An urban renaissance ?

NEW YORK: It’s not so pleasant to live in New York in the hot days of August. The grime on the sidewalk has really begun to reek. The tourist hordes remind you how little room you have to yourself, and then there’s the noise, seemingly amplified by the heat.

The New York Post reported last week that complaints to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection rose 81 percent over the last year, following the introduction of a new noise code.

For those Manhattanites not fortunate enough to be in the Hamptons, the City That Never Sleeps loses its charm around now. “I don’t like the city better, the more I see it, but worse,” said the writer-philosopher Henry David Thoreau in 1843. And sometimes that seems about right.

Due to some of these frustrations, New York emptied out in the 1970s. Declining transport costs cut the advantage that New York City had long enjoyed because of its proximity to waterways. Its manufacturing heart hollowed out, and the middle class began to leave. As Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University, points out, other technological advances contributed to the city’s decline – the car and the air conditioner, which made suburban living easier and helped push the population of the United States to the hotter South and West. As the Northeast emptied, cities like Dallas, Phoenix and Houston became the fastest growing in the United States. New York, on the other hand, lost 824,000 people in the 1970s.

Since then, something remarkable has happened. While parts of America’s Northeast are still depopulating, New York is not. Late last year, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, stood up to announce that he expected New York – current estimated population around 8.2 million – to add more than 1 million people over the next couple of decades, taking the population to more than 9 million by 2030. The city is growing again.

Why? Glaeser and some other economists have two answers – the first has to do with the triumph of cities as a whole in the age of globalization, and the second with consumer choice.

By next year, according to the United Nations, more than half the world’s population will for the first time live in towns and cities. As Lamia Kamal-Chaoui, author of a recent report on world cities at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, points out, New York’s population growth is not spectacular. It’s in line with the growth of London, which according to John Ross, director of economic and business policy for the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, is adding around 90,000 each year, 40,000 from natural expansion and a further 50,000 from inward migration. (The three biggest sources of immigration to the British capital are China, Africa, and then Poland, he says.)

But other cities have been growing far faster even than New York or London – Kamal-Chaoui points to Madrid, where the foreign population has multiplied four times in about six years, to six million people, chiefly due to foreign migrants from Latin America, and to Istanbul, where economic growth is sizzling and where the population has increased tenfold since 1950 and now, at 16 million, represents one-fifth of Turkey’s total population.

Yet growth has not occurred all over the world. The mirror image of London’s influx of Eastern Europeans looking for work is the emptying of villages and towns in rural Poland and Ukraine. Hungary and the Czech Republic have been losing population in urban areas.

In the United States, the death of distance – globalization – has contributed to the decline of Detroit, as it became less affordable to keep manufacturing in urban areas in expensive Western countries.

New York’s advantage has been to be competitive in the knowledge economy – particularly, in finance – where the city as an economic unit has a comparative advantage, with all its cross-fertilization of ideas.

“For many years, people thought that cities were awful places, hangovers from the Industrial Revolution,” said Michael Batty, a professor of urban planning at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. “But it’s the place to be in a globalizing world. So many functions now depend on the proximity of people.” Strong evidence of this, says Batty, is the number of inventions and number of Web sites per head, which grow exponentially as the population of any city grows.

Cities may also be growing because individuals as consumers want to live there. In a discussion paper titled “Consumer City,” Glaeser and co-authors Jed Kolko and Albert Saiz call this “the demand for density.” People now want to live in dense areas because dense areas offer what people want to consume – opera, sports teams, art museums, varied cuisine. In France, for example, he and his fellow researchers found a robust correlation between the number of restaurants and the growth of cities.

“The sovereignty of the consumer is inescapable,” he says.

The number of these “consumer immigrants” – those moving back to the city seeking a better quality of life – is relatively small compared with the hundreds of thousands of poorer economic migrants who traditionally head to the inner city.

But the “consumer immigrants” have a special significance because they are rich. They are the wealthy, educated, creative types that Bloomberg wants to engage with in his PlaNYC, his initiative to ensure that the extra million souls he predicts will arrive by 2030 do not produce an unlivable crush in Manhattan.

He is pushing for a congestion charge to cut traffic and pollution, plans an all-hybrid taxi fleet, wants to plant one million new trees, and would like to make sure that every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. These are all innovations that the upper-middle classes increasingly take for granted.

In his reinvention of New York as a greener city, Bloomberg may have drawn comfort from the cover story of New York magazine this week. It showed that, despite the city’s grime and noise, New Yorkers are among the healthiest in the country.

Further improvement will take time, but in the meantime August will soon be past, and Manhattan’s finest season, autumn, will be upon us. With the onset of glorious, cooler, blue skies above the city, it will be easier to overlook the dirt and crowds, and see the beauty.

“The city is like poetry,” E.B. White wrote of Manhattan. “It compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”

Article from the International Herald Tribune (http://www.iht.com)

Author :: Graham Bowley