The Math of Cities

There are a lot of casual relationships within our cities that allow us the joy of endlessly unresolved conversations about any number of issues or trends.

But here’s a great little talk by physicist Geoffrey West at TED last year about some mathematical constants embedded within ourselves and city life.  Fascinating stuff and some great foundational rules you can carry around with you the next time to come upon a difficult urban debate.

The Cure for Urban Disease: Government

In a recent post on the New York Times’ Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser takes a look the solutions to the inherent problems of close human proximity over the course of American city history and determines that basic survival compels city dwellers to be more government-inclined.

Money quote…

I’m a big fan of the free market, and I see lots to like in liberty. But the downsides of proximity, be they cholera or crime, have never been solved with laissez-faire. Costly, often intrusive public action has often been needed to manage the negative externalities associated with urban density.

In a sense, the gulf between the political attitudes of New York City and Montana can be understood as a reflection of the fact that city dwellers need government a lot more than ranchers do.

h/t: Otis White

Is Cleveland Our "Bellweather"?

A great indepth piece in this Sunday’s New York Times surveys the Cleveland neighborhood of “Slavic Village”, which has been an epicenter of foreclosures in a county that has lost over 100,000 people in the last decade.

Today, the area can hardly be described as a neighborhood.  A well-kept house in this part of town has plywood over broken windows and doors.  Inside, the shameless removal of utilities like copper piping, electrical wire and boiler heaters have destroyed interior walls and floors.  To call these houses “raped and pillaged” wouldn’t be an understatement.  Squatters use the buildings as temporary dwellings, while speculators treat them as playing cards – with many homes selling for a couple hundred or thousand dollars.

Its a bleak picture.  And because Cleveland has suffered longer than most cities – thanks to a out-dated industrial economy – many other cities look to it now with bloody fingernails wondering if that’s their future too.   As Wheatley pointed out last week, with the third highest foreclosure rate in the country, Atlanta is one of a long list of cities mentioned as looking hesitantly toward Cleveland.  The article even quotes Dan Immergluck, an associate prof at Georgia Tech in urban planning, who states bluntly, “Cleveland is a bellwether…It’s where other cities are heading because of the economic downturn.”

Yikes.  So, could parts of Atlanta really become as bleak as neighborhoods like Slavic Village?

It certainly isn’t beyond the realm of comprehension.  Foreclosure rates are highest in areas of Atlanta already plagued with high unemployment – just take a look at the news coming out of South DeKalb.  Our overbuilt metro area has already provided plenty of vistas of lonely and vacant subdivisions.   If this trend continues and these homes aren’t bought up and maintained, they will quickly become – wait for it – toxic.  No one will want them for fear of the expense of taxes and upkeep.  And demolition ain’t free.   In Slavic Village it costs $8,000 a pop.

But is this really Atlanta’s future?  Well to start, Atlanta’s obvious advantage over Cleveland is its more diverse and vibrant economy.   The city has spent the last 20 years reviving its economy, building an economic base that is still attracting new people to the city.  That can’t be a bad thing, especially with so many empty homes and condos available.  However, in our attempts to make a quick buck, developers have overestimated demand both intown and out in the ‘burbs.   The future of these developments is unknown.  If nobody wants them, who’s going to pay to have them torn down?  And if they’re not torn down, what becomes of them?

We’ll just have to wait and see.