The Yale Law Journal


City, Heal Thyself

11 Dec 2006

In Save the Cities, Stop the Suburbs, Nicole Stelle Garnett perceptively ruminates about the future of American metropolitan areas. She rightly praises Robert Bruegmann for putting forward a steadfastly contrarian set of views on issues of suburban sprawl. Even readers who ultimately reject Bruegmann’s implicit defense of the status quo will admire his impressive compilation and careful description of the fractious literature on metropolitan form.

Professor Garnett is troubled by Bruegmann’s seeming indifference to the future of central cities. Like Joel Kotkin, the other author she reviews, she values busy downtowns and worries that continuing suburbanization may gradually drain life out of urban cores. In Professor Garnett’s eyes, central cities tend to be better than their suburbs at abetting valuable social interactions.

I largely agree, but offer two amplifications—one positive, one normative. First, the comparative advantage of central cities in providing bustling venues has been declining and likely will continue to do so. Second, as Garnett herself recognizes, an incompetently governed city can entirely squander its inherent advantages vis-à-vis its suburbs. If states and the federal government stand ready to bail out an incompetently managed central city, the interest groups involved in city politics will have less incentive to help the city save itself.

A pertinent source on the issues Professor Garnett discusses is a working paper, Urban Resurgence and the Consumer City, recently posted by Edward Glaeser, a preeminent urban economist, and Joshua Gottlieb. Glaeser and Gottlieb restate one of the core principles of urban economics—that a central city’s density and centrality confer upon it inherent advantages in enabling social interactions because these attributes tend to lower the transport costs of those who wish to meet face-to-face. An unmarried twenty-something living in a central city, for example, is likely to have a more diverse set of potential dates within ten minutes’ travel time than would a counterpart living in the suburbs.

In addition, the relative density of a central city commonly enables it to provide a relatively large number of venues bustling with fresh social prospects. The late Jane Jacobs was renowned for appreciating the consumption and social advantages of a busy sidewalk lined with shops, bars, and restaurants. Americans who spend much of their waking hours in front of computer terminals and television sets are likely to relish the stimulation of a pedestrian-thronged sidewalk that repeatedly throws up small social surprises. Policymakers also have good reason to promote the existence of these social mixing bowls because these venues serve both to educate and integrate. A pedestrian in a bustling open-access space is likely to see not only merchants offering unusual services and wares but also fellow-pedestrians from a wide range of social classes and backgrounds. These experiences help bridge the social distances between members of the highly varied subgroups that make up the population of U.S. metropolises. In a prior article in this Journal, I indeed urged central cities to attempt to engender a wide variety of open-access spaces, some edgy in atmosphere, some less so.

Recognizing that vibrant pedestrian mixing bowls are a plus, entrepreneurs in both the private and public sectors have been inventing new varieties of them. Some of these new beehives are largely private in the sense that they include no public streets and are monitored by private security forces. Examples include large shopping malls, theme parks such as Disneyland, and hotel-casino complexes. Most visitors to these sorts of sites arrive in a private automobile, park their vehicle in a massive lot or structure, and then enjoy several hours of strolling in a pedestrian-rich environment. At two highly successful venues in Los Angeles, City Walk at Universal Studios and The Grove near Mid-Wilshire, the private owners do not impose admission fees on those who come to enjoy the cafes and plazas, but do charge for parking.

Other successful pedestrian magnets are more accurately characterized as quasi-private (or, if you prefer, quasi-public). In these, the streets and sidewalks remain in public ownership but the municipality delegates management functions to a special governing body that hires its own team of security and maintenance workers. The management entity commonly is either a business improvement district (BID) or nonprofit organization. In recent decades these sorts of institutional innovations have transformed the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, River Walk in San Antonio, and Central Park and Times Square in New York City. These special governing bodies commonly enforce rules of pedestrian behavior that are somewhat stricter than those the host city applies to its ordinary streets and sidewalks. Today Times Square and Central Park both are far less woolly than they were in the 1970s, before the establishment of the Times Square BID and the Central Park Conservancy.

These sorts of institutional innovations can be adopted, however, in both urban and suburban locations. In a newer and less-dense metropolitan area, such as Atlanta, Phoenix, or San Antonio, downtown streets are inherently less busy than New York’s 125th Street or Chicago’s Michigan Boulevard. In a heavily automobile-oriented metropolis, a suburban venue designed to draw motorists to a pedestrian-thronged space is better able to compete with the traditional downtown. Past trends suggest that, in most metropolitan areas, travel by automobile will continue to supplant travel by public transit. If so, the relative vitality of most downtown venues, in comparison to competing suburban venues, will diminish. In Connecticut, the state where I live, the spaces most densely thronged with diverse pedestrians now are located in the rural southeastern part of the state on the tribal lands that house the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. Although central cities can be expected to continue to retain some comparative advantage in facilitating social interactions, policymakers should accept the reality that the central city’s advantage has been declining since the heyday of the streetcar and will continue to do so.

Garnett, Kotkin, and Glaeser and Gottlieb all cogently link the fates of central cities to the quality of their order-maintenance policies. Glaeser and Gottlieb indeed attribute much of the resurgence of American central cities since 1980 to falling crime rates. Success at crime reduction in fact has a multiplier effect because, as Jane Jacobs famously observed, people feel safer when there are more eyes on the street. Pedestrian traffic thus tends to beget yet more pedestrian traffic.

Those interested in saving central cities should directly confront the issue of what is to be done when a city is incompetently governed. Suppose Detroit, for example, were to botch thoroughly its order-maintenance and transportation policies and thereby squander all of the inherent advantages that arise out of its relative density and centrality. Under those circumstances, the individuals and firms that highly value face-to-face interactions could be expected to drift toward Detroit’s suburbs. Should Michigan and the federal government then undertake to “save” Detroit? Professor Garnett rightly doubts whether imposing growth controls on Detroit suburbs would be appropriate. Would she also be skeptical of state and federal efforts to pour resources into Detroit? Supporters of a bailout of this sort might defend it on the ground that saving Detroit would generate positive externalities for its metropolitan area. On the other hand, a bailout program would weaken the incentives of the interest groups involved in Detroit politics to right the city’s ship.

As Professor Garnett implies in her final paragraph, there are many advantages in forcing a central city and its suburbs to engage in Tiebout-style competition in the provision of bustling venues. Might not it be more important to save this system of inter-jurisdictional competition than to save the central cities as such? Perhaps even Bruegmann, who consistently favors the unleashing of competitive forces, hopes that central cities ultimately won’t fritter away their comparative advantages. It is notable that he himself has chosen to work not in a suburb but at the branch of the University of Illinois situated in the heart of the City of Chicago. Perhaps he’s just pro-competition, not pro-sprawl.

Robert C. Ellickson is Walter E. Meyer Professor of Property and Urban Law at Yale Law School.

Preferred Citation: Robert C. Ellickson, City, Heal Thyself, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 199 (2006),