What the New Yorker Forgot About the Future
On the fair Manhattan morning of September 12, I got around to reading the twinned essays in this week’s New Yorker that consider whether America’s health must keep declining. Adam Gopnik treats decline as an intellectual conceit. George Packer treats it as woodworm in our political ship. Both make basso points. And both miss a brighter pinwheel spreading to cyclone proportions that make a day more hopeful.
Even if a nation of 50 states declines in power as its policy moves in jerky rhythm from state to federal law and back, the lives of people and places in that nation can on the main improve. Gopnik and Packer leave out the idea that resuscitating cities through better design and smarter industry can create prosperity. Now, the evidence that this does happen remains scarce, so the authors are reasonable to leave it out. But consider decline as an idea rather than as a diagnosis, and you can start investigating it from its source.
New York has failed to right its economic spine since the attacks: it overwhelmingly relies on Midas-sized wealth, much of it native to other countries. But New York has also opened thousands of square feet of new parkland- even Lower Manhattan, which mainly became an enclave of luxury housing, offers more than 10 new parks with ample new access to both rivers. Along the way, it has seen new design guidelines for streets and parks that require intensive weeding and maintenance.
This creates more than a tourist attraction: it scaffolds a range of unskilled and skilled jobs, and it feeds both labor and entrepreneurs to niches like urban farming and urban forestry. Public investment in good urban design stokes the private appetite for clean air and good produce. That in turn creates two generations’ worth of demand for better transportation, smarter refrigeration and sounder building design.
A small city or big city can learn to manage its natural resources with more intelligence, more specialization and more respect for science- which can stoke better schooling and finally make the “couch potato,” Packer’s analogy for American attitudes, uncool.
My friend Vishaan Chakrabarti, a former city official, has written an essay series yearning for “a country of cities.” I would argue for a nation of cities. Leaders in cities know the urgency of converting foreign wealth to local stability, and they are clear-eyed about the value of immigrants and decent healthcare. Their policies in that key obscure the question of whether America is sinking. Experiments are popping up so widely that even if America does go below the waterline, cities can start new democratic enterprises that assign value to clear thinking about health and work.
Gopnik rounds up recent books on the subject and concludes that the question’s path depends on where it starts. George Packer travels to Mt. Airy, NC and shows that America has lost too many jobs and too much cohesion to swagger about anything. Both are right, as far as they look. But both would do readers a service by asking whether cities that rework their laws to shrink pollution and increase land management are rising not only in influence but in responsibility for Americans’ future.
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