Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Intelligent Urban Design

NEW YORK – Two months ago, I was introduced to a start-up called CityMart, a for-profit marketplace dedicated to helping vendors and city managers to find one another – and to spreading municipal innovations outside of their home turf. This month, in Thailand, I met Jonathan Hursh, who runs Compassion for Migrant Children (soon to be renamed), which focuses on migrant populations – adults and children with few resources and few rights – in the slums that surround almost every large city in the world. In mid-May, I'll be attending the New Cities Summit in Paris, a three-day forum focused on the future of cities. 

Cities matter, as they always have, but now more of the world is starting to take notice of their problems and possibilities. At their worst, cities are slums, places where the social constraints of the village are loosened, people can misbehave in anonymity, and poor and unemployed people live in squalor. At their best, they are places where the best and the brightest congregate, new wealth is created, and scholars and artists sharpen their wits and hone their creativity.

Most cities have grown through evolution, from unpremeditated beginnings. Moreover, they rarely die. Cities (and their imperfections) persist in a way that large political entities, even those of which they are a part, do not. Compare, say, Athens, Jerusalem, Vienna, Beijing, Moscow, or Istanbul, to the Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia, the Third Reich, or the Soviet Union.

And, as we are seeing worldwide nowadays, national governments are difficult to overturn and also difficult to (re)build. Democracy does not always lead to liberty or good outcomes.

So, perhaps cities are the right place and have the right scale for massive social change. This does not mean that national governments are irrelevant, or that they no longer hold life-and-death power over people’s lives; but cities make more of a difference in people's daily lives. Especially in a world where many of the big things – trade, technology, legal regimes – are globalized, most of the small things are actually happening in cities. By 2050, seven out of ten human beings will live in cities, up from about 50% now and barely 14% in 1900.

Cities run schools, collect garbage, maintain police forces (and local power of life and death), issue building permits, build sewers, regulate power companies, and generally determine the overall quality of life. They can also raise revenue, whether through income taxes, property taxes, or myriad fees.

But cities still often operate in a pre-market way. They mostly build their infrastructures themselves, and innovations do not spread easily, owing to a lack of incentives and, for that matter, much of a market…other than when one city hires managers from another.

On the other hand, cities are increasingly behaving like companies, becoming intimately involved in their citizens’ quality of life, and, in an increasingly mobile world, competing for “customers.” Despite registration systems such as those in Russia and China that restrict movement, people can come and go from cities much more freely than they can cross national borders. Meanwhile, cities can be both more flexible and more arbitrary, and compete on terms not available to legislatively restricted national governments. 

Paul Romer, a former Stanford University economist best known for his Charter City initiative, has a scheme for building new cities from scratch – and using competition to spread the benefits to old cities over time. As he points out, if you want a new business model, you don’t fix an old company; you start a new one. In the same way, if you want a new kind of city, it is easier to build a new one than to change an old one.

Most cities evolved blindly, and have ended up semi-workable, whereas a city that is started from scratch can, in theory, benefit from intelligent design. But, even with long-term investors, to build a viable city at scale nowadays represents a daunting challenge, requiring not just architecture, but also modern infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. Moreover, in addition to people, investors, land, and other tangible assets, an independent yet accountable government must create and enforce rules, and a charter must specify how the rules can be changed.

While Romer’s formula is complex, his charter cities will be subject to the ultimate form of accountability: they will succeed only if they can attract investors and citizens who want to live and work there. But, skeptics ask, will they attract a favorable selection of people?

Romer’s and Hursh’s answer is that migrants are not slum-dwellers by nature; put them in a good city and they will reach their innate potential. The key is not just to allow, but to lure, people inside the system. According to Romer: “A new city can attract the working poor and still succeed as a large-scale real-estate development project. And a good thing too, because charity will never finance urban living space for 3-4 billion additional people. If new places enter the ‘city business,’ the working poor will find [affordable] urban housing and transport for the same reason that they now find food: because someone profits by offering it to them.”

That calls for a system that will return their investment and more over time, which means that investors will design a city that helps its citizen/taxpayers to prosper. In the background, the board of governors that Romer proposes makes sure that everyone takes the long view.

The goal is not perfection in a single city, but more effective innovation and competition, so that the best cities prosper and other cities emulate them. There are enough mobile people that one city’s success won’t harm others; on the contrary, it is more likely to encourage existing cities to change, just as new market entrants force incumbents to improve. Sometimes, in order for evolution to do its best work, the individual components need some intelligent design.

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  1. CommentedGabriel Nagy

    The so called developed countries are ahead in the evolutionary ladder. They exploit and consume world resources faster and in larger quantities to satisfy the need and wellbeing of their communities. As for the so called developing countries, years behind in the evolutionary process, they too are consuming world resources, but within their means, to develop their societies and evolve their communities, though at a different but yet harmful pace.

    On the question on how to begin to tackle the massive challenge of retooling our global economy, preserving the environment, and providing greater opportunity and equity, including gender equality, to all. I suspect the question applies, and should be answer, differently by the various regions, countries and cities of the world.

    The concept of global economy and global environment are relatively new and are fashionable among a large group of international Bureaucrats. Little cares the farmer in Colombia, trying to earn enough to raise its kids, about the Euro crisis or the depletion of the Ozone layer. Humans do share though, a sharp individual instinct of survival and a genuine communal sense of responsibility; caring for each other Humans have been doing exactly that for the last five million years. Instinct has been the local rule. Our species have followed no global strategy, universal plan and grandiose architecture.

    This concept is what biologist call embryonic development. The model suggests how cells respond spontaneously to the stimuli and its immediate environment mimicking some aspects of the behavior of cells in the early embryo. Applied to cities, this model reassures us that the evolution of the various societies and communities during the early stages of evolutionary development need not have been all that difficult, is a step-by-step and cerebral process. Is a day-by-day hard working process, leading to adaptation and transformation with not closing or conclusive statement.

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    First a few notations:

    1. You may overrate how little an impact government has upon urban environments. Government has always been part of the idea of the polis, and is understated in America only because corporations play a strong part of the interest. In this sense, there is a delicate balance in which governmental ideas (I agree with you) share in the idea of urban commerce.

    2. The idea of government may have more of an impact than the idea of city, unless specific characteristics of a city are measured as co-contingent with existential modalities.

    Now to my main insights and concerns:

    Perhaps cities should be founded economically upon an entertainment paradigm, where the main "profit" of the city is the attraction of charity and grants for large resident populations. Such a system could be spirited by the presence of a body of intellectual or corporate elites who thrive on the liquid capital that serves the general 'body politik'.

    Another note is that in such a consumer-based economy, there is a role for socialist-style rent and taxing services, which not only provides an incentive for individuals to play freely with their money (e.g. tax by obligation rather than privelege) but encourages the wealthy by providing new loopholes which have locality rather than (inherent)
    infrastructure.

    If these are the two paradigms of the emerging (I think) modular system---which is derived from a finally architecturally-defined context of arrangement---and arraignment of values--- then it is important to define specifically which entertainment and minimally socialist based effects have consequences for consumerist individuals.

    For example, could there be---in addition to more enterable buildings, following a computer game mentality---also a "ticket culture" creating a privelege hierarchy which serves to stratify and intensify albeit occasionally superficial corporate and commercial interests. This has a side effect of creating a kind of Venn diagram or flow chart of interrelated sub-societies as must have existed in the authentic oral tradition cultures of the past. Or could there be a more dimensional concept of architecture, to serve entertainment purposes, ala Hyper-Cubism, or Hyper-Indexes, or Hyper-Consumerism?

    Concepts of society and architecture ultimately affect concepts of consumer and interface, in a manner that is sometimes understood most readily through computer games. Many concepts of applications specifically could be made intuitive as "mind-reading" and consumer satisfaction are centralized in urban experiences. The result--predictably--is a society that is both controlled and satisfied---the only available paradigm for the foreseeable urban future.

    If there is some other proviso or point of eloquence, it might be that architecture continues to play a role in urban design. It is a confluence concurrently of technologism, in addition to interests which may be called institutional, correctional, or epiphanic.

    The "razor" of all of this data input is simply modularity, and concepts of citizen. The other end of this "hourglass" of discourse is that modularity and citizen are interpretable:

    Rational and chemical systems can be stacked on top of a hierarchy of modular frameworks, each attempting to be universal. Citizenship, responding to a chemical and robotic-functional urban framework (I speak also of chemical stimuluses as visual stimuluses) will increasingly be meta-employed and therefore superficially but transcendently functional. If this does not appeal to someone, perhaps it is the opportunity to intercede, and encorporate some still newer idea of econometrics, in an attempt to stave off rational over-extension and a dysfunctional anomie of realization. But many of the factors I have mentioned, are functional within a standard of wealth and charity, which arbitrate a thin but viable economy, which to some is the best standard for health or at least experientialism.

    --Nathan Coppedge

  3. CommentedShawn Eng

    Fascinating. I do see a future in cities with "alternate" modes of sovereignty but the path to that situation won't be pretty at all. One of my favorite maxims is that capital will flow like water: along the path of least resistance. Just as manufacturing goes to China and incorporated firms go to Delaware, these charter cities will have to offer a huge comparative advantage over existing local, state and federal laws and their regulatory "overhead" expense. Charter cities will first attract capital in the same way Antigua, Vanatu and Tuvalu attract shipping companies to register their vessels within "flags of convenience," to arbitrage regulatory and liability exposure. But how to accomplish that with a land-locked territory within an existing democratic nation, whose electorate will no doubt see the charter city as a resource-competitor?

    With the current state of affairs in lobbyist-occupied Washington DC, I do not see how any state will allow a charter city to emerge unless something pushes them to desperation. If you're thinking of building a new city from scratch, I don't know of any comparative advantage that can attract enough capital to fund such a project. Maybe pre-fab infrastruture and habitats assembled by robots? Relaxed intellectual property laws? Streamlined litigation/arbitration systems?

    If the cost of living and quality of life is a marked improvement over the public market, then talent will naturally be attracted. Maintaining that quality of life may involve Singapore-style entry controls and behavior codes, similiar to homeowners associations and gated communities. How to reconcile that with the tradition of civil liberties and freedom of movement? Again, the situation outside the charter cities may become so bad that the most progressive-minded professional will accept the challenges of a non-public, voluntary-association society.

    If the charter city is to be modeled on a libertarian market-topia, then I imagine a few examples that an independent sovereignty will offer. Medical services can be offered by tele-presence offices where overseas physicians and specialists that are unaffiliated with the American Medical Association can treat patients and prescribe re-imported medications at a fraction of the cost. This pre-supposes the charter city will have immunity from existing laws and jurisdiction of its host state. The state will have to be pretty desperate to grant such immunity.

    Perhaps increased municipal and state bankruptcies, bond vigilantes and a foreign creditor boycott will grant governors and legislators the power circumvent the entrenched rent-seeking machine and invite charter city investors as part of an austerity package. Maybe I'm cynical but I do not expect anyone to willingly vote for a charter city. I can picture neighborhoods in bankrupt cities fragmenting in the same way St. Louis has been doing. Counties and municipalities may secede to deny their tax revenue to other parts of the entity that are seen as bottomless pits of corruption and debt.

    Another possiblity for start-up capital of a charter city are foreign investors. If the US dollar collapses, the regions that produce real commodities will be able to accumulate hard currency. A charter city may be built by foreign mining and shipping firms to facilitate commerce. There's a rumor that China is looking to build such a city near Boise, Idaho. If political pressure prevents its construction then an intermediary with a friendly face will be used. Capital will follow the path of least resistance. The force that convinces the citizenry of the need of charter cities won't be the anarcho-capitalist, Hans Herman Hoppe-reading uber-libertarians. It will be those who can offer the stability and adaptability of Anglo-Enlightenment institutions while filtering out the excesses of rent-seeking, dogma and mob-rule.

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