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    Sep 23 2013: Can we take this discussion in a different direction? There are infinite problem statements (or impossibility threorems) and an equal number of things we "must" do to make cities (and human habitation on Earth) successful. But in the spirit of promoting improvement rather than perfection, I'd like to focus on the myriad ways that cities are already delivering on their potential. I'm not trying to be pollyannish. I believe that powerful forces align to make our work harder and to increase chances that we will fail. But humans have confronted unassailable challenges before and found ways to overcome them.

    Epidemics of cholera were quite daunting for those trying to make it work in dense urban areas that used surface water for septic systems. One answer might have been to limit the denisty of human settlement to conform to the waste absorptive capacity of the local environment. Another was to detect, diagnose, and invest in ways to overcome cholera. A key component to winning against cholera was collective action--organizing multiple stakeholders to combine resources (through government as an intermediary) to build infrastructure to treat waste differently and to deliver clean water to residents. In the developed world, we pretty much solved the cholera problem by the end of the 19th century. We're still fighting it in many places in the developing world--most prominently, Haiti. But as proven in the Orangi Pilot in Karachi in the 1990s, it is still possible to organize collective action to tackle pressing problems. And, sometimes, the response can provide direct, tangible, benefits for those on the bottom. In the case of the Orangi project, the slum dwellers who suffered the most from open sewers benefitted from improved living conditions and through jobs that were created for them to enclose the sewers. In Buenos Aires, a similar public-private partnership brought natural gas infrastructure to poor residents in the outskirts of the city.
    • Sep 25 2013: Yes! As valuable as it is to chronicle the problems facing our cities--which we do all the time at City Limits--I think the real driver of this conversation is that cities are singularly well equipped to solve not only urban problems but risks facing the larger society.

      This might seem a simple point to many participating in this discussion, but it's important to remind ourselves of that, because the great flaw in earlier efforts to improve cities was the failure to recognize what was healthy and good about them (see "slum clearance" and "urban renewal"), and in so doing to neutralize the very forces that cities needed to improve, or just survive. Cities aren't the problem; they have problems and they have unique tools to help them solve them.

      I don't think it's too naive to say that New York City is a miracle of problem-solving every day. Subways, skyscrapers, the water system--these all address what would otherwise be existential threats. In fact, that's what makes the urban conversation we're having more urgent: Much of the capacity to address issues like sustainability and equity is already on hand in cities (which is not to say a little federal aid wouldn't help now and then!), and because these society-wide issues are felt most acutely by cities, cities are who has to solve them.

      None of this is to say cities will solve these problems automatically or easily. Income inequality, for instance, is uniquely pronounced in cities because cities concentrate stuff that's desirable up and down the income ladder. There is a school of thought that the mere presence of very wealthy residents has spin-off effects that benefit lower-income people, and that this should mollify our concerns about the income gap. It'd be nice if that were all we needed. But I don't know that we're going to have a sustainable urban economy, at least in New York, unless we deal with the fundamentals behind income polarization. That's a lot less comfortable to contemplate.

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