Saturday, December 13, 2008

Urban ≠ New York

In addition to the selection of the former NYC Housing Commissioner as HUD Secretary, it appears that Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion will be head of the White House office of Urban Policy (who is not, thankfully, informally referred to as the "city czar"). Count me as nonplussed. One of the great challenges New Urbanists face is convincing the rest of the country that they're not engaged in some sort of secret plot to turn every urban area into Manhattan, or even Outer Borough New York. And yet here we have to New Yorkers set to run much of the new Administration's Urban Policy. In addition to the optics of the selections, it's not exactly clear that what works in New York will work in the rest of the country. Here is one of my favorite charts, population density of some major US cities:

As you can see, New York bears only a passing resemblance to a handful of pre-automobile cities on this list, and no resemblance to most cities in the country. What's that you say? "It's not fair to use cities; different cities have annexed suburbs at different rates". Well, let's use metro areas then:

Here, the distance between the New York City metro area are and the rest of the country is even larger. This gap is insurmountable in any reasonable amount of time; you would have to increase the density of the tenth-most dense metro area, Minneapolis-St Paul, by fifteen-fold in order to get close to the density of New York. No policy change could accomplish that in even a half-century. Heck, it would probably require Herculean efforts to get density to double within fifteeen years.

In addition to the tremendous gap in density, New York is the financial capital of the world, something that the rest of the country cannot hope to duplicate. The state also has the highest union density in the country (presumably led by NYC), making business in the state into a different beast. Thus while Donavan and Carrion may be competent public servants, they operate in an environment that looks nothing like the rest of the country, which makes me very uneasy about their ability to make the transition.
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