Forrester's 30-year-old prescription for cities

Here's a  clear and sensible prescription for cities in the onrushing global crisis, f rom  The Collected Papers of Jay W. Forrester, Wright-Allen Press, 1975, pp. 277-284.(Thanks to Mary L. Lehmann and Jay Hanson at the dieof-QA list.)  It's hard to imagine any successful response that does not include something like this. It has no more chance of being implemented now than it did when Jay Forrester wrote it for a speech 30 years ago. (Forrester created and led the MIT group of which some members eventually wrote Limits to Growth. Forrester was not himself one of the authors of LTG.)

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What does this discussion of technology and social goals mean for the American Public Works Association? It means that in the past those who dealt with the technological aspects of urban life were free to sub-optimize. The public well-being was increased by the best possible job of drainage, waste disposal, transportation, water supply, and the construction of streets. But it is no longer true that improving each of these will always improve a city. By solving each of these technical problems the technologist risks becoming a party to increasing the population of a city and the densities of the population. He may start social processes that eventually reduce the quality of life. The public is recognizing that improved technology does not always bring an improved society. As a result, men who have sincerely dedicated their efforts to the public good, but perhaps have not foreseen the diversity of social consequences, have already begun to feel the backlash of public criticism.

So far I have developed several propositions. First, pressures are rising that will inevitably stop growth. Second, the national commitment to growth is too strong for the federal government to lead the country in a new direction until a broad constituency for changed expectations has been formed. Third, if the stress-creating nature of growth is to be recognized, and if experiments are to be carried out to find a satisfactory way of moving from growth to a society that can accept a future equilibrium, leadership must come from the local and state levels. Fourth, technical accomplishments no longer appear to be capable of solving our mounting social problems; instead, technology, as now being used, may often lead to expansion in urban population and living densities that become the cause of rising social difficulties. Fifth, all cities do at all times tend toward equal attractiveness in which no one city can remain significantly more attractive to in-migration than other cities. Given this set of propositions, what freedom of action is left to a city?

A city can choose, to a substantial extent, the mix of pressures under which it wishes to exist. There are many components of urban attractiveness, and if one of these is decreased, others can be improved. One cannot create the ideal city. But one can create certain ideal features if he is willing to compensate for them by intentionally allowing other features to worsen. In the past we have improved the technological aspects of cities and have thereby unintentionally contributed to the rise of many of the economic and social problems that plague cities today. There are many facets to a city. There are many things that the public and an urban administration can do. One thing they cannot do is produce the perfect city. They can, however, exercise a wide choice among imperfect cities.

I suggest that a valid goal for local urban leadership is to focus on improving the quality of life for the residents already in the city, at the same time protecting against the kind of growth that would overwhelm the gains. In short, one might raise the attractiveness of a city for the present residents while, at the same time, decreasing the attractiveness to those who might inundate the system from the outside.

Such statements, I recognize, lead to ethical and legal controversy. I am saying that a city should look after itself first. Its own welfare should come ahead of concern for others who are taking no steps to solve the fundamental problems for themselves. If enough cities establish successful policies for themselves, there will be two results. First, a precedent will have been set for coping with the fundamental underlying source of difficulties. Second, the larger the number of areas that solve their problems for themselves, the sooner and more forcefully will the remaining uncontrolled growth impinge on other parts of the country and the more quickly will the nation realistically face the long-range issues of stress arising from excessive growth.

So what can a city do? It can influence its future by choosing among the components of attractiveness. The attractiveness components of a city fall into two categories according to whether they operate more forcefully on the quality of life in the city or on inward migration and growth. These two categories are the "diffuse" and the "compartmentalized" characteristics of a city. The objective should be to maximize the diffuse characteristics of the city in order to improve the quality of urban life while controlling the compartmentalized characteristics in order to prevent the expanded population that would defeat the improvement for present residents.

The diffuse characteristics, such as public safety and clean air, are shared equally by all; their effect is not limited to particular individuals; and they apply alike to present residents and those who might move in. The compartmentalized characteristics of a city, like jobs and housing, are identified with particular individuals; they can be possessed by present residents but are not necessarily available to others from the outside.

Every diffuse characteristic of a city that makes it more attractive for the present residents will also make it more attractive for those who might move in, who would increase the population and density. Therefore, every improvement in the diffuse categories of attractiveness must be accompanied by some worsening in the compartmentalized categories of attractiveness to prevent self-defeating growth. The attractiveness characteristics of a city should be categorized in terms of whether they affect all residents or primarily potential newcomers. For example, the vitality of industry, a balanced socioeconomic mix of population, the quality of schools, the freedom from pollution, low crime rates, public parks, and cultural facilities are all desirable to present residents. If there is no counterbalance to restrain an expanding population, such attractive features tend to be self-defeating by causing inward migration. But the compartmentalized characteristics of a city primarily affect growth without necessarily reducing the quality of life for present residents. The number of housing units and the number of jobs tend to be compartments in the sense that they have a one-to-one correspondence with individuals rather than each being shared by all. The absence of an unoccupied house or a job can be a strong deterrent to in-migration, without necessarily driving down the internal quality of life.

I see no solution for urban problems until cities begin to exhibit the courage to plan in terms of a maximum population, a maximum number of housing units, a maximum permissible building height, and a maximum number of jobs. A city must also choose the type of city it wants to be. To become and remain a city that is all things to all people is impossible. There can be many uniquely different kinds of cities, each with its special mix of advantages and disadvantages. However, the policies that create one type of city may destroy another type. A choice of city type must be made, and corresponding policies must be chosen to create the combination of advantages and disadvantages that are characteristic of that type. One might have an industrial city, a commercial city, a resort city, a retirement city, or a city that attracts and traps without opportunity a disproportionate number of unemployed and welfare residents, as some cities are now doing. But there are severe limits on how many types of cities can be created simultaneously in one place. When the choices have been made, and when effort is no longer dissipated in growth, there will be an opportunity to come to grips with social and economic decay.

Why do I bring this message to the American Public Works Association? Because the members are at the center of the two most important issues I have raised. First, leaders in public works are the custodians of the technological aspects of the urban environment. Those responsible for the physical aspects of a city can continue to solve the technological subgoals of roads, water, waste, and transportation and thereby sustain the growth process and cause a continual shifting of pressures into the social realm of rising crime, increasing psychological trauma, growing welfare costs, and accelerating community breakdown. Or, they can move to reverse the growth attitudes that in the past we considered good, but are good no more, and help halt further expansion of that part of our technological base on which the urban crisis is growing. A second reason for these issues to be important in public works comes from the unique influence of public works over what I call the compartmentalized characteristics of a city. Public works actions directly affect the number of streets that are built, the number of houses that are erected, and the number of industrial locations that are established. Such physical actions, backed up by zoning and municipal policy, determine the kind of urban growth and whether or not there is to be growth. Through the judicious use of, and indeed the appropriate limitation of, water supply, drainage, building heights, waste disposal, road building, and transportation systems, a city can influence its future.

The reader may be thinking that planning and controlling the size and composition of a city and the migration to it are undemocratic or immoral. It may even seem that I am suggesting control where there has not been control before. Neither is true. Every city has arrived at its present size, character, and composition because of the actions that have controlled the city's evolution in the past. By adding to the water system, sewers, and streets, a city has, in effect, decided to increase its size. By building a rapid transit system a city is often, in effect, deciding to change the composition of its population by encouraging new construction in outlying areas, allowing inner areas to decay, and attracting low-income and unskilled persons to the inner ring at the same time that job opportunities decline. In other words, a control of growth and migration has been exerted at all times, but it has often been guided by short-term considerations, with unexpected and undesirable long-term results. The issue is not one of control or no control. The issue is the kind of control and toward what end.

The interurban control of population movement is the internal counterpart of international control of population movement. Except for the legal, coercive, psychological, and economic deterrents to human mobility, the standard of living and the quality of life of all countries would fall to the level set by the population group that accepts the lowest standards. No group can be expected to exert the self-discipline now necessary to limit population and the environmental demands of industrialization unless there is a way to keep the future advantages of such self-discipline from being swallowed up by inward migration. If the control of international movement of population is ethical, then some intercity counterpart must also be ethical. Or, if the justification is only that of practical necessity, then the internal necessity arises in a country that is reaching its growth limit without having established a national means to implement a compromise between quantity and quality. Between nations, countries exert restrictions on population movement that are not allowed internally between urban areas. Even so, the policies of each city have a powerful effect on mobility and on the resulting character of the city. Because controls are implicit in every action taken and every urban policy adopted, a city should understand the future consequences of its present actions. A city affects its local choice between quantity and quality mostly by how it handles the diffuse versus the compartmentalized components of attractiveness.

The difference between diffuse and compartmentalized control of urban population can be illustrated by two extremes of policies that might govern the availability of water. Depending on how it is managed, the availability of water might be either a diffuse or a compartmentalized control on growth. Consider a city with a limited water supply-more and more this will be the actual situation. To illustrate diffuse control, one could distribute water freely and equally to everyone, both present and future residents. New houses could be constructed, new industries could be encouraged, growth could be continued, and the water could be divided among all. If no other growth limits were encountered, growth would continue until the low water pressure, occasional shortages, and the threat of disaster from drought had risen to the point where out-migration equaled in-migration. Under this circumstance of unrestricted access to water, net growth would have been stopped, but the equally distributed nature of the water shortage would have reduced the quality of life for all residents. The water shortage would be diffuse; it would be spread to all, former residents and newcomers alike. Alternatively, the opposite water policy illustrates compartmentalized control. Building permits and new water connections could be denied so that water demand is constrained to lie well within the water supply. Water would be available to present, but not to new, residents. Under these circumstances, the quality of life for the present residents would be maintained, but growth beyond the limit of satisfactory water supply would be restricted.

I believe that such a choice between present residents and potential in-migrants is inherent in a practical solution of our urban problems. Unless control through such self-interest is acceptable, and ways are available to exercise control, there is no incentive for any city or state to solve its own problems. Its efforts will be swamped from the outside. There must be freedom for local action, and the consequent differences between areas, if social experiments are to lead to better futures and if there is to be diversity in the country rather than one gray homogenized sameness. If there is to be any meaning to the president's hope of preserving "the ability of citizens to have a major voice in determining policies that most directly affect them," local areas must be able to control their destinies in different ways and toward different ends.

If people are to influence the policies most affecting them, it follows that policies will be different in different places, and the resulting trade-offs between growth and the quality of life will be different. If there is to be any substance to local choice, there must be differences between localities.

In the policies for a city that I am proposing, the ethical and legal issues are substantial. A city, in looking after its own well-being, will no doubt be accused of being selfish because it discriminates against nonresidents. But what are the alternatives? Must it discriminate against its own present residents instead? Must it discriminate against its own long-term interests? Must it be forced to take only a short-range view of its future? Must it be a party to delaying the day when the nation faces the fundamental choice between quality and quantity? Our past policies have not been so successful that they should persuade us against new experiments.

If a sufficient number of cities find new ways of controlling their own destinies in spite of national policy and what other cities do, then pressures to work toward the long-term well-being of the country will be quickly generated. If some cities and states take effective steps to establish an equilibrium with their natural surroundings, and to maintain a viable and proper internal balance of population and industry, then the remaining growth in the country will quickly descend on those communities and states that have taken no such action. A national consensus to establish a viable balance with the capacity of the environment will quickly develop out of the contrasts between those who have and those who have not dealt with the basic issues of overcommitment.

In summary, I believe that the country is now heading more deeply into economic and social difficulty. Technological solutions will no longer suffice. There is no national consensus strong enough to support an effective national policy nor to ensure national leadership in solving the problems that are arising from growth and overcommitment of the nation's long-term capability. But, fortunately, the problems are solvable piecemeal at the local level independently of other areas and of the national government. Local action can set a precedent for the country as a whole. Those in public works are in a uniquely influential position for exerting that leadership.

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