Tuesday, February 17, 2009

David Brooks on Urban Economics

I just had a little bit of a surreal experience reading Brooks' article today. I was expecting some behavioral economics or stimulas package concerns, but instead, I got to read an interesting reflection on urban economic trends, circa 2009, as well as (and this is the surreal part) his allusions to our (adopted) mother homeland - the Netherlands.

He hypothesizes that the economic crunch will get U.S. Americans back to thinking about an eco- and pocket-book friendly lifestyle - inner city, pedestrian/bicycle centered, etc., you know, like Amsterdam, he says.

"Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option."

He cites several conclusions from a recent Pew study suggest that, well, no really, we still want urban sprawl. We still want a spread out, car-dependent lifestyle, although now we want it with some scenic views - hence the preferences for Denver, San Diego, Portland, San Antonion, and the like. And, we still prefer McDonalds (for its drive-through, he takes that to mean) than to Starbucks (for its casual conversational, urban lifestyle I think he believes it stands for).

So, his conclusion is that:
"And that [McDonalds prefs > Starbucks prefs], too, captures the incorrigible nature of American culture, a culture slowly refining itself through espresso but still in love with the drive-thru. ...The results may not satisfy those who dream of Holland, but there’s one other impressive result from the Pew survey. Americans may be gloomy and afraid, but they still have a clear vision of the good life."

I had a different reaction to the Pew survey results. We are gloomy, afraid, and have a clear vision of the good life - for me - not for an entire community. We have a long ways to go before urban policies actually look at the effects of polices on the most vulnerable, too. Of course no one in the Pew survey wants to live in the city, who in their right mind, let alone those with kids, would want to live in the U.S. inner cities as they are now with horrible schools and crime poor infrastructure. They are the result of long years of tax and zoning polices that cared nothing about the effects on the community, only on the individual, and mostly the wealthy individuals, at that. And the point about McDonald's is not necessarily about drive-through. It is also an indoor playground that is actually one of the few places families can go with their kids and relax and be with other adults at the same time. Much more Amsterdam-like than what most of us would assume. (Yes, I admit, I have many hours of experience with that.)


Steven McMullen said...

To me, these things are not that clear cut. Is city life really preferable to suburban? How about rural community life? Does life in an urban enviornment lead to a greater engagement in community than suburban life? None of these questions have clear answers.

We know that the suburban model has enviornmental implications which are unfortuante, but so do rural communities.

Becky raises some of the problems with urban life in the US, if these problems are not solved, what is the second best option: urban or suburban communities?

For the record: I prefer McDonalds to Starbucks -- for the food.

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