The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 4

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In our previous post, Weis and Arnesen revealed the reason for their entire paper: cities are not going to be one of several options for locations to live, but a survival tool as we head into a future with climate change in full view, a future where our current lifestyles simply cannot be sustained.

The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 4

Posted By Megan Wildhood

Oct 16, 2012

Cities are vital to a healthy future, as we saw last week.   And the first, most important, ingredient in a city is its people.  As Weis and Arnesen aptly state below, a city cannot exist without people.  And the first, arguably most important need people have is shelter, at least according to Weis and Arnesen, who discuss housing as the first component cities need to consider:

           Sicinius:  What is the city but the people?

            Citizens:  True, The people are the city. (Shakespeare, 1609)

             This truth, from the second to last of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, has survived the ages.  Without the people, there is no city. 

            In the developed world, the most economically vibrant cities are those most densely populated.  Period.  No exceptions.  What are left today of American urban centers are sparsely, not densely, populated.  Our first goal must be to populate our inner cores — and not merely with a few thousand more apartments and condominiums — but rather with hundreds of thousands of additional dwelling units nested within a 3-mile radius of our city centers.

            Take Pioneer Square in Seattle as one downtown neighborhood that has suffered and will suffer indefinitely by forgetting the preeminent role of people in urban health.  A few years ago Seattle residents were debating, and voting on, whether to build new stadiums adjacent to Pioneer Square.  Proponents of building stadiums argued, with fantastical forecasts, that the stadiums would bring economic windfalls to the Square.  There was no discussion of alternatives for example, more housing that might be even stronger agents of economic growth and stability for Pioneer Square merchants, then and into the distant future.  Choosing between another new stadium (or two new stadiums, as it turned out), and another hundred thousand residences, would have at lease should have been a no-brainer.  New residences would have brought day-in and day-out commercial vitality to the Square neighborhood, with a hundred thousand new residents spending both their time, and their money, in Pioneer Square and not just on the occasional game day on every day.

            Instead, Seattle creatively forecast what sports stadiums would add to the Pioneer Square spending flow, and concluded that the stadiums would have a positive economic impact.  But compared to what?  Compared to doing nothing?  What was never talked about were the opportunity costs of choosing stadiums over housing units, and those opportunity costs are staggering.  Seattle literally forfeited a $10 billion additional annual spending stream for Pioneer Square merchants in exchange for a couple stadiums that, in most optimistic forecasts, yield a few tens of millions of additional annual dollars to the merchants of the Square.  Put simply, there is no comparison between the economic benefits of residential units versus stadiums.  But, of course, we rarely attempt that comparison.  Instead, we choose to look at false choices in this case the choice between doing nothing and building stadiums.

            Urban voters are routinely sold on special purpose public projects convention centers, stadiums, freeways, sports arenas by offering rosy estimates of spending streams forthcoming from those projects.  Yet these projects are never the golden geese we are promised. To see a true gander of golden geese, one can look from a hill in Central Park at the apartment and cooperative residences that surround it.  

Weis and Arnese argue that we should be concentrating our condo construction in denser units, not spreading them out among the many mini neighborhoods.  One huge benefit of doing this is sustainability: granted, transportation is one of many aspects of creating a healthier, long-lasting lifestyle, but, if more housing options were in a smaller space, life’s necessities (grocery store, doctor’s office, employment opportunities) could all be within walking distance of hundreds of thousands of people, who then wouldn’t depend on personal cars.  As Weis and Arnesen say, the choice is not between doing nothing and an appealing special project, but in how we will create a sustainable future.  When you look at this way, the possibilities are as numerous as people in a city!


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