How Do We Analyze a City?

The theme running though the recent set of thoughts I’ve posted here is how do we reconcile the contradiction embodied individual and social behaviors that shape our city’s look and feel.  We cannot see an entire city at once from the ground. When we have the ability to see the city as a whole, we cannot interact with it. This contradiction makes analyzing a city in a totality difficult. This article makes an attempt. It breaks apart and analyzes the interrelated components of Chicago (or that together comprise any city) including, the industries that drive them or inhibit them and even the relevant people involved.

If we look closely, we can see the forces described below at work daily in Olympia, in the necessarily tiny steps through which this process unfolds. How are decisions today going to affect our city (and of course our lives) tomorrow? My fascination with these kinds of questions led me to apply for the planning commission (and ultimately leave it), and as I’ve said before, write my thoughts about it here.

In any case, before we had anatomy, there were artists and professors who would dissect corpses subjecting what they saw to some kind of scientific inquiry. Sometimes I feel like we are living in the dark ages in municipal anatomy. Cities are probably much more complex and do not lend itself at all to control groups. And of course, long articles do not lend themselves to reading these days.

This is a lengthy way of introducing a lengthy piece whose author takes the scalpel deeper than most on the subject.  Most of all I love that he’s not analyzing the city by looking at its current state but by looking at its history, analyzing those long term and recent trends, all in an attempt to piece together what’s going on now.

But that isn’t the whole story. Many of Chicago’s woes derive from the way it has thrown itself into being a “global city” and the uncomfortable fact that its enthusiasm may be delusional. Most true global cities are a dominant location of a major industry: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles, government in Washington, and so on. That position lets them harvest outsize tax revenues that can be fed back into sustaining the region. Thus New York uses Wall Street money, perhaps to too great an extent, to pay its bills (see “Wall Street Isn’t Enough,” page 12).

Chicago, however, isn’t the epicenter of any important macro-industry, so it lacks this wealth-generation engine. It has some specialties, such as financial derivatives and the design of supertall skyscrapers, but they’re too small to drive the city. The lack of a calling-card industry that can generate huge returns is perhaps one reason Chicago’s per-capita GDP is so low. It also means that there aren’t many people who have to be in Chicago to do business. Plenty of financiers have to settle in New York, lots of software engineers must move to Silicon Valley, but few people will pay any price or bear any burden for the privilege of doing business in Chicago.

Chicago’s history militates against its transforming itself into a global city on the scale of New York, London, or Hong Kong. Yes, its wealth was built by dominating America’s agro-industrial complex—leading the way in such industries as railroads, meatpacking, lumber processing, and grain processing—but that is long gone, and the high-end services jobs that remain to support those sectors aren’t a replacement. Chicago as a whole is less a global city than the unofficial capital of the Midwest, and its economy may still be more tied to that troubled region than it would like to admit. Like the Midwest generally, parts of Chicago suffer from a legacy of deindustrialization: blighted neighborhoods, few jobs, a lack of investment, and persistent poverty. Chicago is also the “business service center of the Midwest, serving regional markets and industries,” Chicago Fed economist Bill Testa wrote in 2007; as a result, “Chicago companies’ prospects for growth are somewhat limited.”

It’s easy to understand why being a global city is the focus of civic leadership. Who wouldn’t want the cachet of being a “command node” of the global economy, as urbanists put it? It’s difficult, too, to think of a different template for Chicago to follow; its structural costs are too high for it easily to emulate Texas cities and become a low-cost location. But just because the challenge is stiff doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tackled. Chicago isn’t even trying; rather, it’s doubling down on the global-city square. Senator Mark Kirk wants to make O’Hare the most “Asia-friendly” airport in America and lure flights to central China, for example. A prominent civic leader suggests that the city should avoid branding itself as part of the Midwest. One of Mayor Emanuel’s signature moves to date has been luring the NATO summit to Chicago.

This analysis is much more thought-provoking than what we usually hear from formulators and more of this work I believe would lead us to proposals that have a more realistic prospect of success. I am looking at you, catch phrases disguised as answers: developer-friendly, tax cuts, red-tape cutting, job creator.

There are applications for Olympia in this piece, but only under the surface. The larger global economy is outside the hands of us Olympians and most individual global citizens (though there are a few people of indomitable gravitas who actually can influence it).  Each of us singularly have the ability to influence whatever we interact with. The crux of the problem is how and where we concentrate our efforts, assuming of course that concerted collective action is capable of success in the first place. I’m skeptical of this point in the land-use context of citizen activism.

It’s the contradiction to end all contradictions in urban planning and land-use. Individually, we are omnipotent, but socially, we are limited to opposing projects. (Protests and activism won’t by itself create something.) The converse is also true: collectively, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish, but we are generally helpless as individuals. And ironically, as I’ve said so often in recent posts we don’t much think about our habits and subconscious behavior that ultimately—at least while subconscious—has much more influence than our conscious acts as a member of a whole. That can change as soon as our thinking does: as our subconscious behavior turns into conscious actions, so will the shape and feel of our city, especially when we are armed with frank analysis of where we are in the global, local, and temporal scheme of things.

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