This is an especially American perspective of looking at the development of cities, but I think that the same basic evolution is generally true for cities around the world, even if they haven’t yet reached some of the later chapters.

Chapter 1: Make-shift Slums

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Tokyo slum during the US occupation years.

As Kevin Kelly rightly points out, “every city begins as a slum … a seasonal camp with free-wheeling make-shift expediency.” Cities are founded on economic opportunity, spontaneous slums, and lawless saloons. Eventually gender ratios equal out, churches move in, government takes shape, and urban planning is institutionalized.

Chapter 2: Hegemony Rules

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During the transition from slum to civic center some social group usually takes power and dictates policy. It tends to be the ethnic majority though in the case of colonized countries that was almost never the case. In most cities in the United States power lied among the WASP community. Ethnic minorities were pushed out to the edges while the elite built Victorian homes around the downtown business districts and plazas.

Chapter 3: White Flight and suburbanization

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This is the chapter that takes on different manifestations depending on the ethnic and class make-up of a city, but the basic concept is still generally applicable. During WWII in the United States there was an influx of black americans seeking work in urban centers. After WWII four developments (other than blatant racism) led to white flight from urban centers to suburban communities. First was population density. After the war soldiers returned home to urban centers, but those who moved in while they were gone also remained. Then there was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which began the process of desegregating the country’s public schools. White parents felt that their children would receive a lower level of education in a desegregated school, and so they moved to suburbs where neighborhoods and their schools were all white. Third, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 enabled the workday commute from suburb to city center. Lastly, suburban developers had large returns to scale as they could purchase a single large plot of land and build hundreds or even thousands of nearly identical homes.

Chapter 4: Urban Gentrification

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White flight certainly continues today, often in new manifestations, but a far greater trend is urban gentrification. While the majority of white Americans from my generation grew up in mostly white suburban neighborhoods, our schools and public institutions became increasingly integrated and multicultural. Television and mass media brought the Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince, and Family Matters into our living room. And then came hip-hop. All of a sudden there was nothing less cool than to have grown up in the suburbs. Young people from affluent suburbs moved into lower-income urban neighborhoods where they opened coffee shops, art galleries, and cocktail bars. Awkwardness and antagonism between the newly arrived affluent and the established lower-income population were inevitable. In the worst of cases property prices increased and low-income renters were forced to move out to other neighborhoods. However, there has also been an effort by young people across different classes in gentrified neighborhoods to shape a common aesthetic around hip-hop, indie rock, street art, and skateboarding.

This is where we are today, at least my generation, or at the very least, my group of friends. We live in urban multicultural neighborhoods where the one thread that ties everyone together is pop culture and consumerism. In fact, I mentioned to Chippla a few days ago that perhaps America has been able to achieve a higher degree of multiculturalism than Europe (which favors assimilation) because the entire country is unabashedly pro-consumerist whereas most European countries at least pretend to be anti-consumerist.

Chapter 5: Increased urbanization or decentralization?

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Urban farms in China

The thing is, multiculturalism can be exhausting. Identity politics become an ingrained part of daily life. You are expected to know something – if not everything – about every cultural, ethnic, and sub-cultural group in your neighborhood. There are few common bonds around music, art, religion, or culture because the choices become infinite. Separate studies in the UK and the US have both found that as neighborhoods become more diverse the reported happiness and civic participation of their residents both decrease. Though the trend has been occurring for decades, today more than ever we don’t interact with – or even know the names of – our neighbors. And yet the allure of hip multiculturalism still brings more affluent youth from suburban America, which increases the cost of rent, requiring a higher income and longer working hours. Life in gentrified America may look like American Apparel advertisements when you upload those dinner party photos to Flickr, but work overload, economic debt, information overload, and cultural overload are also all parts of living in gentrified America.

I often wonder if my friends will soon give up on city life. Paying $2,000 a month on rent while working 50 hours a week to bring home just enough to get by isn’t anyone’s idea of the American Dream. The escape fantasy of finding a cabin in the woods with a decent internet connection becomes more and more appealing.

I mentioned this to Ivan last week over an espresso macchiato and under a gloomy Amsterdam sky. He tries to escape city life as often as possible, but he also wonders if the problem isn’t with cities, but rather cities as we know them. Maybe we don’t really desire the farm and forest as much as we desire a little farm and forest in our cities. He reminded me of the community garden right outside of Revaz’s apartment in Washington DC. Ivan would love to get a plot and test out his green thumb, but the waiting list is over a year.

I think that, ultimately, whether my generation flees or embraces city life comes down to economics. If city governments are able to make enough green space and agricultural land without raising already-high rent and property prices then multicultural gentrification might be here to stay. Otherwise, I believe a new (and environmentally harmful) flight to the open countryside could soon be underway.

Loosely related: Stewart Brand’s presentation on “Cities and Time“, HowStuffWorks’ article on “Five Modern Abandoned Cities“, and McKinsey Global Institute’s “Preparing for China’s Urban Billion“.

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