More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow. Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities? Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing? How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed? Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)
Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.
Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”
Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand. And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.
1. Housing and housing costs. Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others? Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand. If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).
Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue. High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords. They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal). When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down. When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it. And the homes that remain become more expensive.
2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us. Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless. Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences. Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.
3. Congestion. Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite. The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.
These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course. Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes. A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.