Urban Strategy Fads

Mario Polese provides a nice short history (up to the present) of oversold urban revitalization strategies in City Journal. Interestingly, these theories succeed with municipal decision makers for the same kinds of reasons that pop-strategy notions flourish with company managers: They fit the zeitgeist, they flatter the preconceptions and prejudices of the decision-making class, they claim to magically bypass the obstacles to success, and they enable the rent seeking of powerful coalitions. Their obvious theoretical and empirical drawbacks as all-purpose nostrums have little effect on their propagation, and their promoters often flourish despite a complete lack of proven efficacy.

One useful thought exercise for assessing urban development strategies is to imagine yourself the monopoly landowner in a city and think about what policies would maximize the value of your holdings (or rent stream). It quickly becomes apparent that for cities of any size or complexity, your chances of picking sectoral, much less firm-level, “winners” are very low, unlike the owner of, say, a shopping mall. The peculiar difficulty is that cities have both the “internal” complexity of closed systems and the “external” complexity of open systems in a turbulent environment.

Centrally planning complementarities and synergies within the city overwhelms the monopoly landowner’s knowledge and modeling prowess, because 1) the interactions are manifold and hard to decompose and 2) the city itself is what Hayek called an order (or cosmos) with different people pursuing different objectives, not an organization (or taxis) where a single hierarchy of objectives can be imposed; the denizens of the city don’t work for the landowner and are not deployable resources. The best you can do is provide the most effective sector-neutral institutions and infrastructure you can think of given your geographic and historic legacy. Any “natural” advantages a city has in specific sectors can be accommodated by policy (e.g., tourism-friendly policing in a natural tourist area), but trying to create such advantages from scratch seems foolhardy.

Deliberately positioning the city as a competitor against other cities then becomes something of a fool’s errand. The very sort of maneuverable, focused tradeoff-making needed to pursue competitive “good strategy” as an open system with shared objectives (a taxis) in a turbulent environment conflicts with the efficient policy neutrality needed to manage the city’s internal complexity as a cosmos.

Interesting question: How big does a piece of land have to be before planned synergy-mongering and focused strategy should give way to neutral governance? There are large master-planned communities put up by real-estate companies that include residential, commercial, and office components. I conjecture that that size is about the limit of effectiveness for guided, synergy-conscious development strategy.

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