After Hurricane Katrina, the building boosters wanted to spend hundreds of billions rebuilding New Orleans, but if $200 billion had been given to the people who lived there, each of them would have gotten $400,000 to pay for moving or education or better housing somewhere else. Even before the flood, New Orleans had done a mediocre job caring for its poor. Did it really make sense to spend billions on the city’s infrastructure, when money was so badly needed to help educate the children of New Orleans? New Orleans’ greatness always came from its people, not from its buildings. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask how federal spending could have done the most for the lives of Katrina’s victims, even if they moved somewhere else?
Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.
While the unremitting poverty of Detroit and cities like it clearly reflects urban distress, not all urban poverty is bad. It’s easy to understand why a visitor to a Kolkata slum might join Gandhi in wondering about the wisdom of massive urbanization, but there’s a lot to like about urban poverty. Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.
Urban structures may stand for centuries, but urban populations are fluid. More than a quarter of Manhattan’s residents didn’t live there five years ago. Poor people constantly come to New York and São Paulo and Mumbai in search of something better, a fact of urban life that should be celebrated.
Urban poverty should be judged not relative to urban wealth but relative to rural poverty. The shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro may look terrible when compared to a prosperous Chicago suburb, but poverty rates in Rio are far lower than in Brazil’s rural northeast. The poor have no way to get rich quick, but they can choose between cities and the countryside, and many of them sensibly choose cities.
The flow of rich and poor into cities makes urban areas dynamic, but it’s hard to miss the costs of concentrated poverty. Proximity makes it easier to exchange ideas or goods but also easier to exchange bacteria or purloin a purse. All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting the way things are or by mindlessly relying on the free market. American cities became much healthier in the early twentieth century because they were spending as much on water as the federal government spent on everything except the military and the postal service. The leaps made by European and American cities will likely be repeated in the developing cities of the twenty-first century, and that will only make the world more urban. New York City, where boys born in 1901 were expected to live seven years fewer than their American male counterparts, is now considerably healthier than America as a whole.
The urban victories over crime and disease made it possible for cities to thrive as places of pleasure as well as productivity. Urban scale makes it possible to support the fixed costs of theaters, museums, and restaurants. Museums need large expensive exhibits and attractive, often expensive structures; theaters need stages, lighting, sound equipment, and plenty of practice. In cities, these fixed costs become affordable because they’re shared among thousands of museum visitors and theatergoers.
Historically, most people were far too poor to let their tastes in entertainment guide where they chose to live, and cities were hardly pleasure zones. Yet as people have become richer, they have increasingly chosen cities based on lifestyle—and the consumer city was born.