Forbes is Making Me Miserable

by Alex Schafran

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” - Oscar Wilde

As a general rule, I am all in favor of people talking about cities. It is both my hobby and my profession, and I am on record as believing that more people thinking about and talking about how and where we live and work and interact is part and parcel to making those relationships more equitable and more sustainable. That, and it means more people reading Polis.

But there are times where I want to pull my eyes out at the things I read.

It starts with Geoffrey West, the physicist whose forays into urbanism he has compared to Kepler's discoveries in physics. As my fellow Polisian Anna Fogel points out, there is some redeeming value to his work, which attempts to reduce all urban activity anywhere to points on a linear regression. Efficiency is a part of the urban conundrum, and some basic "truths" about the correlation between growth rates and infrastructure could help with service provision in an urbanizing world. The New York Times helps West's case by giving the sole rebuttal to Joel Kotkin, the world's leading promoter of suburban life. Yet the argument is a bit absurd, because West and his partners, like Kotkin, never really bother to define what a city is — they just take data attached to a name, never thinking about the region or the metropolis. They talk of Riverside, California as if it is a stand-alone place, rather than a place enmeshed in a larger metropolitan region. If they want to play city as organism, this is their organism.

The region as the true organism is a fact that Jane Jacobs pointed out in Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, two great books that I will add to my list of great Jacobs' ideas that seem to get forgotten in the fetishization of the "sidewalk ballet." Jacobs is building on ideas about innovation and urban interaction pioneered by Simmel and the Chicago School of Urban Sociology a century ago, a fact pointed out by a nice New York Times reader in Dallas, and which are the underpinning for decades worth of economic geography. Maybe we feel better now that a physicist used math to tell us something we have known for a century.

That said, I will take West and an army of data-crunching physicist-urbanists over the hyperbolic dystopian garbage that Forbes is slinging about "America's 20 Most Miserable Cities." It is based on a vague "methodology" that somehow combines real estate prices, unemployment rates, losing sports teams, tax rates, commute times, crime and bad weather into a frothy cocktail which spits out a list of "miserable places." The editors are even kind enough to give us a handy slide show so that you can see a picture of each miserable place, usually a foreclosed house or a protest sign.

This "index" contributes nothing to our knowledge of places or our hopes of making anything better, and is essentially nothing but the TMZ of urban journalism, designed to produce blog posts and generate traffic to their website. But what is most galling is the fact that a ruling class mouthpiece like Forbes saw not a shred of irony in the overwhelming relationship between the places on its list and the foreclosure crisis and subsequent economic downtown, and, more critically, the fact that the "happy places" are doing quite fine after a Wall Street bailout and resurgent corporate profits amidst stagnant wages and property values for the middle and working class. There are "miserable places" everywhere in the United States now thanks to the economic logic pushed by Steve Forbes and his comrades over the years in every Metropolitan Statistical Area (what they mean by city) — some are just lucky enough to get their picture in the magazine.

Credits: Photo of Lyon by Alex Schafran. Image of the cover of CATWON cribbed from the Amazon.

5 comments:

  1. Great points and an interesting read. I'm happy to see physicists working on quality of life issues in cities, but I hope they also pay close attention to the insights of people like Jacobs. Even though the Forbes list will most likely have little effect, it raises questions about the images and livability of cities. To what extent are image and livability related, how can they be assessed and improved, and how do they influence the movement of capital?

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  2. You'll be happy to know then that West and other academics (Michael Batty, Nikos Salingaros) doing research on cities pay great attention to Jane Jacobs. In fact, most cite her as the basis for their studies (in particular "The Kind of Problem a City is", from D&L).

    It would be easy to misunderstand West's work from the NY Times article. (And I agree that Kotkin's response was idiotic.) But his work does not neglect difference between cities, and it does not oversimplify them. Rather, it provides a framework for examining the great variety of urban growth. In fact, his most interesting finding in his recent paper is not that cities seem to obey these scaling laws, but that they differ from the scaling laws consistently over time. For example, Birmingham has a high level of crime now, and it had one in the past, because of some fundamental aspect of Birmingham. So West doesn't attempt to lump all cities into one explanation at all. Rather, he groups them by their differences from the apparent standard. This allows us to see why some cities are Nairobi and some are Riverside.

    I hope you've read West, and not merely ABOUT him. Start with his recent work (http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013541), and then read Christopher Alexander (mathematician), Nikos Salingaros (physicist), Bill Hillier (architect, applying network science). You'll discover how science is beginning to describe urbanism, from the ground up. And I think you'll like it.

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  3. Hey Patrick - Thanks for the great reply. Alas, West et al. really only pay attention to Death and Life, and not the later work, but they do appear to have done their homework somewhat, even it is a bit too rooted in Ed Glaeser and some urban geography classics for my personal tastes.

    I am all for science beginning to describe urbanism, or anyone else for that matter, but what I would hope is that they realize that the metropolis is many things, including a profound subject of debate. The city is an argument, much as science is an argument, although I am not yet convinced that it functions according to the same logic of the Kuhnian paradigm shift as science.

    But there is an interesting anecdote about Christopher Alexander worth retelling, even if it is gossip. His work is largely untaught at the university which he called home for many years because he was such a wretched person towards virtually everyone in the building. Call me a Habermasian fool, but a touch of humility goes a long way towards convincing people who have been thinking and talking and working in and on something for a long time that they are worth listening too.

    Planning failed as a project for much of its history because it thought it knew everything. Science is welcome to come be a part of this new history being made as we speak (and clearly has been a part from the beginning, even if obliquely), but it would be nice if they didn't make it feel like they were dragging down the hubristic path of our modernist past.

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  4. While both claim the mantle of science, there is a big distinction between the scientific urbanists I mentioned and modernist planners: these scientific urbanists begin their study with the preexisting city. The old modernists claimed a scientific basis in order to lend legitimacy to their personal visions of urbanity. As Salingaros says, "One reads in architecture textbooks how modernism is based on logic and the scientific method, but that is a deliberate falsehood. In fact, modernism eschews scientific inquiry, and imposes arbitrary ideas from above."

    On the other hand, these new scientific urbanists study the city as it exists to better understand the organized complexity that generates urbanism. While some, such as Salingaros, claim New Urbanism or some other ideology, their work remains ground-up studies of how cities work.

    Consider Space Syntax. While Hillier and his crew clearly have a love for a certain type of city, their result of their work is a tool that planners and architects can use to understand patterns of movement in the city. Their research is founded upon the study of how people actually use the city, and the application of it is merely a tool - not an ideology that claims to explain the whole city.

    So, I think it's wrong to lump these new scientific urbanists with the old modernists, who weren't actually doing much science at all. These new scientists are not claiming to explain the whole city, and they are not creating ideologies - you can have landscape urbanism if you'd like an ideology to fear. This new science is useful both because it will allow us to better understand the city and because it will result in new tools, that we can choose to use if desired - or not.

    Regarding Jane Jacobs, I share your lament that her later work is so seldom mentioned. I don't remember reading anything that cited Glaeser (most of them are much older than him). They sometimes refer to older geographic work (central place theory, etc), but usually more as a point of contrast.

    And, of course, I think humility from both new and old hands would be a wonderful addition to the debate.

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  5. Patrick

    Thanks for initiating this interesting debate.

    Its difficult for me to consider this work as "ground up" or "how cities work". Let me explain, and please correct me if I am wrong.

    I consider this work empirical to a degree, but it is based on the translation of human practices, indexes, and cases into quantitative data that is then transformed into patterns, formulas and representations about urban life.

    And while I seldom agree with my dear colleague Alex on "isms", I do have to consider that he is correct in stipulating that there is a high degree of modernism on this matter.

    I think that a discussion about it being an old modernism misses the point that it may very well be a new modernism. It continues the tradition of deploying a rationality, capturing a representation, defining, explaining and organizing data into categories and then diagrams that allow us to capture truth. This is in a nutshell is the legacy of urban planning.

    Yes its exciting, because we can use our new open source tools and faster computers to visualize the city, collect data and discover relations in space, point at missed opportunities and come up with solutions. If anything it leads us to purely morphological conclusions about what makes a city tick. Or rankings based on comparisons derived from quantitative data.

    Sure, its a choice, and one anyone should consider it. But lets not fool ourselves, it is has its own ideology. If anything, i would argue it forces us to consider other methodologies which are not quantitative and contribute to its assertions by complementing and challenging its use, basis of methods and purpose.

    HF

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