Real Cities, Real Transformations

This post is a response to “How Seattle Transformed itself” by Edward L. Glaeser.  Some highlights:

Systems Matter

First, system-effects matter. Cities exist in networks of flows that depend on existing infrastructure. That infrastructure has system-level properties, and it is these properties, not merely the properties of the cities themselves, that produce system-wide effects. For example, in “Nature’s Metropolis” William Cronon explains the systemic effects of railroads and grain elevators on the development of the American midwest. In fact, the field of “environmental history” is rife with analyses of how differing contexts have shaped civilizations.

In his article, Glaeser acknowledges that cities exist within broader environments, but then he lays his argument at the feet of the people within those cities. In other words, for Glaeser, network effects and systemic properties seem to be relevant only insofar as they alter the properties of the parts, not of the system as a whole. Cities change because of their positions in an ecology of cities, and people change because of their positions in an ecology of other people, but he fails to adequately acknowledge that the system itself has properties outside of its effect on the the properties of its parts.

Comparing the Parts

Second, Glaeser’s comparison of Seattle and Detroit with respect to density also falls short.
Glaeser’s claim about “[d]ense, smart cities like Seattle,” offered at the expense of Detroit, is hard to square with the fact that Year 2000 U.S. Census data ranked Detroit as 84th in municipalities over 50,000 ranked by density, and Seattle 87th. The Census Bureau’s 2010 estimates still rank Detroit as the eleventh largest city in the nation.

To be sure, much of this confusion can be laid at the feet of Economics as a discipline, which has been notoriously remiss in it’s recognition of systemic effects. Macro-level systems-thinkers from Keynes to Schelling have consistently pointed out the shortcomings of micro-level analyses. Even post-Internet, Economics has tended to reject any claims that connective technologies fundamentally alter the landscape, for ex. Hal Varian’s“Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy”.

What’s Missing?

After a recent visit to Detroit, Millicent Johnson, community engagement manager at and a native of New York City, noted:

It may be more pronounced here, but if we stay on the current track of trying to house ourselves in single family homes, consuming without regard for practicality or sustainability, and looking to a single source for our well being—in our case straight-up consumer-driven capitalism, there is no need to look into a crystal ball, the snapshot of our future is staring us in the face in the stereotypical shots of Detroit.

But, I believe Detroit also holds the key to the future of this great nation. We must evolve to a more sustainable way of living if we are to survive, and I think we all innately sense it. We know that two-income-dependent housing prices, while unemployment and underemployment approaches the double digits, does not add up.

Harvard Law School professor, Yochai Benkler, urgues us to recognize the “increased diversity of ways of organizing production” in the new economy.

“The point is that the networked information economy makes it possible for nonmarket and decentralized models of production to increase their presence alongside the more traditional models, causing some displacement, but increasing the diversity of ways of organizing production rather than replacing one with the other. This diversity of ways of organizing production and consumption, in turn, opens a range of new opportunities for pursuing core political values of liberal societies — democracy, individual freedom, and social justice.”

from Freedom in the Commons

From this perspective, when Glaeser asks: “Can Detroit find the road forward?” the real response is “Detroit isalready on the road forward.” By freeing itself from the constraints of legacy infrastructure, Detroit gains the flexibility to “harness complexity” to explore and adapt to a new era (see Axelrod and Cohen, “Harnessing Complexity”).

“I really think it’s a blessing that we’ve been deconstructed. We just have to build it right this time. If we do, we can show the world how to live in a sustainable way, with a city that can move quickly to adapt to whatever changes comes its way” said Mike. (Mike Han – Community Development Director of “I AM YOUNG DETROIT.”

from Detroit, Community Resilience, and the American Dream

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