[Rambling Introductory Tangent:] I’m disappointed with how little writing I’ve done over the past few months. First and worst, I haven’t fulfilled my commitment to publish information about each of the grants I’ve worked on. I hope to do so in the next couple days. Instead I’ve mostly been hard at work behind closed doors, which is my least favorite way to be hard at work.

A couple o’ things. Six of the nine members of our government transparency team at Omidyar Network have joined in the past year — and most of us in the past six months. Last year the team had three members: Stacy Donohue, Stephen King, and Surya Mantha.

Over the past year we added Alex Bakir, Vineet Bewtra, Joe Goldman, Khuram Hussain, Martin Tisné, and myself. That’s a whole lot of new blood, especially given that we’re spread out over California, Mexico City, Washington DC, and Mumbai. As a result, we’ve focused much of our time on communication. An endless chain of Skype calls, conference calls and emails to make sure that we’re all aligning along the same proverbial track despite a rich diversity of backgrounds, ideologies, and approaches. I think we’re doing a pretty good job.

The second thing is that I urgently need a coherent strategy to guide our transparency grantmaking in Latin America. More working behind closed doors: academic papers, books, research reports, outlines, and slide decks. After months of this, it feels like I’m finally getting somewhere — and that ‘somewhere’ has something to do with open government in cities. I’ve been reading a lot of books and reports about metropolitan governance, and figured that I’d get back into writing by reviewing a few of them.

Cities: Engines of Productivity

2008: the global economy went to shit … except for Latin America. Explanations as to why run the gambit, but general consensus falls along two main factors. First, the economies of Latin American countries have mostly grown over the past decade with commodities and natural resources, not speculative housing prices. Second, Over the past 50 years Latin American countries have benefitted enormously from all the productivity advantages of urbanization. It’s one of the most urban regions in the entire world; four out of every five Latin Americans now live in cities. The first half of Ryan Avent’s book, The Gated City explains why urbanization is so good for the economy.

Let’s just take two brief, anecdotal examples. First, imagine that you are a police department responsible for the public safety of 40,000 residents. In Manila, Philippines — the world’s most densely populated city — that means your department must patrol exactly 1 square kilometer. A single ambulance or well-stocked pharmacy could easily care for 100,000 people. Compare that to the rural countryside where 40,000 residents might be spread across an entire state. Public services are cheaper to supply in cities, driving down the costs of government.

Second, let’s say that you’re Mexican and you’re gifted at making pad thai. In a rural village of 10,000 people you might have a potential client base of, say, 10 people. Take that same ratio of pad thai lovers to a city like Mexico City and you have 22,000 potential clients. The market is exponentially larger in cities, affording entrepreneurs more opportunities and more rewards for risk-taking.

Of course there are other benefits to living in a city. More cultural events, better public transportation, more jobs, a larger pool of potential friends and relationships. In general, the easiest way for someone to improve her standard of living is to move to a city.

Either Up or Out

All of the productive advantage that urbanization has brought Latin America over the past 50 years is fast coming to an ugly bottleneck, as described in a recent report by McKinsey, “Building globally competitive cities: The key to Latin American growth.” As more and more rural migrants come to urban centers seeking better opportunities, they are forced to live further and further outside of the city center. Cities either grow up (both vertically and metaphorically), or they expand horizontally. Vertical growth (tall buildings, think Manhattan or Manila) means cheaper public services, more opportunities for entrepreneurs, greater public security, better public transit, and less traffic. Horizontal growth means longer commutes, more traffic, more crime, less access to nature, costlier public services, and less opportunities for entrepreneurs. (A restaurant owner in Mumbai has 30,000 residents within a square kilometer, whereas a restaurant owner in Mexico City only has 8,400.)

Economists, urban planners, and environmentalists unanimously agree: it’s economically, socially, and environmentally advantageous for cities to grow vertically rather than horizontally, but this is not what is happening. Andrés Lajous, who studied urban planning at MIT and is now working at Nexos Magazine, tells me that over the population density of Mexico City has actually lowered, not risen. (More wealthy individuals are living alone in larger apartments in the city center, while large families move out to the suburbs.)

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In fact, if you walk along my street in Mexico City you will find a long row of art deco, three-story buildings with the above banners plastered across their balconies. It pleads local authorities to “preserve the historical patrimony” and not permit the construction of buildings over three stories tall. By banning tall buildings they are forcing poor and middle class residents to live further and further away from where they work. Many of these residents spend 4 hours per day to commute in order to work another 8 – 10 hours. So much for improving their standard of living.

The difficulty in achieving vertical growth is that there are two structural incentives against it. Homeowners in city centers benefit from a low supply of and high demand for housing. It drives prices up, and makes them a lot of money. A second factor, which is explored more in Xavier De Souza Briggs’ book, The Geography of Opportunity, is that a greater supply of housing drives down cost, which enables poorer residents to live side by side richer residents. “Preserve our historic patrimony” is often shorthand for “keep the poor people away,” which is ironic since the least densely populated neighborhoods in major cities (including my own) like to portray themselves as the most ideologically liberal. As Avent writes:

In many cases, it isn’t necessary to cite homeowner risk aversion or a preference for the status quo as the source of NIMBYism. Often enough, exclusion is an explicit goal. In urban neighborhoods, residents wish to limit multi-unit buildings in order to keep poorer or younger residents out, fearing crime or nuisance. In more suburban neighborhoods, schools are often the reason for opposition. Neighborhood schools are only as exclusive as their neighborhoods. To protect the high quality of public schools in rich, well-educated neighborhoods, it is necessary to keep others out.

The documentary film Tlatelolco is another, visually stunning example of how wealthy residents refuse to live next to poorer neighborhoods despite the idealistic efforts of urban planners and architects like Mario Pani.

How to architect taller architecture

I finished the book with a critique and a question. The critique: I was disappointed that Avent didn’t get into the demographics and economics of gentrification. Why are the sons and daughters of suburban homeowners moving to working class, minority, urban neighborhoods? Does this create new opportunities for working class residents, or does it simply kick them out to the periphery? What are the economic and social incentives, and what does it mean for the future of population density?

The question, which is much more tangible to my own work, is, how does one promote civic participation that goes beyond NIMBYism? That is, how do we design systems of civic participation that take into account all residents of an entire metropolitan area without siloing civic participation within the confines of individual neighborhoods? What can urban planning learn from ecology?

In reflecting on the question, I am reminded of the history of human rights, and specifically the movement to abolish the slave trade, which started in Britain in the 18th century. What was so distinctive about this movement is that it was the first documented time in history that a group of human beings were advocating for the rights of others. Previously, all other major rights movements were say, religious minorities advocating for the rights of religious minorities, soldiers advocating for the rights of soldiers, women advocating for the rights of women, or workers advocating for the rights of workers. But here was a movement of mostly urban, upper-class, White Brits advocating for the rights of Black, African slaves.

Today we’ve grown accustomed to heterosexuals advocating for gay rights or men advocating for women’s rights (though not nearly enough of us do either), but at the time of the abolitionist movement, it was unheard of that a group would advocate for the rights of another group.

This is what 21st century urban planning needs. First, poor residents from the periphery of cities should be able to participate in the planning decisions in neighborhoods closer to the city center. But in parallel, a movement from within the exclusive enclaves of leafy low-density neighborhoods must begin to advocate for the rights of those trapped outside the gated city. Gentrification has shown one way to achieve mixed-income, dense, diverse neighborhoods. The challenge now is to open up the most “exclusive” neighborhoods where supply and demand are most skewed.

Update: Over at Acciones DF, a crowdsourcing platform for urban planning proposals from “citizen experts,” the architect Jose Castillo has proposed removing the municipal requirement that developers must construct a parking space for every apartment unit they develop. Such a policy encourages more traffic and pollution, and inhibits density.

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