Bad Cities, Fake Cities, Cities to Be: Best #CityReads of the Week
It’s true that as people in developing nations move from the countryside to the city, the shift may reduce the pressure on land, which could in turn be good for the environment. This is especially so in desperately poor countries like Madagascar, where residents in the countryside slash and burn forests each growing season to clear space for farming. But the real difference is that in developing nations, the move from rural areas to cities often leads to an accompanying increase in income — and that increase in income leads to an increase in the consumption of food and energy, which in turns produces an uptick in carbon emissions. Getting enough to eat and enjoying the safety and comfort of living fully on the grid is certainly a good thing — but it does carry an environmental price. In the U.S. urban dwellers tend to be poorer than their counterparts in the suburbs —though the recent gentrification of top-tier cities like Washington and San Francisco has altered that dynamic — and consume less, especially energy. But that’s not so in the developing nations.
The urbanization wave can’t be stopped — and it shouldn’t be. But the PNAS paper does underscore the importance of managing that transition. Seto notes that around 65% of the urban land core in 2030 has yet to be built. If we do it the right way, we can mitigate urbanization’s impacts on the environment. “There is an enormous opportunity here, and a lot of pressure and responsibility to think about how we urbanize,” says Seto. “The one thing that’s clear is that we can’t build cities the way we have over the last couple of hundred years. The scale of this transition won’t allow that.” We’re headed towards an urban planet no matter what, but whether it becomes a heaven or a hell is up to us.
According to the Washington Post, upward of 400 "city replicas" now exist in suburban America, some retrofitted into older towns, others built from scratch into exurban greenfield. And they’re commercially successful. Homes in Washington-area WalkUPs are priced 71 percent higher per square foot than those in the rest of the metro region. “Just like the suburbs kicked [the city's] butt on retail in the 1980s, that’s exactly what’s going to happen with these transit-oriented urban neighborhoods that are coming up now” in the suburbs, a D.C. developer told the Post. (By transit-oriented, he means that many of them are linked to Washington, or soon will be, by the city’s Metro system, not that they’re transit-oriented within their own walls.)
But as much as these urban simulacra might be an improvement over the sprawl they’re jury-rigged into, you don’t have to be Jane Jacobs to see that many are not what we’ve always thought of us “urban.” If anything, they reflect suburban ideals contorted (sometimes painfully) into vaguely urbanish form, a Frankenstein of supermarkets, outdoor dining, parking lots and mock-cobblestone sidewalks.
Just as Changsha has become an entertainment hub, many second-tier cities are also thriving because they specialize. Chengdu is a high-tech manufacturing center: Intel (INTC) recently moved its assembly and testing facility there from Shanghai, and Dell (DELL) and Texas Instruments (TXN) also have operations in the city. Chengdu’s gross domestic product last year grew 15 percent, according to the city government. Wuxi, home of Suntech (STP), is a leader of Chinese solar panel manufacturing; Xi’an, historically a base of the military-industrial complex, is heavily involved in the country’s efforts to develop an aerospace industry. The northeastern city of Shenyang, which became an industrial center during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, suffered from high unemployment in the 1990s when state-owned factories closed. Its economy has since revived, thanks to assembly plants operated by BMW (BMW) and Boeing (BA), as well as other foreign investors.
Several forces are likely to contribute to the increasing dominance of these up-and-comers. Some larger metropolises on the coast have much higher labor costs than the fast-growing cities in the interior. The first-tier urban centers are also overburdened by the social services they have to supply. Because migrants tend to be young, providing for them in burgeoning central and western cities like Changsha, Chengdu, and Chongqing will be less expensive than in older northeastern industrial centers and the established coastal megacities. Shanghai by 2025 will have twice as many seniors as New York, says McKinsey’s Xiujun Li: “Changsha is younger, with a large service sector and young labor pool.” Wages are also lower than on the coast.”
The bottom line: Of the world’s 25 fastest-growing cities by 2025, 13 are likely to be in mainland China. Many are specializing to fuel their growth.
It's clear that America’s travel culture is shifting. In the 1950s, a car defined a person. Now, a growing number of young people don’t even want drivers’ licenses: In 2008, only 65 percent of 18-year-olds had a license, compared to 80 percent in 1983. Millennials also say they prefer car access to car ownership. (That factoid comes from Zipcar, though, which has business interest in believing that’s true.) Although 20- and 30-somethings have been relocating less often during the Great Recession, when they do, they choose cities like Portland, Denver, Austin, and Washington, D.C., where biking and walking culture rules.
Young people don’t necessarily stay in cities when they grow up, though—it does become more difficult to shrug off a dangerous intersection or subway delays with babies in tow. School quality, nostalgia for backyard adventures, and rising rents all have the potential to force people to the suburbs as they get older, too. But the government should be doing everything it can to keep young people in dense urban areas for economic as well as environmental reasons.