Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Perennial Urban Allure

Richard Florida is a popular speaker on city development. His theory is that hipsters and homosexuals generate the innovation of great cities like Manhattan and San Francisco. I think his theory is simply wishful thinking, unsupported by anything but anecdotal correlations, but in his latest defense he makes the assertion that cities are essential to growth:
Second, everyone who actually studies the subject—save Kotkin—agrees that cities and density spur economic growth... everyone seems to agree that denser cities and suburbs, denser metros and regions, add to growth...We know that cities and skills power growth
This reminded me of going back further, where I remember economic historians arguing that urbanization was key to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and thereby, to modern civilization.

Yet if you read economic history, you'll see that cities have historically been considered genetic sinkholes. Robert Woods estimated that life expectancy was 50% higher in the countryside up to 1800. Even without infant mortality, it's generally assumed medieval cities would have disappeared except for in-migration.

So, why did most people want to move to the city? It seems like the same lure as today: freedom from a set life pattern and higher urban wages. I would like to think people are more motivated by self-actualization that comes from finding one's true niche in life, but looking at pop culture I think it's more simply a desire to socialize with peers (dancing, sleeping around, laughing with friends).  Even today, young people, especially women, flee rural areas for cities (see population density graph above right).  For centuries, young people think their best interests are served in a metropolis.

So, something generally considered essential for the group, urbanization, was for a millenium  harmful to the individual, yet still preferred by the individual. Either people pre-1800 were overconfident about their mortality, oblivious to the statistics, or as Epicurus said, death isn't really something to worry about because if your dead you're not alive to worry about it, and if you are alive to worry you aren't dead so stop worrying.

People moving to the city have been illogical risk takers from the beginning. and the key is probably they like the sexual or mating opportunities inherent in large groups. Playing to that angle would bring in hipsters and gays. As to whether that's the key to the health of cities or our nation, I doubt it, but it won't hurt, especially because one of the best ways of making a city fun to go out in is that it's safe for young women.


Anonymous said...

Mercury said...

Yeah, there’s a little bit of cargo cult type thinking going on with this pet theory/popular meme. People like Mr. Florida are misinterpreting a marker of urban prosperity for a cause. Similarly, the Soviets used to build grand boulevards and department stores in their cities (mimicking the outward appearance of places like Chicago and New York) but of course there weren’t many cars or consumer goods to fill them and prosperity didn’t magically follow. Such are the follies of central planning which we are apparently doomed to repeat AFTER having won the Cold War.

When gays start to move into a blighted neighborhood it tends to be a good sign for property values and economic activity - the pattern is obvious and common enough. But they, like attractive, nubile females, don’t swarm randomly or because of some mysterious criteria, they are attracted to money and prosperity and seek to set up shop in as close proximity to that as possible.

If parachuting gays and beautiful women (fashion bombing!!) into a city like Detroit would more or less guarantee higher tax revenues and property values ten years hence then Goldman Sachs would have several such contingency deals with desperate municipalities on the books right now.

It would make a great movie though.

Unknown said...

The high wages that draw people are interesting though. Don't they suggest higher productivity associated with density? And is it such a leap to think that higher productivity in innovation may also be one of the things that shakes out? It would be interesting to look at the rates of change of technology, culture, etc. in cities vs. rural areas.

But for myself, I strongly prefer to live in rural areas. It's a quality of life issue.

Anonymous said...

Yet if you read economic history, you'll see that cities have historically been considered genetic sinkholes. Robert Woods estimated that life expectancy was 50% higher in the countryside up to 1800.

Not sure how this follows. Life expectancy isn't as important as reproduction. Aren't cities intrinsically better environments to meet mates?

Anonymous said...

Eric Falkenstein said...

"Not sure how this follows. Life expectancy isn't as important as reproduction. Aren't cities intrinsically better environments to meet mates?"

Assume mortality is much higher, 100% in cities all because kids die in childhood. People meet, marry, and create kids that die. Population grows because more people come in to meet mates. That's still illogical, from a gene maximizing perspective.

The important point is that since there's general agreement that without in-migration, cities would die, the expected great-grandchild per person was larger is cities.

Tel said...

From a historical perspective, if you happened to be the owner of a piece of fertile land, and you had even Middle-Ages agricultural technology, then farming was a pretty good living. There was some hard physical work involved, but you got to eat well, had plenty of space for children, and rarely worried about disease. As these things go, whenever someone was onto a good thing, someone else thought about getting a slice of that action.

Cities have historically speaking been beneficial from a number of reasons. In times of war, the army in the field would inevitably raid local farms for food (and farmer's daughters, wives, etc). Walled cities were easier to defend, and could store food and water for a long siege. Thus, cities became centers of military power, and inevitably centers of government too. Farmers could pay a regular tax to the local garrison in return for "protection" or they could pay an occasional and devastating tax to an army in the field (often they paid both).

Cities also had a benefit in terms of trade and technology. If you are going to establish a marketplace, you would logically choose a place with lots of people nearby to take an interest in trade, and preferably also at a transport hub to get access to the passing traffic. All roads lead to Rome for military reasons, but they have a convenient peacetime side effect of making it easy to ship goods in and out of Rome.

Technology requires communication, if I just had a good idea, then it will die with me unless I teach someone else how to do it. Cities shorten the distance between people, thus improve communication from a person-to-person perspective (and even today most teaching is person-to-person style).

Getting back to the farmer, since he does life a good life (even after taxes) he has two or more sons, and thus number one son inherits the farm, but number two and number three sons are not set for such a good life. They must become soldiers, merchants or learn a trade, in order to survive.

I'll point out that IMHO the age of great cities is drawing to an end. They are no longer valuable for mutual defense. Quite the opposite... if a terrorist manages to build a suitcase nuke, will he set it off on a prairie in Ohio or a cattle station in outback Australia, or a subway in New York? Weapons technology has outstripped walled defenses and cities are now more vulnerable than ever. Also, communications technology is (slowly) eating away the person-to-person advantage and all roads don't lead to Rome anymore. Roads and rail go pretty much everywhere.

Don't invest in inner city real estate.

Tel said...

I probably should reference Bob Murphy who has similar ideas to myself, indeed I stole many of my ideas from him.

Bob still thinks that cities have a lot to offer, but I note that when he purchased a house it was not inner-city urban by any means so I'm agreeing with Bob's money :-)

Eric Falkenstein said...

well, I wasn't going strong on the women's lib and gay stuff, or even recent trends. Rather, historically, it's been a fact that cities have had 1) inmigration and 2) much higher mortality. Looking back, I too would probably want to move to the city, especially if I weren't first born, but that's a strange allure, hard to model.