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Slime Mold and Cities

I’ve got to admire anyone who can make a connection between slime mold and city planning—a real, intellectual connection that is, not a right-wing, anything-the-market-comes-up-with-is-good, planner-bashing connection. It may only have been the promise of such astonishing connections that originally led me to read Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. (I know it doesn’t mention slime mold in the title, but that’s really the most striking example in the book. Not that the ants aren’t fascinating.)

Johnson is one of those blessed writers who can make reading an entire nonfiction book about an extremely technical scientific concept fun and painless. In a nutshell, emergence is the process by which a complex system emerges from many individuals following a simple set of rules, usually ones that involve some form of positive feedback loop. There is no mastermind, no monarch, no omnipotent CEO or board of directors. No one is calling the shots, and the level of complexity that results can be far beyond the intellectual capacity of the individual participants.

Slime mold works roughly like this: Most of the time, it lives as a collection of single-celled organisms on the forest floor. But when food gets scarce, the cells coalesce into big blobs that move as a unit and have probably inspired countless horror flicks. In a wonderful example of how our social mores afflict supposedly unbiased scientists, for a long time no one could figure out how this worked because they assumed there had to be “leader” or “commander” cells that somehow orchestrated the coalescing timing and process. Turns out it’s not so: When certain conditions are met, all the cells do two things: (1) release a certain chemical, and (2) move toward concentrations of that chemical. That’s enough.

The idea that allowing carefully chosen positive feedback rules to churn out a bottom-up solution can get better results than a top-down solution has since been applied to making software, and Johnson argues it could also be used for city planning. This could strike a balance between the admitted problems of top-heavy, resource-intensive planning projects and a total free-market approach. But it requires recognizing what rules are in effect, how they are operating, and gathering the will to change them.

In Albany, one issue that might benefit from some of this thinking is abandoned properties, something that new mayoral candidate Archie Goodbee has listed as one of his top concerns. I had a conversation recently with Brien O’Toole of the Enterprise Foundation, who has come to Albany as part of a city-supported effort to address the dramatic extent of abandonment in the city, particularly in Arbor Hill and the South End. His project, which is both fascinating and somewhat controversial, is a story for another day. But in describing the situation, he shed some light on two of the underlying rules that are in operation here.

First, during the Corning era, when the city wielded almost total power over the county Democratic Party, Mayor Corning arranged a deal whereby the county would actually pay the city the amount it was losing on unpaid property taxes. In “return,” it’s the county that forecloses on city properties whose owners are delinquent on their taxes. Having just had to shell out back taxes in cold hard cash, the county is understandably eager to recoup something, and rushes the properties to auction. The result? A city where most of the abandoned property is in private hands rather than government hands, which is where it is in most cities. This makes some of the more common approaches to dealing with such properties, such as cities giving or selling properties cheap to nonprofit developers, or packaging sets of properties for other projects, rather more difficult in Albany.

Pair that with a nice little anti-density provision in the city zoning code: New construction in a R-2A or R-2C zone (much of Arbor and West Hill) requires a 40-foot-wide lot. In R-2B, which covers most of the rest of those neighborhoods, detached housing requires 30 feet. Lots in Arbor Hill, however, average 20- to 25-feet wide. So now you have a bunch of small-time owners who picked up cheap vacant lots at the aforementioned county auction—and find they can’t do a damn thing with them unless they’d like to altruistically create a community garden. (Not usually the vision of folks who go to county property auctions.)

Add to this some underlying rules that are not unique to Albany: As has been mentioned a few times recently in these pages, a property-tax system that is based mostly on the assessed value of a building, rather than the locational value of the land, encourages neglect and abandonment because they make property taxes go down, whereas investment in buildings is rewarded with higher taxes.

Anti-sprawl advocates have also been talking for years about other subtle ways that zoning, taxes and subsidies have been resulting in disappearing open space and longer commutes. These include highway and car-travel subsidies, fragmented municipalities competing for tax revenue from business and jobs, and Superfund rules that make an unwitting purchaser of a polluted site responsible for cleanup. (Remember, the claim that sprawling low-density living is what people want is only relevant when they’re not offered anything else. In several studies, people picked thriving, higher-density urban areas as more appealing when presented with several options.) The recent report from the Open Space Institute that sounds a warning about New York state’s loss of open space is one more reminder of how these things march on.

Now, I would never say that the things I have listed are all that’s contributed to abandoned properties, nor all that can or should be done about them. But a truly visionary mayor who wants to have a lasting effect on the health of the city overall could do nothing more radical (in its original sense of getting to the roots) than to go after some of these rules of the game that make the other approaches so difficult. They’ll be hard political fights yes, but the good news is, once they’re taken care of, they won’t require any kind of ongoing management or funding to have their effect.

Of course, not all rules of the game will be exactly within the mayor’s scope of duties: Johnson names the reluctance (mostly of white people) to live in fully integrated neighborhoods as a primary dynamic underlying urban demographics. That one’s not up to the policymakers.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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