Friday, July 20, 2012

Two kinds of (unequal) city

This is an interesting article by Virginia Postrel on divergence in housing costs. It used to be that incomes tended to equalize across the country, she says. That isn't happening as much any more. It doesn't pay people to move to get jobs in the more expensive parts of the country. The cost of living - mainly housing - means it does not make sense.


...there are two competing models of successful American cities. One encourages a growing population, fosters a middle-class, family-centered lifestyle, and liberally permits new housing. It used to be the norm nationally, and it still predominates in the South and Southwest. The other favors long-term residents, attracts highly productive, work-driven people, focuses on aesthetic amenities, and makes it difficult to build. It prevails on the West Coast, in the Northeast and in picturesque cities such as Boulder, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first model spurs income convergence, the second spurs economic segregation. Both create cities that people find desirable to live in, but they attract different sorts of residents.

This has been also been called the luxury city phenomenon. People fight development, regulation tightens land use, and so housing costs go up. Existing residents preserve amenities like low density, and reap capital gains. Lower-income workers can't afford to move to town.

Why shouldn't a combination be possible? Clearly, there isn't much more undeveloped land around the big coastal cities like LA or New York, so just adding subdivisions on the edge of town like Albuquerque or Dallas isn't an option.

So we need much more density. Cities should build very high density in their cores and main transport arteries. Instead, New York still has its crazy rent control system and crazy development costs, which restricts new development. We need far more middle-class high rises, places where twenty-somethings and lower middle people and artists and people with big ideas but little cash can live. Jamaica, Flushing, Sunnyside - inner "suburbs" with major transportation connections - should go vertical, fifty or sixty stories high.

Post-war social housing devastated the public image of high rises in all but a few places. No one wanted to live in a crummy project. But that has been changing. The Miami skyline looks glamorous (even if a lot of the condos are empty). Vancouver is sprouting new glass towers. It's not just Manhattan any more.

And the appeal of outer suburbs is fading, as they age and commuting costs rise, and congestion throttles transport.

Of course, most people are still going to want to live in suburbia. But it is important that cities can attract the young and the dreamers and people who don't have trust fund incomes. The bias against development has grown too rigid. Build.



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