What Makes A City “Work?”




I’ve always been interested in cities, what works, and what doesn’t.   I’ve  managed to find a bunch of books, including Jane Jacobs three “City”  books as well as others.  Some are observations of how things work.  Others are big plans and dreams about how things might work.  Unfortunately they usually don’t. At least not outside movies.


Most of the time those planned cities don’t even work in the movies.  The reason is that a working city needs FDDAA.  A working city needs Flexibility to be able to change with conditions and withstand the occasional Black Swan events, Density to provide a big market, Diversity to provide for the need of the large market, Activity so that things keep moving around and Affordability so that people and markets want to come to the city. Most planners don’t seem to understand this.


The big thing about cities is that in order to really understand them you have to be in them, even for a short time.  if you observe how things are, you can see what works and  what doesn’t.  Considering that city planners never seem to spend any time actually observing what happens in their redevelopments that’s a very bad thing.  The annals of city planning are riddled more with what didn’t work than what has worked.

Worse they tend to segregate things, which is about the worst possible thing you can do.  It’s as if they can only think about one thing at a time. Perhaps the greatest failure of 20th Century urban planning was how housing was done, yet the planners still to this day do not understand what they did and why it failed. The reason the housing plans all failed is that housing by itself is economically sterile.  With the exception of Children, nothing much gets produced in housing.  So those big blocs of housing were just large economic drains on the local environment because while nothing was produced there, the needs of the people living there didn’t go away.  While density was high, the lack of diversity meant that many of things that people needed were no longer easily available and thus made less affordable.

The effect of all those housing blocs in the middle of parks also created spaces that were not only economically sterile, but also inefficient.  What planners never seem to understand is that peoples time is their one nonrenewable commodity and those planned communities were nothing but time vacuums.  Other than sleeping or eating, there are no activities that can occur in those blocs.


The problem is that when you plunk down some big development of any kind in the fabric of a city, you tear the fabric.  What goes for big apartment blocs also goes for performing arts centers, big box stores and malls, and big factories.  All of those things have elements that kill FDDAA.  This is especially true of small industrial and commercial space which gets forced out and compressed.  This cause a great increase in pressure for those spaces and forces the marginal businesses close or move out of town, killing the diversity and activity that those businesses created. Here’s a case in point.


Now Mr. Dube couldn’t find a new space for his company.  Which has a direct impact on the professional performing arts companies that relied on him for supplies and equipment.  Now Michael Kors didn’t create the conditions that forced Mr. Dube out of business.  That was done by the planning and zoning people, along with well meaning but flawed city planners who had big ideas and no sense of the damage that they were doing.

Sometimes that damage was horribly economic and diversity killing.  I imagine that David Rockefeller didn’t understand the potential damage to the City of New York and the country that he was doing when he created the plan for the World Trade Center.  The fact is that the damage was definitely significant as the lack of a US consumer electronics industry demonstrates. What Rockefeller did was take a valuable and important part of the city’s economic diversity and drop a huge sterile monument on it.  With the cheers of the city planners and officials going on the whole time.


You can sort of get a feel for what was lost when you walk through Akihabara in Tokyo, though Akihabara is now facing the same sort of development pressures. Still, it’s unlikely that underneath the railroad tracks is going to face development pressures and it’s likely that there will be enough critical mass of electronics product developers and creative types to keep things going for some time


The fact is that central planning is fragile.  Even if you are Walt Disney or Frank LLoyd Wright. The big problem with Broadacre City is right there in the name.  Everything is spread out and you have to take a lot of time to get anything done.   The same problems existed for Epcot and any number of the planned communities.




Reading Jacobs The Economy Of Cities you can see the advantages that she talks about, especially the part about manufacturing and economic diversity.  The fact is that diversity and activity are what give a city life. It’s the reason that the density of the city exists in the first place.  Yet diversity and activity are the first things that the planner want to remove from the picture.  Haven’t they notices how the real structures they create are as lifeless as the architectural models.


The strength of the economic diversity of a city or region relies on it’s manufacturing strength.  Not in the huge 1 million square foot plants pumping out millions of whatever, but in the thousands of small manufacturies that make just about anything.  It’s in places like Ota Ku in Tokyo and parts of Brooklyn that the economic heart of those cities pumps.



Built In Brooklyn: Maker’s Row Bets On US Manufacturing


Built In Brooklyn: Maker’s Row Bets On US Manufacturing

A good example of just how the system works is how Danny Choo is building his doll business.


If he didn’t live in Tokyo or another large city doing what he’s dong would be far more difficult, if not impossible.  Because he’s in Tokyo, he has access to the diverse manufacturing and services available there.  Which meant that he could find  a space for his business that he could afford, have injection and vinyl  molds made and his parts cast.  The people making his parts are close enough that he can keep a firm hand on quality control, something that’s important for a small business in luxury goods.  He also has access  to fast shipping and communication all over the world.  All of those things make Danny’s business possible and work for him.  And Danny’s business adds yet a little more diversity to the Tokyo market.

In New York’s case, the future of the city isn’t in the financial services of Wall St.  the future is in the makerspaces, small shops and little companies creating and developing the future one part at a time.  Yet while the city is all too willing to give great advantages to the bankers of the “Street” the makers have had to struggle. Yet nobody walks into a hedge fund or white shoe firm and says; “The future is happening here!!” Because it’s not.


The future belongs to the small and creative, not the powerful in their towers.

The rise of food trucks is FDDAA in microcosm. Food trucks are perhaps the most flexible business out there.  They can provide high density food service by clustering together, they create a lot of activity and they provide affordable lunches for people.  So of course city officials don’t like them very much.  Nor do the vested interest of the sit down restaurants who see them as competition. Which is a mistake.


A city that has FDDAA is going to be a healthy and growing place.  A city that kills FDDAA through zoning, planning, use restrictions and high taxes is going pay the price in lower tax revenues, dying businesses, vacant buildings and eventually become nothing more than a field of empty lots.  I’ve seen enough examples of how that happened, but I’m going to end this post with one word, “Detroit.”

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