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C200: In The New “Rentership Society,” Cities Offer The Best Means To Share Scarce Resources

2011 April 11
by Chris Fiori

< Burien, WA; photo: Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

Theoretical physicists have recently garnered attention for asserting that cities universally become more economical as they increase in size, as contrasted with living organisms, for which physical mass and efficiency are inversely proportional. While in the abstract this assertion begs the question as to the city size at which the relationship might break down (Two Tokyos? Ten Tokyos?), on a more basic level it underscores the assumption that cities, if properly organized, can provide an efficient template for the provision and sharing of goods and services. Moving from global abstraction to local context, this thesis is rather intuitive when applied to the planning and land use decisions facing most American metropolitan areas, including the Seattle region.

For metropolitan areas like Seattle, where low-density suburban development is the dominant land use, greater urbanization creates an opportunity to better utilize increasingly scarce economic, environmental and economic resources. The past decades of suburban expansion have created some incredible inefficiencies in land utilization, housing, infrastructure and transportation that were generally deemed acceptable in an era of rapid economic and population growth.

Today, in an era of increasing economic and resource scarcity, the financial tradeoff of low-density suburban development is no longer acceptable to a majority of the population—particularly to the next massive wave of consumers, the Millennial generation born to the Baby boomers. This generation will almost certainly be the first in our nation’s history to be less well-off than their parents, as defined by personal wealth, if economic projections are correct. The costs of supporting a massive generation of retirees, bearing the burdens of enormous levels of public and private debt accumulated over the past decades, and increasingly expensive sources of energy are economic headwinds that will not abate anytime soon.

In addition, in an increasingly networked world with access to nearly every conceivable type of information at one’s fingertips, Millenials tend to prefer access to experiences over ownership of physical goods. While ownership as concept is by no means going extinct, a more urbanized future offers Millennials the ability to offset the diminution in individual financial wealth with an ability to more easily access a wider range of goods, services and experiences than did their parents a generation before.

While there is great debate as to the ideal level of density, mix of land uses, and degree of connectivity between uses that are needed to support a more efficient alternative to the suburban development, the attractiveness of a city can in large part by judged by the ability of its citizens to effectively access and share resources, including those classically defined as community facilities (open space, recreational facilities, transportation) as well as “third places” to relax, socialize and exercise that are typically not publicly owned. The inter-relationship between forced frugality and increasing emphasis on an experientially-driven economy provide a great opportunity for cities to flourish if given the necessary political support required to provide successful urban models as alternatives to the dominant suburban ones.

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Chris Fiori is an urban planner and real estate development analyst with Heartland LLC.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011

    I’m a big believer in the shift from physical consumption to experience-oriented lifestyle choices. It’s why I moved to a city like Seattle that affords me the opportunity to live without a car and enjoy a rich, walkable neighborhood on Capitol Hill.

    But we must be careful in using this dream to rationalize density, because most people choosing low-density suburban lifestyles are still better consumers than I am. They need to see benefits of the sort they already appreciate so we can draw them into an environment that exposes them to the rest.

  2. Dan McGrady permalink
    April 11, 2011

    Chris,

    very thought provoking piece. what strikes me is that cities are good for the planet AND people. You helped show that in a new light, at least for me.
    thanks.

  3. Dan Staley permalink
    April 12, 2011

    I’m not sure I agree with the physicist’s premise, but the rest is excellent. Chris makes me think and my head hurts!

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