The City and Its Successors

Two brief stories and an anecdote:

(1) A politician well known for his connection to fringe and Green politics is swept into office as the mayor of a troubled city long governed by a corrupt and entrenched regime. An improbable candidate for the office, he wins with 60 percent of the vote. Famed for his left-wing politics, he declares bureaucracy "public enemy number one," reduces the ranks of municipal employees by 10 percent, fires dozens of administrators for incompetence or misdeeds, and boasts that none of the new members of a much-expanded police force got their jobs through favoritism or political connections. Then, announcing that the city is open for business, he reduces the number of steps needed to get a building permit from twenty-six to four. Does this sound like Jerry Brown? It could be, but it’s not. It’s Francesco Rutelli, formerly a fringe player in politics as a member of the Radical and Green Parties, who was elected mayor of Rome in 1999.

(2) The setting is last November at the British Labor Party’s annual conference held in Bournemouth. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is a serious man, a major player in the Labor Party who is responsible for dealing with traffic congestion and other effects of sprawl. But he produces mirth and mockery when he uses one of his two Jaguars to drive his wife 250 yards from the hotel to the conference center in order to protect her bouffant hairdo. At the same conference, Environment Minister Michael Meacher suggests that people should not own second homes where local residents might be pushed out by an increase in property values, though his own rural retreat is a hideaway consisting of three cottages joined together. Again there’s mirth and mockery.

Why these stories? Because they represent the broad shift taking place in industrialized countries as the creation of something unprecedented in human history: a mass upper-middle class transforms both the organization of work and the relationship between city and countryside.

You could see a small example of that transformation a few months ago with the announcement that a new high-tech office building had been completed on the West Side of Manhattan. Nothing unusual here; the island is overflowing with new jobs—roughly a third of those are in new media and software—and new construction. But it turns out that in this building the best offices, those with a river view, were going not to the dot.com executives but to the techies, the nerds with stock options who made the company go. It was a sign of how intellectual firepower was driving the new economy and the new organization of space.

In 1902, H. G. Wells in his Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought wrote, "Already for a great number of businesses it is no longer necessary that the office should be in London, and only habit, tradition and minor consideration keep them there." By the telephone and the post office parcel service "almost all the labor of ordinary shopping can be avoided. . . . The mistress of the house has all her local tradesman, all the great London shops, the circulating library, theater box-office, the post-office and cab-rank, the nurse inst. and the doctor within reach of her hand."

Wells was prescient to see a hundred years ago that new technologies would disperse across the landscape the amenities once available only to city dwellers.

The United States is decentralizing faster than any other society in history. Fifteen of the largest twenty-five cities have lost 4 million people since 1965, while the total population has risen by 60 million. But at the same time, the large "vertical cities" have lost population; mid-sized horizontal cities, better adapted to the automobile and better able to offer a quality of life comparable to the suburbs, have grown rapidly. In the age of horizontal high-tech cities, Austin now has a larger population than Boston, while Denver, once a provincial mining and oil town, has emerged, thanks to the cable industry, as a major metropolis. If Austin is now larger than Boston, that is because the high-tech economy has created more new jobs in Texas over the past two years than in the entire oil and gas extraction industry. On that conventional map of America leftover from the urban age, the city of Baltimore, home of glorious Camden Yards and the Orioles, looms large in its region. In fact Baltimore is now the fourth-largest political jurisdiction in Maryland, and it is high-tech Montgomery County on the outskirts of Washington that has both more jobs and more people. Similarly, San Francisco, a city whose images are well known to most Americans, has become something of a suburb to Silicon Valley. San Francisco, now the second-largest city in the Bay Area with 300,000 fewer people than San Jose, also has fewer than fifty of the Bay Area’s five hundred largest public companies. No need for me to describe what’s happened to Northern Virginia. Fairfax, with nearly a million people, has more than double the office space of downtown Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Denver, Dallas, and Seattle; in fact it has more office space than all but four of America’s cities.

Let’s take a look at Philadelphia and its suburbs: The leading industrial county in Pennsylvania is not Pittsburgh or Philadelphia but Montgomery County in suburban Philly. Its population of 725,000 on the edge of Philadelphia gives it a population larger than five states and the highest per-capita income in the state. Its 500,000 jobs (387,000 in 1990) draw in 250,000 commuters daily from as far away as Allentown and Reading—it’s like a dispersed center city. Montgomery together with Chester County to its east are now the economic engine of the region—together they have not only a larger population than Philly but 110,000 more private-sector jobs. Or as William H. Fulton, executive director of the Chester County Planning commission, puts it: "There’s a lot of people out here who don’t like to hear that Chester County is a suburb of Philadelphia." That’s not entirely surprising since not only has the western suburban economy surpassed that of its big-city neighbor to the east, its employment now exceeds those of several major metropolitan areas, among them New Orleans, Memphis, Buffalo, and Richmond, Va. On top of that, it is larger than the economies of several states: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming. And yet this dispersed conurbation with nodes in Blue Bell, Fort Washington, Plymouth Meeting, the Main Line, Conshohocken, Horsham, Willow Grove, Valley Forge, Jenkintown, King of Prussia, and the Route 202 corridor has no name.

Several monikers have been tossed out: the Valley Forge Corridor, Silicon Valley Forge, Philacon Valley, Silicon East, et cetera, but not surprisingly in an area that defines itself by dispersal, none of them has stuck.

At the same time, Philadelphia, outside of its booming center city, has been moving in what might be called a semi-suburban direction. But even with the center-city revival, Philadelphia has lost 150,000 people over the past decade, and its leaders, particularly the new mayor John Street, have decided to accept the fact that given the lack of immigration to Philly it is time to plan for a much shrunken city. He proposes to take advantage of the city’s 31,000 empty lots by razing hundreds of empty factories and the hundreds of empty row houses in order to clear vast swaths of land for new private-sector developers. They would be encouraged to put up suburban-style homes, office buildings, big-box stores—maybe even movie theaters, golf courses, and environmental sanctuaries. "This is," Street says, "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s the greening of Philadelphia."

This development of a suburb in the city is already occurring, albeit on a far smaller scale, in one section of Chicago: a landscape of detached houses being built around the Lake Park Pointe shopping center in poverty stricken Kenwood near the lake just north of the University of Chicago. Commercially the area is anchored by a huge supermarket, which has already helped raise real-estate values. Meanwhile Chicago, as you probably know, is in the process of de-densifying itself by tearing down its public housing high-rises and resheltering the tenants with scatter-site low-rises in a city with plenty of available space since it has about one million fewer people now than it did thirty years ago. Chicago has fewer people but more trees thanks to Mayor Daley, who has been planting them everywhere he can, including on rooftops, as a way of both beautifying the city and reducing summer heat.

When Baltimore demolished Lafayette Court, a public housing high-rise, it built air-conditioned two-story houses clustered along cul-de-sacs, just like the suburban dream. Asked why, Mayor Schmoke answered, "People didn’t want three-story houses. They wanted two-story houses with modern conveniences—and yards."

Older, sometimes shrinking cities want not only suburban housing; they want the dot.com jobs that first took hold on the periphery, and they’re getting them outside—in eco-change-producing dot.com companies in D.C. thanks in part to the efforts of people like Marc Weis, and even the nascent buppification [Editor’s note: BUP=black urban professional] of areas in down-and-out Anacostia, and less surprisingly the gentrification of Baltimore’s Fellspoint; dozens of other places could be added, from the graphic arts forms in Brooklyn, run-down Williamsburg, to San Francisco’s Mission district where the Yuppie Eradication Project is fighting the rising tide of prosperity by scraping keys on the shiny finish of the BMWs owned by the dot.com class enemy.

Like Mayor Rutelli of Rome, mayors across the United States are adapting to this new world in which cities that aren’t well managed will have a very difficult time competing for the intellectual capital that’s the key to the emerging economy.

Mayor Wellington Webb of Denver, who feels a kinship with Rutelli, represents the new model for modern mayors.

Old Model: For roughly a quarter-century stretch from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, urban policy was characterized by what might be called the success of failure. In that mode, the worse a city did, the more it was entitled to ask for from the federal government.

Webb is different: Enormously popular at home, Webb, an African American, was re-elected this year for a third term in majority-white Denver. He is also the de facto spokesman for the cities as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he has used his bully pulpit to lay out the new consensus on how to govern our metropolises. Speaking in a manner that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, Webb, a Democrat, describes the mayors as the "CEOs of our cities" whose task it is to "run our cities like private businesses but with a public mission." Unlike most of his predecessors at the head of the U.S. Conference, he called on the mayors to look to business and the new high-tech economy, and not Washington, for municipal sustenance. The key to high tech, he argues, is in creating the kind of quality of life that will attract the Dilberts of the world, with parks and recreation facilities that allow for a higher quality of life—Philly trying to hold on to Wharton grads; Rochester discovering it needs more cafes and bars.

Webb argues that these "CEOs" "need to bury forever the old image of mayors with a tin cup and an extended palm asking for handouts to sustain and expand cumbersome bureaucracies." And rather than looking to the federal government as the salvation of the cities, Webb, like Mayor Daley before him, sees Washington’s unfunded mandates and rigid policies, which often serve to subvert suburban development, as much as a hindrance as a help. "Congress," he says, "is like an air force which drops laws on cities without looking at the collateral damage."

How much of the agenda laid out by Mayor Webb will be firmly institutionalized? George Musgrove, Oakland’s deputy city manager, takes the positive view: "A movement of good government for cities has swept the country, and all good mayors—African American, white, Latino—are governing that way." Musgrove is on to something; New York’s success in reducing crime has forced Baltimore to reconsider how it does business. Baltimore, the favorite plaything for Washington policy people, is the site of every known public or private social program—and yet Sandtown-Winchester, recipient of enormous resources and long touted as an example of successful community development, is now recognized to be a failure—there are no stores to speak of in that crime- and fear-ridden neighborhood. But as Eli Lehrer has shown in a forthcoming paper, the best social program is crime control; cities that reduce crime and the fear of crime have experienced a revival of the retail districts essential for vibrant neighborhoods.

Musgrove may be proven right in the long run, but while the consensus Mayor Webb has described makes a return to old regime mayors unlikely, there are reasons to worry about how much further reform will go.

The improvements in city governance over the past decade are, as a recent Maxwell School study published in Governing points out, largely a function of strong, effective mayors. What happens if their successes aren’t institutionalized, if their successors are not so talented?

That’s what was on Rudy Giuliani’s mind when he gave his State of the City speech a few weeks ago. In what may be his valedictory, Giuliani, perhaps the most successful of the reform mayors, warned again and again against allowing the city to slide back into the sad shape it had once been in: "Don’t turn it back. . . . We blocked the genius of America for the poorest people in New York." Time and again, as when he attempted to impose limits of city spending through charter reforms (which were defeated), Giuliani has talked of changing New Yorkers’ behavior and culture. Has Giuliani succeeded in doing that? It’s doubtful; most of the reforms were imposed on New York by the force of his personality. He leaves no heir, and the wealth generated by the stock market boom provides the budget surpluses needed to return the city to its long-standing practices of feeding the public sector at the expense of the private economy.

Giuliani makes no secret of his distaste for his likely successor, former Nader’s Raider Mark Green. During the Dinkins years, when Dinkins’s administration boosted taxes by a billion dollars a year in the midst of a recession in which the city lost 330 thousand jobs, Green, as Dinkins’s consumer affairs commissioner, joined the act by sharply raising the fees, fines, and revenues he was collecting from small business.

But even Mark Green can learn; in a speech just last week in which he talked about making New York into "Internet City," Mark Green, suddenly supply-sider on (some) taxes, supports the end of the gross-receipts tax on utilities as a way of helping tech firms. He says that a study done by the Independent Budget Office at his request indicates that such elimination would produce seven thousand more jobs. He wants the Police Comstat model of accountability applied to their agencies—and more pay for productivity in city government.

To be sure, this should all be taken with a large grain of salt, but interestingly, even under Mark Green New York City will not be noticeably less efficient than neighboring Nassau County, which has distinguished itself in the midst of this long, seventeen-year boom by going bankrupt under the leadership of a long-entrenched Republican machine. And if Green were taken west across the Hudson to North Jersey he would see politically boss-ridden county and city governments every bit as adept at payroll planning and make-work operation, albeit on a smaller scale, as New York.

The lines are blurring. Big cities are still distinct, but for many they represent a phase of life, a place you go when you’re young and single and looking to make it in the world, rather a separate culture.

The longer this long boom continues, the more the lines will blur. The populations of the exurban areas are recoiling at their increased density; they’re pushing for slow growth movement and open-space purchases. The effect of both growth restrictions and open-space preserves will be to push new jobs either further out beyond the growth boundaries or, as is increasingly the case, back into the cities where semireformed governments, unlike in the boom of the 1980s, are now capable of attracting and absorbing the growth.

H. G. Wells’s prediction is coming true: "The city will diffuse itself until it has taken up considerable areas and many of the characteristics, the greenness, the fresh air of what is now country, lead us to suppose also that the country will take to itself many of the qualities of the city. The old antithesis will, indeed, cease."

"Town" and "city" will be, in truth, terms as obsolete as "mail coach." For these new areas that will grow out of them we want a term, and the administrative "urban district" presents itself with a convenient air of suggestion. We may, for our present purposes, call these coming town provinces "urban regions."

As the boundaries between older de-densified cities and the dispersed cities of the surrounding counties blur, two developments are inevitable. First, there are bound to be bitter fights between those who insist on the need for increased density in suburbia to curb sprawl and congestion and those who fear that the politicization produced by greater densities will re-create the kinds of governments they once fled from. Second, a new regionalism is inevitable. The great political question for the future is what form this regionalism will take. Will it attempt to re-create a metro-wide version of the old central city governments that did so much to undermine the local economy, or will new, more flexible and accountable forms emerge?

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