Zero-Sum Urbanism

Harvey Molotch

Cities are big news these days, but in different ways than they used to be, when the talk was of riots, crises, and closings. Now a surfeit of urban books chime in with words like “triumph,” “great,” and “creative” in their titles. Their authors offer up lessons to help already successful cities stay on top and less successful ones figure out how to get in on the game. What most of these books, including the two here under review, don’t provide is much recognition that the whole competitive show may not be getting us anywhere—indeed, that it may be making people worse off.

First, I turn to Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s celebratory The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. Katz and Bradley (both of the Brookings Institution) are not just celebrants of new-found approaches to urban come-back, they are, yes, you read it right, “revolutionaries.” Whence comes this revolution? It is fed, first off, by bodies. For the first time in history, a majority of humans live in cities and their surrounding suburbs (together, the metros). This is also where the production action is. At present, about 84 percent of all US exports, and 90 percent of service exports, come from the metros, we are told. There is thus magic in these agglomerations and the trick is to harness that magic, build on it, and transfer it to the more wayward zones, not only in the US but elsewhere in the world as well. This is the authors’ mission and the warrant for the book.

But, of course (and as Katz and Bradley report), against the fact that 84 percent of the country’s exports come from the metros, 84 percent of Americans live in them. Even taking into account that many exports, like agriculture, by their nature come from the countryside, the numbers don’t make a prima facie case that something special is going on. No doubt metropolitan areas do dominate, but this is something that has been true of the US since about 1927, and is now true for the world as a whole. In the US, and probably elsewhere as well, metros lead in business start-ups, Nobel Prizes, auto oil changes, and lost golf balls. I bring up (indeed make up) the latter two examples to share my concern that talk of the demographic “tipping point” may not stand in for much except a lot of people bunched up in something we call a metropolis.

Representing diverse constituencies but with a vision of the whole, such individuals can hammer out common goals and create the administrative mechanisms to fulfill them. 

A second rationale for heralding this new urban age is that, potentially at least, the congregation of people in metropolitan areas also implies having a lot of the relevant “problem solvers” in different fields positioned together. To continue Katz and Bradley’s vision, if things go right, these problem solvers can be brought into new kinds of coalitions to solve urban problems—and there are urban problems to be sure, whether in the leading centers of global life or the more struggling locations. The challenge is to bring these leaders—drawn from businesses, universities, and government units—into one another’s presence. Representing diverse constituencies but with a vision of the whole, such individuals can hammer out common goals and create the administrative mechanisms to fulfill them. There may be a need, Katz and Bradley stress, for new formal regional associations, abetted as necessary by informal meetings over coffee and donuts (they take most any kind of catering seriously). When people meet up, they learn they can work together.

The embrace of this version of the personal as political occurs in a context stripped of any other kind of politics. Katz and Bradley assiduously avoid taking sides in the country’s partisan wrangling; indeed, their United States seems to have no left or right. In The Metropolitan Revolution, there is no recognition that different political factions might treat urban populations in different ways. Instead, Katz and Bradley acknowledge only “gridlock.” Given the inability of US federal agencies to act, in part because of strained budgets but also because of these agencies’ proven record of incapacity, “metropolitan revolutionaries” need “to use their talents and energies” to leave “behind the dysfunctional federal and uneven state governments.” In other words, for Katz and Bradley, since the Feds can’t meet this need and the talent is in the metro areas, the metros need to rise up and fill the void. If mayors ruled the world, as Katz and Bradley’s somewhat kindred spirit Benjamin Barber ponders in his new book by that title, this envisioned—and already underway—rise of the cities and their suburbs could finally come to the aid of their country.

How to learn more about this ongoing revolution? Katz and Bradley explain that their book “rests on a foundation of research and interviews with the people who are driving the Metropolitan Revolution in their communities.” This method, hardly designed to avoid “selection bias,” accentuates the positive. Drawing on their talks and interviews with various leaders, Katz and Bradley deliver four “living laboratory” situations, each mythologizing an aspect of the insurgency underway.

First up is New York City’s “Applied Sciences Initiative,” part of that city’s effort to stay ahead of the competition. New York is providing large subsidies to Cornell for a new science-based campus in the city and, on a more modest support base, for New York University to create what is anticipated to be the most important “big data” center in the world for urban informatics, which will store digitized information from city agencies (not just New York’s) and use this information to facilitate urban solutions everywhere. An urban technology project is also in the works for Columbia University. “We can’t just sit here and let Silicon Valley beat us,” Mayor Bloomberg is approvingly quoted by Katz and Bradley. And New York’s “Silicon Alley” is indeed thriving, although the growth of the city’s tech sector began well in advance of these initiatives, none of which have conceivably reached a stage of practical impact.

<i>Time travels with the trains: The interior of Union Station, Wynkoop Street, between 16th and 18th, Denver, CO</i> (2011). Photograph by whitRET. Flickr

For Katz and Bradley, Denver is also revolutionary. Although suburbanites had previously defeated initiatives for a regional transit system, voters in suburban Adams County went along with the idea of building the Denver International Airport within the county borders. With strong backing both from city and county business leaders (and city subsidies), suburban voters endorsed the plan. There were other metro victories. Residents voted to raise their sales tax one-tenth of one percent, followed by a second increase of the same amount to support Denver-based cultural institutions—and then still another initiative to build a baseball stadium. The final stage of Denver’s story came with the city’s decision to revisit the question of a mass transit system in 2004. This time, the resolution—to build the regional rail network, “FasTracks”—passed with broad business, labor, and environmentalist support. This seems indeed a victory across borders, albeit with improvements limited to the kind of urban infrastructure investments that metro elites tend generally to favor.

In what I think points to potential of a more profound sort, Katz and Bradley approvingly quote one of their informants that Denver’s adjacent jurisdictions “were asked to come together and sign an agreement that they would no longer compete with each other but against Dallas, Salt Lake, Hong Kong, because the region was the economic engine here.” I do wish they had followed up on this story: Did the counties sign? Did the agreement work? This would address the zero-sum game in which localities outbid one another with tax and infrastructure giveaways to lure new business over their borders. I’ve not seen it happen anywhere and it would indeed be closer to a revolution—and one with some substance. It would, alas, also be political, in the usual sense, and perhaps this explains Katz and Bradley’s apparent lack of further interest.

                    <i>Cleveland Skyline within Urban Decay</i> (2009). Photograph by Robert R Gigliotti. / Flickr

A place where such a non-compete pledge could end up doing some real good is in the Northeast Ohio–Cleveland region, which is among the most hollowed out industrial zones of the world and the third main site of Katz and Bradley’s book. But it would take a pledge from the top. If New York, say, or Denver, stopped subsidizing business, some of it might drift over to Cleveland and the surrounding belt of decay, including the good-size city of Youngstown, that shares in its decline. The Katz-Bradley solution is for leaders to get together—here with a particular role for local universities and medical centers (“eds and meds” in today’s developmental lingo). As part of this “collaboration imperative,” there was “A Call to Arms to the Foundation Community” for financial and organizational support for initiatives that would, among other goals, “plug promising small manufacturers into the rich networks of university research in Northeast Ohio” and connect these companies “with business development experts, financiers, management support, and, perhaps most important, their peers with whom they can collaborate and share ideas.” Acronyms came on board: PRISM (Partnership for Regional Innovation Services in Manufacturing) and MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network).

Finally we come to Houston, which is Katz and Bradley’s laboratory number four. Here the authors concentrate not on corporations, but on nonprofit service providers who have led the way. The authors extol the virtues of Houston’s grand concentration of what in other cities would be (presumably) separate health and educational organizations into a single metropolitan-wide service provider. Katz and Bradley scatter anecdotes to assert that larger scale translates into more effective services. But it is has often been argued, and seems at least equally plausible, that big agencies lose touch with local needs and are more easily co-opted by the big powers. The Metropolitan Revolution offers little either conceptually or empirically to help us judge which of these arguments might be the more sound.

Over the history of modern urban scholarship, especially in political science and planning, the misalignment among units of local government is a staple. 

Over the history of modern urban scholarship, especially in political science and planning, the misalignment among units of local government is a staple. Authors and policy makers have urged consolidation or some other means of organizational coherence. Law firm and civic association floors are littered with past 501c3 efforts to combine, to coordinate, and to align, whether for metropolitan-wide governance or resource-sharing of different sorts. So, among many others there were (and are) “Civic Progress” in St. Louis, the “Civic Summit” in Boston, the “Allegheny Conference” in Pittsburgh, and “Bay Area Council” for the San Francisco area. And let us not forget “Cleveland Tomorrow” (eventually merged into the region-wide” Greater Cleveland Partnership”)—a showcase of earnest visionary effort not mentioned in The Metropolitan Revolution. Whatever their success in getting things done (and they varied in this regard), these, and the many others like them across the country, helped organize urban renewal and the kinds of highway construction projects now well-known for their dastardly urban effects. Any manifesto that calls for reinvigorating such movements surely needs to take measure of those enacted in the past—starting, at least, with acknowledging their existence.

What would a better-considered US solution look like? In a word: Europe. Or at least those regions of Europe, like Scandinavia, where money from the national government (and now the EU) funds local services and where supra-local agencies coordinate planning and resource spending for schools, infrastructure, and the like. Under this model, the nation-state collects taxes (high by American standards), implements services and, historically at least, assumes responsibility for managing inequalities. A basic problem in realpolitik—that of opposing interests among and within the jurisdictions—undermines the possibility of achieving a similar system in the US: counties, cities, towns, and suburbs fight to retain any advantages (fiscal, environmental, or social) they might have. They do not want to share with those less well off. For their part, developers are everywhere chomping at the bit to get at the infrastructure and make alliance with the politicians whose fates they share. All the Kumbaya in all the conference rooms in the world won’t change this.

As with many of today’s urban testimonials, The Metropolitan Revolution bypasses the hard questions. A little “revolutionary” frisson makes a potent tool for those in search of a podium from which to offer some “constructive suggestions.” The book is, in that sense, creative, helpful for pundits eager to avoid confronting authentic problems, including those that accrue from what is considered successful development.

 Michael Storper’s Keys to the City aligns with Bradley and Katz’s search for a recipe to compete in the urban growth system. But Storper is by no means single-minded. Instead, he aims to understand the fundamentals of urban development, out of which—yes—some competitive strategies can be drawn. He carefully culls research from across the social sciences, including some of his own, in order to investigate why cities differ from one another, and how some come authentically to be great economic drivers, centers of all flows, and incubators of innovation. Most remarkably, and in a way that is quite rare, he merges economics, sociology, and geography for the urbanistic task at hand.

Storper clearly shows that it is not size, per se, that drives development, nor is the elixir to be found in some concatenation of jurisdictional make-up. Most large urban areas are not going to be winners and their populations, accordingly, are not going to experience the wealth-rise implied by the more celebratory scenario. He laments the fact of inequality (both within and across places) that the system produces, but considers it to be a built-in tendency. Not all cities are going to be above average. How they end up depends on their location within larger systems of production.

Keys to the City takes a familiar but important idea off the economists’ shelf, the concept of “product cycle.” After their introduction, new products can enjoy a near monopoly of their market niche and, if successful, deliver handsome rewards to those who were able to create something authentically distinctive. Initial product runs might be costly and complex, with high accompanying labor and overhead expense, but strong per-unit financial return compensates investors. After a while, however, the operation becomes sufficiently mundane to replicate at distant points and under routine circumstances.

Cities come to play different roles in the product dynamic. Some tend to be places where the cycle is initiated and others where it plays out in the later phase of replication. So particular urban areas are ahead in the product cycle; they have that specific combination of people, institutions, and political organization to bring new things into being—an assemblage for innovation, as Bruno Latour might say. As suppliers, workers, and collateral industries move in to be near where the action is, there are big rewards. Property prices and incomes rise more or less in tandem.

So the textile industry moves from New England, first to the Southern US and then offshore. Ditto laptop construction: goodbye California, hello China. In a helpful observation, Storper makes the point that Guangzhou and Birmingham, Alabama, play a similar role in the world urban system. Even though the content of their products are very different, both places represent a similar state of innovation. Things do not get invented in either locale; they are replicated. John Logan and I once called such places “module cities” to connote their high level of substitutability across the geographic sphere.

But back at the innovation sites—the leading centers of global growth—success cannot be one-shot. It has to keep happening. Boston once owned technology, but lost out to Silicon Valley. And poor Detroit, of course, is the poster-child of a one-hit economy—two if you count Motown. The city could not convert its capacity for discovery and organizational intelligence into a durable world-system role. Don’t be waiting too long for Katz and Bradley’s revolution to take hold there (although they devote about 10 pages to Detroit’s “new geography of innovation,” a few hopeful signs do not a comeback make). Storper, sad to say, doesn’t have a good recipe for how cities can achieve a return to prominence either. He doesn’t know how a place can stay on top, much less how to get out of the module-city pickle barrel once you fall in. But he does know that successful cities have certain structural characteristics that put them on top and keep them there, and that having the vision thing and the meeting room does not do the trick.

Masters of cultural capital, they embody the “three Ts”: Talent, Tolerance, and Technology. Wherever they go, stuff happens. 

Storper takes special aim at Richard Florida, who now sells the wares of the Creative Economy across the world. Florida’s well-known recipe is to attract the “creative class”—the types of people who have ideas, knowledge, and production and consumption wit. Masters of cultural capital, they embody the “three Ts”: Talent, Tolerance, and Technology. Wherever they go, stuff happens. In terms of the old standbys of urban analysis, the causal order is reversed: people no longer move to where there is work, like Croat immigrants moving to a Detroit assembly line. Instead, the economy happens where the right people are located. So the key to Florida’s city is to attract those folks with the three T’s, and that means supplying the espresso bars, hip clubs, cobblestone streets, and gallery scenes that draw them in.

Storper says that Florida fundamentally misunderstands the development process. In contrast to Florida’s creative economy, Storper holds, with older arguments from both neoclassical economics and its Marxian critics (among whom he once numbered), that business investment remains crucial and leads the development cycle. But the nature of the businesses that do the leading has changed. What matters now, Storper says, is how a place is socially and geographically situated vis-à-vis the companies that invent, develop, and deploy goods and services. The companies take the geographic lead, not mobile individuals; those individuals follow the capital of the new economy.

Immersion in such investment networks and their targeted locales spells success or failure for a given enterprise. Once established, favored urban areas (Los Angeles for the movie industry or Silicon Valley for e-technology) provide a range of relevant specialties (film technicians, product designers, engineers) not to be found elsewhere. There is enough redundancy that if one specialist bows out, others are available to take her or his place. Labor is swapped regularly between firms and start-ups abound. These agglomerations, resting on the “soft,” become durable and decisive. They are not subject to drifting cultural sensibilities or expressive whims among creatives. In spelling out this dynamic, Storper’s work overlaps with that of other urban scholars like Saskia Sassen, Anna Lee Saxenian, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, but adds both process and system to this picture.

More than most analysts, Storper emphasizes face-to-face interactions. In his treatment, these exchanges are not simply about pleasures of the moment. Instead, they form the rugged basis of economic production. Globalization reinforces their importance. As companies spread production around the world, as retail giants open stores in far-flung malls, as universities create branch operations wherever tuition might be paid, increasing salience goes to the most simple of instruments: people in co-presence. This interaction is how complexity is handled in the increasingly complex world. In this world, the need is for coordination, and that is what goes on in socially dense metropoles. It happens as interactants speak, grimace, laugh, point, and touch each other. Complexity puts a premium on proximity, including unscripted face-to-face interactions among co-locals.

Storper has for some time used the term “untraded dependencies” for this asset of places, a phrase that, however textually awkward (a little of Katz and Bradley’s lingo-tizing might help here), stands for something important. Reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ application of “diversity” to the economies of cities, this free good of mutual affordance is the chief benefit delivered by the thriving metropolis. It is too tacit to be listed on asset sheets, but is key to the “genius of cities” (Storper does use the phrase), despite—or maybe because of—the difficulty of buying or exporting it. It is a distributed resource and only makes sense as a distributed resource. But it arises and sustains itself in a relatively small number of places, where it depends for its existence on the intra-local links within them. It is a kind of hidden helping hand.

How then, for Storper, do things change? What causes wondrous collective genius to rise or fall, making some cities creative today, yesterday’s news tomorrow? He doesn’t know. One of the sources of this change for better or worse, he says, is disruption. Something happens—an invention, a conquest, a natural disaster—that changes the array of who is around and what they are doing. Sometimes there are “accidents” or at least idiosyncratic events, like the oft-repeated story that the computer revolution took place on the San Francisco peninsula because William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, needed to be near his ailing mother in Palo Alto. Storper doesn’t give the other obvious examples: it just so happens that Bill Gates grew up in Seattle and Steve Jobs not far from Cupertino. Birth happens.

The creative side of the cause-and-effect ledger needs more systematic attention from Storper. We know that Jobs was deep into the counterculture (his fruitarian cancer therapy may have killed him), and that, while the counterculture did not draw him into Silicon Valley, it may be why he returned there after his days at an ashram in India. And, in a less colorful way, the fact of Gates’s being born in Seattle is not a full explanation for why Microsoft arose there. The city gave Gates access to his fellow hackers, permissive technology sharing at the University of Washington, and his Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, himself immersed in the local music scene of Nirvana and Hendrix. Richard Florida could have it at least partially right. What Storper derisively calls “the party” needlessly receives short shrift.

<i>Citibike</i> (2013). Photograph by Robyn Lee. Flickr

How then to help cities compete more effectively? I raise my complaint against the question itself. From either a national or a global perspective, it marks the foolishness of the zero-sum game. After the consultants have come and gone and all the money has been wisely or ridiculously spent, we are—in the aggregate—no better off than we were at the start. Indeed, in collective terms, we may be damaged. Recent urban development has installed pretty street lamps to entice the gentry, cleared sites in order to overbuild museums, and—thank you again, Mayor Bloomberg—subsidized the construction of luxury housing. We have cut taxes, built stadiums, and stopped and frisked—and in ways beyond what makes any rational sense. Some of this may indeed make life better, not only for the privileged but for the great majority: I’m good with the Citibikes. But they were not put there primarily for citizens’ pleasure, and the scholarship under review is not aimed at such a goal.

It should be, though: rather than figuring out how mayors can make their cities better competitors, we should concentrate (warning to reader: this is a very old-fashioned idea) on how to improve, as directly as possible, the lives of these cities’ inhabitants. Parks are positives not because they might lure new industries, but because folks like them. Good schools are valuable not as a means to attract the talented (or even to raise rates of college admission), but because they give children a better human experience. And so on, for bike lanes, museum walls, and metro-provided free Internet. Just do the right thing—adjusting and encouraging in modest ways that make sense for the public interest—and humbly watch who comes and goes.

Storper does see the injustice of the game as it’s now played. He calls for at least a reallocation of the benefits that result. When cities succeed—either deliberately or by accident—in today’s system, they will have the highest wage structures, the highest property values (and costs), and the richest people—think San Francisco and its surroundings. Somehow intervention must take place, Storper thinks, to mitigate these normal, and maybe even inevitable, consequences of uneven development among cities. From this conclusion, for Storper, follows the need for a political and fiscal system of redistribution—directing resources from the people and communities of the successful areas to those in places that do less well. Surely the strategy least likely to succeed, as I think Storper would agree, is turning up the heat in the development derby, and pushing the poor people of Youngstown, Ohio, and San Bernardino, California, into still more twists and gyrations—and hotel meeting spaces—to bring the metropolitan revolution home. Donuts, no thank you; they need it like a hole in the head.