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Did Cities Fail Us?

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
8 min read
Did Cities Fail Us?

It was an ugly week. Let's start with some poetry:

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom.”

These words were written by Richard Wright to describe his migration from Memphis, Tennessee to Chicago in 1926. Slavery has been formally abolished sixty years earlier. But in the southern United States, a variety of laws kept Black people segregated and made it difficult for them to vote.

Wright and his family were part of the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans who headed north, to large industrial cities, in search of a better future. The Great Migration of 1916-1970 was "one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history".  The Warmth of Other Suns gave its name to a book about that migration.

But Black Americans were not only pulled north by the promise of industrial cities. They were also pushed out by the diminishing need for labor in the agricultural south.

As Nicholas Lemann points out, African slaves were brought to America mainly to pick cotton. "For hundreds of years, the plurality of African-Americans were connected directly or indirectly to the agriculture of cotton".

The invention of the Cotton Gin in the 18th Century automated the removal of sticky green seeds from white cotton bolls. This made the production of cotton so profitable that it drove up demand for land — and for slaves. It also made it possible to commercialize new cotton crops that could be planted away from the coast. As a result, slavery expanded inland across the American south.

In the second half of the 19th Century, the American Civil War abolished slavery, but the fields still needed workers. A new system of sharecropping arose to replace the old system of slavery.

Under the new system, poor African Americans (as well as a smaller share of poor whites) were allowed to live and work on a piece of land owned by someone else in exchange for a share of the crop they produced. The landowner provided sharecroppers with housing and the materials required to work the land. Segregation played an important role in sustaining this economic arrangement by "ensuring that most blacks would have no arena of opportunity in life except for the cotton fields".

Then came another technological leap. John and Mack Rust started experimenting with mechanical cotton pickers in the 1920s. But the Great Depression and, later, World War II made it difficult for them to secure financing and manufacturing capacity to scale their idea. But as the war ended, cotton picking was finally becoming more mechanized — requiring far less labor.

This new technology had undermined the old economic system of sharecropping (and segregation) in the south. And it pushed Black people to seek new opportunities elsewhere. As Lemann points out, "between 1910 and 1970, six and a half million black Americans moved from the South to the North; five million of them moved after 1940, during the time of the mechanization of cotton farming."

Did they find what they were looking for?

The past week provided a painful reminder that American cities are still unsafe for Black people. It is not a matter of politics or complex analysis. We can debate crime rates and poverty and taxes and monetary policy and gun ownership and discrimination and Police unions and personal responsibility. In fact, we should debate these things — with each other as well as with ourselves. But the details should not distract us from the simple fact that if some of us are suffering, all of us will ultimately suffer.

What can we do? Let's start with cities.

The Fog of Urbanization

In theory, cities are engines of integration. They provide access to better jobs, better education, and opportunities to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and income brackets.

But as the U.S. became more urban, it also became less equitable in terms of income distribution. And the distribution of income in cities like New York is even more unequal than the average for the whole country. The distnce between the top and the bottom incresed, and it became more difficult to move beyond one's existing class. Absolute economic mobility has flattened or declined since 1940, meaning people are doing worse than their parents.

This does not mean that cities cause income inequality or reduce upward mobility. But it does show that more urbanization did not cause inequality to reverse or upward mobility to increase.

Is it time to give up on cities?

No. It's time to build actual cities.

America's high urbanization rate (83%) glosses over a more complex reality. Globally, the definition of "urban" varies widely. Comparisons published by the United Nations do not rely on a uniform standard. In some countries, "urban" includes areas with as few as 1,500 inhabitants.

The U.S. definition of "Urban Areas" includes "continuously built-up area with a population of 50,000 or more". It also includes places with "at least 2,500 inhabitants" in a "densely settled population center that has a name and community identity".

I spent the past two months living in Suffolk County, Long Island. The county's population is considered urban by the U.S. Census Bureau. The map below is based on the 2010 census. In it, Suffolk county is merely one grade below the densest areas in the U.S., such as Manhattan or Chicago.

U.S. Population Density (allow images in your email reader to see)

The house we're currently in is built on about an acre of land (4,000 sqm). Outside, there are no sidewalks, no mid- or high-rise buildings, and no subway stations in sight. The nearest train station is 4.5 miles away. Trains run every 30 minutes or so. Busses run sporadically along on the highway. The nearest CVS (drugstore) is 45 minutes away on foot, 7 minutes away by car, and is not accessible by bus — at least according to Google Maps.

Don't get me wrong. It is very pleasant. But it is not urban by any stretch of the imagination. And it is very common.

Home of the Scared

More than 60% of America's housing stock consists of single-family houses not attached to any other house. An additional 6% are single-family houses that are attached. Mobile homes account for 7.6% of units (a huge story in itself). Only 25% of housing units were in structures with 2 or more units, such as small or large apartment buildings.

This is not a coincidence. As Sonia Hirt points out in Zoned in the USA, "the U.S. land-use control system is... unique in the elevated status it grants to one particular housing type, the detached single-family home". The system enables and incentivizes the construction of sprawling suburbs, catering to people who can afford to buy a large private home. It makes it difficult or impossible to build denser, more affordable types of housing which, in turn, lowers the opportunity for interaction between socio-economic groups.

In general, America's zoning system limits the mixing of different uses, keeping large residential districts clean of any places to work and shop. This, in turn, means that residents require a car to access basic services and employment opportunities. The U.S. has more cars per capita than any country on earth. And 85% of those cars are acquired by so-called urban residents.

As I point out in my own book, racism a big driver in the emergence of the current zoning system at the beginning of the 20th Century:

Resistance to denser apartment buildings was often a way to restrict African-Americans and new immigrants from moving into new areas. Zoning laws were controversial and made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 1926 case involving Amber Realty, an industrial developer, and the village (now city) government of Euclid, Ohio. The court upheld the local government’s right to issue zoning ordinances.
Despite the fact that the case was about the encroachment of industrial uses on affluent residential communities, the majority opinion found it necessary to express distaste for the development of apartment buildings as well. The opinion, written by Justice George Sutherland, stated that “very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.” Justice Sutherland also wrote the majority opinion for two other controversial court cases in the 1920s, decreeing that Asian people of Indian or Japanese origins could not become citizens of the U.S. since they did not conform to America’s Founding Fathers’ definition of “white persons”.

But the system did not just prevent minorities from moving into affluent, white neighborhoods. It also made it difficult for them to buy houses elsewhere. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was set up as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s in order to standardize, finance, and encourage the construction of more housing.

But the new federal authority only made things worse. The FHA established a system of “redlining,” which refused to guarantee mortgages for homes in minority neighborhoods—regardless of the wealth of those neighborhoods or of the applicants."

The impact of the current zoning system also extends into truly urban areas, in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Existing residents can restrict the construction of dense housing in their vicinity, making cities less affordable to newcomers and existing residents who are not wealth. To add insult to injury, wealthy residents also use the system to push unwanted land uses — those that produce pollution and noise — into low-income neighborhoods.

I could go on but you get the idea. American cities have not been too kind to minorities because (most) American cities have not been, well, cities. They are not dense, not walkable, don't allow people to rely on public transport, don't create enough opportunity (or necessity) to interact with people from different socio-economic brackets.

A few exceptions show why this matters. Anja Jamrozik's latest newsletter refers to two examined the link between urban planning and economic mobility. According to the first study:

"Upward mobility was higher in areas of the U.S. that had a higher Walk Score, even after taking into account [other factors such as] (demographics, income inequality, K-12 school quality, community involvement, single parents), and other possible confounding factors, like political affiliation, median income, violent crime, and government spending per person."

The second study "found that upward mobility was higher in more compact areas of the country" — cities with less sprawl and more density. This includes cities such as New York and San Francisco, which are significantly denser than the average American city (but still not dense enough when compared to cities like Paris).

People who live in walkable neighborhoods are more likely to talk to strangers and know their neighbors. They establish more "weak ties" that increase access to resources and opportunities and increase upward mobility. I encourage you to read the whole piece.

Unbundling the City

As bad as things are, they can get much worse, especially in cities that are currently popular with the employees of the highest-paying and fastest-growing companies.

As I wrote last month, cities are essentially bundles. They group together different people in services, for mutual benefit. Ultra wealthy residents, knowledge workers, and service workers "tolerate" each other because they need each other. In particular, the more affluent workers need low-income workers to provide them a variety of services that make cities great (cook, deliver food, drive Ubers, babysit).

Covid showed that our cities are heavily dependent on low-income, essential workers. It also expedited the adoption of many new tools that make it possible to access such services with limited or no interaction with other people.

Put differently, it showed that one does not have to live in a city in order to access services that were previously available only in dense cities. Wealthy retirees and knowledge workers will still want to interact with other people. But will they make an explicit effort to interact with, or live next to people from a different socio-economic bracket?

The Cotton Gin created an unholy arrangement between landowners and sharecroppers. The mechanized cotton picker broke up that arrangement and pushed African-Americans to move to industrial cities. Will a new wave of innovations break up the current alliance between wealthy urban dwellers and their low-income service providers?

There's a good chance it will. Unless we make a conscious decision to turn our cities into engines of economic integration.

More on how to do that — soon.