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Books and Culture

Scott Beyer
Urban Utopianism
Not everyone loves cities, though Vishaan Chakrabarti thinks they should.
6 September 2013

A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, by Vishaan Chakrabarti (Metropolis Books, 252 pp., $29.95)

Some people read manifestoes proposing silver-bullet answers to complex issues and feel inspired. Others roll their eyes at the oversimplifications, and they might react that way to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s new book. In A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, the architect and Columbia University professor argues that denser cities will be the “ark that delivers us to the safe harbor of prosperous shores,” a cure for problems ranging from “foreclosures, to terrorism, to unfunded schools, to devastating oil spills, to ever more powerful storms.” This “green, healthy, prosperous urbanity,” he promises, would create a “new countryside dotted with large cities and small towns” with “little but agriculture and nature in between.”

In order to sustain subway lines and other advanced infrastructure, Chakrabarti’s cities would have a minimum density of 30 units per acre—roughly that of row-house neighborhoods. Conceivably, though, they could go well beyond that measure, as do hyper-dense cities like Tokyo and Singapore. The greater the density, the better for America’s environment, economy, and quality of life, Chakrabarti believes. His environmental case shouldn’t prompt much argument, since dense cities command far less per-capita energy usage. The economic and quality-of-life appeals, though, are less persuasive. While Chakrabarti notes the economic dominance of major U.S. metros—the 100 largest are now home to nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population and account for the lion’s share of its GDP—he fails to distinguish between them. Since the Great Recession, residential growth has been concentrated overwhelmingly in cities with sprawling, single-family residential patterns—like Austin and Charlotte—and in the suburbs of denser cities. Such population growth, not surprisingly, has correlated with these areas’ robust growth in jobs and wages. This does not necessarily mean that extensive single-family housing is a superior economic model. But according to a recent National Association of Realtors survey, 80 percent of Americans prefer single-family housing. Charkabarti makes no mention of this inconvenient fact.

Instead, he focuses on the lengthy commutes in some metropolitan areas, which, he explains, have contributed to divorce, obesity, and other social ills. His solution: build more mass transit, though a 2010 FHA report determined that average public-transit commute times were well over double those for private autos. This won’t come as a surprise to transit users themselves, who know how inconvenient it can be to navigate cities following fixed routes and schedules rather than driving directly to their destinations. But Chakrabarti is convinced that more mass transit will make it easier for mothers to haul their kids around on errands. “Ask most parents about the daily grind,” he writes, “and the most common laments tend to center wittingly or unwittingly around the automobile.”

Statements like these suggest that Chakrabarti’s perspective is less that of an experienced urbanite, with a lived experience of cities, and more that of a typical urban planner, obsessed with how cities should be. He celebrates density without mentioning its drawbacks. This leads him to suggest impractical policies.

Take light rail, which Chakrabarti insists is preferable to dual-lane highways—though he eventually acknowledges that light rail costs 13 times more per mile to build. Wouldn’t light rail’s forbidding economics suggest that lower-density cities—where dual-lane highways are often the norm—mobilize people more cost-efficiently than high-density ones? Chakrabarti doesn’t go there. He also calls for more high-speed rail, even along spread-out corridors like Tampa-Orlando, where it would go underused. Again he advocates, without much supporting analysis, policies that have spotty histories in American cities but remain in vogue among planners: tax-increment financing, affordable-housing mandates, project labor agreements, and the like.

Chakrabarti is on firmer ground when criticizing government policies that have favored suburbia for decades, including zoning regulations that create sprawl by preventing density in city centers and federal redistribution of transportation money from high- to low-density states. But in their place, he suggests centralized policies that repeat the favoritism, only this time to cities’ benefit: redirecting housing subsidies to apartment construction; requiring localities seeking federal funds to build “smart infrastructure,” regardless of whether it’s needed; and implementing cap-and-trade zoning that lets developers buy air pollution credits while keeping the development process firmly in government hands. Chakrabarti would be more persuasive if, instead of favoring one government-directed growth program over another, he saw the folly of empowering distant bureaucracies to micromanage American living patterns.

I should note here that, like Chakrabarti, I love cities and appreciate the benefits of urban density. Throughout my twenties, I have endured shoebox apartments and unsavory neighborhoods for the privilege of living in such exciting places. But density is a lifestyle choice—sometimes supported by market forces—not some magical, government-inspired solution to the world’s problems. Oftentimes, such problems—congestion, crime, bureaucracy, high housing prices, and homelessness, among others—exist more notably in cities than in, say, Butte, Montana, or exurban Long Island. To urbanites like me, these drawbacks are the price of admission, but millions of Americans don’t share this view. Unfortunately, Chakrabarti’s manifesto offers little practical analysis of how to make cities more appealing to them.

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