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We’re Re-Inventing Cities for the New Millennium*


David Pearce Snyder

Life Styles Editor

The Futurist


In 1998, both astrophysicists and urban planners were stunned by parallel discoveries that swept away the dominant conventional wisdom in their respective fields. In space, the Hubble Telescope revealed that, contrary to expectations, the expansion of the universe is not slowing down, but accelerating. This means that the universe will not ultimately reverse itself and collapse back down to a dense mass that will re-explode in a new "big bang"; it will keep on growing and expanding forever. What’s more, looking back at the center of the universe, the Hubble found not an empty "hole" left by the expanding matter of the cosmos but, rather, an area densely populated with galaxies, new suns, and dying stars as dynamic as any region of the universe.

Similarly, urban planners learned from the U.S. Census Bureau that there appears to be no limit to urban sprawl, in spite of its obvious dysfunctions. Like the universe, great cities seem to keep on expanding forever. More importantly, recent data show that, like the center of the universe, the hearts of great cities do not die out, even after shedding huge amounts of wealth and value-adding enterprise to their suburbs. Cities can — and do — reinvent themselves in a free market. And the industrial cities of Britain and North America, after 40 years of stagnation and decline, appear to have begun to do just that.

Industrial Cities' Post-Industrial Decline

When Camilo Vergara proposed, in the August 1995 issue of Planning magazine, that 20 or so vacant skyscrapers in downtown Detroit be preserved as a "ruins park" to be called the "American Acropolis," one angry Detroit city council member protested that the New York architect’s proposal sounded like a "Spokesman for the pot calling the kettle black." The point was not without merit. At that very moment, Manhattan was awash in 50 million square feet of vacant office space; one-third of the buildings on Wall Street were empty, and most were for sale.

While the particular local dynamics of urban decline vary from city to city, the fact of urban decline has been very nearly universal in North America and Great Britain during much of the last half of the 20th Century, in spite of substantial efforts in both the public and private sectors to stem the flow of urban job loss and middle class out-migration. This downward trend in urban prosperity was manifested in most mature industrial economies, but produced its most extreme consequences in the U.S. and U.K., where many major cities lost 40 percent to 65 percent of their middle-income jobs between 1950 and 1990.

Indeed, the worldwide collapse of urban real estate prices at the end of the 1980s is now widely interpreted by economic historians as being a benchmark indicator that we had reached the end of the Industrial Era. In the mid-1990s, after the slow recovery from the 1990-1991 recession had finally taken hold at the national level in the U.S. (1993 -1994), the economies of industrial cities still continued to shrink. Urban planners and property owners began to seriously contemplate "de-constructing" — bulldozing — downtown America as the only means of restoring the prosperity of industrial cities.

Recycling Center Cities

Today, just four years later, there has been a dramatic turn-around in the outlook for center cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Much of the recent rise in urban prosperity — and urban tax revenues — can be linked to the overall levels of economic well-being in Great Britain and the U.S. The openness of the U.S. and the U.K. to immigration is also credited for helping fuel the new urban prosperity, especially in London, New York, and Los Angeles. But it is also true that such a dramatic a reversal of urban fortunes would not also have occurred had there not been a conscious decision by politicians, planners, and property owners in a number of cities to re-think — and re-invent — their communities.

Re-inventing cities first required acknowledging that the age of labor-intensive information production is now past, just as is the age of labor-intensive manufacturing. High-rise office blocs are now just as much surplus infrastructure as were the once-empty textile mills of New England, and the rusting foundries of Pittsburgh and Bethlehem. Moreover, planners and developers can endow city centers with amenities like sports stadiums, convention complexes, and leisure attractions, these features make cities nice places to visit, not necessarily nice places to work or live, especially when there is little or no affordable middle-income housing available in most major U.S. urban centers

One solution to the marketplace imbalance of surplus office space/insufficient living space in center cities is to convert office space to dwelling space. In New York City, the adoption of a mixed-use zoning option in lower Manhattan (plus city tax breaks for office-to-residence conversions) has led to the creation of more than 3,000 middle-income housing units (1996-1998), with 4,000 more under development. (To give him his due, Donald Trump was a trail-blazer in this movement, having announced his intention to convert the vacant and unsellable Gulf & Western Building on Columbus Circle into condominium apartments 18 months before the 1995 Manhattan zoning changes.)

Residential and mixed-use conversion of office, loft, and industrial space is now going on throughout urban America, notably in Boston, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Cleveland and Detroit, plus a host of smaller cities, and throughout Great Britain as well. Ultimately, the reconfiguration of center cities into middle-income bedroom communities will take 15 to 20 years, and will have as profound an impact on society as did the original creation of the suburbs during the quarter-century following W.W.II. Of course, it is entirely possible that the current return of the middle class to downtown is a temporary phenomenon, like the brief urban incursions of Baby Boomers in the 1970s, and the Yuppies in the 1980s. But the underlying socio-economic realities of this "moment in time" suggest otherwise.

There’s Light at the End of the 20th Century

If the recent up-turn in urban fortunes is merely the by-product of national economies that are performing at the top of their recurring, long-term business cycles, it would be reasonable to expect cities to resume their post-industrial decline once the next recession sets in. However, economic historians are telling us that the current surge in productivity and prosperity is not a function of the normal business-economic cycle, but rather the result of our rapidly maturing information technology. Studies of previous transformational technologies — e.g., the steam engine, electric power, the automobile, etc. — have shown that it typically takes half-a-century for a new invention to evolve from initial demonstration to widespread marketplace adoption. And when a new technology achieves wide-spread adoption, it becomes powerful enough to provoke rapid, revolutionary changes in economic performance and social enterprise.

A fundamental requirement for the wide-spread adoption of a new technology is the creation of an infrastructure to facilitate the general use of the new technology throughout the marketplace. For the steam engine, this infrastructure was the network of railroads that first linked the major cities of Europe in 1845. For electric power, the necessary infrastructure was a nationwide network of generating plants, transmission grids, and local distribution lines. For the automobile to achieve "wide-spread adoption," we had to create not only networks of paved city streets, country roads and interstate highways, but a petroleum industry capable of producing and distributing prodigious volumes of fuel for use throughout the nation.

The Internet is, of course, the facilitative infra-structure or "info-structure," for the computer. By the mid-1990s, as the computer was celebrating its 50th birthday (February 14, 1996), and its newly-installed infrastructure was adding color, sound, and graphics (i.e., the World Wide Web), U.S. productivity improvement rates leapt by 100 percent — after 20 years of stagnation — and wages began to rise robustly without inflation. America is now well into the fifth consecutive year of this superlative performance, and a recent meta-analysis of the U.S. economy by the Federal Reserve (April 1999) concluded that America has, in fact, passed a threshold — or "inflection point" — in multi-factor productivity arising from new, formulaic combinations of human, financial, and technologic resources that are increasingly well understood by employers, and that consistently produce sustainable superior results.

Emerging Post-Industrial Cities

The same techno-economic realities that are permitting sustained superior performance by "info-mated" employers also permit high-tech entrepreneurs to operate successfully out of their homes — or out of small towns — also permit them to operate in urban centers. Enterprise is now foot-loose and people can live and work wherever they want. And, while most people say they prefer to live in suburban or in rural communities, ten percent of us prefer to live in center cities. Moreover, a growing share of U.S. middle-income households appear likely to make that choice.

Specifically, a growing share of middle-income households in America have no children resident. This includes maturing Baby Boom empty-nesters, many of whom both work full-time. DINCs (dual-income/no children) and never-married, single-person households, in particular, will help fuel the coming urban renaissance. Mixed-use conversions of loft and industrial space offer special appeal to the burgeoning ranks of the self-employed because it enables information entrepreneurs to live and work in the same building, an arrangement that both urban and suburban zoning and building codes have previously sharply restricted or prohibited altogether. In addition, the new "nomads" of the U.S. workplace — high-tech temps who will eventually make up 25 percent of all employees — also find downtown living attractive, since they can use mass transit to commute from center city to a sequence of different employers who are likely to be scattered all over the metropolitan area.

Other trends suggest that the current resurgence in center-city economic activity is not a flash-in-the-pan. Major chain retailers are building new outlets in downtown neighborhoods for the first time in 25 years. Single family, detached dwellings are also being built downtown in places like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., often on land that had been originally set aside as building sites for new employers who never actually materialized. Such employers have, in fact, finally begun to appear, as labor shortages force employers to tap the surplus workers of center cities. The current shortage of entry-level workers will continue until the "Baby Boom Echo" begins to enter the labor pool, around 2010. This long-term labor shortage, plus mounting political pressure to contain suburban sprawl and to reduce the greenhouse gases produced by freeway gridlock, will promote public policies and marketplace behavior that will sustain the restoration of prosperity and vitality to America’s central cities.

Meanwhile, as center cities grow again, and downtowns go up-scale in the U.S. and U.K., rural population is increasing as well. U.S. metropolitan jurisdictions are loosing about half a million people a year to rural areas. But the renewed growth of center cities and the current surge in rural population does not mean that the suburbs are emptying out. To the contrary, suburban areas can be expected to experience the lion’s share of the commercial and residential growth in the decade ahead; but because both center cities and rural areas will offer viable options for development from now on, suburbs will grow much more slowly than they have in the past 20 years.

Smart Growth vs. Conurbation

The expansion of suburbs will also slow because of the growing populist legislative and legal efforts to halt suburban sprawl and the encroachment of the built environment upon the natural environment. The "smart growth" movement, endorsed by Vice President Gore during the 1998 Congressional election campaign, is provoking a wide range of land-use planning legislation and

anti-development voter initiatives throughout the nation. But in the U.S., the courts have consistently thrown out all anti-growth legislation, and in recent years, have even constrained governmental powers to mandate land use. And, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, the total area of urban-suburban development represents only a tiny fraction of America’s 3.5 million square miles of habitat, and thus, does not compromise the long-term sustainability of our human enterprise within this habitat. Suburban sprawl is in the nature of successful industrial cities and, although we will sprawl more slowly from now on, we will surely continue to sprawl.

Since "no-growth" is not a viable option, "smart-growth" will be the way to go. Over time, low density exurbia will blend into medium density suburbia, across which will be scattered higher-density "urban villages," at the heart of which will be the high-density city center. Urban planners have given this configuration of the 21st Century metropolis a variety of names — "flat city," "sheet city," "city region," etc. I like the term the British coined (since London sprawled long before Los Angeles): "Conurbation," a contiguous community made up of a number of once-independent towns and villages. As a vision for the future of cities, "conurbation" may seem disappointing for many people, since conurbations are where most of us live today. The challenge for the future will be to make these currently unsatisfactory communities more livable. Over the next 25 years, the Info-mation Revolution — plus a revolution in personal transportation — will permit us to do just that.




© 1999 David Pearce Snyder

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