Declining cities, intuition and the scientific method

The NY Times has a lengthy story today about health care, modern medicine and the influence of the scientific method vs. the influence of intuition, which some believe modern-day doctors have started to rely on too heavily in diagnosis and treatment.

Our newly elected mayor has inherited a sick city. It’s been declining in most measures of urban health for a long time. There’s some disagreement as to whether it is really sick, or just old. Over the past few years, my concern about the various plans and pushes to heal Syracuse have had to do with the Richard Florida stuff that is highly theoretical – the whole “creative classism worked in Pittsburgh, so it should work everywhere, except in those cities which ought to go into the dustbin because they don’t respond to our theory.” While some would say that the Richard Florida view is “scientific method” based (hey, they’ve used other cities as laboratories), I wonder if it’s not just a big hunk of intuition that is off the rails, masquerading as scientific urban-renewal practice.

Syracuse stubbornly refuses to respond to grand, intricately and intuitively plotted plans for its recovery. Who could have expected that the new football coach would also suck, and that LeMoyne would beat the Orange basketball team on top of it? Who could have predicted that artists buying rundown houses for $1 in the Near West Side colonization effort would have their doors kicked in by well-meaning policemen with a healthy regard for ferocious Pomeranians? Who could have imagined that every time we resolve to hold a winter festival in the snowiest city in America, it doesn’t actually snow?

Yet we seem surprised by Syracuse’s complexity, every time. (Never mind being surprised by the complexity of the larger world of which it is part. Hoocoodanode that the housing-bubble-fueled economy would someday tank, leaving Citi reluctant to lend more money to a dodgy supermall?)

I am not sure if we need more intuition, or more scientific method, in our treatment of a uniquely sick city.

8 Replies to “Declining cities, intuition and the scientific method”

  1. To say that Syracuse is a uniquely sick city, I believe, is inaccurate. The ills that face our city are the practically the same as every other city in Western and Central New York and across much of the “Rust Belt.”

    Reckless suburban sprawl has destroyed the cities of the aforementioned region(s). By allowing unnecessary, uncontrolled growth in outlining areas we have caused our own failing health much like a smoker we have caused our own cancer.

    There is a cure and it rests in a regional government that emphasizes the city. By refocusing development in existing areas and desegregating its schools knowing that a region will only be as successful as its central city.

  2. Agree with Eastside Anthony’s comment. Also, re: scientific method and complexity, I have the following comment:

    The scientific method excels at uncovering the effects of a single element of causation. It is much less effective at measuring or describing indirect or synergistic effects. Thus, in urban development research, we find that scientific approaches may describe a phenomenon, without accurately deducing where causes and effects lie in the landscape being described. In the case of Richard Florida’s research, he has fingered some demonstrable trends (US is exporting more “services”– in quotation marks because some “services” like credit default swaps or predatory loans are more scam than service– and people are less rooted to place than they once were, allowing interest in a social milleau or the availability of specialized employment to dictate their place of residence). These are provable trends, using, as he does, census and employment data. However, he extrapolates future causation to the expected continuation of these trends, without proving that the geographic sorting of people resulted in the urban development, rather than the other way around.

    Geographic sorting of population, IMHO, is better described in the book “The Big Sort” than in Florida’s work, which nonetheless has some merit. Population self-sorting by geography is, as you say, complex…. but it has much more to do with political pressures and regulatory capture, etc. as it does with, say, the interest of young people in living in areas with sporting opportunities, especially around water (one of Richard Florida’s more obvious statistical artifacts christened a “cause”). And, lousy jobs geographically sort, as well as high=paying ones: all this country’s meat processing is clustered in Texas, because it has the distinction of being the state in which worker’s compensation is optional for employers, and meat cutters get hurt on the job a lot. Presumably, after they get hurt in Texas, they might move to a place with a good social safety net, like NY. Texas also used to attract young men looking to evade child support payments by having a lax enforcement mechanism…. until the feds stepped in.

    Which is why my intuition is that a “public option” in health care that allows an “opt out” option for really red states will exacerbate geographic sorting in a way that is not helpful overall, although it may enhance the capacity of one state to filch young workers and jobs from others.

    My intuition regarding regional development in this country generally is that our geographic mobility is a relic of the frontier, and is less than helpful in furthering civilization and true development. The most highly civilized peoples have always prized settlement– nomadic culture, while distinct and interesting, has a tendency to be spare… and can sometimes trend toward opportunism, theft and loss of any sense of responsibility to land, neighbors and future progeny who will inhabit the space in which it currently resides.

    Haudensaunee have it right: think 7 generations, right here, when you wonder what we should do.

  3. That’s interesting. Are you saying that settled people always steward the land better than nomadic ones? I’m not sure that’s true.

  4. After spending three years in the nation’s capitol before returning to CNY (although originally from WNY) I would contend that there is no correlation between longevity in place and stewardship of said place.

    What does matter is education, attitude (of the community as a whole) and commitment.

  5. Um… not sure how DC would play into this? But, yeah, across millenia, looking at traditional peoples, by and large the settled ones took better care than those who overgrazed and then moved on, although primitive hunter-gatherers were probably the lightest on the land (but uncompetitive with other humans). Those that made their way by pillaging and looting were surely not so interested in preserving soil and ecological balance (wasn’t one of the threats of the marauders that they would salt your fields if you didn’t give them what they asked for?). And the fact that your children would farm in the same place you did was, for a long time, an impetus to be careful how you used things, and plant an orchard for your grandkids.

    Breaking down somewhat now, admittedly. As far as education, if that means “years of schooling” (which is the typical proxy), I think that relationship may be inverse to land stewardship. While the highly-educated US resident talks a good line, they also tend to consume vast amounts of electricity, gas, jet fuel, etc.– much more than their modestly-paid maids and burger-flippers who don’t have high school degrees.

    If education is taken to mean cultural tradition of land stewardship, well, that is a different matter. But, I still believe those traditions come into being in places where people stick around the same general environs long enough to learn a lesson or 300 to pass on.

  6. I was viewing the the settled/nomadic argument through a short term (post-industrialization lens). The DC region is a very transient place, yet its well-educated population has created a thriving metropolitan area (at least economically).

  7. Interesting viewpoints on the (fairly recent) wealth of the DC area voiced on Alternative Radio this week. Thomas Frank, author of the book “The Wrecking Crew” sees the wealth of the DC area ballooning over the past decade, in tandem with increasing privatization of federal government functions and the growth of “K Street” lobbying firms.

    To be sure, many transient places have great wealth. Including pirate ships. But, long term, how well do they steward their natural resources, to what degree to they prepare a place to offer their great-grandchildren a better shot at life?

  8. I’ll just advise everyone to read Joseph Tainter, and be done with the debate over which way is best. :-)

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