The Urban Hierarchy Was Never Dead

Urban Hiearchy Not Dead

Nearly four years ago I declared that the urban hierarchy is dead. I was already refuting The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn, but I thought I had a good case.

After all, this was before I graduated from my MPA  program, before I rented an apartment that almost bankrupted me, before I moved halfway across the country to improve my job prospects, before police brutalities, school failures, high rents and student debts, and finally bad local and state leadership could come in and cloud my view of the ability for all cities to be equal.

Like Renn, I’ve now lived in two regions of the country, namely the Midwest, which I’m finding has less flexibility and more hidden issues, which are now coming to light.

And at this writing, we are going knee deep into the season in the States where we put things (used to be just sports teams, now it can be anything) on a bracket and determine how good it is with arbitrary guesses.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that just like all other things, all cities were never created equal. Some were port towns. Some were railroad towns. Some were sundown towns. Others still aren’t really towns and therefore use that to fail to provide proper protection of all its citizens.

This is an assessment of US towns and cities, but globally, you find this on every continent, places that are restricted, places built on one industry, places that have died and will never come back, unless they get connected to the current economy. 

In addition, the financial system we often need to help us build or rebuild our cities and towns, may not even want to work with you. Homes in certain areas are still risky investments. Some people still don’t see favorable loan options. And again, why do we even need loans to purchase homes? Why can’t we go back pre New Deal and lower home prices so that like cars, more people with moderate incomes (but incomes!) can pay for them outright. Why can’t more people own things. Same goes with small business loans and other personal loans. Some can get them, some can’t. And it’s not always judged by credit scores and what people can pay.

Then we get to cities who have public transit and cities who don’t and cities who have it, but it doesn’t work well. We have airports, but not all cities have direct connections. We have trains, but likewise, not every MAJOR city is directly connected. Even when it comes to cars, parking is always expensive, some more expensive than others. Roads are subsidized today, but when you stop subsidizing them, are they turning into gravel? Can vehicles besides automobiles and trucks share the road? Can you even walk beside the road, in something besides a muddy ditch. Must we always monitor the door zone and make sure we don’t get crushed and our helmets split into two.

Why aren’t all our K-12 schools the same, at least in the US? Why do people feel like they have to pick the perfect school? Why aren’t all our schools being funded and striving to be the same. Why aren’t all kids brains the same?

No city has ever had the same foods available, at least not without modern transport and logistics networks? And then on top of that, does every neighborhood have the same supermarkets or supermarkets at all? Are the restaurants hip or are they just making ends meet for the cooks and the owners?

Are a good majority of its citizens healthy? Can the medical facilities be trusted? Are there a variety of them? Are the practitioners concerned about health or how they are getting paid? When people do bad things (and even when we suspect them of doing bad things), do they stay locked up without rehabilitation or do we just throw them away and forget they ever existed?

You can have cities that look the same and appear to have all the same things, but if they aren’t equal in service, then yes, you have a hierarchy of cities. Agglomeration economies still make a difference. Even with the Internet and phones, people still need the same speeds.

And on a personal level, one thing that will probably never change, is personal relationships. Each person is unique and sometimes, you need to be near the people who make you stronger and wiser and help you overcome all these inequities. Even in a perfect world, we all have something different to contribute.

However, we are not above being able to equalize a lot of the conditions in our towns and cities. Now some building types make that harder than others, but a mixture of financing and re-thinking how to govern places is a good start to fixing the hierarchy. Also, cheaper passenger transport, with fully integrated modes (fly across country, train up seaboard, Uber or bus to specific home), will make it easier for all citizens of cities, regardless of income, to collaborate, not just online, but in person.

The urban hierarchy will die one day. Unfortunately, that day has not come yet.

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.