Mexicans, Machines and Place

<p style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt" class="MsoNormal"> <span style="font-size: small; font-family: Times New Roman">The newest Drew Carey video at </span><a href="http://www.reason.tv/"><span style="font-size: small; color: #800080; font-family: Times New Roman">Reason.tv</span></a><span style="font-size: small; font-family: Times New Roman">—</span><a href="http://www.reason.tv/video/show/451.html"><span style="font-size: small; color: #800080; font-family: Times New Roman">Mexicans and Machines: Why Its Time to Lay Off NAFTA</span></a><span style="font-size: small; font-family: Times New Roman">—is (IMHO) brilliant, and triggered more than a couple of thoughts about how technology and progress creates practical challenges for planning. </span> </p>

Read Time: 4 minutes

July 9, 2008, 1:23 PM PDT

By Samuel Staley


The newest Drew Carey video at Reason.tv-Mexicans and Machines: Why Its Time to Lay Off NAFTA-is (IMHO) brilliant, and triggered more than a couple of thoughts about how technology and progress creates practical challenges for planning.

  The point of the seven minute clip, which is also an economically sound analysis, is the following: Machines have done far more to "displace" labor than international trade (and created tremendous economic value in the process). Criticism of NAFTA is really political campaign fodder, pandering to populist economic illiteracy. Why, Drew asks, if we're serious about the "threat" of Mexican (Canadian, Chinese, Indian .) labor on America's workforce, aren't we "demanding" a ban on the real culprit of technological progress? (Well, okay, there are some people in the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle/Kuntsler camp that probably want to do this, but, let's stay on this planet and in the mainstream for now.)

  The question begs a discussion about the changing nature of the national economy and the implications for how we live and work in cities.

  Let's take the first part of the political argument: manufacturing jobs are disappearing. This is true. Although manufacturing wages are going up, the number of people in those jobs is falling, both in absolute numbers and as a share of total employment. Here are the numbers for manufacturing employment according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

 

1980    19.2 million (21.1% of total nonfarm employment)

1990    17.8 million (16.3%)

2000    17.3 million (13.2%

2005    14.2 million (10.8%)

  So, not only do we have fewer people producing "things," our economy has shifted dramatically to a services based economy. Hold this thought.

  Here's the other part of the story: The value of manufacturing output is going up. The following data can be found in the Economic Report of the President 2007 (Chapter 3; table B-8). The value of domestic production of durable and non-durable goods production is increasing dramatically:

 

1980    $1.1 trillion

1990    $2.2 trillion

2000    $3.5 trillion

2005    $3.9 trillion

  So, we're producing more, with fewer people. Moreover, our production of tech stuff (computers, IT, etc.) is off the charts in percentages, an indicator of how much easier it is for people to use technology to do things not even contemplated in 1980. Remember, the first computer mouse was not distributed with a computer until 1981 (a Xerox, remember them?), the first commercially viable laptop computer wasn't introduced until 1981 and not produced on a large scale until 1988 (for the military), and the first practical web browser didn't come on the scene until the early 1990s.   As I write this from my home office in Ohio, working for a think tank with 45 people on staff that is fully virtual, I'm reaping the benefits of these changes. My office is wherever I need to be. I pick my kids up from school or athletic practices, job when I want, and re-arrange my work day according to our family needs. What does this mean for planning?  

Here are two questions that are crucial for the future of planning.

  Question #1: Given the current pace of technological change, how much can we realistically expect to plan in our communities?

  Answer: Less. (I'm going to punt the question of "how much less" for now.)

  In an economy where most people have defined needs that don't change, such as getting to and from work in a factory, traditional urban planning is easier and more direct. In an era where economic growth is driven by a dynamic, complex, services-based economy, planning can't possibly handle the complexities imbedded in the thousands of choices made daily by families and workers. The focus is more on providing the environment for living (and working) than managing the detail of living.   Along these lines consider the following two data points on two types of commuting: telecommuting (me) and public transit. 1) In 27 of the largest metropolitan areas, telecommuters outnumber transit users. 2) Telecommuting is growing far more rapidly than transit ridership.  

  Question #2: How important is urban planning in a dynamic, services based economy compared to a traditional economy?

  Answer: More.

  Richard Florida is correct-the so-called "Creative Class" is a bohemian group, interested in funky, eclectic urban environments. But they aren't alone. The services economy, and the wealth that comes with it, is releasing entire classes of people from the constraints of place. We no longer are bound to a neighborhood because we work nearby. We are not longer work nearby because our employer is located there. We have amazing mobility by virtue of wealth and the automobile. We have unprecedented ability to choose our homes and neighborhoods. We will be choosier and demand higher quality as a result. We are more sensitive to the quality of place than ever before. 

  So, the paradox is resolved by taking a 21st century view of planning. Planning is both more important and less important than before. It's more important because planners can influence the quality of place and even help customize it. (To test this out, talk to a planner in private practice.) But, traditional planning-rooted in communitywide master plans and detailed zoning-is on the way out. It can't adopt to the particular needs of place and the idiosyncracies households no longer geographically bound to home or work.


Samuel Staley

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban and real estate economics, regulations, economic development, and urban planning.

Green Healthy Community

Making Healthy Places

The editors of the book "Making Healthy Places," recently published in a second edition by Island Press, discuss the intersections of public health and planning, including key concepts such as green gentrification, health impact assessments, and AI.

September 18, 2022 - Laurie Mazur

Suburban Homes

Where Housing Costs Are Falling Fastest

Although median home prices remain close to record highs in many cities, some of the country’s priciest metro areas are seeing home prices plummet.

September 23, 2022 - Bloomberg

Aerial view of homes west of downtown Chicago, Illinois

Chicago ADUs Concentrated in More Affluent Neighborhoods

An analysis of city-issued permits shows that homeowners in gentrified wards are building accessory dwelling units at much higher rates than those in less well-off communities.

September 18, 2022 - Chicago Sun-Times

Miami and Key Biscayne

The Great American Exodus: A Conservative's Perspective

During his keynote speech on September 11 at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis describes the demographic shifts in America since he became governor in 2019 in what he calls the 'Great American Exodus.'

September 27 - The Wall Street Journal

Downtown Houston and Buffalo Bayou

$100 Million to Help Fund Buffalo Bayou Expansion in Houston

Originally proposed in 2019, the Buffalo Park East Master Plan, which would extend Buffalo Bayou Park to the East End and Fifth Ward neighborhoods, is suddenly in high gear.

September 27 - Buffalo Bayou Partnership

View of Seattle skyline with houses in foreground

Community Land Trusts Make Homeownership Accessible

The organizations sell homes to low-income buyers at rates far below market prices, putting homeownership within reach for more families.

September 27 - Next City

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.