August 17, 2015

Urban Conservation

by Alan Beatts

1.  "Bright Light, Big City"

I love New Orleans.  It is one of my favorite cities in the world and the only one, other than San Francisco, in which I feel at home.  I had a chance recently to spend a week there and it was just as lovely as always.  But, while I was there, I was struck by how that city is facing some of the same problems that we have in San Francisco, despite it being almost, but not completely, unlike San Francisco.

That led to ruminating on a change that I've noticed over the past thirty years or so.  It used to be that big cities were not the preferred choice of residence for most of the population of the US.  The growth of the suburbs, starting in the 1950s and driven by the post-war boom, ubiquitous automobiles, and the expansion of freeways, began the process of moving people out of cities.  Following that, rising crime levels in cities prompted more people to move out, which drained revenue from cities, which further aggravated crime and a general decay of basic infrastructure.

Between 1970 and 1980 the population of New York dropped by more than 10%.  In fact, eight of the ten cites in the US that were the largest in 1950 showed huge drops in population between 1970 and 1980 (the two exceptions were Los Angeles, which has had a constantly growing population throughout, and Boston, which had a population drop of 19% the decade previous).  The population decrease in those cites through that decade ranges mostly between 10 and 20% despite the US population as a whole increasing by 10% in the same decade.

So, between 1970 and 1980 people were leaving major cities in the US in droves.  Even a decade later, 1990, most of those cities were below the population level of 1970.  In a number of cases, the drop was continuing through the '90s and even into the new century.

On a larger scale, movement into "urban" areas, (as defined by the US Census) came to a complete halt between 1980 and 1985.  For each of those years the "urban" population of the US stayed at 74% despite a previously constant upward trend for the prior 100 years.  Since the census definition of "urban" includes large suburban areas the are close to major cities, the drop in population evidenced by the largest cites is not as obvious here but the percentages are indicative of the same flight out of cities.  Even by 1990, the urban population had only increased by one percentage point to 76%.

That trend of shrinking populations in big cites started to reverse in 1990 and that reversal has continued.  Of the ten cities I tracked from 1950 onwards, six of them show a upward population trend starting by the the end of the last decade.  Some started early in 1990 (New York), the trend continued in 2000 (Chicago and Boston), and the laggards turned up in 2010 (Philadelphia and Washington).  By 2014, based on US Census projections, even Baltimore will be gaining.  The three cities that are still losing citizens are not much of a surprise: Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  But even in those cities, the downward trend has leveled off sharply and it wouldn't surprise me if it had reversed by the 2020 census.

In fact, the trend of people moving into cities seems to be accelerating rapidly.  An article from the Brookings Institute in 2013 discusses that phenomena at length ( and, associated with it, there is this useful table surveying the growth of the 20 largest cites in the US (  Only one shows negative growth between 2010 and 2012 (poor old Detroit) but even in that case the negative change is much, much slower than the average of the past decade.  Every single other city is not just showing growth, but at a much higher rate than the average of the past decade.  Moreso, in 16 out of 20 cases, the growth between 2011 and 2012 is greater than the period between 2010 and 2011.

By any set of figures that I can find, we're in the middle of a huge population shift back into big cities.  One that is probably as big or bigger than the shift out of cities that happened near the end of the last century.

2.  "Knock Yourself Out"

These days, I hear often that "growth is good", and there are certainly good things about people flooding back into our cities.  Property values go up, which means more tax revenue for the city, which should lead to better infrastructure.  Generally speaking, people living in a city have a lower energy footprint, due to public transit, shorter home-to-work commuting, and so on.  That's better for the environment.  And those are just a few upsides.

But the rapid increase in population causes a host of problems as well.  Rents, both residential and commercial, increase because of demand, which leads to displacement of small businesses and lower income citizens.  The population increase places greater demands on infrastructure, everything from emergency services to water supply and treatment.  Those sort of problems can be difficult to solve because the population can jump very rapidly but addressing shortfalls in services or housing cannot be done quickly.  It takes time to build housing, water treatment plants, and to train police officers.  Additionally it takes political will and money to address those things.  Both can be in short supply, especially after years of making do with a small tax base and sharply limited income.

And, finally, there isn't much financial motivation to build low income housing or hire and train fire department personnel.  But there is, of course, a great deal of financial motivation to build luxury housing and raise rents.

In the long term, many of those problems will get solved.  Once people move into a city and stay for a while, they start to get concerned about things like reliable public transit and emergency services.  While developers are making piles of money building things, the city administration starts to find ways to get some of that cash to repair and upgrade the infrastructure that the new development is using.

Large cites are hugely dynamic systems.  Like all such systems they adapt and adjust remarkably well.  The population shift is also a dynamic process.  People want to live in dense, urban areas but they are perhaps not too picky about which one they choose.  If a specific city gets too expensive or the infrastructure is stretched too thin, then people will move to another city instead, thereby reducing the strain.  We see this in San Francisco every time a family with children choose to move out when their kids are old enough to start school (because the public schools here are overloaded and the private ones are crazy expensive).

But, we do risk a serious cultural loss as a result of the population shift into cities.  That loss is not something that can by dynamically addressed.  Once cultural institutions and the individuals who drive them are lost, they are often gone forever.

3.  "You Don't Know What It's All About"

Big cities, both true metropolises and smaller ones, are a crucial part of our society's artistic, intellectual, and social existence.  By putting a large number of diverse people together in close proximity, cities allow for the accidental creation of a "critical mass" of ideas and enthusiasm that jumpstarts artistic and intellectual movements.  From the Algonquin Round Table to the musicians at CBGB, from Kerouac and the Beats at Vesusivio to the gutter punks at The Farm, from The Hotel Monteleone to Storyville -- the history of our literature, music and art is, in part, also a history of our cities and their inhabitants.

Alongside that quality, and supporting it, has been the general tolerance of city dwellers for the unusual, outlandish, and extraordinary.  Just to preserve one's sanity in such a densely populated environment, city dwellers tend to take a live-and-let-live attitude in regards to each other, which is amplified by the enormous diversity of cultures jammed side-by-side.

Also, the dense population makes for an economic environment that can support businesses that couldn't survive in a small town.  Consider Borderlands for example -- there simply are not enough readers of what we sell to keep us open in a small town.  But in a city, places like Borderlands can find enough customers to be viable.  Consequently cities support businesses (and the people and ideas associated with them) that wouldn't exist otherwise, and who add details and flair to the economic landscape.

Of course, most of the small businesses and artists that inhabit cities don't ever make a mark on the larger fabric of our culture.  But some of them do and, without the rich incubator that cites provide, many of them would not achieve their potential.

The risk is that the suddenly rising cost of living and working in cities will drive the small businesses, artists, musicians, writers and other assorted oddballs out, depriving them of the environment that helps them grow.  And, incidentally, depriving our culture of their potential gifts.

Also at risk is the eccentric physical structure of cities.  The Mission District in San Francisco is unique in that, within it, there are examples of virtually every style of West Coast architecture going all the way back to at least 1870 (and further, if you count the original Mission Dolores, the facade of which was constructed in 1791).  Simple economics demand that a sudden large demand for housing will prompt a rush to build new housing.  Since the central and oldest areas of cities are typically almost completely built-up, the only way to build new structures is to demolish the existing ones.  Not a bad thing on its own (as long as some care is given to consider the historic value of older buildings) but, since the construction is happening all at once, there is a risk that all the new construction will have much the same character.  If that happens, the preponderance of that style eliminates the hodgepodge mix of buildings, which in turn makes the city a more bland and homogeneous place.

4.  Urban Conservationism

A useful way to look at our environment is as a spectrum with untouched and unaltered nature at one end, extending through parks, farmland, small towns, suburbs, smaller cites and concluding with metropolises.  The critical quality of this spectrum is the degree and extent of human alteration to the original environment.

Another way to look at our environment produces a very different perspective.  What if instead we consider the degree to which the environment is organic and unplanned?  In other words, a large farm or a gated suburban community is at one end of the spectrum and wild and untamed nature is at the other end.  If one takes that view it suggests that a national park like Yosemite and a city like New York both exist at a point near to each other, rather than at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that they are both distant from a farm or suburb.

Both are hugely complex and chaotic systems that no-one completely understands or controls.  They both are the result of organic growth that has been guided, to varying degrees at various times, by humans.  Granted one could argue that Yosemite has been subject to far less guidance, but I think that you can make an argument to the contrary as well; consider the far-reaching effect that fire fighting has had on Yosemite over the past 100 years -- to my knowledge, nothing in New York has ever been subject to that kind of consistent and constant effort.  Further, the shape and character of even newish cities like New York or San Francisco, is not something that was planned in any organized fashion.  And, if you consider truly old cities like London or Istanbul, the idea that what we now see is the product of organized planning is laughable.

I suggest that, like national parks, our great cities are complicated, sometimes delicate, environments that are a valuable and vital part of our history, culture and future.  And, as a result we should treat them with respect and view ourselves as their custodians rather than their owners.

Despite the foregoing, I'm not suggesting that the approach to conservation that is applied to national parks would make any sort of sense for a city.  Unlike a park, one of the intrinsic qualities of cities is rapid change.  More than being intrinsic, change is part of what gives cites their vibrancy and unique quality.  But what I am suggesting is a change in attitude towards our cities.

San Francisco existed long before I was born and I expect it will be here long after I'm gone.  Likewise, both the building that houses Borderlands and the building that I live in are much older than me and, with luck, they can also be here long after I'm gone.  In essence, I'm just passing through and I think it behooves me to act that way.  So, rather than blithely remodel the bookstore to suit Borderlands, we have tried to preserve the existing building and materials while fitting Borderlands in around them.  It has been a give and take process and will continue to be.  But it has never crossed my mind that it would be better to tear out the old windows rather than repairing them as needed.  On the other hand, when the front windows needed replacement, I was happy to put in new, safer framing to hold them, rather than preserving the old, weak (i.e. not earthquake safe) construction.

I suggest the following principles, both for individuals, businesses, and city government -

1)  Tread softly and go slow
The city has been here much longer than you and will probably be here once you're gone.  If you've just arrived, try out things for a while before you decide that you want to change them.  If you buy a house, live it in a little bit before you start tearing out walls and remodeling the kitchen.  If you think that a stop light at your corner would be better than a stop sign, drive, bike and walk in the neighborhood for a while before you write the city.  Even if you've been here for a while, all that is still good advice.

If, after going slow, you think that a change makes sense, try not to change things more than absolutely necessary.  When you decide to cause change, think carefully about what the effects will be, whether they are going to be positive or negative, and whether they are consistent with the city you came to.  Finally, when you start changing things, do it in small steps and look at the consequences before moving forward with more change.

2)  Conform to the city while finding a place that suits you
Instead of assuming that the way you're used to living is going to work in a city, put aside your expectations of how things will work and instead look at how things are.  Watch how people who have lived here a while navigate the seeming obstacles and headaches.  Be willing to make trade-offs between your habits and the habits that the city encourages.  Perhaps you don't really need a car, which means that parking doesn't matter to you at all.

At the same time however, don't drive yourself crazy turning into a pretzel to fit the place you live.  There are a bunch of different neighborhoods in any city.  Some go to bed early and some rock 'til sunup.  Some of them have easier parking and some have pretty much no parking.  If you like to go to bed early, don't move in near a nightclub.  If you like nature, live near a park.  If you want your children to grow up somewhere quiet and conservative, find that neighborhood.  If you want to play music all night and dance around, live on the ground floor, not the top one.  But don't expect to make the place you decided to settle change to suit you -- best case, you'll be unhappy; worst case, you'll succeed.

3)  Support what is unique and respect history
As much as familiar things are comforting, it's the unfamiliar that gives cities their character and charm.  Go to the tiny, local restaurant, and shop at smaller, local shops.  Help maintain the businesses that make the city unlike others.  Most of all learn and respect the history of the city.  San Francisco's Cable Car system is (mostly) a lousy way to get around but it's also a part of the city's history; so don't complain about the high fares and limited routes.  Ride it or don't, but respect the history it represents.  Seek out the oldest places in town (the longest operating restaurant, the place that invented a signature drink, the oldest bar).  Talk to the old timers who have lived through the history of your town. And remember, that some of the oldest, crappiest buildings and neighborhoods are the heart of the place you live.

4)  Be reasonable
In the flood of people returning to our cities, you are not a unique snowflake unlike all the others.  You are actually one invisible fragment of a blizzard, and you are no more important than anyone else.  Accept that living side by side with a large number and wide variety of people means you're not going to agree with all or even most of them.  Accept that they're going to randomly double-park every once in a while, meaning you have to go around them on your bike.  Perhaps you cannot get into your favorite restaurant during your half-hour lunch break; fine, try a new place that you've never been.  Know that sometimes, the bus is just going to stop for no apparent reason at all and you'll need to walk nine blocks to get to work.  Patience and a willingness to make accommodations for circumstances and other people will make living in a city much more comfortable for you . . . and the people around you.

5)  Accept change
The one constant in life, right?  Some change is great and some change is horrible, but the one thing we know for sure is that it's going to keep happening.  Make peace with it.  Don't think that things were better when you were in high school or in some other, far-off time.  In the first place, things probably weren't better but even if they were, you're not accomplishing anything by dwelling on it -- other than interfering with you enjoyment of the time you're living in right now.  Fight against the changes you really think are negative, fight for those you really think will make things better, and roll with those that are beyond your control.

A custodial attitude to living in a city, incorporating the principles above, could seriously mitigate the problems that we're facing all over the world.   The Nature of Cities, (a website with the stated goal to "promote worldwide dialog and action to create green cities that are sustainable, resilient, and livable": has as their slogan the phrase "cities are ecosystems of people, nature, and infrastructure".  We are just one part of the ecosystem of our city and, on an individual basis, the most replaceable.  But our attitudes and choices, as a group, can make a city thrive or stagnate.  The choice of what sort of place we want help grow is almost entirely in our hands.

Bright Light, Big City by Jimmy Reed

Bright light, big city, gone to my baby's head
Whoa, bright light, an' big city, gone to my baby's head
I tried to tell the woman, but she don't believe a word I said

It's all right, pretty baby, (gonna) need my help someday
Whoa, it's all right, pretty baby, gonna need my help someday
Ya' gonna wish you had a-listened, to some a-those things I said

Go ahead, pretty baby, a-honey, knock yourself out
Oh go ahead, pretty baby, honey, knock yourself out
I still love ya baby, 'cause you don't know what it's all about

Bright light, a big city, they went to my baby's head
Oh, the bright light, the big city, they went to my baby's head
I hope you remember, a-some of those things I said

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