Sunday, August 20, 2006

The 6m tipping point, city uniqueness, and density vs. children

The international edition of Newsweek had an interesting section recently on world cities, with an emphasis on "second cities" - up and comers vs. the traditional big names like NYC, London, Paris, and Tokyo. A few excerpts caught my attention:
Today it's easier for Second Cities to build self-sustaining economies, independent of megacities, as firms and workers look to avoid the problems of major urban centers. "Economically, after a city reaches a certain size, its productivity starts to fall," notes Mario Pezzini, head of the regional-competitiveness division of the OECD in Paris. He puts the tipping point at about 6 million people, after which real estate costs, travel times, and the occasional chaos (witness the recent Paris riots) "create a situation in which the center of the city may be a great place, but only for the rich, and the outlying areas become harder to live and work in."
Metro Houston is around 5.3 million, so we're getting pretty close to this hypothetical tipping point. But our real estate has not shot up like the east/west coast cities, nor have our travel times gotten all that much longer than national averages, although I've gotten the impression the latest oil boom is starting to have a negative effect on congestion. I think our multi-nodal job centers and mega-freeway network may allow us to push our own tipping point farther out. His six million number is based on classical heavy-rail-to-downtown cities with relatively limited freeways. If we implement a true congestion-priced freeway lane network with distributed point-to-point express transit and car/vanpools, we'll be trying a pretty new and unique urban form that may not have the same tipping point dynamics as historically older cities. Continuing:
All this means, of course, that second cities won't stay small. Indeed, some countries are actively promoting their growth. China's Go West campaign encourages investment in smaller inland cities. Italy is trying to create tourist hubs of towns close to each other with different yet complementary cultural activities. "The worst-case scenario is that we end up with some national version of New Jersey—an inefficient sprawl with no center," says Frey of Brookings. Already, one has to wonder if all the marketing pressure for Second Cities to pay for iconic buildings or to re-create mock versions of New York's SoHo is a productive use of capital. If one of the biggest drawing cards for Second Cities is unique local flavor, why ape the best-known megacities? Devolution of policymaking power is leaving many lesser cities more free than ever to shape their destinies. To Vegas, Toulouse and company: this is your era. Don't blow it.
A great lesson for Houston: blaze our own path, and don't worry too much about matching the current big guys.

Later in the section, Joel Kotkin has this excerpt on the link between density and a falloff in children, supporting my belief that "rising affluence seeks personal space", and if you use government policy to prevent them from growing the house, they'll shrink their household to achieve the same ends.
Such patterns of enlightened suburban development could be applied around the world. Many nations still get it wrong, building anonymous tracts 30 to 50 kilometers from the closest jobs or town center, mainly as bedroom communities for a big city. A leading example of enforced centralization is Seoul, where the average density of more than 14,000 people per square kilometer is three times London's, five times L.A.'s and 10 times that of growing U.S. cities like Houston or Phoenix.

Greater Seoul, in short, is almost hostile to human life, a widening ocean of high-rises with a shrinking number of traditional Korean houses. Suh Yong-bu, a Korean expert in business demographics, notes that high housing prices and cramped spaces have helped send Korea's birthrate into free-fall, down 30 percent since 1993; much the same problem is felt in other ultra dense urban societies like Japan and China. "The same patterns can be found throughout Asia," notes demographer Phil Longman, author of the "The Empty Cradle," a study of world population trends. "Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there's literally no room left for kids."

Thanks to Howell for the tip and the link.


At 11:53 AM, August 21, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The economic devastation of having such a low worker to retiree ratio makes that a very painful scenario...

At 2:10 PM, August 21, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

ian rees,

Malthus would be proud.

Anyway, adding to Tory's response, it should also be noted that, even if you view overpopulation as a problem, the US really isn't a part of that problem. We're simply not an overpopulated country.

At 2:28 PM, August 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll make sure to save this blog so that if Ian runs for office I can sell this to the media. "Next on Fox, new documents show that Sen. Rees hates children."

At 4:15 AM, August 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I'm not as extreme as Ian, I have some sympathy for his position. True, if you average out the population of the US over its total area, it's not overpopulated. But the point is that the population is not in fact evenly spread, and, for my taste at least, California, the NE, and, increasingly, Houston all feel too crowded.

I'm also curious about what will happen in European and Asian countries with low birthrates. On the one hand, yes, the worker:retiree ratio becomes ugly. On the other, land should become cheaper as there are fewer people competing for it, and (grand-)children should receive larger inheritances, as there won't be as many offspring for them to be divided amongst.

At 8:59 AM, August 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I completely dissagree with Ian's position I dont think tory's argument is very good.

If there are not as many young people we will not have as many retirees. Wages will rise to entice people to stay in the work force and companies will get creative in order to give some one the hours that will make them happy. I dont very many people besides my dad really look forward to retiring and sitting on there asses for the rest of there life, but I do think alot of them would like to be consultants or something else that gives them more flexible and less hours.

At 12:58 PM, August 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory has a point, but I disagree with the devastation angle. Society almost always adapt when faced with an obvious problem. The problem some European and Asian countries face is that their population distribution is skewed towards to over 55. Many of these countries have failed to change their retirement systems to be conducive to post retirement work. Because of wide spread unemployment some have the silly idea that getting more people to retire will help create more job openings. Their retirement systems are too generous and too restrictive for part time post retirement work.

The problem that tory is talking about with the low worker to retiree ratio is that there are more and more retired people in relation to the number of people working. Most countries have a pay-as-you-go system so any benefits must be paid out by current workers. This isn't the same American problem of the baby boomer generation. We will face a bitter pill to swallow because of the cost of just one generation as the population is expected to become more evenly distributed afterwards. The population in many countries may have a post war bulge, but no expectation of a return to normalcy afterwards. The post baby boomer populations are in continual decline. Their worker to retiree ratios are expected to get worse over time because their population growth rates are not just low, but getting lower. Compounding the problem will be the possibility of outmigration from countries with onerous taxes to pay for overgenerous retiree benefits.

At 2:59 PM, August 22, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

First, actually dropping from 6.5B now to 3B in 50 years would require a nuclear war or a deadly plague of unimaginable proportions. But getting beyond the target number/time, in theory it is possible for societies to adjust to each succeeding generation being smaller, but the dislocations are painful, politically, socially, and economically. Inheritance is irrelevant - it's all paper wealth - at the end of the day what matters is the number of people producing goods/services and the number consuming. The total must always be in balance, and if you increase consumers and decrease producers, the consumers must get by on less. The main problem is promised pension, social security, and health care benefits, which must come out the remaining workers/producers, who may not be very happy with 50+% tax rates to support vast numbers of retirees living ever-longer due to technology advances. The other option is to renegotiate the promises, but guess who the bulk of the voters are?


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