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Geometric Balance in Cities

Stephen Smith has a pretty good post over at Market Urbanism about why cities have centrally located downtowns and why that's a good thing. It's really interesting to think about the geometry of cities, becaus almost every American city, from New York to Omaha to Phoenix, has a downtown with at least a couple of skyscrapers in it. Even cities that we might consider badly sprawling, or lacking any decent form of public transit, or too small to put on the urbanist radar, still have downtowns with tall skyscrapers. There must be a good reason why.

(from sakeeb on Flickr)

Smith describes the long-term benefit of having jobs located in the center of the city.
But frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s these sorts of “edge downtowns” are realistic long-term solutions. To see why, you have to understand why downtowns developed in the center of metropolitan areas to begin with. Geometrically, the center of a circle will always be the point that’s closest to the average of all other points within the circle. As a city sprawls outwards, the average difficulty of going from one random point to another grows exponentially, while the difficulty of commuting directly to the center increases linearly.
I've written about this before. From a worker's perspective, the real value in having all jobs centrally located is that there's much greater predictability. If you want to switch jobs, you'll know that your commute will be exactly the same. If you lose your job, you know that whatever you find will be in relatively the same place. There would be no awkward decision calculus about whether or not to take a job that requires a painfully long commute.

Of course, this is purely hypothetical and not how the world works. I live in Arlington, Virginia, because that's where my job is. If I'd have been working in DC, I probably would have considered different neighborhoods. I was lucky to have the option to live close to my job.

Arguably though, the reason my job isn't in DC is because there isn't enough commercial office space over there, or the space that exists is far too expensive. That's a problem, and one that having skyscrapers in the central city would theoretically alleviate.

Nevertheless, I often finding myself coming back to my Cleveland roots, and thinking about how much different the urban landscape is there than it is in DC. Cleveland has a fairly impressive downtown with a lot of skyscrapers and commercial space. It also has unbelievably high rates of downtown vacancy. On one hand, it's an economic problem - the Cleveland metro area simply isn't economically strong. On another hand, I can look at suburbs like Beachwood and Independence, which compete with downtown Cleveland for white-collar companies and jobs, and see plenty of people working in these suburban office parks.

So in DC, a company might locate in Virginia or Maryland because it's not economically feasible to be downtown; but in Cleveland, companies are sprawling out into the suburbs for different reasons. Maybe because it's closer to the boss's house. Maybe it's because the suburbs offered tax incentives that the city didn't. Whatever the case, the point is that companies aren't exactly racing to fill the vacant space in downtown Cleveland's skyscrapers.

While I agree with Smith that "edge downtowns", or little clusters of business, that spring up around DC's Metro stations, aren't as ideal as a more developed downtown - they're still a lot better than completely sprawled out, auto-dominated commercial development that exists in a lot of places.

I think Yonah Freemark is correct in saying that Washington DC is a lucky city, in the sense that its downtown is so sought-after. In a perfect world, that popularity should really be parlayed and take downtown DC from being good to great. In reality, political and legal constraints mean that, in the short-term, alternative solutions will have to do.


B. P. Beckley said…
Interesting post. I think the forces at work are basically the same in Washington and Cleveland, actually -- a strong impetus for suburban development and a somewhat weaker impetus for downtown development. The overall economy is so much weaker in Cleveland, though, that the "somewhat weaker" downtown development impetus results in zero actual downtown development, and the suburbs aren't really booming by Washington standards, either, although there's nonzero development there.

I doubt there are all that many employers who are in the suburbs but would prefer to be in downtown Washington, but the demand for downtown Washington is still much higher than the demand for downtown Cleveland.

Washington does have really horrific traffic compared to Cleveland, of course, and that may be changing the calculus more toward transit and increasing centralization of employment sites. Also, the increased preference of young people for urban living is probably having some effect.

But don't count out the DC suburbs ... I bet they're doing fine.

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