Archive for book reviews

Book Review: The Concrete Dragon

Image from Amazon
The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas J. Campanella

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Thomas Campanella’s book is a timely, eye-opening analysis of the wrenching urban revolution transforming China. Written in a clear, conversational tone, but packed with data and anecdotal stories that demonstrate the author’s insight into China, this book will amaze, confound, and challenge all those who seek to plan and manage urbanism.

The first chapters describe the scale of urban transformation underway in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and Beijing. For those unfamiliar with China, it is an exciting story of rapid progress, amazing growth, and boundless ambition. But after laying the historical and political contexts, Campanella begins to systematically detail the human costs of growth–principally the destruction of neighborhoods and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. It is ironic that the Chinese character for “demolition,” Chai, has become a symbol of resistance–whereas in the west, it is a yuppie tea at Starbucks.

This is NOT a protest book. But the stories of displacement, the sacking of architectural history, and the value systems underlying this march to progress speak for themselves. Apart from being appalled at the human costs, what can westerners take away from all this? Three themes emerge:

  • Scale - Everything good and bad about western urbanism is amplified by several orders of magnitude. We begin from the sheer size of Chinese urbanism: 102 cities in China have more than 1 million people; compared to 9 in the United States.
  • Distinctions - urban “renewal” in China is nothing like that in US history. Understanding it is complex, especially in regard to suburbanization:
    • The city remains the dominant political unit and administrative unit, with suburbs possessing little relative clout. In the US, suburban communities taxed their wealthier base and built better schools and infrastructure, strengthening the cultural bias against cities. In China, cities have long been the ticket to stability for people, with mobility restricted and city-dwellers guaranteed food while the rural population starved.
    • Suburbs have a completely different context than in the US. In China, suburbs are populated with gated, self-contained communities. Buyers choose from all inclusive lifestyle estates with Anglicized (and intentionally bourgeois) names like “Latte Town, Glory Vogue, Yuppie International Garden, Wonderful Digital Jungle, and–cutting to the chase–Top Aristocrat.”

      Jobs have followed more or less in sync with the development of housing, so these suburbs are not “bedroom communities,” but more like mini factory towns. The concept of danwei–the communal work-unit model, and the housing form of siheyuan – courtyard-based living compounds–permeates development practices in sharp contrast to more open community development models in the US. In China, in the midst of extreme density, there is a tendency to organize into self-contained units. In the US, for all our proclaimed individualism, there is a bias towards community integration and an assumed role of government that is very different than China–a country we might assume would be much more communal.

    • The automobile is rapidly becoming central to Chinese experience. In the US, bicycles are a symbol of sustainability, recreation and fitness. In China, they are rapidly becoming associated with an image of a backward past.
  • Timeliness - August 8, 2008 will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The urban revolution is part of a national drive to present a shockingly modern China to the world in time for the Olympics. After reading this book, I come away with the impression that what is going on with Chinese urbanism is more significant, more focused, and more imperative than even the US drive to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is impossible to understate what 8/8/8 means to China. Other books, such as China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America by James Kynge describe the implications of China’s economic growth and associated social problems, but Concrete Dragon puts things in an infrastructural context, literally describing the architecture of supremacy.

I am not a professional urbanist, but I found the depth of this book impressive and the themes thought-provoking on many levels. The culture is so different from the west and yet the same types of changes are being attempted–on a massive scale–yielding unpredictable results. As an intellectual laboratory, it challenges our perspectives. As practical history, we are about to witness the birth of something spectacular.

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

4 ways to read “Who’s Your City”

Richard Florida, Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.

Where you choose to live may be the most important decision in your adult life — at least according to Economist Richard Florida. And he makes a compelling case for it in his latest book. Your choice of city will shape who your friends are, who you marry and your career possibilities. More people have the means to be mobile than ever before in human history, with profound implications for the 21st century.

Therefore, the book’s content will interest a wide range of people from urban economic development specialists to college students with their futures ahead of them to people who simply want to understand better the relationship between urban development and the world and US economies.

Rather than write a standard book review, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how four different groups could read and benefit from the knowledge in Who’s Your City.

1. Newer Urban Studies students (graduate or under graduate level or self-taught).
The book offers a valuable background on scholarship and theories about cities. The first half of the book (or so) centres around explaining why and how the world is spiky, refuting Thomas L. Friedman’s assertion that is is flat. The highest levels of economic growth and development is concentrating in cities, and certain cities are experiencing much faster economic prosperity expansion than others.

The power of clustering is a key reason why and through several chapters Florida “unpacks” clustering, explaining in detail the multifaceted aspects of this phenomenon. Who’s Your City offers a good foundation on which to build a knowledge of how cities work.

2. Seasoned urbanologists – aka knowledgable city buffs – In addition to the details on how clusters work, Florida offers a new approach to understanding cities that is intriguing. Examining clustering in detail led him to wonder whether certain cities and mega regions tend to attract more of particular personality types. He investigated and it appears that indeed they do. For example, extroverted people gravitate toward Chicago and other cities in a swatch heading southward including St. Louis, Memphis and Atlanta. Neurotic people cluster very heavily in New York. Open to experience people cluster in California and Cascadia, among other places.

As a result, you could say that cities have personalities. Florida suggests that people may be happiest if they find a city that matches their own personality because this means they’ll find more like minded people. Something young people looking for their city-mate might want to keep in mind.

3. College juniors and seniors as well as young people generally who will soon face a location choice. Often it seems Florida is talking directly to this group — particularly in later chapters although throughout the book are sections that read like college lectures, perhaps where he field-tested the material before publication.

In the final chapter, Florida offers a series of questions and steps that people should follow in order to find good potential urban matches. He suggests people consider everything from the quality of the airport to traffic congestion, schools, entertainment, energy level, crime rates and ease of networking.

While he recommended people visit potential city-matches, I was disappointed that he didn’t suggest “test driving” a city. While still in college people have good avenues for doing this such as doing a semester exchange to another school in a potential match city, or finding a summer job or internship in a different city.

4. Planners and economic development specialists.
Florida points out that cities are increasingly finding themselves competing for talented people. The skilled are attracted to a combination of urban amenities and productivity in their field, not all of it within the control of civic officials.

Some cities appeal more to certain demographic groups than others. Florida divides them into young singles, young families and empty nesters and offers analysis as to which cities best fit people at these life stages. Some cities — such as San Francisco — perform better for wider ranges of people than other places, and intriguingly this often correlates to high innovation rates. An obvious conclusion the reader can draw is that making cities accessable to people at all stages of their lives is important. HOwever, Florida focuses on his strength of pointing out trends and leaves it to policy makers to decide how to handle this information.

One key finding that is a dangling thread in this book is that places with highest levels of innovation also seem to have highest levels of prosperity, but also poverty. As Florida states, this may be one of the greatest political and social challenges to come in the 21st century.


This book has something for everyone. This leads to my main critique: it doesn’t have one strong thread tying everything together — it often seems like a series of essays — fascinating ones, but not always connected ones.

The book’s main purpose appears to be the message that place matters. And yes, Florida illustrates that. But somehow the early chapters on the growing importance of clusters and the rise of mega regions don’talways seem connected to the later chapters on personality as well as “where we live now?” and Place yourself. This all may be because we hear two different voices from Richard Florida. One, the analytical academic — particularly in the earlier chapters that may have been stand alone articles previously — the other a friendly, casual tone that offers some personal, autobiographical content. Both styles are enjoyable reads, just sometimes seem forced in this book.

This is a minor quibble. Florida offers a highly accessible analysis of how cities and megaregions work, including new perspectives including the notion that cities have personalities.

“3 cups of tea:” Lessons from those who’ve never seen a city

Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (New York: Penguin, 2006).

They live in isolated villages deep in the Karakorum Mountains at the western edge of the Himalayas. On our paper map abstractions, they live in Pakistan or Afghanistan. In reality, they’re on their own – stateless. The governments of these countries do not exist in their communities — no schools, no roads, no sanitation, no health care.

They practice their own version of Islam, Sunni, Shia or Ismali, often blended with older Buddist traditions. They would not recognize themselves in the fearful Muslim stereotypes thrown about in many outlets of the North American media and society. They are people simply living their lives and trying to ensure a better future for their children.

That’s what Greg Mortenson discovered after a fateful event in 1993 when he stumbled, alone and exhausted, off course on a weary descent from K2, the world’s second highest mountain in “Pakistan.” A village leader in Korphe took him in, offered him tea and a place to rest. During his stay, he asked to see the school thinking he’d repay some kindness through a donation of school supplies. What he saw changed his life:

Eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frostry ground, in the open … the village had no school and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher…. [all the town could afford] they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days per week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice their lessons.

The book details Mortenson’s experience raising funds in the United States to build the children of Korphe a school, and then traveling back to the Karakorams to get it built. This process took several years, but Mortenson helped the villagers to make it happen. And soon representatives from other nearby villages approached him for help obtaining a school or paying for a teacher — which cost the unreachable sum of $1 US a day.

The book tells the story of how he built a network of support that has allowed him to build schools, schools that offer an alternative to the only other source of education in the region — the often-private-Saudi sponsored islamic fundamentalist madrasses that foment hatred, but offer often the only source opportunity and hope to thousands of impoverished young boys and their families. But also generate a jihadist ready army and Taliban fighters.

What can North American and European city dwellers learn from the pages of this book?

1. The interconnectedness between educating villagers in Central Asia and security of cities like New York. In 2001 Mortenson was in Northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan and Chinese borders. As he worked on his school-building mission, he noted numerous brand new madrasses in some of the villages. When word of the September 11, 2001 events reached him. His guide and self-proclaimed body-guard who spoke numerous local tongues and knew of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida’s training camps nearby in Afghanistan said: “Your problem in New York village comes from there,” pointing toward Afghanistan, “Osama.” People who had never heard of New York City knew more about how and why thousands of Americans were killed there than anyone there.

Mortenson insists that the real enemy is ignorance that can lead to hatred. Offering education and hope fights both better than pouring more bombs on Afghanistan.

2. The importance of education. As the one young village woman said, “It is like water — it is important for everything in life.” Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, supports more than education for children, it also creates vocational training for adults and offers starter supplies like sewing machines or mountaineering gear. The book follows how numerous individuals improved their lives through the help of education. The granddaughter of the village leader who first took him in offers a great example. She completed 6 years of schooling in Korphe, and then went down to Skardu, a regional urban area, for further education.

Jahan, who had come to Skardu planning to become a simple health worker and return to Korphe was revising her goals upward…”When I was a little girl and I would see a gentleman of lady with good, clean clothes I would run away and hide my face. But after I graduated from the Korphe School, I felt a big change in my life. I felt I was clear and clean and could go before anybody and discuss anything…. Now that I am in Skardu, I feel that anything is possible. I don’t want to be just a health worker, I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive and look over all the health problems of all the women in the Braldu.”

As many North American cities struggle with poverty and related issues like addiction, the solutions offered appear more like band-aids: soup kitchens, shelters, and some basic health care.

What about more vocational training? What about offering better educational opportunities to children at risk?

Something as simple as a sewing machine can transform the lives of several families in the Karakorum. Maybe some of our own urban challenges have equally simple solutions.


Some images:

Image courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute. A community girls school.

More soon…

Book Review: Suburban Transformations

Review by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins

How can we transform our suburbs and edge cities into memorable and sustainable places? This is the central question behind architect Paul Lukez’s book, Suburban Transformations, in which he uses five case studies of proposed suburban renewal to introduce the Adaptive Design Process.

Lukez considers what has made great European cities memorable by examining how cities like Florence and Cologne evolved into unique, distinct places. Traces of the old such as the amphitheater, the Roman aqueducts, and the medieval walls, and are now juxtaposed with modern functionality. He concludes that a community’s identity is a function of the successive transformations of a site over time.

In our suburbs, we have typically erased history with each successive development. Even new urbanist and smart growth projects generally begin by wiping out the old. As a result, suburbs have no identity; the developments reflect the popular design theories of the day but often tell us nothing of what came before. Eventually, the development becomes old and stale and is demolished to be replaced again.

The Adaptive Design Process describes a fairly technical toolkit for considering how incremental and adaptive development might proceed to transform instead of replace a region. As a lay person, I am not sure how I would make use of this to improve my community, but I think the approach lays out a framework for talking about alternatives to the typical either/or development practices. I would love to hear, from developers and planning professionals, how this approach could be translated into practical, local action.

Key characteristics of the Adaptive Design Process

The adaptive process aims to bridge the past and future by breaking development into six phases:

  • mapping,
  • editing,
  • selecting tools and typologies,
  • projecting,
  • simulating, and
  • recalibrating

The case studies illustrate how a redevelopment might proceed–instead of making one master plan and implementing it, the development of a location adjusts.

Key tools of the Adaptive Design Process

A symbolic representation of development helps model history. Lukez describes a coding notation to signify how structures have changed over time. For example, he describes the operations of “erasing” and “writing” on a site to support the formulation that Identity = Site + Time. This can be expressed as a “spatial-temporal typology” with a string of symbols like “(WpT1)(WiT2)(EexT3).” These operators describe how a piece of land was divided into parcels (Writing/Parcelling at Time=1), then various buildings were built on each pacel (infilled at Time=2), then a connecting parkway/walk path was cut through the middle of the development (excised at Time=3). This notation could allow the story behind a particular site to be “coded” as a series of operations that could then be analyzed. Having such a coding sequence would make it possible to record large amount of data for software analysis and ultimately rendering in visual models.

Mapping and cross-mapping can be powerful tools to understand history and plan the future of a place. The case studies illustrate specific examples such as how the Burlington Mall (northwest of Boston) was built over a major aquifer, or how noise patterns, sight lines, and traffic patters are all interrelated and should be considered in redevelopment. Part of the difficulty of evolving suburbs in the way that great cities have evolved is that it has been easier to simply start over, believing nothing significant was already there. But mapping and cross mapping can help to uncover a history that might be quickly bulldozed away.

Use what works. Lukez is not arguing that a site should be reduced entirely to a matrix of numbers and maps. But the use of these tools can open up design possibilities that were not otherwise apparent. Suburban development has typically required action within a very limited window of economic opportunity and there were no systemic tools to consider other approaches to the massive, generic development. I believe Lukez is providing a toolkit that will not automate planning, but will give planners who want to do better the tools to articulate and calibrate their vision.

In the end, this book raises many questions–chief among them whether the process I have summarized is something that could be actualized in a real economic setting. My sense is that this toolkit is most useful to the progressive planner who allies with a technical architect and can use it to sell a vision of progress that is substantively credible to developers and the general public.

I had the opportunity to meet the author at a presentation of his book in Boston last week and was able to ask a couple of questions. Clearly, the big question is how can this be made attractive to planners and developers. Part of the answer might be in sustainability–the idea that with the right vision and process, we could develop properties in the suburbs with much longer lifetimes. Instead of constructing a mini-city that will be good for 15-20 years perhaps this process would enable a longer time horizon so that lifetime economic value would be greater. But are there any developers who dream of starting a city that will last 1000 years?

My main question though was how the adaptive process might relate to my own community where the massive Westwood Station project is going to create a mixed-use, smart growth development of 135 acres, bringing 1.5 million square feet of office, 1.35 million square feet of retail, 1000 apartments, and 60,000 cars a day to my town of 14,000 residents. The short answer is that it is probably too late; this project has been planned by one architecture firm to be the ultimate smart growth project in the country. Perhaps if multiple firms were involved, there might be some opportunity for adaptation.

I think the greater value of the ideas in the book are for communities that are trying to improve themselves from the ravages of past development. One case study in the book talks about the Dedham mall (about 2 miles away from me) and presents a creative plan to transform the landscape and community. In town after town, we have seen segregated development, where we have a classic town common in one part and a big mall somewhere else to capture the tax dollars to pay for fixing up the town. No matter how “smart” the growth is it will not provide identity when it is segregated to a corner of town.

Visionaries are often discounted as impractical, but it seems to me Lukez has made a substantial effort to provide a level of detail and workability to these ideas that, in motivated and skilled hands, could begin to translate vision into reality.

Reviewed by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins

“The Missing Class”

Review by guest blogger David Atkins

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Princeton University sociologist Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen offers a glimpse into the lives of many urban, working Americans who live above the official poverty line, but are not quite middle class.

This book is based on surveys and interviews between 1994-2002 and tells the stories of nine families in the New York City area, organizing those stories around these key issues:

  • gentrification of neighborhoods – some are being priced out of their neighborhoods, but life is safer in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill. It’s an evolving story that is not all good and not all bad.
  • credit card debt – why and how it gets out of control so quickly. For some, the desperation to escape privation has been a costly temptation.
  • childcare challenges – do welfare moms make better parents and community members than moms who commute hours to a factory job leaving their kids in improvised daycare?
  • health care – one accident can be a ticket back to poverty
  • relationships – the complex web of male/female and extended family arrangments is necessary, practical, and often dysfunctional
  • bureaucracy – near poor people hate welfare as much as the rest of us and would do almost anything to avoid going back.

This is a detailed book; I found it difficult to keep track of who was whom. We meet at least 50 different people in the course of describing the lives of 9 families. I had to draft an outline of the people involved to keep the names and places straight. But what emerges from this book — most relevant to cities– are the following three key recurrent themes:

1. “Near poor” is not a transitional state. Nationally, the “near poor” represent 57 million Americans. We tend to think that poor people who work hard will eventually get ahead and achieve at least some degree of security. But the reality is that those who escape poverty often remain in an economic condition where they are working hard, but cannot advance. In any urban setting, a significant underclass is not on any track to participate in community life beyond working as hard as they can to stay above water. Urban planning these days is often about attracting talent, making cities “cool” to live in for the “creative class” or knowledge workers.

The service class and working class are the people who keep the city running. Understanding, through the anecdotal stories of these families, should help to inform planners why the urban poor and near poor are not just a problem to be dealt with, but human beings who need to be a part of the engine of progress.

2. Child care is a constant problem. The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s succeeded in getting many Americans back to work. Laziness is not a problem among the working poor. Exhaustion is. And their children are constantly in danger of falling back into poverty because of the lack of supervision and involvement from parents who are too busy working to keep the rent paid and food on the table. The near poor are not choosing to let strangers raise their kids in order to pursue a career. There is no choice, only consequence.

3. We need practical, situational solutions, not value-based policies. The stories of how people get into trouble are seldom without some blame. Credit card debt? Why do you have that plasma TV? Single mom with 2 kids and husband deported? Why did you get pregnant again? This book describes with humility and empathy how the real stories of people living and working on the edge are doing their best to survive. The policies of welfare reform in the 1990 succeeded in creating a strong incentive system to get poor people working, but people make mistakes often through lack of information and misinformation. When wealthy people make mistakes, we see it as a learning process. When the near poor make bad decisions, we are quick to judge and apply our own standards about what they should have done and accept their difficulty as the cost of their bad decisions. But a few mistakes can lead to total disaster, especially in the context of children. What is the pregnant, single mom supposed to do to support her family? Take a course in web page design? When? Who takes care of the kids? Life is not fair, OK, we all get that. So what can we do about it?

The central thesis of this book is that we ignore the near poor. They exist in a gap between those in poverty, who we feel an obligation to assist, and those who are “on track” to greater economic stability and prosperity.

Newman identifies some key policy recommendations (and note the forward by Senator John Edwards–this book is intended to provoke political change):

Perhaps most importantly,

“…we must replace this patchwork child-care “system” — a term it barely merits — with a comprehensive, public-supported network of day care (for kids aged six months to three years) and kindergarten (starting at four). We know that the majority of mothers of children under one are in the labor force; no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that fact.”

The most successful and effective policies identified are more projects than policies. There is no magic solution; no single national policy that should be adopted. But by getting into the details of these families, Newman helps us leap over the simplifications and notice the near poor who are a huge segment of our population that is not looking for a handout, but needs some help up.


This review was contributed by guest blogger, Dave Atkinsa technologist and metro parent who blogs about issues affecting the creative class and their city lifestyle choices, often focusing on Boston where he now lives (after doing some time in the Bay Area and Seattle).

Insights into San Francisco (and cities) from Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune”

With the holidays approaching, many readers of this blog might look to curl up by the fireplace with a novel instead of non-fiction books about the economy or planning theory.  A good choice would be Isabel Allende’s book, Daughter of Fortune. 

This spellbinding work of historical fiction details the experiences of a well educated young woman, Eliza, from Chile and a doctor-come-ships cook, Tao Chien, from China.  The two come together when Eliza pays Tao to smuggle her onto a ship bound for San Francisco to search for her lover who had previously ventured to California following the discovery of gold in 1849.  Allende describes how the two of them navigate life in the early years of San Francisco and through these characters eyes are some wonderful descriptions of life in early San Francisco that in many ways reflect the modern city.  The reasons why so many came to San Francisco, and how they fared, also offers insights into urban life and cities generally.  Here are three reasons urbanistas should enjoy this book.

 1.  The descriptions of early life in San Francisco.  Allende’s words can transport you back to the Bay in 1849-1853 with abandoned ships in the harbor (the crews deserting to search for gold), the different ethnic enclaves, and the early coming together of people from around the world.

[They] came from distant shores: Europeans fleeing wars, plagues and tyrannies; Americans, ambitious and short-tempered; blacks pursuing freedom; Oregonians and Russians dressed in deerskin like Indians; Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians; Australian bandits; starving Chinese peasants who were risking their necks by violating the imperial order against leaving their country.  All races flowed together in the muddy alleyways of San Francisco.

 2. Everyday descriptions of how cities make new things possible.  Initially no government official paid any attention to the identities of those arriving.  You could become anyone in San Francisco.

In Allende’s San Francisco women run successful businesses from brothels to restaurants and import-export emporiums.  Women endured hardships to reach San Francisco but many found a new level of respect as they “competed tirelessly and tenaciously with the hardiest men … they worked in jobs forbidden to them elsewhere:” cow girls, mule drivers, bounty hunters, prospectors.  (Given how thorough Allende researches all her historical fiction, it’s reasonable to assume the general historical accuracy of her descriptions.)

Sick white people occasionally venture to Tao’s medical practice in search of a cure, receiving a blend of eastern and western medicine.  And, perhaps most symbolic, over time two people from different continents change how they view each other:

[early on] loving someone from a different race seemed impossible; they believed there was no place for a couple like them anywhere in the world.

Amidst considerable ethnic violence, in the narrow streets of San Francisco people from different backgrounds come to see each other as individuals, rather than “the other.”

3. Some insights into urban poverty.  Thousands flocked to San Francisco with almost nothing, or with a debt to repay.  Others arrived with resources, but squandered them in gambling halls or on failed gold mining ventures (or on women in brothels or booze).  Many scrounged a living however they could.  It was a place of opportunity, but also with no safety net.  Help only came from the generosity of others and from relationship and network building as most immigrants had left their families far behind.

Such is the case in many modern cities: people without a family safety net, who face bad luck or make some unfortunately decisions, end up in poverty. Is that part of the nature of cities?

Urban blog perspectives

Most bloggers about urban issues have social science backgrounds (loosely defined) in fields like economics, economic history, urban planning, sociology, demography, etc.

Our opinions sometimes differ, along with the topics we choose to write about. But, we tend to approach the question of how cities work with similar tool kits and frameworks for analysis.

That’s why its refreshing to read analysis about cities from people who view urban issues with different tool boxes or lenses.

Dave Atkins often blogs about city issues, particularly in Boston. He is a technologist who is well read on urban issues and actively involved in his community and city. He often offers fascinating perspectives on how cities work. I’ve asked him to author some guest blogs postings on All About Cities, in the form of book reviews.

His first posting, an examination of how the concepts detailed in Wikinomics are impacting cities, follows below.

Wikinomics – 5 implications for cities

By guest blogger, Dave Atkins

Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ book Wikinomics is not a book about cities. However, the social changes it describes will have profound effects on cities because they impact how we live and work as well as how businesses perform. Here are five potential implications of the “wiki effect” on cities:

1) The “global plant floor” – distributed manufacturing—will create opportunity for smaller cities and regions. Manufacturers like Boeing are recognizing the value of collaboration and are opening up their design and manufacturing processes to take advantage of global talent. In some cases, this means parts are cheaper to make offshore, but it also creates opportunities in particular cities where entrepreneurs with teams of knowledge workers can seize the opportunity to create component solutions. The key implication for cities and economic development is that it’s no longer about attracting a huge factory to town–it’s more about helping entrepreneurs find their role to play–as part of a globally distributed operation.

2) The “wiki workplace” will connect teams of knowledge workers in different cities. This will allow teams in smaller and satellite cities to connect with larger organizations and projects. Tapscott relates a story of how the President of Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” was concerned that his 20 tech support agents in Anchorage were in danger of being isolated. His director said not to worry, “I talk to them all the time.” The agents were playing Massively Multiplayer Online Games—and in the course of their gaming, talking about work. Even without (or perhaps in spite of) top-level direction, workers find ways to use technology to build connections across geography. In the case of Geek Squad, this allows the small Anchorage team to be a part of the national Best Buy organization, where agents can help each other out informally and share knowledge so agents in smaller cities are not at an information disadvantage to their counterparts in more tech-heavy big cities.

3)“Platforms for participation” will strengthen local action, empowering citizens in smaller cities and towns. A platform is an enabling technology that other users can employ to build a shared application. For example the Google Maps API gives users a platform upon which they can build “mashups’—maps that integrate data from other sources and map the data in interesting ways. pulls real estate listings from craigslist and displays the location of the properties on a map. The developer of the website put two existing technologies together to create something new and valuable. In my case, over the weekend, I used the open source community platform software drupal to create a blog for my town. But technology is only half of the equation–you still need a critical mass of local people who find the resulting application relevant and useful. These kinds of participation platforms can be catalysts for local involvement and activism.

4) The city will be an “ideagora” anchor. Tapscott describes how websites that allow people to post problems and solutions are creating “Ideagoras”—marketplaces of ideas. These Ideagoras will allow geographically diverse workers to collaborate outside corporate walls. But it doesn’t work in isolation. People are members of teams, working in companies, but they develop connections outside the company where they trade ideas—sometimes for money, sometimes for fun. This is part of an evolving workplace where knowledge workers are increasingly blending their work and life by pursing their passions. But to do that, in addition to collaboration technology, you need a community of opportunity–real world interactions that inspire you to think of ways to contribute your talents and help you learn. For that, you need a critical mass of people–a city.

5) Young urban people provide the locus of change. Tapscott identifies “Millennials” or “Gen Y” as the “Net Gen.” They grew up with these technologies and are predisposed toward collaboration. Young people are part of the “perfect storm” of change that is going to revolutionize the workplace. The differing generational perspective favors collaboration in cities–example: many people of my generation (X) have long been excited about telecommuting–and the idea that you could line up a well-paying tech job, then do it from a nice, rural location. We did crazy stuff like buy condos 40 miles from the city and then commute for hours, balancing it out by telecommuting a few days a week. But a more typical experience I have with younger workers is that they have their laptop in their messenger bag, or are carrying a Blackberry while they hang out with their friends in the city. They might have lots of side projects going on while they stay connected to work. The new dream is to be able to quickly fix a work problem remotely from a party and then get back to the party, not to work in a bunker in the burbs.

This review was contributed by guest blogger, Dave Atkinsa technologist and urban parent who blogs about issues affecting the creative class and their city lifestyle choices, often focusing on Boston where he now lives (after doing some time in the Bay area).

He has previously blogged about Wikinomics and Wikis:

Where does talk stop and action begin?

Can Wikis help us make a better world?


New lens on New York (Warhol Economy Reviewed)

Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press, 2007). See also the earlier post, “Top Three Reasons to Read the Warhol Economy.

Elizabeth Currid seeks to turn our assumptions about New York‘s economy upside down. Most people assume that New York‘s economic core and global pull comes from its financial core — from Wall Street. Currid argues that its true global importance comes from its artistic and creative cluster — artists, musicians, fashion designers and writers and the activities that surround them. An assistant professor of urban planning, Currid also wants to make planners recognize the importance of the cultural economy as well as show how this cluster is intricately intertwined within the city — almost any policy or action that affects New York, affects the culture cluster.

The main evidence for the cultural economy’s importance to New York‘s economy is in chapter three. Until then, I was skeptical of her assertions that the arts community mattered that much — (a better organizational flow for the book might have been to have made this the first chapter). Using a methodology called location quotient, Currid illustrates that arts and culture workers and the media sector are more concentrated in New York than employees of any other industry when compared to other cities. Among the other evidence Currid cites, she found that New York has been steadily losing its share of US corporate head offices, from holding 31% in 1955, today the entire metro region (which includes parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut) only holds 14%.

Currid provides a focused lens into how the arts and culture community is intricately intertwined with New York‘s history as well as its present. In chapter one she illustrates how, during the late 1960s though early 1980s, when New York’s economy was struggling and crime was high, the arts flourished. Artists, musicians and related creative types found cheap housing and inexpensive studio space in particular neighborhoods like SoHo. Inexpensive rent also allowed night clubs to flourish in these areas. Since that time, rents have gradually increased, pushing out artists as well as their haunts (the closing of CBGB being the most notable).

The dense concentration of artistic types allowed them to meet, socialize, and cross pollinate ideas as well as promote each other’s works. Currid has many great stories about how well known artists and musicians got their breaks. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah was a local indie band until David Bowie and Talking Heads’ David Byrne heard a buzz on the street, went to a show, loved the music, and started telling their friends. Soon Clap Your Hands had a record deal and a tour. Madonna became known, in part, through dating a famous (or infamous) New York graffiti artist. The artistic scene in New York allows this to happen.

The numerous formal and informal — and even messy — interactions that connect the people and companies within a cluster come alive under Currid’s direction. Currid offers a detailed, thorough account of how a cluster works at the micro level where people cross over related industries (graffiti artist and fashion designer, for example), cross-pollinate ideas, and work through word of mouth. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, and their media supporters and critics run in the same social circles, attending the same gallery openings or indie band concerts, and frequenting the same night clubs (like the famous CBGB). People and their ideas cross-pollinate in the social, informal milieu.  A cool part of the book is how Currid herself became part of her subject – the arts network — attending gala gallery openings and exclusive parties, talking to people who then introduced her to others. It really is all about “who you know.”

While she briefly acknowledges the social informal networks in other clusters, Currid downplays its importance outside the culture cluster. However, you can replace the gallery openings in Currid’s treatment with a golf course or the box suite at a hockey or football game and the process is remarkably similar. Because of the details, students interested in clusters generally should be able to glean some good insights and develop new theories into how they work.

The artistic and creative economy evolved organically in New York. The density of artists allowed them to support and inform each others work – and the density attracted more creative people. But how do you preserve the physical milieu in which the arts culture thrives — the night clubs, cheap artists studios and housing, galleries, etc. — in light of gentrification forces? (Assuming that you can stop or profoundly shape urban evolution and organic change, which Currid does seem to assume).

In her final chapter, Currid offers advice to public policy makers and urban planners. While I commend her for offering ideas to this challenging issue, I found some of Currid’s suggestions problematic or contradictory. On the one hand, Currid illustrates how the artistic cluster evolved and thrived when more chaos reigned in the 1970s and 1980s. Government wasn’t doing much; the city was almost being let go. But later she calls for government intervention.

One solution she suggests is subsidized artist housing. But she also mentioned this exists now, and bankers, lawyers etc. end up living in it. She suggests finding a way to stop “non artists” from using it. Somehow I don’t think most American people — especially the free thinking creative types portrayed in the book — would accept the level of surveillance on their lives that would be required to make such a policy work.

Something notably absent from Currid’s otherwise thorough work was what she believed the impact of Guiliani’s crime-reduction and disorder-reduction policies were on the arts scene. Everywhere in the book she connects the disorder to creativity, and the higher crime to lower rents and the flourishing of the artistic scene.

One characteristic of a good book is that it inspires further thought and research – and this book had me thinking about myriad issues on every page. A few bigger questions that come to mind:

  • How do the arts and culture clusters work in other cities?
  • How have other clusters risen and fallen with the economic history and cycles of New York and other cities?
  • She hints that the artistic cluster actually ties in other clusters as well – the accountants who know indie music, the lawyer who attends gallery openings. In other cities is there a cluster that connects accountants, lawyers, doctors etc? maybe a sports cluster for example?
  • Can government policy really stop urban evolution? Or shape it?
  • What is the relationship between crime, disorder, and a flourishing arts scene?

Currid’s evidence leads to a question she doesn’t directly address: if we want a thriving artistic economy, should we be wary of policies to bring more order to a city (such as by reducing graffiti, crimes, drug use, etc. ) That might be a tough one to sell to voters.

Top 3 reasons to read “The Warhol Economy”

Preliminary thoughts on Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press, 2007). A more formal review will follow in a few days.

Planners, economists, urban politicians, and anyone interested in how cities work — and how the arts work in a city — will find something fascinating in Elizabeth Currid’s new book. Here are three reasons to pick up a copy:

1. To understand the place of New York’s artistic culture in the city’s economy and society.
Currid makes a compelling argument (in Chapter three) that New York’s national and global pull as a city does not come from its finance and business management cluster. Using location quotient methodology and other evidence she illustrates that other cities easily rival New York in their concentrations of management talent. By contrast, New York is unmatched is in the concentration of artists, musicians, fashion industry specialists, and the media industry (writers, illustrators, editors, publishers), what she collectively calls the cultural economy.

She also offers an interesting urban history lesson, illustrating how during times of recession and decline in other areas of the city’s economy in the 1970s and 1980s generated space for artists. Rent became cheap and creativity boomed as artists could live more cheaply. Eventually this outpouring of creativity fostered a vibrant economy that now sets music, art, fashion trends for the world.  More recent real estate price increases and gentrification is making it more challenging for the New York arts scene as many cannot afford to live in the city.

2. To experience an in-depth case study of how an economic cluster works in a city.

Currid has done one of the most thorough jobs I’ve ever read of detailing how a cluster works at the micro level where people cross over related industries (graffiti artist and fashion designer, for example), cross-pollinate ideas, and work through word of mouth.

She draws the reader into the complex social scene that supports the creative economy in New York. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, and their media supporters and critics run in the same social circles, attending the same gallery openings or indie band concerts, and frequenting the same night clubs (like the famous CBGB).  People and their ideas cross-pollinate in the social, informal milieu.

“[Creative] industries operate horizontally, engaging with each other through collaboration, sharing skill sets and labor pools, and reviewing and valorizing each other’s products — and much of this often begins in the informal or social realm. Film directors and musicians hanging out at SoHo House or the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institutes’s annual gala that mixes high fashion with high art and has every A-list celebrity, designer supermodel and tastemaker in attendance.  Creativity is so fluid that cultural producers from one industry move seamlessly into another (e.g., Claw as graffiti artist and fashion designer; Beyonce and her boyfriend Jay-Z as hip-hop superstars and fashion designers).”

Currid insists that the reliance on a social scene to keep the cultural economy going is unique to this cluster.  While she briefly acknowledges the social informal networks in other clusters, she downplays its importance outside the culture cluster.  However, you can replace the gallery openings in Currid’s treatment with a golf course or the box suite at a hockey or football game and the process is remarkably similar.  The movers and shakers in other clusters meet casually at these sporting venues as well as a particular watering hole to see if they can do a deal.
3. To understand the process of how global fashion trends germinate in New York and reach around the world – or why the upper middle class white kids in a suburb near you wear jeans hanging off their butts (designed in New York ghettos to emulate black prison wear) while listing to gangsters’ rap music on their iPods.New York’s importance is everywhere in our daily lives. The clothes we and our families wear, the music we hear, and many other goods we consume daily come from the New York cultural economy. Currid illustrates how New York’s cultural economy generates trends that then spread across the country and around the world.


The book contains much more pertaining to the economic development of cities. It also invites some tough probing questions. Stay tuned for a subsequent review…

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