The Broken City Model of Urban Growth

Are some cities so ‘broken’ that they are prohibitively expensive to fix?

That thought has occurred to me considering the growth of Dubai, where its problems are being fixed, too late maybe, and at too great a cost if they were fixed earlier, and probably the much needed public transport and other investment is not occurring at a rate fast enough to overcome the problems caused by rapid growth.

There are examples of cities that have grown so fast and with so little public investment that the urban dis-economies of scale (congestion) are higher than the urban economies of agglomeration which drives city growth.  In those cases the growth of a city slows down as the city simply cannot afford, without very high local taxes, to continue growing at the same rate, and attempting to tax at this level can lead to a downward fiscal spiral, of the kind we have seen in rustbelt American cities. The classic example of a broken city is Mexico City, where growth stalled to 1-2% in the 1970s.  Toky0-Yokahama will soon be in the same position. Jakarta growth has slowed to less than 1.5% in the last decade.  Moscow has seen a similar dramatic decline in growth in the last decade.   Without a major fiscal injection from elsewhere in the national economy there is no way back for such cities, and this might not be possible at all if the city is a ‘primate’ city dominating the national economy.

So it is much better for a city not to be broken than to be fixed, as when you become broken the cries of liberalising controls on growth if heeded would make matters worse, the city would simply become more broken with excessive congestion and not being able to afford the public services to manage the problems of a large conurbation.  Eventually the problems for businesses and residents can become so great that it can precipitate decline, which once it takes hold as in Cleveland and St Lois is seemingly impossible.  The great challenge that is for cities still in their major growth phases, like New Dehli and Dubai, can they avoid breaking by investing in infrastructure fast enough and by guiding their planning to where infrastructure is most cost effective.  If they dont they are heading down a broken path.