Paul Krugman: City life, culture wars and conspiracy theories

What people who haven’t experienced a real urban lifestyle generally don’t get is how easy life is.

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) The Upper West Side of Manhattan, on March 20, 2020. “What people who haven’t experienced a real urban lifestyle generally don’t get is how easy life is. Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces,” writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

I have an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a very densely populated area — according to census data, the area within a 1-mile radius of my place has around 100 residents per acre, or more than 60,000 per square mile. This dense (and, to be honest, affluent) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, groceries, hardware stores, specialty shops of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within easy walking distance.

In effect, then, I live in what some Europeans — most famously Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris — call “a 15-minute city.” It’s a catchy if slightly misleading name for a concept that urbanists have long advocated: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.

Modern politics being what it is, alas, it’s also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of wild conspiracy theories. And as usual the people who yell loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.

Before I get to the politics, a few words about what living in a 15-minute city, and New York in general, is actually like.

What people who haven’t experienced a real urban lifestyle generally don’t get is how easy life is. Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.

You might think that the price of this convenience is coping with constant noise and teeming crowds of strangers. But while the main north-south thoroughfares — in my case Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus — are fairly noisy and have a lot of both vehicle and foot traffic, the side streets are much quieter than you probably imagine.

What about crime? There’s a widespread perception that New York is a dangerous place. In his speech Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump asserted that “killings are taking place at a number like nobody’s ever seen, right in Manhattan.” Yet the reality is that New York is one of the safest places in America. No doubt, New Yorkers themselves were greatly upset by a surge in the crime rate during the pandemic, but this surge may be ebbing, with murders in particular down to their lowest level since 2019.

And the safety proved in statistics is also the lived experience in many areas of the city where New Yorkers don’t act as if they’re terrified of crime. A couple of nights ago I walked home from an event at 12:30 a.m.; there were people out and about, and no sense of menace.

Am I proselytizing? Well, yes. Most Americans — even those who have visited New York but seen little beyond the crowds in Times Square — have a distorted sense of what urban life can be like. But very few promoters of the 15-minute city would advocate imposing that lifestyle on the population at large. It’s more a matter of making it possible for people to live that way if they choose.

Which is where the culture wars and conspiracy theories come in.

I’ve noted before that there’s an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to disparage big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if anyone did the same for rural areas. Trump’s false claims about crime weren’t that unusual. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people living a car-centered lifestyle, or a pickup truck-centered lifestyle, are real Americans.

And this in turn feeds into conspiracy theorizing. Making walkable cities possible requires both loosening and tightening restrictions on urban development: Localities would have to allow more construction of multifamily housing and multistory buildings, while restricting car traffic in certain areas.

Remarkably, the right manages to view both looser and tighter regulation as leftist plots.

The big budget document currently popular among House Republicans takes time out to support local bans on multifamily housing, contending the bans help preserve our “beautiful suburbs.” (These days even dry fiscal documents sound like Trump speeches.)

As for traffic restrictions, at least some people on the right have managed to convince themselves that they’re a plot to lock people into their neighborhoods, not allowed to leave. Slightly less crazy commentators, like pop philosopher Jordan Peterson, call traffic restrictions a plan by “tyrannical bureaucrats” to dictate where you’re allowed to drive.

For what it’s worth, there are in fact many places everyone agrees you shouldn’t be allowed to drive — for example, across planted farmland — because doing so would impose costs on other people. The costs you impose on others by driving into an urban area and thereby making congestion worse are every bit as real, but somehow placing limits on urban driving is tyranny.

But of course none of this is about rational argument.

Now, I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable-city lifestyle if it were widely available, but surely many more than are living it now. Unfortunately, urban planning — for cities are always planned, one way or another — is yet another casualty of the politics of grievance and paranoia.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a columnist for The New York Times.