Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lexington's "Spatial Fix"

I finally got to read the article by Richard Florida that I printed out from the March issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. His idea is about how the crash will reshape America. I feel that this "crash" is but a minor fender bender in what is really heading our way.

The first parts dealt with the financial markets and a brief history of earlier recessions/depressions and the shifting landscapes that their major centers endured. It is what he says about the rest of the country which concerns me. His comments on the resiliency of New York City are based on the diversity AND density of its population and he cites the argument of Jane Jacobs that jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. So, could that mean that for our innovative, creative young people to be sucessful, we need to increase the density of our downtown population? Just how well will that mesh with our preservation of the historic properties and districts?

He goes on to explain what will happen to the cities that used to be the manufacturing centers, how with the decline of manufacturing in the U.S. or even the relocation to the southern states, our aging "Rust Belt" cities are trying, unsuccessfully, to reinvent themselves. Then there are the "Sun Belt" cities that had little going for them save their cheap land, easy credit and service sector jobs which got caught in the housing bubble and sub-prime loan fiasco. I am not sure Lexington has dodged this bullet completely yet.

His solution for cities, is for a new "spatial fix" for after the crash. His definition of spatial fix is:
The physical character of the economy—the way land is used, the location of homes and businesses, the physical infrastructure that ties everything together—shapes consumption, production, and innovation.
And he states the suburbanization was the fix for the industrial age. Industrialization brought on mass production, which brought on prosperity and mass consumption. Prosperity and Federal policies brought on more home ownership, which when subsidized by the highway construction and Interstates, led to a suburban lifestyle. No more depression era penny pinching, this was the era of expanding credit and an ever increasing need for home ownership. With that need came the newer, riskier financing strategies and an ever expanding supply of housing choices, it was just that these choices were standardized and farther away from the city centers.

Housing and transportation costs now make up a substantial portion of all household budgets. Local governments are obligated to provide services to the farther flung residences without an adequate return in tax revenue (i.e. these places don't pay for themselves) and as people in the areas of highest foreclosure rates have found out, home ownership is not all it is cracked up to be.

Home ownership, lately has also made our populace just a little less mobile than it was. There was a day when, if the job opportunity presented itself, Dad could pack up the family and go. Now they will have to sell the house, worry about Mom finding a job, will the kids fit in to the new schools and will the new house cost more than it does here. Now that opportunity must a substantial one.

There are several things that Lexington can do and Florida has laid them out in his concluding paragraphs.
In part, we need to ensure that key cities and regions continue to circulate people, goods, and ideas quickly and efficiently.
Today, we need to begin making smarter use of both our urban spaces and the suburban rings that surround them—packing in more people, more affordably, while at the same time improving their quality of life. That means liberal zoning and building codes within cities to allow more residential development, more mixed-use development in suburbs and cities alike, the in-filling of suburban cores near rail links, new investment in rail, and congestion pricing for travel on our roads. Not everyone wants to live in city centers, and the suburbs are not about to disappear. But we can do a much better job of connecting suburbs to cities and to each other, and allowing regions to grow bigger and denser without losing their velocity.
A denser, more diverse, more mobile Lexington will invite more ideas and allow for more innovation through more interaction with a greater cross-section of our population in closer quarters than we now see. We will also need a greater effort to re-localize our manufacturing and food production because this is just the beginning.


Sourmash said...

The Jacobs' comment is an interesting one. I think there was a time when you could make the effective argument that density in the urban areas contributed to innovation. But we don't make goods like we use to. It is far more likely that innovation has stalled for reasons other than urban sprawl. The transition of our economy from a manufacturing one to service industry economy has to be a primary reason for slowed innovation, in my opinion.

It is unfair to apply Moore's law across the broad economy and expect it to hold true forever, when the economy that supports it shifts in the radical fashion that it has over the last 30 years. How can innovation continue it's exponential growth when half the equation that drives it (manufacturing) disappears from the American economy?

So let's assume that the goal is technological innovation, and that manufacturing is required to achieve that; how do you get that back? The only way I see it, is that we crash hard enough that wages drop to a point low enough to entice businesses to reopen plants in the US, and we restart the climb all over again. That doesn't sound all that enticing.

I could be wrong, actually it is almost certain I am; Florida appears to be much smarter than I. But I'm not able to wrap my head around the fact that you can innovate at a steady rate without a competitive advantage in manufacturing to complement your advantage in research. After all, if sprawl occurred as factories closed, wouldn't regaining urban density almost require those blue-collar jobs returning?

Fascinating post. And holy crap, the Florida article is long, but its a great read too.

Ahavah Gayle said...

It's a wee bit early to put small scale local and regional manufacturing out of the running - these will in fact be necessary for a sustainable economy here near the end of the age of cheap and easy to refine petroleum. What will probably not return is giant manufacturing firms that produce a product for the entire country. What will likely re-appear is smaller scale manufacturing that serve only a state or region.

We don't need "economies of scale," what we need is full living wage employment. True, the old model can't provide that, but we can't just presume other countries are going to continue coughing up their natural resources at slave wages for us. China is already blocking export of several important rare minerals, and the list will grow as "third world" countries get more and more tired of the colonial model where they give up their standard of living so we can buy it up cheap. Those days are just about over, so we will have to return to manufacturing our own products.

Part of what needs to happen is to make it illegal for homeowner's associations to restrict people from having home businesses that use the garage as a "storefront." This would be the modern equivalent of the old-town European model which had the family business on the ground floor and the family living above. That model is sustainable and has worked for literally thousands of years and can work again - but only if HOA and local government (zoning) obstacles are removed.

From these modest beginnings local and regional manufacturers will spring up - and both full employment and self-sufficiency with them. And in the meantime, walkable communities with every type of shop and art and craft just a block or two away is hardly a bad thing.