its users as well as the shape of the landscape.

“The reconceptualizations of the city and of culture over the last few decades are inscribed within the larger challenge to the modern canon in contemporary Western society.  This broadbased challenge is reflected in legitimacy crises in our basic assumptions, ways of knowing, and practice, and it is expressed in the millennial meditations described above.  While all indications suggest a threshold, what lies on the other side remains unclear.  At its worst, the extreme relativism and disengagement that may result from a distrust of master narratives and expertise can eliminate any possibility for communication, ethics, and democratic practice.  With regards to cultural forms of expression, it can detract from any emancipatory and educational possibilities.  The result can be an ultra-subjective alienating sense that there is no longer a “real,” and a corresponding obsession with artifice which allows for easy manipulation by the deft imagery of advertising and other forms of persuasion.  In some respects, then, the efforts among urban designers to remedy the imagery merely play into the hands of this process, ultimately intensifying rather than combating the prevailing sense of insecurity.” (291-292)

I’m looking at you, New Urbanists!!!

Cities, and people who think about cities, are usually all about place and space.  I’d like to make the case instead that cities and the way we think about them – by which I mean, the everyday activities and movement within cities, more than the physical landscape itself – are really all about time.

First, time defines the urban in contrast to the rural.  This is not to say that rural areas exist outside of time, but that they experience it differently.  Time, in agricultural terms, is cyclical, relying on the predictable recurrence of sunrise and sunset, of spring and summer; action is dictated by the length of day and the growing season.  Unpopulated rural areas, forests and wetlands, adhere even more closely to the natural cycle.  Extraction operations like mining may rely less on that cycle, but only through the benefit of technologies like electricity and industrial machinery.  In popular perception, at least, rural life is slow, unhurried, and “close to nature,” relying on the sun rather than the digital clock to tell the time; urban life, in contrast, is fast-paced, frenetic, and full of impatient crowds, rushing so as not to be late.

Suburbs seem to exist in the middle space between these two ideas – slower and calmer than a bustling downtown, but still tied to time-sensitive activities like the morning commute, the after-school program, and the evening news.  Time is still measured, but much of it by the car’s dashboard clock.

It has been observed that we have built our cities with increments of time:  the “forty-five minute rule” claims that city size has historically been determined by the length that can reasonably be travelled in forty-five minutes.  If on foot, about two to three miles; if in a horse-drawn cart, somewhat longer; if by train or car or motorized bus, longer still.  While this may not hold true in all cases, it seems to make sense:  a person can only spend so much of their waking hours travelling, or else nothing would get done.  City height and density may have been determined in part by construction technology and infrastructure limitations, but its breadth may be most practically determined using travel times, not physical distance.

The importance of time in urban movement – and it seems that urban life is all about moving from one place to another – is most evident in public transit.  We often choose one mode over another based on travel times, even if it puts us a couple blocks out of the way; we may even spend more money on a cab just to save time.  Using NextBus and similar tracking services, we determine our schedule by the number of minutes to arrival, not the length or even number of stops the bus or train has to travel.  Our estimated travel time may make one place seem more accessible than the other, even if they are both exactly one mile away.  We measure our reasonable walking radius by minutes as much as by miles; and even in easily-understood grid cities like (midtown) Manhattan or Chicago, we orient ourselves at least as much to the time spent in transit than to the miles we travel every day.  In more chaotic cities like Boston or Paris, the zig-zag distances we travel are hard to measure, and it’s not really worth doing so anyway.

A good rule of thumb:  most places in Chicago seem to take forty-five minutes to reach; most places in Columbus take ten to twenty.  If the destinations are close, we may take a leisurely walk and allow ourselves extra “cushion” time to leave.  If they are further away, driving time must include a traffic jam and some time to search for parking; if taking public transit, we build in extra time to wait for the bus or train, and even more if a transfer is required.  Unless it’s just up the street, we expect to take some extra time getting there.

Trains are most closely linked to time, and are often disconnected from space.  Consider the origin of standard time itself:  the development of cross-country train networks in the United States created the need for a common understanding of when noon or eight or five actually occurred, rather than each town measuring for itself by solar position alone.  (A plaque near the Chicago Board of Trade building commemorates that city’s part in the “invention” of time.)  Because the train’s route and schedule are already circumscribed, we think little of the actual distance we travel, but conceive of the trip more or less as a straight line from A to B, within a given time frame.

Train schedules and maps exist even further out of real, physical space:  the stylized, rectilinear diagram of the London or New York subways alter the form of the city itself to be more legible as a network of colorful lines; stations that appear relatively far apart may indeed be only a block or two away, as is the case with the Regent’s Park and Great Portland Street Tube stations in London. [walking] [by train].

Furthermore, particularly for commuter rail with few or no connecting stations, the schedule is all we really need.  When will it depart?  When will I arrive?  The intermediate locations, not to mention the actual path of the track, is irrelevant.

Inter-city travel may be more or less time-dependent than intra-city.  While we pay attention to miles on the highway, relying on the odometer and the gas tank to remind us when to stop, when we travel by air, we worry primarily about whether or not we’ll miss our flight.  The actual experience of travel is disconnected from the physical distance:  we arrive in one airport, wait a bit, board the plane, perhaps watch landing and takeoff and catch glimpses of farm fields before ascending above the clouds, then touch down again at an eerily similar airport elsewhere.  Frequent flyer miles remain somewhat arbitrary numbers, points we accumulate over time.

Because movement is such an integral part of urban life, we must inevitably rely on time to determine the rest of our actions.  We generally work for a given number of hours, whether or not we are salaried; we take our children to and from school; we must pay attention to opening and closing times of our stores and restaurants and offices; we make appointments and plans and attend events according to the time we have left.  And, of course, somewhere in the midst of everything we find time to sleep.  We find time, lost time, make time, waste time, need more time or time off.  A city itself may be a place, a location, a location in physical space, but in our everyday conception of the city in which we live, it is really a series of time.

Today was a rainy, cold, up-and-down, good-and-bad day, but most decidedly it was a lesson in patience.

I visited UHC’s Joy Garden for the first time, intending to start work but realizing the rain got in the way.  Talked to Nick, the designer/project lead for the garden, who spoke of it as very much a work in progress.  He highlighted all the work that had already been done, and that the site had clearly come a long way from being a patch of salty dirt, as it had been when they started.  His timeline, however, remained relatively long.  By the end of this summer they would hopefully be finished, replacing the existing plants with others as opportunity arose, re-installing pieces as needed, but the salinity of the soil meant that they couldn’t really start growing food (the end goal) until at least two years from now – likely after UHC turns over the garden completely to the school.  For me, a volunteer only for this summer, that sounded like a long time; but in the grand scheme of things, it was just a few more seasons for what was meant to be a long-lasting garden.  For the students working on the garden, especially, many would likely not see it completed until after they’d graduated.  The most important part was not the finished product, but the learning experience.

Then I headed down to the Bridgeport area to visit Bubbly Dynamics, a.k.a. the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center.  John, the owner and main rehabber of the building, showed me around from green roof to basement, highlighting various reused materials, the ultra-efficient heating system, the variety of tenants’ activities, and some of the history of the building (much unknown) and the industrial area as a whole.  We also talked about The Plant, his next project, which will transform much of an old meatpacking building into an urban farm and light manufacturing space.  Assuming all goes well with the closing, he said, “then the next ten years are laid out for me in that building.”  He also mentioned another industrial building, undervalued but with great potential, he was keeping an eye on in the hopes of buying someday.  Again, I was thinking that it all sounded like such a long time!  Having only the summer to lend a hand, I was eager to start doing something – but with a much larger plan and process at work, and with a decade-long time frame, John was (rightly) in no hurry.  Rehabbing the building would be a complex challenge, but there was plenty of time to figure everything out.

Because my car apparently hates Chicago (and has developed some mostly-inexplicable problem every time I come back here), the transmission was misbehaving all afternoon, even after an oil change and trans fluid check.  So I headed back up north to the nearest Subaru dealer.  Traffic along I-94 was terrible from one end to the other:  moving about 15 mph the whole time (and that’s if we weren’t stopped), and non-stop rain.  It took me about 2 hours to go 10 miles, on. the. highway.  But I had nowhere to be in a hurry, and idling along was probably better for the car than having to switch gears constantly on city streets, so I grudgingly rode it out.

The dealer’s service area was closing up for the night, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear the verdict (and cost).  Luckily, I was able to take the bus, or rather two buses, home.  More waiting, but the rain had stopped.

And finally, when I arrived home, I had received a couple answers (via Email) that I was hoping would show up eventually.

So today’s lesson is:  while time can seem so limited, and life’s small hassles so large when you’re in the midst of them, there is a longer timeline you’re moving along.  A bigger goal to work for.  A larger world to be a part of.  And there is virtue in striving to keep the longer future on your immediate horizon, blocked as it may be by things of the moment.  Or, “good things come to those who wait.”  So, patience!

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

I felt compelled to write about this, because The Daily Beast did not.  They recently featured the results of Richard Florida’s “Top 25 Cities for College Graduates”, finding that Ithaca, New York was #1.  That’s right, Ithaca.

What?

Now, this list was supposed to highlight where recent graduates are likely to be comfortable settling:  finding a job, being around other young (single) people, and other amenities.  So it might surprise you that Ithaca is first, a bunch of other college towns are also high on the list (regardless of whether they’re in a big city or not), places like New York and DC are middling, Los Angeles is pretty low on the list, and Chicago does not make it at all.  Also, much as it pains me to say it … Albany (NY) makes the list, but Portland (OR) doesn’t?  What?

Granted, some choices like Austin or Boston make a lot of sense.  But Ithaca?!  So, let’s look at Florida’s criteria:

“These rankings are based on an index of nine statistical indicators … measures in the rankings include:

  • Presence of twentysomethings (20-24 year olds) in the population
  • Singles—measured as the share of unmarried people
  • Earnings potential—measured as average salary
  • Unemployment rate
  • College educated workforce—the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Rental housing—having an abundant, available stock of rental housing is key. We measured this as the share of all housing made up of rental units.
  • Youth-oriented amenities—like bars, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities and entertainment venues.
  • Creative capital–we use this to capture the creative energy of a place. It’s measured as the share of employed artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, designers, and entertainers in the workforce.
  • Openness–A region’s openness to new and different kinds of people reflects a lack of barriers and willingness to let newcomers, including young people, have a go. Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community
  • Affordability–The overall rankings do not take housing costs into account. Generally speaking, new college grads are renters and can easily share apartments to reduce costs. It’s also difficult to get a handle on the full living costs borne by young people—some communities have accessible mass transit; in others, new grads must buy a car (and pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking).

“We decided to break out an additional index to account for affordability. This index includes a variable for rent levels—median contract rent. It weights affordability at 25 percent of the overall index value, and lets the other nine indicators account for the remaining 75 percent.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  Except all of those exactly describe COLLEGE TOWNS – more specifically, towns dominated by a large university and who have attracted a significant population to the town in the first place.  Here’s how it measures up with Ithaca:

  • Presence of twentysomethings – Cornell has something like 20,000 students, and the city itself has 60,000 total.  You do the math.
  • Singles – see above; how many full-time Ivy undergrads are married?
  • Earnings potential – average salary?  You’re either earning nothing, an Ivy League professor, or you can afford to live in Ithaca.  Most of the (lower-income) service staff live well outside the city itself, because they can’t afford it.
  • Unemployment rate – again:  COLLEGE TOWN.  If you’re in college, you’re not unemployed because you’re not seeking work.  If you’re in grad school, ditto.  If you’re retired or the spouse of a professor, double ditto.  If you’re working at a coffee shop and on a quest to “find yourself,” don’t even count the number of dittos.
  • College educated workforce – … seriously?  Tompkins County has something like 50% adults 25+ with a bachelors or above.
  • Rental housing – … again, seriously?  Ithaca is 70% rental housing.  There’s no way any normal city could compete with that stat.
  • Youth-oriented amenities – COLLEGE TOWN.  It’s even got a whole freaking neighborhood called Collegetown.
  • Creative capital – this is pretty much code for “College Town or Big City.”  It is a good point; young people like culture and amenities.  But again, you can’t compete with a huge university for cultural offerings (AND the money to pay their honoraria).
  • Openness – “Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community.”  Kind of a fair point on the first part, but DUHHHH on the second.  Especially a high-level (high-cost) school like Cornell.  Again, how could a large city really compete with that?
  • Affordability – it’s true that college students (or recent grads) split rent efficiently.  But they’re going to find cheap rent in college towns, and very few rental options in all but big cities.  And if that’s the only measure of affordability… I feel compelled to mention that I know of someone (via Craigslist sublet posting) who has actually paid $1800/mo for a 1 BR in (Collegetown) Ithaca.  ITHACA, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

So as far as I can tell, Florida came up with a brilliant way for identifying college towns, which I’m pretty sure you can do with a short stint on Google Maps.

What would make this index better?

  • Measuring how many other EMPLOYERS are in the area – since the damn list is supposed to be all about employment after school.  A college town is going to be well-employed because everyone already works at the college.  Those out on the job market, while sometimes they find jobs with the school, are more likely looking for work at another company or non-profit.  Look at who ELSE is hiring.  Ithaca, for one, has very little to offer a new grad, unless you want to stay with Cornell; want to work in agriculture; or happen to get a job with one of the various small companies in the area.  It doesn’t have much on a big city, and certainly is not a bountiful cornucopia of job opportunity.
  • Along the same lines, maybe measuring the number of start-up businesses – like the Boulder description implies, or like Silicon Valley shows, that is a more solid indicator of creative, educated talent making a start.
  • Measuring not college-age students, but householders (single or otherwise) from 25-35.  This covers people who actually stuck around after school, and who are not living with parents.  If you could cross-reference with educational attainment, so much the better.
  • If possible, better household ownership stats – are people right out of school buying condos (or townhouses or duplexes), not family-sized houses?  That seems a great indicator to me, knowing several people who have done that very thing.
  • Expand the definition of “creative.”  Florida seems to limit it to artists (visual, performing, etc) but those are very hard to measure and don’t include a broad enough spectrum of “interesting jobs” which I think he’s attempting to get at.  Might I suggest number of self-employed people?  Or number of locally-owned businesses?  Or perhaps a more qualitative rating based on festivals, annual events, concerts, etc?  Or whether or not they have some local equivalent of a Metromix events site?
  • Florida skirts around this, but you almost want to think he would include “Number of Democrats” in the ranking – the “Openness” category seems to want to go there, but doesn’t.  Maybe “Percentage Who Voted For Obama”?  (Note:  this one wouldn’t actually be very good, but who knows, maybe there’s some kind of crazy-high correlation after all.)
  • And finally, you could use a silly little indicator like “number of places to get a latte” or “price of a cup of coffee” or “frequency of recycling pickup” to get at the question of diversity.  You could even include something like Walkscore.  Something that doesn’t skew so heavily toward a college town (or big city) like the gay/lesbian and foreign-born indicators do.

In conclusion:  Seriously, Florida.  Ithaca?  Have you been to Ithaca?  Or more importantly, have you ever looked for a job in Ithaca?  It’s pretty and all, but … seriously.  Ithaca.

I found an article today (via Planetizen) that made me happy.  Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, writes that in addition to the traditional economic explanation for cities – agglomeration, in which it is more efficient for manufacturing firms to share resources by being physically near each other – there is an information component to agglomeration as well.  While the manufacturing version of agglomeration becomes less relevant as transportation costs have decreased in recent decades, Glaeser asserts that information- and knowledge-based productivity increases along with density:

via NY Times

Glaeser, "Why Humanity Loves - and Needs - Cities" (NYTimes)

One of the issues I have with the traditional agglomeration argument is that it does not sufficiently describe individuals’ desire to be near other people.  This isn’t quite that argument, but it’s getting closer!

Is this the new economic model for twenty-first century cities?  Or does it over-estimate the influence of the knowledge-based economy on urban form and our settlement patterns?

[Read the article here]

Our class discussions about race, cities, and various forms of residential segregation (both systemic and self-perpetuating) got me thinking about my own hometown, Columbus Ohio.  Growing up, we lived in a primarily white neighborhood in the city limits.  Then we moved to an even more white suburb on the west side, where my parents still live today.

I think it’s safe to say that Columbus considers itself a pretty “white” city.  It’s the capital city in a Midwestern state surrounded by suburbs and farms, and has long been primarily white-collar, unlike its neighbors to the north and south (Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Cincinnati).  Sure:  Ohio State University, with about 60,000 students from all around the world, is a major source of diversity, but one which remains somewhat concentrated around the campus itself.  And sure:  Columbus actually has a three-term black mayor, Michael B. Coleman (1999-present).  But he is Columbus’ first black mayor, only a few decades behind other Ohio cities like Springfield (Robert C. Henry, 1966) and Cleveland (Carl Stokes, 1968).

That said, however, it should also be said that much of the political and social power in the Columbus area (apart from the University and state politics in the Capital) lies in the suburbs, which are pretty uniformly white.  I dug up some demographics from the Census in the American Community Survey and found some interesting results:

Columbus (City)
Total population:  729,369
67.5% White
27.9% Black
4.5% Hispanic (of all races)
4.6% Asian
1.7% Other

Columbus (Metro Area)
Total population:  1,752,870

81.9% White
14.9% Black
2.9% Hispanic (of all races)
3.5% Asian
1.1% Other

(ACS 3-year estimates, 2006-2008)

This seems typical for an American metro area, but that’s the point!   The city population is 28% black, but only 15% in the whole metro area.  Compare the numbers themselves:  there were 203,493 black residents in the City of Columbus counted (out of 730,000), and 261,422 black residents in the entire metro area (out of 1.75 million, more than double).  That says to me that the suburbs must be pretty white.  Here’s the data for Hilliard, a city I would consider to be predominately white but with some pockets of diversity.  The numbers suggest I’m even overestimating the latter point:

Hilliard (City)
Total population:  31,556

91.0% White
3.0% Black
2.7% Hispanic (of all races)
6.2% Asian
0.9% Other

(Interestingly, the percentage of Asian residents is slightly larger than the average for both Columbus proper and the metro area).

All these numbers are to say, there is a discrepancy between perception and reality here.  It got me thinking about my own experience growing up:  I attended a racially-mixed public (arts) elementary school, and was bussed a fair distance to get there; I briefly attended a public middle school in which I was in the minority; but otherwise most of my friends, neighbors, and classmates were white.

Then I started thinking about all the areas of town I didn’t go to, for one reason or another:  Franklinton, immediately west of downtown; the east side, south of the campus area and out by the airport; in fact, much of the east side, period.  I had the perception, particularly in Franklinton and east of campus, that these areas were “bad” or unsafe; these areas are also, I know now, predominately black neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a lot of the “desirable” places to go–the shops along Grandview Avenue, shopping at Easton Town Center mall, the boutiques along the Short North, and pretty much all of the northern suburbs–are very “white” places.  White not only in terms of their typical patrons, but also in that very intangible, subjective set of assumptions you make when you hear the description “white neighborhood” or “black neighborhood.”

I don’t know enough about the history of housing and politics in Columbus to talk more specifically about residential segregation, whether it was a large-scale project like in some cities (Chicago) or more of an informal sorting-out of the real estate market by income and racial groups.  But in evaluating my own experiences and perceptions about Columbus, I feel suddenly aware that race was an unspoken issue in the area, despite the fact that it is clearly an issue nonetheless.

Why does this matter?  Beyond the obvious political implications for the neighborhoods in question and the city as a whole, I think it’s really too bad that Columbus continues its self-identification as white for this reason:  its story is actually more complex, and it has a lot to offer!

  • Columbus is the capital of a large and influential Midwest state;
  • Columbus has the largest single-campus university in America, and attracts smart and interesting people from all over the world to do what I can only assume is helpful research and study;
  • Columbus hosts an annual International Festival, in which for a small price you can sample international foods, music, and purchase small wares;
  • Columbus also hosts an annual Asian Festival, a Greek Festival, a Jazz Festival, an Arts Festival, and a bunch of other interesting events year-round;
  • Columbus is home to a significant Japanese population, due in part to a nearby Honda plant; a growing Somali refugee population; a growing Hispanic population; a sizable (but clearly not visible) African American population; an active gay/lesbian population; it’s the historic home of a Native American population (though I’m not sure what those numbers are now); and of course a variety of ethnic and cultural groups which we generally lump together as “white.”
  • At the risk of sounding superficial, Columbus also has a great variety of ethnic restaurants, given that it’s in the middle of some cornfields:  Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Udipi Cafe (South Indian), a bunch of North Indian places, Central Asian Market and surrounding Japanese restaurants; Thai Orchid (Thai); Greek; Italian; Chinese; Mexican; and a host of things I’m forgetting.

Based on conversations I’ve had with those from elsewhere in the country, Columbus is either seen as a lukewarm place, or it’s not on the radar at all.  And that’s really too bad.  Columbus needs to improve its image, and part of that should be more closely evaluating its own self-image in regard to its diverse population.  It’s not that Columbus needs to become a more diverse (and international) city; it’s that it already is, but doesn’t think of itself that way.  I don’t want to gloss over the social problems of segregation by saying it’s enough to do an image makeover, because I think those problems are made worse by their invisibility.  But perhaps even before we (the collective residents of that area) can be in a place to address and improve those problems, we–city AND suburbs–need to think about where we live a little differently.

1,752,870
81.9%
14.9%
2.9%
3.5%
1.1%