Updating the Reading List, August 2014: The New Geography of Jobs; Edge City; The Box; The Power Broker

CC image from carnagenyc.

CC image from carnagenyc.

The confluence of events in my life (new apartments, travel, wedding planning, etc) haven’t left time for much blogging recently. However, there’s always time to read. With that in mind, a few additions to the reading list (and correcting one egregious omission):

The New Geography of Jobs: Enrico Moretti (2012)

Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti delivers a concise and readable summary of the economic geography of innovative industries – the kinds of jobs that produce what Jane Jacobs referred to as “New Work” (Moretti cites Jacobs’ books on urban economics repeatedly). This transition to the ‘innovation sector’ means a profound shift in the economic geography of the US, just as past shifts from agriculture to manufacturing had large impacts on where and how we live. Moretti also explains how these innovative jobs tend to cluster together and the paradox of location and local interactions becoming more and more important in a world of globalization and ever-improving communication technologies.

Also, credit to Moretti for writing such an accessible book. In the acknowledgements, he notes that “serious economists are not supposed to write books – they are supposed to write technical papers.” Yet, such papers don’t easily spread outside of the academia bubble and into the hands of planners and policy-makers.

Edge City: Life on the New FrontierJoel Garreau (1991)

First, a confession: despite Edge City‘s place in the urban planning canon, I had never read the entire thing (just a chapter here and there as a part of grad school assignments). With the opening of the Metro’s Silver Line through the quintessential Edge City, Tysons Corner, I wanted to correct my own reading list gap. It was also an opportunity to look at Garreau’s work nearly 25+ years after he wrote about these places.

Edge City describes the rise of the suburban office/retail node, usually located at a key transportation intersection, obtaining a critical mass of jobs and retail and pulling the business focus away from the traditional downtowns and business districts. Garreau’s description of the thought process behind development deals is insightful (as well as the impacts of unintended consequences, development following the path of least resistance, etc), but hardly limited to the suburban context of edge city.

Some statements from 1990 seem laughable now (“there is no petrochemical analyst around who thinks there is any supply-and-demand reason… that the price of oil should go higher than $30 a barrel in constant dollars in this generation.”), but others seem prescient: speaking of Tysons Corner, Garreau notes that parking lots alone represent a massive land bank, just waiting for a “higher and smarter and more economic use.”

The error, however, seems to be in thinking of places like Tysons as fundamentally decentralized, rather than strengthening centers in a polycentric metropolis. The future of an edge city like Tysons has more in common with urbanism than with the model Garreau describes. Nevertheless, his description of these places is an important element of the grand American suburban experiment.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy BiggerMarc Levinson (2006)

Levinson’s history of the shipping container is a fascinating look behind the scenes of how we move goods around. Consequences for cities involve containers making old break bulk piers in Manhattan, San Francisco, and other ports obsolete; lower shipping costs enabling greater trade; intermodal shipping opportunities eventually enabling all sorts of new models for trade and distribution.

Levinson documents the challenges of overcoming proprietary interests to develop a series of standards that ensure interoperability, as well as the economic and institutional challenges (from port operators to unions to shipping companies to regulators) in embracing the new model. Levinson provides an insightful account of the difficulties in implementing new systems.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkRobert Caro (1974)

I’m not sure how I missed including this in the reading list. It’s not a recent read for me, but reading Cap’n Transit’s post on the book and the reminder of Caro’s focus on the use of power rather than a personal, David v. Goliath struggle between the Moses and Jane Jacobs, I realized that I didn’t have it on the list. Here’s to correcting that omission.

More than just a documentation of Moses’s life and his use of the institutions to wield power, Caro’s book provides an excellent history of New York City and the background for so many of the institutions that shaped and continue to shape the city to this day. Caro’s focus on the institutional levers of power (a theme he carried through to his biographies of LBJ) gives the book applicability to any major city.

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