It’s time to take the livability, sustainability, and prosperity of our urban areas more seriously
Our species is well on its way to becoming Homo urbanus. Consider that just two centuries ago, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities. At the dawn of the 20th century, it was just 14 percent. Today, it’s exploded to more than half the world’s population. And by the year 2030, more than five billion people (six out of every ten human beings) will live in cities and urban centers.
Cities are our greatest invention. They generate wealth and improve living standards while providing the density, interaction, and networks that make us more creative and productive. They are the key social and economic organizing units of our time, bringing together people, jobs, and all the inputs required for economic growth. The great Jane Jacobs was perhaps to first to note that in and of themselves cities are engines of innovation; their concentrations of talented and creative people promote and accelerate economic growth. This year in fact marks the 50th anniversary of Jacobs’ classic Death and Life of Great American Cities—one of the many things we’ll be discussing on this site.
We’re a metropolitan nation, as Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution reminds us: when we say “cities,” we really mean “metropolitan areas.” A “metro” or metropolitan area encompasses not just a center city but its suburban rings. (My colleague Nate Berg has a great piece describing the different ways we define and measure cities.) Nearly 85 percent of Americans live in metro areas, which produce 90 percent of the U.S.’s total economic output and 85 percent of its jobs. Across the world, metros with populations of more than one million people account for more than half the world’s economic output, while housing roughly one in five of its people.
As they grow bigger, many of these metros are morphing into mega-regions. Decades ago, the geographer Jean Gottman predicted the rise of the megalopolis, as great cities and metropolitan areas grew together into something even bigger, like the one he dubbed Bos-Wash running from Boston through New York to Washington, D.C. on the eastern seaboard. While many commentators like to talk about the new global competition among nation states and the rise of the so-called BRICs economies—Brazil, Russia, India and China—their rise has been shaped and defined by their cities and mega-regions—the Sao Paolo-Rio corridor, the greater Moscow region, the Bangalore-Mumbai axis and the great mega-region that stretches from Shanghai to Beijing. The world’s 40 largest mega-regions house 18 percent of its people, produce two-thirds of its economic output, and nine in ten of its innovations.
If our cities are our most powerful engines of growth, they are also greener and more environmentally efficient than suburbs and small towns, as David Owen and others have shown. Multi-family dwellings that share walls are easier to heat than detached single family houses; density discourages car use and promotes mass transit and walking. Our cities are safer, too. Crime is down to its lowest level in 40 years, especially in America's biggest cities. Part of the reason lies in better policing, but much of it lies in their growing diversity and improving conditions.
Which isn’t to say that our cities are earthly paradises; they face serious problems and challenges. The economic crisis has hit many cities in United States and around the world hard. Sunbelt metros like Las Vegas and Phoenix, which were not long ago hailed as the fastest growing in the nation, have faced high rates of housing foreclosure and of unemployment. Rustbelt cities like Detroit have been devastated by de-industrialization and staggering job loss. Many metros won’t make up for the jobs they lost in the current crisis until 2021 or beyond, according to a recent accounting.
The suburbs have not been spared, either. Many, especially far-out ones, have been wracked by the housing crisis and rising unemployment. Many of them were shoddily built and have crumbling infrastructure, as Chris Leinberger and Kaid Benfield have noted in The Atlantic. The task of rebuilding them may be an even bigger one then renewing our inner cities.
Many commentators have reminded us of the growing cultural, political and economic divides that separate Americans. Our cities are metropolitan areas are also growing more divided. The increasingly important economic role of cities and their amenities and growing attractiveness has made them centers for the global super-rich. Housing prices have risen and economic and class divides have worsened. The growing divides between cities and regions are matched by the even greater divides within them. From the London riots to less noticed struggles over gentrification, our cities and communities have become central axes of political activism and unrest.
And then there are the countless millions who fill the increasingly disconnected and truly disadvantaged mega-cities of the Third World. From Jakarta to Lagos, Cairo to Manila and Nairobi, more than one billion people live in their slums. Even though conditions there are better than they are in the rural countryside, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser reminds us, they desperately need rudimentary water and sewer infrastructure, basic housing and schools, and the ability to protect their citizens, especially school-age children.
But if cities face challenges, they are also the source of many of our most innovative civic and policy solutions. While Washington remains mired in gridlock, cities and their leaders—from mayors and economic development officials to academics, non-profit groups, and citizen volunteers—have been pioneering pragmatic approaches to economic revitalization, green-space, education, job-creation, neighborhood policing, and public health. Some are top-down initiatives of leaders and major developers, others are bubbling up more organically from community groups, non-profits and residents themselves.
It should be obvious that I love cities. And this affection is not something I came to out of mere intellectual curiosity; it is literally in in my bones. Born in Newark, New Jersey, when it was the bustling center Phillip Roth writes about, I saw the factory where my father worked, which once employed hundreds of people, fall victim to de-industrialization. The image of tanks on that city’s streets in the days of the race riots remain as vivid to me today as they were when I was a 10-year-old boy. I have lived and worked in New York and Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, Miami Beach and now Toronto. My experience in Toronto and my travels to cities around the world convinces me that there is much U.S. cities can learn from their foreign counterparts, and for the need for a truly urban global perspective.
That’s why I’m so excited to be part of The Atlantic Cities. I’ve felt for a long time that cities needed the same kind of media playing field that is regularly devoted to subjects like politics, business, entertainment, lifestyle and the rest. And now with the support of The Atlantic, it does. We’ve assembled an unbelievable team of writers, editors, experts, thinkers and doers who care deeply about the opportunities and challenges facing our cities and the urban world we live in. We’ll be delving into the big issues facing cities in the United States and around the world, and discussing new ideas and strategies. And we’ll strive to collate and curate the very best of urbanism in our goal of helping you better understand this urban world, improve your own cities and neighborhoods, and make better, more informed choices about you and your families can live, thrive, and prosper.