A Country of Cities
252 pages, Metropolis Books, 2013
In his book A Country of Cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti wastes no time in letting his readers know where he stands on the subject of suburbanization. On the first page of the first chapter, he writes: “[O]ur reckless subsidization of suburban sprawl is arguably the leading cause of our most pressing challenges, from foreclosures, to unemployment, to unfunded schools, to spiraling health-care costs, to climate change, to oil wars.” Suburbs are, he contends, a synthetic creation of big government whose time has come and gone.
Chakrabarti’s answer to suburbanization? “Hyperdensification.” Ouch! The first time he uses that term, it grates on the ear as surely as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
But in the book, which focuses on the United States, he makes a powerful case that cities are the economic engine of the nation. After all, US cities are more productive than the vast majority of states. The $548.6 billion economy of Chicago, for instance, is bigger than that of 42 states, including New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ohio. Evidence is mounting that urbanization results in greater prosperity and innovation. The most successful American cities make up 3 percent of the country’s landmass, yet they generate 85 percent of its gross domestic product.
Despite the clear benefits that cities bring, a strain of anti-urbanism runs deep in American culture. From Thomas Jefferson to Henry David Thoreau to the film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Americans have reliably shown a reverence for rural landscapes. (That movie, Chakrabarti notes, features “a young heroine pining for a suburban home, a wish that, of course, the Macy’s department store Santa ultimately grants.”) The ideal of a bucolic America—an America of small towns filled with homes surrounded by white picket fences—seems hardwired into the national self-image.
It’s hard to understand, therefore, why Chakrabarti chose to label his desired state “hyperdensity.” But perhaps there’s no other term for what, in his view, we truly need. By his definition, that state exists wherever density is great enough to support subways. Building to the point of hyperdensity in already developed areas, Chakrabarti explains, will increase land values, throw off additional tax dollars, and provide the resources that we need to renew our communities.
Chakrabarti is clear on one point: Hyperdensity requires a robust infrastructure to support it. He urges Americans to invest in an “Infrastructure of Opportunity”—a term that covers not just transportation, water, sewage, and electricity, but also access to employment, education, recreation, and health. Given strained budgets and popular resistance to increased taxes, where will the money for this kind of investment come from? Hyperdensity, Chakrabarti suggests, makes new infrastructure affordable because it lowers the per capita cost of construction and yields extra tax revenue.
Chakrabarti doesn’t go easy on many parties that would appear to be natural allies of hyperdensity. He attacks those who build light rail projects in areas where density is insufficient to support ridership. Not only are such projects inefficient, but they also prompt an outcry against government waste that aids the cause of transit opponents. Nor is Chakrabarti an apologist for property developers. “Private real estate development has much to answer for in terms of its inability to deliver even adequate, much less great, design,” he writes.
Just as Chakrabarti wastes no time in attacking the problems caused by suburbanization, he pulls no punches in blaming those problems on elected officials. Because of official neglect, he notes, a wide variety of urban issues almost never surface in the national discourse. If and when those issues do surface, the author is ready with a list of ambitious policy recommendations: phasing out the federal home mortgage interest deduction, removing oil-industry subsidies, allocating federal transportation dollars by population and distributing those dollars fairly across all transit modes, and pricing fuel to reflect the social costs of pollution and congestion.
Chakrabarti also calls for passage of a measure that he labels the American Smart Infrastructure Act. It’s a bold plan that will, he argues, enable Americans to create good jobs, build an innovation-driven economy, rein in health care costs, lower the country’s dependence on nondomestic sources of oil, and lead the planet toward greater sustainability. Enacting that policy and others like it, he writes, will depend on rallying an urban coalition “that binds the need for economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social mobility with the one-stop shopping of transit-rich hyperdensity.”
Other books deliver persuasive arguments for the benefits of urban living. But A Country of Cities stands out among such books in offering a clear call for a city-based solution to the nation’s most pressing challenges and in presenting a comprehensive policy agenda to meet those challenges.