Tag: Cities

Want the economy to grow? It’s time to look at cities and efficiency

The economy is a hot topic in the presidential debates and is among the top public concerns. But the “economy” is a loose and hazy notion and, for politicians, a convenient place to make promises. The Conversation

Even the solutions are pitched at a high level of abstraction. On the Republican side, the common answer is to reduce taxes, which also has the obvious attraction of aiding their donor class, and to cut back on government regulations. On the Democratic side, one response is to increase taxes on the wealthy, with the precise causal mechanism never explained or demonstrated.

The reality is rather more daunting and the answers could lie in place few politicians discuss explicity: cities.

Urban economics

There are of course real economic concerns of low growth, stagnant incomes and rising inequality.

Given that growth projections are limited, we need to be thinking more about productivity gains. That means we need to make our economy more efficient – generating more economic value with the same inputs. And one way to do this is to improve the productivity of our cities in various ways, including better land use, beefed-up infrastructure and smarter technology.

Metro areas in the U.S. now house 83 percent of the population and are the main site for innovation and job growth. The 100 largest metro areas hold 69 percent of all jobs and are responsible for three-quarters of the nation’s GDP.

The bigger, the more productive: Larger, denser cities are more efficient economically. OECD

If we are serious about growing our economy, then getting our cities to work better is just as important as tax reform or wage policy. The problem is that cities tend to be discussed in terms of redistributional issues, such as welfare or race relations, but rarely as a platform for addressing the “economy.”

Consider just some of the traditional inputs of land, labor and energy. Cities use enormous amounts of energy. So policies about urban energy use and urban transportation are not just urban concerns, they are matters of national economic concern.

In other countries, there is a closer connection in political discourse between the economy and the city. In Australia, where close to half of the population lives in the five largest cities, the idea of improving living standards and competitiveness by increasing urban productivity is now part of political discussions.

Traditional economics is not much help, as productivity is generally used with reference to individual firms or workers. Rarely is it used to measure the productivity of cities. Even when they do look at cities, economic theorists rarely move on from noting that large cities achieve agglomeration economies through the clustering of activities, labor pooling and knowledge spillovers.

This explains an economic rationale for cities but does not help us make cities more productive. How can we do that?

Bigger, denser, more productive

The good news is that more people are looking at this issue with more case studies that look at how productivity is related to educational levels and labor markets.

It turns out that we should be encouraging cities to become bigger and more dense if we want to improve economic performance.

Consider transport. There are significant cost savings in increasing the ridership of mass transit systems compared with constructing expensive new systems. Even small-scale policy changes have rolling consequences. Improving traffic light sequencing, for example, reduces travel times, emissions, fuel consumption and road accidents.

Buses don’t normally figure in talk of the economy, but a city’s transportation system can make a city as a whole – and thus the economy – more productive. lodekka/flickr, CC BY

Meanwhile, encouraging telecommuting, while reducing the benefits of face-to-face contact in real time, generates savings in terms of time and energy costs as well as the wear and tear on commuters slogging their way through traffic. The collective gain is a more efficient city and greater economic productivity.

Also, a single government authority in a large city is more efficient than a multiplicity of municipal governments. One study of cities across five countries found that a metro region with many municipal governments, has, on average, six percent lower productivity than a city with one metropolitan authority.

Cities are a target-rich environment for improving productivity because they are places where public policies have leverage. Dysfunction at the federal level, likely to halt any ambitious proposals discussed in the presidential elections, does not stop experiments at the city level. And here a combination of nonpartisan federal and local policies can achieve savings.

For example, new federal legislation has allowed companies to provide the same level of benefits for mass transit users and carpoolers as it did for parkers. Against this background, city authorities can enable more carpooling by setting aside designated spots for informal carpools.

Improving urban efficiencies has the added benefit of improving sustainability and helping deal with climate change.

Social issues and big urban data

Productivity has a cold-blooded sound to it, as if citizens are imagined just as labor inputs to be trained and moved around to increase efficiencies. But there is a meshing of economic and social concerns.

A more efficient land use and transportation system, for example, means people spend less time and money commuting. I was reminded of this when seeing the route map of a low-income worker in Atlanta, Georgia, whose two-hour journey to work involves 118 bus stops and a nine-minute train ride.

Can technology make a difference? We now have lots of data on the flows of energy, people, goods, capital and ideas. While big data on its own does not provide the solution, the intelligent use of these data can provide us with a real-time handle on urban productivity to provide benchmarks of performance and measures of progress. And once urban productivity is measured, it can be improved.

Big data could also help improve our infrastructure, which would aid productivity and reduce economic losses. Many bridges need renovation and replacement. But if we use good-quality data on how much repair they need as well as how much traffic they support, we would be in a better position to prioritize our infrastructure funds so that the most dangerous and the most frequented were targeted first.

We are still at a very early stage of using big urban data to provide smarter, safer, more efficient and more socially just cities. An important start is that we realize that more of our economic activity takes place in cities and improving urban economic performance is the road to economic growth and social justice.

John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


Photo credit: Gregor Smith/flickr, CC BY

Photo explanation: Traffic jams in cities, such as this one in Atlanta, have economic costs, including lower productivity.




This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Urban nation: What’s at stake for cities in the 2016 elections

Cities are America’s economic engines. Nearly 63 percent of Americans live in cities, while more than 75 percent of U.S. GDP is produced by the largest 100 metropolitan areas. Cities generate wealth, improve living standards and attract innovative and creative thinkers.

America is becoming more urban, reflecting a global migration to cities that is changing the political power structure. Many mayors, unencumbered by the partisan gridlock that characterizes Washington, D.C., are leading novel policy initiatives and setting national agendas.

Our office, the Boston University Initiative on Cities, regularly interviews mayors through our annual Menino Survey of Mayors, delving into their priorities, partners, and perspectives. Through this year’s Menino Survey, we’re learning that mayors are hoping for a president who, like President Obama, will be a strong advocate for cities. But they are also eager for a congressional dealmaker who can work across party lines.

While many U.S. mayors have great power, our cities will never be self-sustaining nation-states, and they don’t operate in a vacuum. They need the federal government – with its deep pockets, borrowing power and priority-setting capacity – to shape the future.

Where the candidates stand

Some commentators assert that urban issues have been largely overlooked during the presidential campaign. But a closer look reveals that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is more focused on cities than her rival, Republican Donald Trump, or a first impression suggests.

The difference was evident at the party conventions in July. Twenty-three current and former mayors spoke at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, while just two current mayors and one former mayor spoke at the Republican convention in Cleveland. Nationwide, about 68 percent of mayors identify as Democrats, compared to 30 percent as Republicans. But the disparity at the conventions exceeded statistical expectations.

The candidates have amplified this contrast. Clinton spoke at the 2016 annual meeting of the nonpartisan United States Conference of Mayors, but Trump did not attend. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, president of the United States Conference of Mayors and one of the few mayoral speakers at the Republican National Convention, has criticized Trump for a lack of attention to cities and the priorities of urban leaders.

Trump has painted the condition of cities in stark terms. In the first presidential debate, he declared: “We have our inner cities, African-American, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” Trump’s most notable urban policy recommendation is reinstituting controversial “stop and frisk” policing tactics, which a U.S. district court in New York declared unconstitutional in 2013.

Trump’s sweeping, negative characterization of cities has not been lost on mayors. In a recent post, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called out Trump’s limited efforts to appeal to urban voters. “It suits his politics better to parachute into places like Detroit and Philadelphia for photo ops, while mostly giving red-meat speeches in front of white crowds outside of the American cities he is talking about.” Trump’s unfounded criticism of urban America is even more striking given his longstanding identification with New York City.

Clinton has not outlined an explicit urban agenda, but many of her proposed policies would have major impacts on cities. Her “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda” includes making more federal funding available for affordable housing, addressing a challenge for many growing cities. She plans to lay the groundwork for more public-private partnerships through expanded funding mechanisms and tax credits. Finally, her promise to enforce the Community Reinvestment Act will help mobilize a tool that directs large banks to invest in small businesses in underserved communities.

Obama’s record

President Obama, who began his career as a community organizer in Chicago, has been an exceptional advocate for cities. “What we’ve seen … is a constructive partnership with people in the administration who are former mayors focused on getting things done,” a West Coast mayor told us. These partners include White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jerry Abramson (Louisville), Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (Charlotte) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (San Antonio).

Obama’s key initiatives include the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, My Brother’s Keeper and Strong Cities, Strong Communities. All were designed to engage coalitions of local leaders with federal allies to tackle some of our most intractable urban problems, from police/community relations to economic mobility for low-income residents and people of color.

Obama is also acting with an eye to an urban future: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, via its Smart Cities initiatives, has supported cities as laboratories of innovation that can nimbly experiment with technology to tackle looming challenges – from climate change to congestion.

Despite congressional resistance, funding for state and local governments increased by 25 percent from 2008 to 2014. Programs that bypass state governments and provide direct transfers to cities have been particularly popular among mayors. TIGER grants, which are awarded competitively to local transportation capital projects, have provided over US$5 billion to cities since 2009.

Mayors care about transportation, housing, and schools

Our Menino Survey of Mayors, the only scientific survey of American mayors, spotlights the issues they see as key to building vibrant cities. In our 2014 and 2015 surveys, mayors’ top concerns were sound physical infrastructure, local economic growth, and quality of life issues like crime and affordable housing.

2014 Menino Survey of Mayors. Boston University Initiative on Cities, Author provided

The federal government plays a critical support role in all of these areas by providing direct financial investment, particularly in transportation, education, and housing.

Interviews for the 2016 Menino Survey, which will be released in January 2017, reveal what mayors want from the next administration: a president who understands and collaborates with cities. In short, mayors hope for another urban champion in the Oval Office.

They also want to know whether cities will receive more funding. Even if the president is an urban champion, Congress has the power of the purse.

Democratic voter strength is highly concentrated in urban areas, particularly in the 100 largest counties in the country. Republicans are less likely to represent large numbers of urban residents, so they are less inclined than Democrats to prioritize urban issues. And in today’s highly partisan climate, cities’ strong relationships with Democrats may risk harming their relationships with Republicans.

These factors mean that cities will stand to benefit if the next president is a dealmaker who can advocate for cities and work with Congress, no matter which party holds the majority.

Urban investments: Money well spent

Investing in cities could be an effective and popular strategy for the next president. Brooks Rainwater and Christiana McFarland, researchers with the National League of Cities, argue that American cities are fiscally sound, boast rising revenues and home prices, and have decreasing crime and longer life expectancies than those in rural areas.

That success is reflected in public opinion. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans trusted state and local government to solve local problems. In contrast, the Pew Research Center has found that just under 20 percent of the public trusts the federal government.

America’s prosperity relies on its urban centers. And U.S. mayors bear responsibility for the well-being of the majority of Americans. But no mayor can do it alone. The upcoming elections will determine whether cities receive the political support and funding they need to generate jobs, makes streets livable, and deliver critical services to residents over the next eight years.

Conor LeBlanc, a marketing and communications specialist with the Boston University Initiative on Cities, contributed to this article.

-Professor of Political Science and Director, Initiative on Cities, Boston University

-Executive Director, Initiative on Cities, Boston University

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Photo credit: travelfacts.com


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Urban Dynamics and the Planet Earth

Photo Courtesy of Bloomberg.com - Portland, Oregon
Photo Courtesy of Bloomberg.com – Portland, Oregon

How will the Earth “look in 2030 and beyond?” How will urbanization “change the face of the planet and the biodiversity that is an essential part of it?”

As the narrator, Edward Norton, will explain, urban environments are “hubs” of creativity and innovation. But more than that, they are centers of inginuity and productivity. They are also where great philosophical and scientific discoveries emerge over coffee and cake, or beer in the case of the great physicist Richard Feynman. But this is not just hopeful rhetoric. Edward Glaeser, the premier urban economist in the United States, illustrates this very point in his book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. As Glaeser explains, cities are centers of intellectual growth and intellectual exchange.

Intellectual growth increases due to the sheer number of interactions between academics and thinkers, industry professionals and workers, merchants and traders, and government officials and participatory citizens. Because of the interactions between the respective practitioners, intellectual capital increases, creativity and innovation emerges, and thus more interested and willing participants are attracted to the urban environment over time, which perpetuates a productive feedback loop for the system. In the long run, this in turn has a positive impact on the economy, health, and happiness of the residents; that is, the stability of the urban environment and the upward mobility of its citizens. But this is not the only benefit. There are many more.

There is an environmental argument to be made; that is, an argument about sustainability, and as the narrator exclaims, cities can lead the way. There is an educational argument to be made. Cities with great universities are richer in both intellectual and market capital. And there is a moral argument to be made – a morality for the common good and nature and its inhabitants rather than the few or the one. However, do United States citizens have the moral fortitude to take responsibility for their actions along with the vision and leadership to create a safe and healthy world for their children and their children’s children? Cities are the future of humanity if level heads prevail and systems scientists have the courage to push the necessary policies. But the question remains, how do leaders make them work for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the species?