Monday, September 12, 2011

People Versus Place

Think about cityscapes and beauty. What do you imagine? Do any famous paintings or photographs come to mind? I have a theory that most of you picture a place without people. I think that's the dominant view. A city is buildings, infrastructure, and lights. Nothing screams "city" quite like a skyscraper does.

Using broad brush strokes, urban policy is either people-centric or place-centric. Attracting talent to Hamilton, Ontario:

So what’s it take to attract smart people and small firms? Glaeser says there are two competing visions. There’s the Richard Florida vision of chasing after the creative class by embracing the arts, celebrating alternative lifestyles and investing in a fun, happening downtown. With a fondness for coffeehouses and public sculpture, Glaeser says it’s a vision that seems aimed at a 28-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust.

The second vision of city building is boring by comparison, with a focus on doing a better job of being brilliant at the basics and delivering core public services like safe streets, fast commutes and good schools. It’s a vision built around meeting the needs of a 42-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable and their quality of life will be as good in Hamilton as they’d be in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

That second vision needs some work. It reads like an anti-Creative Class manifesto. Richard Florida is touting the more aesthetically pleasing city. Glaeser is trying to get at a city that works better. He's not sure how that might figure into talent migration. On that score, Florida has the better model.

We need to think more about how a city develops talent and makes workers more productive. A place that offers more steps up the ladder will appeal to both bohemian and biotech researcher. People will move there in spite of lousy weather, intolerance, and a dearth of vibrant public spaces. However, that's not to say that placemaking and greater tolerance/diversity wouldn't improve productivity.

Investing in people takes a backseat to investing in places. A great school doesn't require world class architecture. It needn't be a cool place. The same goes for cities. Urban policy is backwards. I would replace "transit oriented development" with "people oriented development". Billions of dollars for FasTracks in the Greater Denver region would be better spent on underfunded public schools.

1 comment:

JRoth said...

We have neighbors who recently moved here from Chicago (primarily cost of living + decent schools). We've been having trouble with our schoolbus route, and as we walked away from the bus stop, the mother commented that it's like everything else in Pittsburgh, not quite up to par. As she said this, I noted the almost completely deteriorated sidewalk in front of our neighborhood's little park.

I don't think that getting the little things right will draw immigrants, but I do think it will help keep them. Inertia is powerful, but everyday reminders of crumbling infrastructure, mismanaged organizations, ineffective bureaucracies all conspire to fight inertia, and encourage people to seek elsewhere.

BUT, I don't think anyone picks a city on the basis of getting those things right, in part because you can't really see them as a visitor, and in part because it's hard to imagine them as part of your new life; instead you imagine how great it would be to walk to the downtown farmer's market, or run along the lake, or eat at the hip restaurants, or whatever.