Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Where is Utopia?

Does it not seem that every new generational defining development prototype promises some version of utopia? Whether it be the City Beautiful Movement, the Modernists, New Urbanists, or your conventional suburban golf course neighborhood, retirement village, etc. etc., each rests on a platform of promise that it cannot possibly live up to, but does however offer some remedy for the prior utopian vision that didn't quite work out so well (usually the immediately prior one).
The term utopia actually derives from Sir Thomas More and his book of the same name. As Philip Ball writes in the book Critical Mass:
Hobbes was not the first to imagine a utopia based on scientific reasoning. The governing philosophers of Plato's Republic live simply and own no private property, but they have absolute power over the lower classes of soldiers and common people, with whom Plato is little concerned. His is a utopia for aristocrats only; the mob might as well be living in a totalitarian, if benevolent, state.

But the word "utopia" comes from the imaginary land devised by the scholar and lawyer Thomas More. In More's book Utopia (1516), a sailor...describes the eponymous island where he dwelt for five years after sailing there by chance. The meaning of the name is debated, but the common interpretation renders it as either "good place" or "no place."
The rest details exactly what More's utopia looked like, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. What is relevant is the true meaning of utopia. In a modern context, it seems to imply either something attainable but not yet reached or a scornful condemnation of similarly lofty goals, as many efforts to better cities at the (wrongly presumed) expense of status quo, aka suburbia.

Both are right AND wrong.

There is no perfect place. My perfect place is perfectly imperfect. It embodies the best of humanity, all of its warts included.

However, there is a better place. As many of you know, I write a monthly column on issues of local urbanism for D magazine. In the issue to hit newstands likely by the end of the week, you'll see a discussion regarding physicist Geoffrey West. Unfortunately, Jonah Lehrer and New York Times magazine beat me to the punch, writing, in effect, the exact same article only with many, many more words available to him. In my defense, I turned in my draft a week before his article was published back in December.

All that matters and that you should know is: 1) West is a smart dude, and 2) he's focusing his mathematical energies on the city (although his attention span may be short and flitting towards explaining rise and fall of corporations now). If I'm presumptuous enough to put myself in his esteemed company, he, like me, was drawn to the city because of its immense complexity...and its seemingly simple patterns and processes. He is using math to do the same thing that Mandelbrot, Alexander, and Jacobs all attempted to do, account for the complexity by explaining the simplicity.

At root, complexity is the mass repetition of something simple, ie fractals, of which, in my estimation, the city is one. The simple pattern determining the arrangement of a city, is the weighing pros/cons of desirability of place, repeated millions of times (or however many times somebody in some place chooses where to live/be/eat/play/etc.).

Cities arose for the competitive advantages that we could explain and those we couldn't. Some were simple such as safety. Others were a bit more complex such as economic growth. Cities, by clustering around crossroads of trade routes facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, laughs, genes, etc. Everything we want and need, either we already invented it, or between the two of us, we could invent a solution.

In today's rational descartian world, we have to explain everything through math, assigning value. Rightly or wrongly, objectively or subjectively, it certainly is necessary in a time of so much "externalizing" of certain values, like waste, disease, pollution, etc. Not our problem, somebody else's. Just get it off my balance sheet so our P&L statements look good for shareholders.

Therein lies the problem. In a very real, physical world where nothing is ever completely created or destroyed, those things do indeed have value, a cost that somebody has to pay for, either today, or tomorrow. We want all the good, but don't want all the bad. That response is perfectly rational. Who wants bad things? Certainly not me, but I also don't want us to ignore the bad.

What Geoffrey West has put measurable values to, is the inputs and outputs of cities. Inputs to the urban equation are things like energy and infrastructure. They allow the hummmm of a city to occur, the buzz of economic (or otherwise) activity, also known as the very reason cities exist. They give us life. They give us pleasure. Roughly and on average, a city requires 15% less input (energy and infrastructure) for every doubling in size (what the physicists call "sub-linear"). Therefore cities are efficient, cost effective. Any businessperson should love that.

What business people should also love is that cities are more profitable. They produce more outputs. Outputs are measurable things, like economic development. The efficiencies and density of connections create energy, like fusion, or the nucleus of an atom. Two people come together. They can create a sale, ie in a perfect, free market system where both parties have choice, they both think they're getting a deal, a win-win. Two people can also concoct a new idea or even a new person. Regarding the former (well, and the latter), the creative process is a social one. The shepherding of it doesn't have to be.

Cities are the necessary platform for the creative process and therefore necessary for human progress. However, the outputs are also not always positive. Negative outputs that are similarly "super-linear" or grow faster than a 1 to 1 ratio include disease, waste, and pollution. The same things the current mindset tries to ignore because of the potentially subjective nature in their valuation.

If we understand their short- and long-term implications and factor those costs into the equations of daily life and city building we can build something closer to utopia. The best cities in the world, our current utopias certainly aren't perfect. But they are better, measurably so.

The best cities in the world get all of the benefits of urbanity (low inputs, high outputs) but are also able to best address the negative outputs that negatively impact livability, or desirability, to live in and/or do business in that city.

The worst cities get very little positive out of cities. Or, what profitable increment there is goes to very few people, meaning there is very little opportunity for the majority. They also have the highest rates of the negative outputs.

By finding the arithmetic means of these things, West can determine whether a city is underperforming or overperforming, whether globally or within a context of similar cities, say for example just North American cities. There is little value in comparing Dallas to Nairobi or Lagos. You nor I is packing up to head over there any time soon for the heightened livability. However, within this country, we do have a choice that every college grad faces when leaving school or even corporate HQ for that matter: where do I want to be?

West's calculations have found that Sun Belt cities perform poorly within a North American context. Why? Well, for the most part Sun Belt cities were built during the period in history where highway building was thought to provide a direct relationship with progress and prosperity. Or they generally discarded every remnant of something that didn't represent this new "progress." Therefore Sun Belt cities have very high levels of infrastructure per capita. They don't get much bang for the buck. Oddly, they are the opposite of Walmart despite being defined by Walmart. There are no efficiencies of scale.

On the flip or output side of the equation, Sun Belt cities get just as much of the negative outputs as any other city: crime, waste and pollution, and disease (Dallas and Houston rank in the bottom 10 in this healthiest cities report). The reason is because these are based on population size, technology, and healthcare moreso than physical arrangement.

The vast move out towards the utopia of the suburbs was little more than an attempt to ignore the problems of the industrialized 19th and 20th century American city. If we just move away, all that bad stuff goes away too, right? The reality is that everything goes away. The baby goes right out with the bathwater.

The promise of democratization of the suburbs was/is similarly false. We simply all can't afford to live out there and the real costs of attempting to do so are slowly but surely making themselves known. Whether you want to live in low density or high density, your personal utopia or something like it, there are cost implications of both that are not yet factored in to the fractal that is the geographic patterning of sun belt cities based on choice. The choice is corrupted by an illusion.

The recent housing boom promised utopia just as every other spatial re-arrangement ever has. Your new house in Vegas would be worth 10x what it is today. So would your condo in Miami Beach. One happened to be more dense than the other, but for the most part neither prototype was very "urban" in the mathematical sense of the term.

Critics like Joel Kotkin rightly criticize Miami Beach housing bust, but get the details wrong. They call it a rejection of urbanism, when in fact it was nothing more than a rejection of too much supply. They also wrongly think urbanism is defined by location. It is NOT. Urbanism is about using each and every piece of dirt in a way that adds to the larger equation, whether that be agriculture, housing, or mixed-use.

While there may not be a utopian city, there is the possibility of a better city. A more livable city that is safer, more inclusive, more just, cleaner, more enjoyable, more profitable. It puts less cost in and gets more returns (economic, environmental, and social) out...and that is what we're working towards.

Sometimes it is "icky" to be around others. Sometimes people are jerks. This is one of the only truisms that ever matters. However, the best cities make it as tolerable, if not pleasurable, to be around each other. Perhaps that should be a new spectrum for ranking cities: intolerable, tolerable, and pleasurable.