What is the purpose of a city?
I’ve asked this question many times, and I have yet to get a good answer. It’s not a trivial or esoteric thing to ask because as we work to revitalize our cities in the USofA we need to know the economic and social niches we are trying to fill. Without that, we have only bias and boosterism.
Traditionally, American cities were something like enormous factories. Terminals were built out in the hinterlands to exploit the riches of a vast continent and package it in a way that it was sellable elsewhere. That’s how cities like Saint Paul, Kansas City, Portland, and many other places came into being. The docks and railroad terminals came first, followed by factories that added value to the raw material. People settled in these towns from far away, often across oceans, and built their homes. Stores grew up to provide them with the goods they needed. Eventually, rough bars gave way to cultural institutions and soon the city had a soul.
In short, cities existed because there was work to do.
As we make fewer things in the USofA, there is much less need for this kind of city. Pittsburgh, the city that turned out more steel in World War II than Germany and Japan combined, has only one working mill in the city limits now, and it mostly melts scrap. Saint Paul has seen the loss of many manufacturers, including American Hoist and Whirlpool, which provided thousands of jobs. What can we do about it?
In many places, the secret to success is assumed to lie in the past; create jobs, and the rest will follow. This has created a bidding war among regions and states to see who can subsidize a large factory the most, and this has been the driving force behind Saint Paul’s own Port Authority, which despite its name is really a builder of industrial sites.
If this made sense economically, there would be no need to subsidize factories as heavily as we do. But does it make sense socially? If you look around at the urban core, often called a “downtown” in an oblique reference to Manhattan, there is usually nothing but tall office buildings left at this point. Fifty years or so of declining manufacturing has left nothing but glass and steel in the core. This skyline is often shown on postcards and glossy reports as a point of civic pride, but at that level it is nothing more than enormous sculpture, a vanity designed to look good from afar. What is the use of this assemblage when you get up close?
I do not understand the point of an urban office tower in today’s distributed world, and the vacancy rates I see in Saint Paul suggest that the economy doesn’t, either. If nothing else, the lack of transit in many smaller cities means that people commute by car – and each car takes up about as much space to park as a worker, 100 square feet each. This is not a small problem. If you take the surface parking lots and vacant land along Saint Paul’s Downtown and magically slice off all the buildings until the skyline is even and flat among all the land, you wind up with an average of under six stories. Saint Paul could have been built like Napoleon III’s Paris if we had preferred that to the distant sculpture of a skyline.
The point of this musing is that we are living in a time of gasoline running nearly four bucks a gallon. Obviously, the distributed network of streets that accentuates the value of the automobile is being overwhelmed by its resource-hogging cost. Things will certainly change as this sinks in, and people will likely become more urban as they seek to reduce the cost of their lives. Cities are made up of much more than a downtown, and often have vibrant and fun neighborhoods that make a walking life a real possibility. But what will happen to the center? Is there any reason for people to show up in big central offices when telecommuting, contracting, and other features of modern life are also good options?
I don’t think that either the factory model or the office space model makes a lot of sense in the world we are living in. Retail only works to the extent that it is connected to the rest of the city, and a cultural hub helps to build that connection. But as we move away from traditional images of a city and twentieth century means of getting around, the connections are what matter most. The city that can build them is the city that will be successful, and will make it clear why it does indeed exist. Without that, the question remains open.