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Will big cities have to contract to survive?


In the brand-spakin’ new Summer 2016 issue of The Baffler, James Howard Kunstler contradicts much received wisdom about the future of big cities. While some prognosticators say that many big cities around the globe will grow to become chaotic megacities like Mumbai as newly unemployed people converge there in search of informal work, Kunstler predicts that cities like New York will actually downsize in the coming decades. This is because the economic basis on which they developed—abundant oil and high finance—is slowly collapsing. Here’s an excerpt:

One can state categorically that the colossal metroplex cities of today are going to have to contract, probably substantially. They have attained a scale that no plausible disposition of economic resources can sustain in the future. This is contrary, by the way, to most of the reigning utopian (or even dystopian) fantasies that presume only an ever-greater scale of everything. The renovation of New York City circa 1990–2015 was enabled by Wall Street’s management role in the era’s supernatural debt growth, combined with the skimming of fees, commissions, and bonuses by bankers, once the deregulated mania for derivatives and mortgage-backed securities was combined, to toxic effect, with pervasive accounting fraud in both private business and government. This enormous con job is what brought us the renovated neighborhoods, the scores of new residential skyscrapers, the multiplication of museums and cultural venues, and the buffing up of Central Park. It will be followed by a steep and harrowing descent into disinvestment …

The sheer scale of our metroplex cities is inconsistent with the resource and capital realities of the future. Just about everything in our world is going to have to get smaller, finer, and more local. The failure of suburbia is pretty clear, and its trajectory isn’t hard to understand. But do not assume that there will necessarily be a great demographic rush into the big cities as suburbia fails. Older central cities will have enormous trouble with their aging infrastructure—their one-hundred-year-old water and sewer systems, stupendous hierarchies of paved roads, bridges and tunnels, etc. The American electrical grid is decrepit, and the estimate for fixing it now runs nearly $500 billion.

Debt-strapped cities will also have trouble fulfilling their promises of support for public employees and dependent populations. These places will have to contract around their old centers and their waterfronts, if they have them. This will entail the loss of vast amounts of notional wealth represented in buildings and real estate, perhaps provoking conflict over newly or still-valuable districts.

Image via The Baffler.