Report from “the Shape of the New American City”

University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research began its two day “Shape of the New American City“ conference today. I just got back from the first half of the day’s talks.

While the conferences title had me hoping I would get to bear witness to the dramatic unveiling of the American city’s new shape (with fingers crossed for heart-shaped. Or Dubai-shaped), the PIUR’s brain-trust of urban planners, theorists and economists were admirably modest in their predictions for the future. What they were happy to provide, however, was a lot of fascinating, surprising new data.

In the deluge of power point slides, one stood out as particularly NAC-friendly, and particularly timely. In a presentation of new housing demographics, Dowell Myers — professor of Urban Planning and Demography at USCs school of Urban Planning, Policy, and Development, and director of the school’s Population Dynamics Research group — projected a graph of American apartment development rates from the last century. His stated intention was to illustrate patterns of high-density development over time. If it such statistics correspond to these reported aims as well as Myers implied they do, the picture was shocking.

The graph in question (I’ll have to describe it for you as I can’t find the image on the net) told the story of dense development as steadily high and generally rising through the end of the twentieth century; rising through the 1970s, evening off at nice, high levels through the 80s, irregularly pausing but only to rise more. And then the line dropped, suddenly, dramatically, with no blatant indication as to why besides the year marker “1990.” After that the line leveled off at this shockingly low level, only to see a slight rise at the turn of the most recent century. The line on Myers’s graph then turned into a question mark.

Question mark indeed. In a brief aside Myers mentioned that this data flew in the face of folk-wisdom which holds that in periods like the 1950s and 1980s, so linked in the collective imagination with the rise of the suburbs, these numbers should be low, and that in the 1990s, when moral and aesthetic arguments for high-density urban living began to emerge as a viable force — at least in public discourse — the numbers for high-density development would begin to increase. The data proved that the exact opposite was true, and with (seemingly) striking clarity.

Myers’s casual appeal to the popular imagination couldn’t have struck us at a better time. In a national atmosphere saturated with freightning notions brought about by the very recent developments in the general economy and the housing market, and in an ether filled with pale dreams of a very near future seeing some kind of radical restructuring of the manner in which the federal government addresses economic policy (if Paul Krugman and his brand new liberal elitist Nobel Prize are to be believed), what was going to happen to the line on that graph? In a world where the stakes of that line rising couldn’t be higher, what would it do and how can we help get it where it needs to go?

In a political vain, more questions: was, perhaps, the 1990s’ sudden drop in high-density development (and the assumed specter-graph of an increase in suburban, single-family home development) due to a hangover of newfound middle class wealth that had only just traceably trickled down from the previous decade of Reaganomics? Or did the Clinton years’ successful implementation of middle-class-stimulation-fueled economic development allow more people to buy or build their first home, somewhere in the suburbs? Did environmental or cultural concerns create the slight upswing of apartment development the last few years have seen, or is that explained by the more simple market answer that the 00’s unprecedented stratification of wealth necessitate that those of the class which had the opportunity to buy a home in the prior decade now stay in apartment housing?

Dowell’s talk was presented with two others, one of them by Princeton’s Douglas Massey. Massey’s most famous is work is on racial segregation in America, and today he presented new work he’s done on the subject. But in his demographics in new patterns of living in African-American and immigrant communities, Massey threw in some data on what he called “ideological segregation” that addressed the questions swirling in my head from Myers’s work. Massey showed that in the same period of time that saw the dramatic deflation of high-density housing development numbers, America saw the dramatic stratification of liberal and conservative voters into segregated communities. I wondered, “did the economic boom of the Clinton years that saw the huge (and — until I saw this Myers’s graph — silent) mass suburbanization of the 90s contribute to the color scheme of everyone’s favorite red/blue county map?” I wasn’t alone in this thought trajectory. The older gentleman in front of me — in perfect municipal-government-employee standard issue ill-fitting suit — immediately retrieved the graphic on his old PC laptop. There it was, over his shoulder, a nation-sized sea of red with a few tiny little blue dots indicating urban areas, too few even to meet the requirements of the description “peppered with,” which came to my mind when this sentence started.

So what to do? What does the future hold? How do we grow the wealth of lower and modest households? If we’re successful will there be a new culture to support the environmental need to use any new-found capital to grow density in urban areas instead of just see another exodus to the suburbs and low-density building frenzy? Maybe I’ll get some answers by the conference’s end.

To change tracks slightly, I’ll report that the real star of the morning was Saskia Sassen from Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought. Sassen — in her academia-issued multiple silk scarves — presented beautiful three-dimensional cgi graphs of population and workplace density by small chunks of geographical space in cities like Mumbai and Shanghai. They looked to roughly approximate cartoonish visions of the cities’ soaring skylines. She then compared them to similar graphs of New York and London which looked, my comparison, like sad, blunt little Lego houses. But, she said, these Western cities were cities which exhibited “density that works.” It came before the very necessary reminder that the goal of “density,” on its own, “is meaningless.” A specific kind of “working” density is the aim. Sassen ended her talk by showing a different kind of density map — it looked like the kind of blobby, hyper-color images used by weathermen to show national temperature patterns — of Mexico City. It was amorphous and decentralized, with no seeming rhyme or reason accounting for what was red and what as beige or why there were tiny pockets of complete emptiness. “When you fly over it from above it looks like a huge mess,” she said, “but when you’re there, on the ground, it really works.” She gestured toward a claim this was the shape of the “New City.” I think that thought is a good one to leave you with.

Tags: philadelphia, density, saskia sassen, nick lalla, presidential election, reaganomics, shape of the new american city, piur, douglas massey, dowell myers