The Diseconomics of Growth

H.V. Hodson

Chapter IX.

The Urban Problem

Great cities, it can be conceded without argument, are the product of economic growth, and their expansion is the product of continued economic growth. It need not be so, but it is. By expansion is meant not necessarily an increase in the population of the defined metropolitan district, let alone the “inner city”, for the trend in advanced countries is often the opposite—the latest British census figures, for example, show the administrative area of Greater London with 600,000 fewer people than it held a decade ago, and other major cities with smaller population losses, facts which would suggest, falsely, that more and more British people were living “in the country.” Expansion may be around the city, in suburbs and satellite towns, or may take place through the melting of one built-over area into another by mulling of the spaces between them, to make, in effect, a greater city or conurbation. Unless positive steps are taken to prevent it—and of course they are being taken, in Town and Country Planning laws and Green Belt provisions—this process goes on, as it has in the past, until the suburbs are merged in the mass. This is all part of the urban problem.

A city in the present context can be regarded as comprising all those places whose people look to one urban focus for their work, their earnings, their culture, their non-routine shopping, their social connections. They may be embedded in the city, half-embraced in its outskirts, or satellites of it. We can have no grasp of the urban problem unless we regard it in this comprehensive way.

As an aside, in the United States “the urban problem” is often used as a synonym for the black problem, or the problem of racial minorities, because so many of the ills of the cities are identified with race distinctions or inflamed by them. If in that country you say the poor, the unemployed, the slum-dwellers, the alienated, the hard-core population of the inner city, you probably mean or largely mean the Negroes, the Mexicans, the Puerto-Ricans, who for want of anywhere else have poured into American cities, and being poor and economically powerless have occupied their worst areas and suffered their worst evils. But this is a special—and grievously aggravated—case of a condition that affects all advanced countries, and the great cities of poor countries too, whether or not they have racial divisions, or whatever those divisions may be. Here, cities are treated as material facts and their citizens as people, whatever their colour or creed.

The urban problem is essentially one of structure—material, social and government structure. Governmentally, the heart of the matter usually is that the government units do not accord, in area or in fabric, with the tasks to be tackled or the financial means and public support needed for tackling them; if they do so accord, at least in geographical scale, they tend by their very size to be remote from the citizens they serve and to judge issues on broad economic and professional grounds, or sometimes partisan interest, not on the true desires and needs of those whom those issues closely concern. Socially, the same sort of evil is characteristic—division of city populations into geographically distinguished groups which have little to do with each other, and lack of cohesion through their mutual loyalty as members of one great social unit, the extended city. Materially, the modern city is also a jumble of disparate parts: central offices and shops, inner industry, inner residential areas (often sharply distinguished between very poor and very rich), separate industrial foci away from the metropolitan centre, outer industry, suburbs of distinct kinds, intermediate residential areas, satellite towns. In this jumble there is often no relationship between work and dwelling; suburbanites commute in to their work, inner residents commute out. Integration is handicapped, and fruitless movement promoted.

What has economic growth to do with all this? Everything. For economic growth of the past has not only created the giant city but has created it in its present ill-structured form. The totality of growth has far outrun any limits imagined by our ancestors to the expansion of a city as an economic habitat for which there must be a single responsible government authority. Growth’s characteristic of constantly shifting resources from older to newer products and industries has meant industrial and commercial decay in urban areas previously favoured, and rapid expansion in other areas, without reckoning of the social or deeper economic consequences. Its movement in the direction of service industries, and away from manual to office work (clerical, financial, executive, administrative, scientific, professional) has turned the city’s centre from a place where men make and handle and sell things, and must live to earn their bread, to a hive of office blocks offering high-paid employment by day and deserted by night. The same development has assured that, if an urban area once begins to expand residentially or economically, it will multiply by the accretion of all those services on which rich countries or peoples spend more and more of their incomes. The automobile, the best symbol and leader of economic growth in our lifetime, not only helps to make all this dispersion and confusion possible but has imposed upon the city problems of its own which only heighten the material, social and economic defects of structure: radial highways and ring roads chop the city into segments; commuter routes deposit their flow in central districts already congested with traffic, and drain them again; thickly parked automobiles not only clog the city’s transport arteries and veins but also destroy the vital proportionate relationship between men and streets and buildings.

All these things have happened, and not all of them are inherently bad. The badness lies in their effect on urban, social, material and economic structure. The important fact is that the same trends are still continuing, even accelerating, under the impulse of still more economic growth, so that the bad effects will grow worse. The symptoms are strain and stress, weariness and frustration, personal and group alienation from society, drugs and crime. They will worsen unless the causes are dealt with, and the forces of economic growth diverted from exciting them to correcting them and redressing their effects.

The structural faults, whether social, material, economic or administrative, can be seen to hinge upon one factor, dispersion and separation—separation of people from people, work from homes, homes from shopping and leisure activity, financial needs from financial resources, patterns of government authority from patterns of need for government action or aid. If you were to put into a computer the travel requirements a man has in the course of a typical period—to go to and from work, to meet work-mates or business associates out of working time, to take part in group or public activities, to see friends and relatives, to enjoy the open air, to go to places of recreation, like clubs or theatres or sports events—and put to the computer the question, where should he live that would be most economical of his time, energy and money, it would in almost every case answer “as close as possible to his work.” In the existing state of affairs there are two main reasons why this answer is so often rejected in big cities. One is that the needs of the working man or woman differ from those of his or her family. The family’s requirement is closeness to shops, friends, schools, pleasant places for play or leisure (which of course the working man needs too, but less frequently or continuously), and this is often incompatible with living close to the breadwinner’s work. The other reason is that, if the work is taken as the fixed point, it is too commonly impossible to find homes close to it within the workers’ means and conforming to their needs, sometimes impossible to find them at almost any price. The continued pressure of high land values for business purposes, and of demand by people who can afford expensive housing, drives up rents and the price of houses in favoured or growing districts; poor people have to live not where they choose, for their employment, but where they can afford, often far from places of work. And this cycle, rather than self-correcting, is self-propelling.

The growth process, which has so magnified the big city, has heightened that conflict. In a smaller town, the conflicting forces are much weaker. Places for shopping and entertainment are not far from places of work and employment. Escape to the open air, gardens and countryside, is easy. People of all economic classes live close to each other. The ideal big city would be an amalgam of such smaller towns, each with all the means and facilities of daily life—homes and work-places and shops and gardens or parks—and a central focus of its own. One of the great merits of London as a city, compared for instance with New York, is that it is still to a large extent an aggregation of villages, Mayfair and Wandsworth, Camden Town and Greenwich, Brixton and Wood Green, and many others in which people of all classes (save sometimes the poorest or the richest) live and have their whole being day by day: it is astonishing to find how many people have lived in, say, Stepney or Ealing all their lives. But the pressure of the social and economic forces which have caused the structural dispersion and separation typical of big cities is steadily breaking down that historic character. Straddling this pattern of constituent towns and villages, the ideal city would have a metropolitan centre, commercial, cultural and political, and a central government covering the whole catchment area of that metropolis, endowed, among other powers, with the two key functions of finance and regional planning.

Obviously we cannot sweep away our existing city regions and build the ideal city on their ruins. All we can do is to establish forces which in course of time will convert the existing cities nearer to the ideal shape, and reverse those forces which at present drive them further and further away from the ideal. Economics is neutral in a value system. Economic pressures can be made to work for or against the values to which we aspire. Economic growth can be used, rather than exploited or deplored.

Perhaps the key determinant is transport. The traditional approach to the transport problem, pre-eminently the building of roads, has been to follow, not to lead or divert, the forces that have bedevilled our great cities. The object, or at least the result, has been to facilitate and widen the dispersion and separation. We should now contradict and reverse that process, making it more difficult, not easier, for people to live far from their work, and for work to be established far from where those to be employed live. If commuter lanes choke, we should not grieve, but look hopefully for the consequences.

In viewing the relationship of work to homes, the choice is theoretically open between bringing the one to the other and bringing the other to the one. There are several reasons why we should start from the location of homes. One is that capital investment in housing turns over, on average, much more slowly than capital investment in factories and offices and commercial or industrial facilities; industry and commerce are generally more mobile than people—certainly they ought to be. Their motives for staying or moving or choosing one site rather than another are almost wholly economic, whereas people’s motives for similar choices are not only economic but also social, familial, traditional, cultural. Economic growth itself implies change and mobility of industry. The second reason is that where people live is where they have friends, relations, socialities—street corners and pavements, pubs, clubs, cafés, discotheques, local shops, groups of all sorts. A man or a family is not like a piece of masonry, but like a growing tree with fibrous roots in his neighbourhood. Values and welfare are destroyed when he is transplanted, whether by his own decision or under compulsion of economic or governmental forces.

To start planning from where people now live is not to assume that static housing distribution will be written into the conclusions we will eventually draw. According to Professor Forrester, whose study of world-wide system dynamics was quoted in the previous chapter, from a scientific analysis of urban dynamics “it emerges that the fundamental cause of depressed areas in the cities comes from excess housing in the low-income category rather than the commonly presumed housing shortage.” The Professor shows how the process whereby “jobs decline and population rises while buildings age” is a self-repeating cycle, and how “a social trap is created where excess low-cost housing beckons low-income people inward because of the available housing.” Different deductions as to public policy, however, can be drawn from this analysis. One could be to check and reverse the economic forces that take employment opportunities away from such districts.

The fact is that, whatever the reasons—and the forces of economic growth which cause people to drift to big cities are one of them—housing for the poor is an aspect of our national economic and social lives in which real welfare has fallen far behind expanding affluence, and belies the claims of economic optimism and the pre tensions of the growth cult. Much publicity was given in Britain in September 1971 to a report by Shelter, a housing pressure-group, which claimed that “the housing efforts of the sixties have been pitifully inadequate and as a result have left the massive problem almost untouched.” The 1967 housing stock survey had shown that out of 15,700,000 dwellings in England and Wales, 1,836,000 were unfit for human habitation. In addition, 4,700,000 were in an unsatisfactory condition, storing up trouble for the future, and it had been estimated that 1,800,000 unfit properties still remained at the end of 1970.

After due allowance is made for polemical partisanship, and for the fact that “unfitness” is a relative and constantly changing standard, the truth for anyone to see with his own eyes this at many thousands, perhaps many millions, of people in economically advanced countries like the United States or Britain or other Western European nations live in conditions of shameful squalor, notwithstanding the high and rising standards of income which economic growth has afforded. To repair this wrong should levy a big toll on such potential economic growth as lies before us.

Experience proves that rising levels of income (after allowing for price changes) do not cure the trouble. In Britain it could be said that poverty such as Henry Mayhew depicted in the middle of the nineteenth century or Charles Booth at its end has been abolished: besides the great rise in wages, social services assure a minimum income, and in particular the fall-back benefits include specific payment of rent. Yet thousands of poor people still live in buildings which were the dwellings of the poor in Booth’s time and even Mayhew’s. The rates of welfare payments in New York City sound like riches to poor Europeans, and are based on a minimum standard for food and clothing which would have astonished the immigrants to whom the inscription of the Statue of Liberty was addressed. Yet those people on welfare cannot escape, it seems, the slums of Harlem or Brooklyn, nor can their employed and better-off neighbours; and this despite cumulative expenditure of approaching 2000 million dollars by the city housing authority on slum clearance and low-rent housing. In the 1860s, a rich merchant from Massachusetts, George Peabody, impressed by the wretched condition in which many of the labouring classes lived in English cities, gave 2,500,000 dollars, a colossal sum at the values of those days, for the building of model tenement buildings in London to house the poor at moderate rents: these same Peabody Buildings, though out-of-date by modern standards of council flats, are even now the envy of thousands with far worse housing, or the literally homeless. In 1970 nearly 6000 families were admitted to temporary accommodation for the homeless in England and Wales—an increase of 61 per cent over the previous four years. “In London, where the stress of housing shortage is at its worst, the number of homeless families appears to be rising at a steady rate of 13 per cent a year. The capital city of this rich country is short of between 150 000 and 200000 family homes.” [Lord Harlech in The Times, 1st December 1971.] Thus, for millions of our fellow citizens of the so-called affluent societies, in respect of housing past economic growth has been a mockery and future economic growth holds out little hope.

No other deduction can be drawn than that much potential economic growth is better used for direct attack on the housing evil than spent on higher levels of real wages and consumption. And enough has been said to show that re-housing is best done on the spot, though decanting to new developments on city fringes or to satellite or New Towns has done as much in the past and should continue to play its part, always with the proviso that work and homes should be kept as close to each other as possible.

It is a sad fact that architects and town planners have not yet designed or discovered satisfactory ways of housing dense numbers of people without losing, along with the material evils of old-style poor housing, its social merits—the gregariousness of the slum streets, their doorsteps and pavements and corners and little shops. The tall block of flats, the only well-tried way of combining high density of people per acre with modern ideas of light and air and space, both within the dwelling and for recreation outside it, has proved to have grave social and material disadvantages, not least the distance it puts between mothers and playing children, between those inside the home and those outside, and the uprooting of older children and young people from a home and neighbourhood background. There has been no other basic domestic architectural invention since the terrace house in the eighteenth century. While physical standards have gone up, the total quality of life has gone down. A Labour Member of Parliament for a working-class district in one of our great English cities told me of a conversation he had had with his party agent, a local man from a working-class background. “Tell me,” he had said, “because I come from a professional family and have lived my life in that sort of surroundings, tell me whether the people here, in your experience, are happier now than when you were a lad fifty years ago.” The man had answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Bar unemployment, they were happier then.” The reasons may be complex, but they certainly include the breakdown of much of the social integration—the close knowledge of neighbours, and mutual help, and joint enjoyment of simple pleasures like a pint at the pub or a gossip across the doorsteps—of an old working-class neighbourhood. In many urban districts, certainly, we should do better by rehabilitation than by destruction and replacement of existing housing.

Improved housing will not by itself cut down the evils of crime, drugs and vice which abound and multiply in cities. It was part of the “liberal illusion” of an earlier generation that since crime was rife among the poor and rare among their economic betters it would fall away to residual minima if living standards were raised, in particular if housing was improved and the desperate congestion of the slum districts of those days was relieved. All this has happened, yet crime has risen, is still rising, and has taken on new dimensions. These evils are, of course, expressions of general social disorder and failing, to which many causes contribute: the weakening of the family, dependence on state “welfare,” the immorality of war, class alienation, and, let us not forget, the syndrome of false expectations created by constant emphasis on economic growth and material standards. But this is far from saying that homes are irrelevant, for they have their impact on most if not all of those contributory causes.

Assuming broadly the present residential distribution in cities and the surrounding areas within their orbits, the key problem, after dealing with slums and the worst housing, however that may be done, is to put the work and homes and social foci into relationship with each other. Work should be brought where there is much unemployment, or where people otherwise have to travel far to their work, a wasteful and life-diminishing activity. To solve this problem requires not merely the familiar array of temptations to business to go somewhere or leave somewhere else—tax concessions, public industrial estates and so on—but also stricter, more purposeful and positive zoning or town-and-country planning, together with public facilities, especially transport, which help business where it is wanted and deter undesirable movement.

All of which brings us back to the problem of government. Economic growth has outrun the development of our governmental areas and institutions. We take it for granted nowadays that it is the function of government to control our economic affairs and much of our social affairs, not merely by such general defensive measures as sufficed for our grandparents, but intimately, comprehensively and with ultimate responsibility for maintaining business prosperity on the one hand and ensuring the welfare of all citizens on the other. We have not, however, matched the instruments of government to the tasks they have to perform. Our national systems, generally strong, well-ordered and adaptable, are not so much at fault as our local, or the relationship between the local and the national.

In the context of urbanism, there is first the question of scale. Growth has inflated the size of our cities, including their suburban and satellite fringes, beyond the territorial limits of the governments that are supposed to conduct them, sometimes far beyond. In this respect we are far better off in Britain than in America, for our system of unitary, central, Parliamentary supremacy enables us to change both powers and boundaries and indeed the whole structure of city and other local government if Parliament so wills, not without opposition and protest of course, but without constitutional impediments. Twice in the lifetime of living men have the boundaries and organisation of London government been reformed, though they are still not fully commensurate with the region of the extended city. Radical alteration of the whole structure of local government outside the Metropolis, from ancient parishes to new regional councils, is embodied in a measure debated by Parliament in 1972. It is far harder to change out-of-date areas and systems in the United States, with its division of powers between Union and States and its chartered cities and incorporated townships. Although the present charter of the City of New York dates from 1961, there has been no significant change in its boundaries since the four outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond and the Bronx were amalgamated in 1900. Its area is only a fraction of the whole regional city, which covers large zones of New Jersey and Connecticut as well as New York State. Almost every American city—Chicago, San Francisco, St Louis, Atlanta, to name only a few—has the same basic defect of grave geographical inadequacy in its government. That is a problem for their citizens and the peoples of the States in which they stand and of the whole nation.

However its comprehensive authority may be set up, radical treatment of the problem of a big city depends upon that authority’s having powers over planning (in the British sense, with land use as its base), transport, industrial location, housing, education and health to the extent at least of the location and scale of schools and hospitals or clinics, as well as such obvious urban needs as cleansing, sewage, open spaces, water supply and police, and its own adequate financial base for conducting all these matters. It must be able both administratively and financially to frame, conduct and pay for long-term, wide-embracing strategic plans.

The paradox of scale, however, is that the larger and more powerful the governmental authority, the more remote it is from its constituents, literally and in terms of sympathy and mutual understanding. The problem of remoteness, alienation, public apathy erupting into spasmodic violent hostility, is not to be solved by any simple formula, like devolution or local option. It is one of the most difficult, complex and vital problems of our modern societies, with their huge numbers, their egalitarianism, their economic complexity and their acceptance of an all-pervading role of government. To many, especially the young, the deprived and the minorities, the whole democratic apparatus appears as nothing but a façade on a hostile and incomprehensible power system. Though the system may be and should be democratically improved, it is only by a frontal attack that alienation can be defeated. That means far closer direct and personal contact between the public and those who exert power, whether elective councillors or officials or controllers of executive public authorities. The national-party system in local government does not help. It is a pity that it was ever introduced into civic politics.

The planners must understand the people for whom, in the end, they are planning, and be understood by them. The planner, said Dr David Eversley, chief strategic planning officer of the Greater London Council, at the 1971 professional summer school sponsored by the Royal Town Planning Institute, could never be neutral. The whole planning exercise was riddled with value judgments. “Pseudo-scientific” mathematical and advanced management techniques, though they had their uses, could encourage the pretence that their practitioners knew exact objective answers, and could impede communication with the public. Planners should not only be able to explain themselves more meaningfully to the “planned” than they did, but also be better listeners, better at understanding community needs and at drawing out from people their inarticulate demands. Closer and extended participation of the public in planning decisions was indeed the message of the Skeffington report in Britain, and happily much of it has been put into action in the latest Planning Act.

Sympathy, understanding and communication between governors and governed, planners and planned-for, are all the more necessary if in our cities those policies and actions are adopted which will undo some of the evil effects of economic growth of the past and use potential growth of the future to advantage. For undoubtedly they will raise great outcry. There is a huge vested interest in economic growth and in its by-products, even when these are manifestly noxious to society. If we waste our substance, someone profits by the waste. To give priority to certain public aims may mean diverting to them private resources, by taxation or otherwise, and this is apt to hurt people well able to express their reaction. Economic forces, that is to say some people’s powerful economic interests, indicate a certain pattern of land use: if it is laid down that the land use should be different—and this is an essential means to the desired ends—then those interests will not suffer injury meekly (witness, for instance, the unflagging commercial assault upon Green Belts in England). It would be much easier to let unfettered economic expansion have its way, in the name of free enterprise or that other deity, economic growth, and to blame the politicians, not our whole society and attitudes, for any evil consequences, the worst of which we might hope to buy off as they arise. But to do that is to ensure that the civilisation of great cities will end in collapse, perhaps very soon.

Most of what has been said in this chapter concerns the great cities of the Western world: in one’s mind’s eye have been places like London, New York, Manchester, Chicago, Paris, Milan, Glasgow, Toronto ... or such advanced cities of the Southern Hemisphere as Sydney or Melbourne; but especially the great conurbations of the eastern United States, its Pacific coast and Great Lakes shore, of Britain and Northern Europe. These are not, however, the only mammoth cities to have been spawned by the world’s economic growth: Tokyo has 11 million inhabitants, Bombay 5 million, Djakarta 5 million, Seoul 4 million. Problems of pollution and congestion in these Asian cities, even with the wealth of present-day Japan, are far worse than ours in Europe and North America. Those of Calcutta defy description, let alone cure. The great cities of Latin America are another breed, with their characteristic central wealth and grandeur and their peripheries of squalor and poverty: Mexico City 8 million, Buenos Aires 7 million, Sao Paulo 6 million, Rio de Janeiro 4 million, Santiago, Lima, Caracas and Bogotá each over the 2 million mark.

Of all such a variety, it is hard to generalise. We can be fairly safe in saying that the less developed a country, by the common standards of economic development, the faster its cities are likely to expand as its overall economic growth proceeds; and that more rapid economic growth will accelerate further the rise of city populations. For, applied to agriculture, it will squeeze men from the land, and applied to industry it will multiply growth where growth has already begun. So urban problems, tremendous already, will get worse by geometric progression.

Those problems, anywhere, can be analysed in terms of structure—material, governmental and social. The mere scale of big cities, and their utter dependence upon systems of administration, transport, power, cleansing, and food distribution, expose their structure to high risk. If they go on growing without strenuously tackling their problems, disaster must strike some day. It could be in the sophisticated, complex and all the more vulnerable system of a city of the rich, or in the system of a city of the poor, more cellular, more primitive, less demanding, but fragile because so little raised above the lapping flood of death, disease, starvation and breakdown of order. Growth is certain; uncontrolled growth can only end in catastrophe.

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