On this day ten years ago pundits and people (I make a distinction) thought out loud about the future of American cities. Would people flee high rise buildings like the World Trade Center and, for that matter, would they run from cities generally, fearing that they were a target for more terrorist attacks?
Thankfully the mass exodus from urban life predicted by some didn't happen. Cities held their own in the last census and, if anything, the advantages of large urban areas are more celebrated today then they have been in a very long time.
I've long argued that when it comes to cities bigger is better. As mayor, I advocated for infill development, greater density and taller buildings. The very things that my fellow progressives say they want (racial, ethnic and economic diversity, cultural vibrancy, an exciting culinary, arts and music scene) can't be accomplished without higher populations and greater density.
I always thought that restaurants were a modest but good way to explain what growing populations and high densities can do for a culture and an economy. Bigger cities have better and more diverse restaurants because they have the population bases to support them. The same rules apply to economies in general. And I've never seen this argument expressed better than in Ryan Avent's recent article in the New York Times. Avent, a writer for The Economist, has written a book called The Gated City.
Avent uses the example of Vietnamese restaurants to explain the value of density. What if only one in 1,000 people is interested in Vietnamese food? The bigger the city the greater the chance that a Vietnamese restaurant could make a go of it. More people, more chances that there will be more then one, and with multiple Vietnamese restaurants comes competition. With competition comes the sharpening of skills in Vietnamese cooking and better wages for good chefs. And with all that comes a market for the vegetables and other ingredients used in the cuisine and on and on down the supply chain. And eventually there's experimentation and maybe the melding of other culinary traditions found in the same city to create something totally new.
Of course the same rules apply to French and Thai and Japanese and Norwegian restaurants, and not just restaurants, but every other kind of business you can imagine. It's the bigger, denser places that are the stronger economic and cultural engines. Not only that, but big cities increase the chances that people from diverse backgrounds will find one another, mix it up, and create new, products, services and art.
So, Madison should reach for density and growth. It's a question of aspirations and orientation. We should strive to be a small New York, not a big Richland Center.
Don't get me wrong. I love Richland Center, but small town America is not what Madison is or should try to be again. Small, in this case, is not beautiful. Of course, we should grow carefully and with respect to what's good about the current built environment, but in the end we just can't be anti-growth and a progressive community at the same time.