Future Perfect, As Told Downtown

FuturePerfectFuture Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is author Stephen Johnson’s latest work. It is a city book.

Human progress has always been the fruit of small and iterative innovations, undertaken by individuals acting on what Johnson terms “slow hunches” that accrue from experience. When these individual tinkerers are connected via decentralized networks offering numerous ways for them to interact, the cross-fertilization and productivity of these innovations is magnified.

As a result, Johnson presents his confidence that members of these flat, decentralized networks of peers, using an increasingly broad and powerful set of platforms to work together, will advance human progress in the future. They are, in his term of art, peer progressives. Interaction using these platforms is evolving the way we go about invention, trade, social life, music making, even revolution.

Johnson’s frame of reference is primarily the internet, but his heralding of the power of peer progressive values could not viably take place without both the model of the city, and the contributions of urban networks to nearly every example he cites. Consider this handful of insights from Future Perfect as they relate to urban dynamics:

Faster, Higher, Stronger
“The density and open exchange of a peer network drive up the information productivity of the overall system, because new ideas circulate quickly through the network and can be built upon or expanded at little cost. You can do more with less.” Reducing the transaction cost of developing new ideas, and stretching them into multiple commercial forms, are why Jericho was formed and the essence of why modern cities exist. In Triumph of the City, economist Ed Glaeser expresses the same sentiment in his language: “The increasingly global marketplace means that the returns to innovation have increased. Since urban density speeds the flow of new ideas, an increase in the value of innovation naturally strengthens those cities that specialize in innovation.” Information productivity will vary among cities, but cities will increasingly lead the way. They are the global leaders.

Crowdfunding as Urban Springboard
“Kickstarter, for instance, took an existing problem that markets had traditionally fumbled – how do we find and support interesting new creative forms – and radically increased both the density and diversity of participants. It gave thousands of creative people direct access to the wallets of millions of potential patrons.” Cities provide a rich backdrop for ideas to be conceived and developed as they spread through professional, personal and civic networks forming there. In art and commerce, cities provide a forum for creators to combine and recombine. Crowdfunding sites have taken the assembly of productive, critical masses around specific interests that occurs in cities, and multiplied it using technology.

City Mashup
In one of Johnson’s prior works, Where Good Ideas Come From, the author presented valuable historical context, drawing on examples including the process Johannes Gutenberg used to derive the printing press. In his account, Johnson establishes the connection between the wine presses used in Gutenberg’s native Rhineland in the 15th century, and the design of the printing press, which by economizing published print, unleashed an era of democratization and reform. In Future Perfect, he draws the same thread through to today’s open source world. “When text is free to flow and recombine,” he argues, “new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.” Just as the city is where individuals come to mix and match with others, it is also where their ideas are shaped and shifted and made into new forms. Call it concept arbitrage.

Buckminster Fuller said “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In Future Perfect, Stephen Johnson has delivered a succinct argument that the peer progressive model is at this moment rendering the prior model obsolete. And the peer progressive model’s home field is the city.

Great Inversion – But Not Monolithic Inversion

Alan Ehrenhalt’s latest book, “The Great Inversion,” is valuable reading for nearly anyone in my professional practices: In particular, private and public organizations involved in redevelopment and city building.

The author’s premise argues that the comparative value of proximity to core cities – their economic and cultural assets, diverse building stock, and ease of transit access – is rising. As that shift in value unfolds, says Ehrenhalt, many U.S. metro areas will invert, assuming a pattern where core city neighborhoods typically are among the most desired, while suburban areas offer values accessible to more residents.

Ehrenhalt writes a compelling narrative, observing dynamics that can be observed in cities across the country. In interviews he’s described the shift as “an entire metropolitan area rearranging itself…a true inversion of demographic groups.” Still, at times the premise does not allow full exploration of variation within regions. He stresses the importance of transit in reshaping regions, for example, but does not organize his argument to reflect how effective transit service can itself reshape the city/suburb relationship. If in one area of a metro, transit can move people from city to suburb (and vice versa) more effectively than in other areas, how might they invert differently? Job growth on a transit corridor, for example, may affect residents living elsewhere along that corridor, more than it does other residents living nearer by, even if it’s occurring within the same municipal boundary.

That caveat aside, it’s clear that fiscal scarcity, changing pricing caused by climate change (essentially unaddressed to date), shrinking households and shifting cultural attitudes about cities are converging powerfully to reshape metro areas, and increasingly channel investment toward the center. For public agencies and firms involved in redevelopment, such as Donjek clients, this return to a pattern based on proximity will produce a whole universe of new opportunities.

The news narrative around these issues is usually simplified in an unhelpful way (see this critique of coverage of recent demographic data released for the Minneapolis Saint Paul region), presenting these trends as “core cities up, suburbs down.” None of the ingredients here are so simple: The physical geography and amenities of regions, job location criteria, and the politics that shape transportation investments are just a few examples. Instead, shifts like the Great Inversion will create opportunities and troubles which are different than the recent past, but very familiar in history. Creativity is required for good redevelopment, now more so with these dramatic demographic shifts underway.

Productivity and Design Merge in the Gated City

Cover3 Since his publication in the New York Times' Sunday Review this past weekend, Economist magazine correspondent Ryan Avent has been showered with digital ink following release of his short book, "The Gated City." Based on his Sunday excerpt, it's clear his fundamental argument is that land use and productivity are inextricable.


The policy arena is stocked with arguments over which strategy or which sector provides the most efficient return for job creation (for a sample, search "jobs per dollar" on Google – although, as this commentary indicates, your results will be different than mine).

This dialogue, however, does not usually consider the spatial issues involved. How many jobs, and of what type, are created across a city or region? Employers rely on a workforce that is trained and educated, able to reach the workplace reliably, and able to transport a product – by rail, by digital means, or other mode of movement. Employers and the economies of which they are part also rely on relationships that form networks around industries, innovations, or particular skill areas. Success or failure in each of these areas is all about how our cities are designed and how intensely infrastructure is used.

It's relatively simple to evaluate job creation initiatives if direct public expenditures and jobs ("full time equivalents") are the only terms examined. As I suggested a few months ago, Steven Johnson and Ed Glaeser illustrate this would miss a substantial part of the essence of why and where jobs are created. The last few days' eruption of interest in Avent's message indicates we're headed for a more nuanced, comprehensive view of how urban design and productivity are linked. That's a very good thing.

*Postscript: Thanks to Ryan Avent for including this short post in his list of commentary pieces on the Gated City. See the others here.

In Search of Inzichten

Amst1 Over the last several years, readers of these periodic posts may have noticed I have had a longtime appetite for inzichten uit de Nederlandse stedebouwkunde – insights of Dutch city planning. I’m intrigued by the international nature of Dutch culture, its democratic roots, and the relationship of their planning to scarcity of land. The constant threat of flooding through their history has stimulated shifts in each of these areas.

This week, I leave for travel that will include time spent with family in Holland, and I’m looking forward to exploring another tradition’s approach to city building and public finance. A few examples I’ve touched in here at the Cents of Place include:

  • Understanding the value created both by access to transportation, and by a mixing of real estate asset types, remains a driver in Donjek projects. The Dutch connection is diluted in this piece, but I cited evidence from the Lowlands suggesting the premium for commercial real estate located near rail stations exceeds 10%.
  • Highlighting the historical connection of urban success stories and concerted public investment, I cited the model of Amsterdam as it emerged from the Middle Ages in reviewing Joel Kotkin’s 2006 book, “The City, a Global History.”
  • As a past adjunct instructor of economics, I could not be expected to forego some consideration of the fascinating period of Dutch history that centered on the mania of the tulip bulb. Similarly, I could not be expected to forego the comparison to the housing bubble, which I did in 2008.
  • Given the intensive construction underway outside the Donjek office, which will lead to easy access to nearby light rail transit, I’ve been reminded of the promising product of Dutch firm, the Ooms Avenhorn Group. Using street infrastructure for more than multimodal transportation, the geothermal systems collect and store warm and cool water beneath road surfaces for climate control in nearby buildings.

This is a small, unscientific sample of ideas. There are a great many who have both a more authoritative and more comprehensive perspective on Dutch planning and development. Call me a student. With luck, I will bring home more ideas for applying the most effective Dutch practices in American central cities.

Photo: Courtesy Flickr/Tashenka

Urban Economies: Going with the Flow

River1j Reading Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City (which I mentioned in this post on transfer of ideas in cities), I learned that in the year 1816, transporting goods across land in early America cost an equivalent amount to shipping it from Boston to London. The comparative relationship tilted settlement and trade distinctly toward our waterways; construction of the Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed a loop that connected four corners of the developing country. Between 1850 and 1970, at least five of the ten largest U.S. cities were located on this trade circuit.

Waterways remained critical as arteries to transport commodities and other inputs for trade and commerce; they also provided the doorway through which most entered frontier towns like my place, St. Paul. Over time, comparative pricing and relationships to rivers changed – railroads, then cars and trucks, airplanes, and digital thoroughfares provided radically cheaper modes of overland movement. 

Ports facilitate accumulation of value through transfer of material from one transportation mode to another. In the past, the fact that river ports fronted riverways was only significant in that barge transportation was cost-effective. As freight rail (for long runs) and trucks (for shorter runs) compete with river navigation, many river ports have declined. Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal, for example, has managed falling volumes in recent years, the region's barge traffic dominated by the St. Paul (downriver) harbor.

Today, the relationships of "prices" continue to shift. In particular, the pressure to attract and retain talent is familiar to American mayors and business operators across the country.  In addition to creating recreation amenities, urban riverfronts also create collective open space that draws the eye through the city landscape. When perceived as safe and clean, access to river frontages creates substantial property value and economic potential. In addition to moving things in and out, the role of some riverfronts has expanded to focus on use as open space magnets that  make places more distinct and attractive. 

Our river, the Mississippi, formed and shapes both Minneapolis and St. Paul in important ways. Earlier this year, a team to which I served as regional advisor won the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, now evolved into the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative. I've been engaged for several months managing a project focused on strengthening the connection of downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi via the Gateway. Comparable efforts have been underway in St. Paul over the last twenty years, including the Great River Park master plan developed in the last year. This subject, conveniently, presents an opportunity for field work: I'm looking forward to August visits to Roman river towns Maastricht, Ghent, and London.

Open space and riverfronts cannot by themselves replace key economic functions such as port activities. Still, as larger forces transform cities, the prominence and role of rivers continue to be key in distinguishing prosperous regions.

Photo courtesy of pmarkham/Flickr.