urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

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Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] A City Guy (Chicago, USA) on Chapter 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity […]

  2. […] A City Guy (Chicago, USA) on Chapter 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity […]


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