Tag Archives: vibrant cities

The City Isn’t The Problem

I was 33 when I became Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis. I know “ladies” aren’t supposed to disclose their ages (I’m not very ladylike, anyway) but that was 45 years ago–and a lot has changed.

Especially downtown Indianapolis.

At the time, I lived on the city’s north side, and I would drive down Central Avenue to the City-County building. When I drove through the slum area just north of downtown (where I now live), I’d lock the car doors. I passed boarded up houses that had once been large, gracious homes.

Once at work, if I wanted to go out to lunch, I could go to any of the three–count them– center-city restaurants.

It was grim. Even when my husband and I moved downtown to the city’s first historic district, in 1980, revitalization remained on the negative side of iffy.

Fast forward to today. There are multiple desirable and well-tended historic neighborhoods. There are more restaurants, coffee shops and bars than we can patronize in a lifetime. There are both basic and trendy grocery stores.  Young people regularly jog past; men and women alike push strollers and have “baby carriers” on their bikes (which are everywhere, but especially on the Monon and Cultural trails). One of those previously dilapidated, boarded-up houses I used to pass recently sold for over a million dollars.

Downtown is a happening place–and not just here. Over the past three decades, young people and empty nesters alike have rediscovered the multiple pleasures of urban life–walkability, the human scale of neighborhoods, the mix of historic and new, and the diversity that sparks new perspectives and invites new experiences.

Jane Jacobs was right.

One of the fears I have about the aftermath of the pandemic is that people will once again fear urban density–that they’ll forget about the multiple ways cities nurture neighborliness and sharing, and pursue “social distancing” in the car-dependent suburbs from which so many of us fled. Given the very real challenges of today’s urban life–especially the enormous increase in housing costs– the path of least resistance might be retreat.

A recent article from CityLab looked at what the author termed “the long history of demonizing urban density,” and made an incredibly important point.

Moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.

As the article pointed out, the conviction that the problems cities faced were the result of density, not poverty or unconscionably low wages, triggered a rush to provide “nature” by building urban parks. Nice as those parks are, they were created by people who put their faith in spatial rather than structural reform. But the actual ills of city life were attributable to economic conditions; what was needed was “social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state.”

The problem is too little money, not too much density.

Even the widespread belief that pandemics spread more easily in densely populated cities is not supported by the data.

Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.

Cities that are properly governed (and in the U.S., we have far better leadership in cities than in our less populated states) actually have considerable advantages when it comes to fighting pandemics.

The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents… have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.

Remember that banner that famously hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters? “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The lesson of the pandemic isn’t “abandon the cities.”  It’s “Give cities–and the people who live in them– the resources to address their economic problems, and most of the problems attributed to urban life will prove to be very solvable.”