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Urban Core

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.

16 thoughts on “Urban Core

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  4. I wonder a lot about this Urban Core concept as I “reverse” commute to my job every day, sometimes by car, sometimes by bus. Since I live in the urban core but work in Fridley, it takes 90-105 minutes to get home via bus any given day. When I drive, the trip home takes me 25-30 minutes. Maybe if this were only _doubled_, I would commute by bus 3-4 days a week since I like to knit or read on the bus. But 3+ times as long!

    We’ve got to figure out what is an urban core and what is a suburbanized nightmare. Thank goodness petrol is around $1.80 this week but having it $4 gallon at least made people shop around for and start demanding other options.

  5. I read your musings about what is the purpose of a city? I do not have a direct answer for you, but some economical thoughts did sort of precipitate. First of all, let’s address the folks who do not speak English. You did want to talk about the urbs. The number of languages spoken in the Saint Paul School District is incredible. Seems like it was 75 languages if my failing memory is right. In that neighborhood. These people live together, work together for survival. That is called a community or a gang, depending on how desperate they are.
    If an adult member of this community can get a job it is likely to be without benefits, and at or below minimum wage. If you can teach this person to speak English, you have bumped up his or her worth dramatically. In the least, the person can now be a supervisor of his fellow men who didn’t learn to speak English.
    You have also created a portal between the community of people who don’t speak English and the world around them. This is good because if you have communities in close proximity who can’t communicate, there is still competition for resources, and lack of communication means lack of growth in the relationship between them. Friendships do not stay the same. They die without communication.

    The other thing is mass transport. I noted your 100 sq ft to park a car. That includes the parking space, as I measured it on Google Earth yesterday. Busses are communities of people. You get on and ride and you are a stranger. You get on and ride every day, and you are part of the habit. You begin to know everybody else and where they get on, where they get off. You may chat with them a bit. You get to know them. They leave, and you lose them. You miss them and grieve, but life goes on. The gal who was my best buddy coming home just announced she was marrying a man out in California. She is now gone, and I will miss her.
    Cities are the places where millions of people come in to work. Traffic in the morning still demonstrates that it is the destination for working people. Traffic is backed up going in, clear as a bell coming out in the morning. Some manufacturing still takes place, but what else? Health care, education are huge employers. Health care has three shifts of people, but in addition they have a huge spectrum of talent or skills involved. Transportation, feeding the multitudes (from grocery to fast food tacos, to the hot night spot), and government. These are functions of a city that are not about manufacturing, but are part of urban economic infrastructure. The jobs of these functions are part of the tax base of the economy. The wage earners spend the money, mostly on things of volatile worth such as mortgages and college educations, but some spent on food (thus supporting the farmers in Chile or that little Dole family who own the lettuce industry), lights, and electronic services.
    When you think about change, you have to think about it in terms of who is involved. Bussing and light rail are very good as they move people and have the potential for lots of growth with minimal increase in energy. The busses are phenomenal when you learn the schedules and how to work with them. It is a city thing, and the further out you want to go, the more challenging it gets. Everybody is hoping and dreaming about the electric car. Assume that the point of practicality of owning an electric car is 7 years away. In 7 years everybody will have one charging overnight. Will the infrastructure handle that? Will we be able to afford to purchase that kind of expense at consumer rates?

    When fuel prices went through the roof, I didn’t worry too much. I was busy unfolding my legs from the back seat of a Saturn for $10/week. Now I pay $5.00/day to do the same on the bus. In the warmer times of the year I am able to make the same trip on a bike. It takes the same length of time as the bus, but it works off my gut. While it used to save me $10/week, it now saves me $25.00 per week and do I miss my Saturn carpool.
    All for now. More economic thoughts later.

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