Self sustaining cities
January 30, 2008 12:08 PM   Subscribe

What potential or existing strategies are there for developing large urban economies without relying on international investment, transnational corporations, etc.?

I know that as things stand, cities across North America require much more revenue than can be generated solely through a local economy, but in light of climate change, peak oil, and the various ethical consideration of economic globalization, I'm wondering:

What might your typical large city (to whatever extent that there is a "typical" city) have to do to be more economically self sustaining? What common practices currently obstruct this possibility?

Are there any writings or resources on this? Any significant theories or schools of thought around this? Any real-world experiments, examples?
posted by poweredbybeard to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, we have an "experiment" going on right now in Pyongyang, since North Korea is basically an autarky and fits your criteria about international trade, transnational corporations, etc. More or less, if you're not in the power structure, life totally sucks if you live there.

Contrary to your assertion, North American cities are centers of economic activity. They're not "economically self-sustaining" because the residents in the city and in the city's hinterland reap great benefits from specialization and extending the scope of the market. If you want cities (and their hinterlands) to be autarkic, you reduce specialization and the scope of the market to what's within your geographic area. You basically wind up with a population that's relatively very poor and are highly vulnerable to economic shocks, like bad weather destroying the local crops.

In terms of philosophy, you can go back to the North Korean example, as they've wrapped their isolation in an ideology, Juche.
posted by chengjih at 12:27 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not really sure you can contain an economy in the way that you describe, at least not in this era. Companies are constantly importing and exporting goods and services outside their metropolitan areas. For instance, I work as a freelance graphic designer in Chicago and my client might be in Iowa or Japan. I do think that there are areas of the economy that are trending toward a more local and sustainable model, the restaurant industry would be an example.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 12:42 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: chengjih: Thanks for the info, but I'm not interested in isolation, only in possibilites for reducing dependency and increasing local sustainability. Interdependency would probably fit the bill but I don't see that figuring greatly in the current model.
posted by poweredbybeard at 12:48 PM on January 30, 2008

There's a relevant article in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly about how cities like San Francisco and others are starting to think about and prepare for Peak Oil.
posted by vacapinta at 12:49 PM on January 30, 2008

I'm not sure what you mean by "reducing dependency" vs. "interdependency". If you have a diverse enough economy where there's large scale specialization, people are typically going to "depend" or are "interdependent" on other people because no one is doing all the economic tasks necessary for survival. There's no difference between these terms. If we reduce the scope of activity, i.e., reduce specialization, people (or other economic units, like towns and cities) may be less "dependent", but typically you're going to wind up much poorer, because specialization is the way to do more with the same amount of stuff. You can choose to become less "dependent", but there are costs to that. Autarky is just the extreme on a sliding scale of market scope.

Sufficiently wealthy groups, like, say, people living in North American cities, may choose to reduce their economic scopes and range of activities, but these choices are basically luxuries of relative wealth. For example, the various 100-mile or 500-mile diets, where you try to eat only the food produced within such a radius, is a voluntary choice to limit the scope of food markets. This sort of thing is somewhat dependent on where you live and what your city's hinterland provides: Californians living near the Central Valley have a relatively large variety of food to choose from in February, compared to, say Montanans.

I believe I heard something on NPR a couple of weeks ago, where a lot of people in Portland were making conscious choices to buy, say, bookshelves and other cabinetry from local woodworkers. There may have been some effort to use a local fiat currency, also. But, as you may surmise, I tend to think of this as a case of relatively wealthy people (living in a wealthy city, where they would have resources to fall back upon in case this plan turned out not to work) making a luxury choice about what they buy.
posted by chengjih at 1:12 PM on January 30, 2008

You might be interested in participatory economics.
posted by streetdreams at 1:47 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: chengjih, I get what you're saying, but it doesn't feel like you're answering my question so much as telling me why you think my assumptions are wrong, which is interesting, but not necessarily useful. You're saying economic complexity is synonymous with highly globally integrated trade, and, if I may infer, export-based economies. I disagree; my instinct is that this isn't the only route, hence my question.

Your point is taken that - as things currently stand - the alternatives are largely restricted to the individual choices of well-to-do people. I'd like to envision ways in which that might not be the case.
posted by poweredbybeard at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2008

I know that as things stand, cities across North America require much more revenue than can be generated solely through a local economy...

This statement is plainly false on its face.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:31 PM on January 30, 2008

That is, the urban areas of North America provide revenue subsidies to the rural areas, not vice versa.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:31 PM on January 30, 2008

What common practices currently obstruct this possibility?

The fact that people can and do move and travel between cities/countries, and that they can purchase products and services made elsewhere, and sell their products and services elsewhere. I'm failing to see WHY you'd want to curtail this. It seems to me that the only way HOW is through economic incentives, through the power of the markets, or through the force of law (and then you get a black market for "foreign" goods).

Assuming fuel costs continue to rise, the costs of tangible (transportable) goods will reflect the increased expense until there's some tipping point at which people are no longer willing to pay. I don't foresee this happening suddenly, but gradually. I imagine that the goods currently produced in China might eventually be made in Mexico or Canada or wherever labor is cheap enough to absorb the added cost of transport.

Right now, there's no compelling reason for the average person to buy local if his/her pocketbook is a concern. Foreign goods, especially clothing, are much cheaper than domestic. And it's not just money that matters - I can pick up any old t-shirt at target for $5 and I won't run afoul of anti-nudity laws, but I really like the shirt I'm wearing now, which came from Paris and cost ~ €30. I can't find that in Chicago.

In addition there is the question of how many manufacturers could a small city/town support? There are huge shortages of specialized types of workers - for example, skilled welders in Milwaukee. Companies are forced to buy heavy machinery from elsewhere because the labor market does not support manufacturing it in Milwaukee.
posted by desjardins at 4:00 PM on January 30, 2008

clarification: I didn't pay transport costs on the Paris shirt because I bought it while I was there.
posted by desjardins at 4:02 PM on January 30, 2008

I know that as things stand, cities across North America require much more revenue than can be generated solely through a local economy

I agree with mr_roboto and chengjih, this is not true. Cities are much more productive than rural areas.

Economic complexity is limited by the degree of specialisation. If you have more people then you can become more specialised. So - yeah - modern urban survival is dependent on having a lot of specialised people. Hence a lot of trade, national and international. Transnational corporations are merely an efficient way of facilitating some of that trade.
posted by TrashyRambo at 4:03 PM on January 30, 2008

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