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.


An Incomplete Education said...

Here is why Obama made the pick: New York is a pressure cooker of urban problems; it is also the world's largest laboratory for urban solutions.

If there is a problem that a city can have, it has happened in the New York City area. Traffic jams at 3:45 am? Check. Three International and two regional airports? Check. Huge ferry and waterway system (though not as big as Seattle's)? Check. Overburdened bridge and highway system? Blight? Gentrification? Racial Tension? Big interests groups and vocal minorities? Non english speaking populations? Security and Terrorism? Tragedy of the commons? Air quality problems? Extreme income disparity? Military bases? Seasonal influx of tourists? Homelessness? Drug hot zones? More parks than anyone else? Unplanned, planned, and overplanned growth? Massive public transit system? Ice? Flooding? Check, check, and so on.

Let me assure you that there are low density areas as well -- Staten Island is well forested and commonly regarded as a back water. Queens' John Browne High School specializes in Agriculture; it has a functioning farm with plants, fish, and livestock. Want to live in a commune? They exist here.

In sum, the Donovan has been well bloodied and is probably smart enough to know that New York/New Jersey isn't the only urban area on the planet. Isn't that what Boston is for?

Nick Beaudrot said...

But that is my point. NYC officials have to spend a lot of time thinking about problems other cities don't have (near-zero undeveloped land, median house price at 20x mediam HH income, dealing with 100 of foreign languages at once) and less time thinking about problems other cities do have (reversing middle-class flight, expanding from zero to non-zero rail). They also have an extremely large city govt compared to most cities.

Nick Beaudrot said...

Okay, and let me not just be a naysayer. Basically, any mayor who has overseen a modest revitalization of a major city would work. As would whoever runs economic development for those towns:

-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper
-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin
-Any number of administrators working for the state of California, or the city or county of Los Angeles.
-Houston Mayor Bill White
-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) -- but they have SUPERTRAINS

It just pisses me off that New York is the only urban area that's getting talented people who deal with city issues into places of national prominence. There are so few slots and they don't all have to go to the frickin' City.

Anonymous said...

So you're arguing that being from New York ought to disqualify him from the job because it's inconceivable that he'll understand that difference between New York City and Charlotte? Really?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well, I'd interpret Nick's point as being that he knows how to deal with New York problems, but those are actually a fairly specialized set of problems. There's no sign that he's a superstar at dealing with Charlotte / Detroit / Kansas City problems.

An Incomplete Education said...

Its true; I live here and I would often like to see the national spotlight explore other areas. Wouldn't a CSI: Seattle be a hell of a lot better than another NYC cop drama? Rain, ferries, indians, coffee, plants, mountains, music, beards -- tons of ambiance.

The NYC area is full of problems and talented people trying to solve them. A lot of talented people come from this area because tens of millions of people live here; they are often attracted by the challenges this are presents.

Donovan has experience with public/private ventures that provide affordable housing. If you want to move people back into cities (and gas prices will force it), you have to have a place for them to live. Thats probably the thinking.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

From what I've read it seems that Donovan was picked less for being a New York City housing official and more for his impressive record, creative thinking (whatever that means), and because he foresaw a housing crisis months before most of the country did. That kind of foresight is rare these days and worth considering I think.

Nick Beaudrot said...

Actually CSI: Seattle turned into a pretty cool show, it was called "Millenium". Don't forget "Fraiser" and "Gray's Anatomy", though technically the view from Pa's apartment in "Frasier" doesn't exist.

I think Neil says this the right way: that Donovan has a lot of practice dealing with the problems of NYC, but the problems of NYC don't look a lot like, say, Cleveland's problems, so he's not going to have any practice dealing with things that look like Cleveland's problems, and America's problems look more like Cleveland's than New York's.