Causality and Hierarchy

By Jan Dolezal

I was thinking whether there are some frameworks for ranking and organizing different initiatives, for example those on the menu of PlaNYC (here).  PlaNYC is not conveyed with costs (or benefits) and it’s only part of the overall approach of the City and State of New York so it’s hard to quantify the components, but here are some qualitative thoughts:

Hierarchy of Needs

One is a pyramid mirroring Maslow’s pyramid (’s_hierarchy_of_needs) with a similar pyramid for cities (e.g. you don’t care about energy efficiency if you don’t have energy. You don’t care about climate change if you don’t have housing…) On the bottom level, there are basic infrastructure needs (housing, transportation, water, energy). If this is not met, nobody will really care about what is higher. Above that initiatives that improve immediate quality of living, such as Air quality or Parks. Only when this is met, people might be thinking more about recreational Waterways and problems that are not troubling them directly such as Solid waste management. At the top of the pyramid is climate change that people will be more willing to address only when their lower needs are met.

This pyramid also demonstrates why cities in developed countries care more about the higher levels than in developing countries where even the lower levels are not met.   We could place the PlaNYC (or KAEC or Tianjin or Dharavi) initiatives in such a pyramid.

Dolezal's Hierarchy

Chain of Causality

Another simple framework would be simple causality (Several people mentioned catalysts, but we were going in circles as to what catalyzes what).

So for example efficient transportation is the cause and air quality is an effect. Climate Change is then effect of air quality.

Transportation -> Air quality -> Climate change

This relationship would allow us distinguish what is the goal and what is the way of getting to the goal, thereby allowing policy makers to make some linear choices.  In turn this wold allow investors and entrepreneurs to better assess which cities will be more propitious for their capital or projects.



5 thoughts on “Causality and Hierarchy

  1. Pingback: Most Commented through Friday, March 8th | Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance

  2. What is “a city”?

    So, we have been talking loosely about sustainability, cities and infrastructure. Using the plaNYC and this post about priorities I would like to address one issue that we never mentioned. There is a difference between “a city”, and a municipality. In this case NYC is the municipality, and we cannot assume that New York “City” ends within the municipal limits. It gets even more confusing when you consider that New York “City” expands across 3 states. There is a big difference. 8+ million live within the municipality, 18+ million live within the New York Metropolitan Area. And where should we draw the boundary? The MTA Metro-North Railroad covers the three states. Commuters drive, or take a train to New York from the three states. New York City residents commute in the opposite direction too.

    What should the priorities be? What population are we thinking about? Should the infrastructure and investments attract more residents to New York City, or provide alternatives for residents to work and live within the same municipality? Who should be making these decisions? Mayor Bloomberg represents the municipality, New York “City” expands across 3 states.

    For me, the priority that isn’t part of this plan, or in any consideration in American city planning is a reform of local governments. There should be a better alignment between the challenges and the jurisdiction of city governments. For example, how do wealthy suburbs with stringent zoning regulations that make affordable housing impossible pay for affordable housing in other parts of the city? Can they at least pay their fair share on the infrastructure and services they use?

    When are we going to start having this conversation in the US? We keep saying that governments are inefficient and unreliable, and that the private sector can step up and provide solutions but, given the public good nature of infrastructure and the many market failures, can we rely on the private sector? I agree with your framework to organize the different needs, but when the challenges and the decisions makers live within different boundaries and jurisdictions, there is no framework that can effectively explain the mismatch.

  3. I’m not fully persuaded by the comparison to Maslow.

    The basic problem, illustrated nicely by Daniel above, is that one person’s lower-level need is often the reciprocal of another person’s higher-order need, and the two don’t necessarily align with each other–in fact, they often come into conflict. In the case of housing, the lower and middle classes’ basic need for affordable housing reciprocates but conflicts with the rentier class’s higher need for the maintenance of rents. We could build more housing units in NYC, but if we were to build enough to actually lower the cost of housing, this would result in lower rents for existing landowners. Thus, unless we were somehow able to contrive a scenario in which all existing landowners share the ownership of all new development, the rentier class is going to have a pretty compelling reason to politically challenge the expansion of housing stocks.

    Moreover, at a high enough level of economic activity, the “basic” needs of some people actually begin to go away. If I have enough money to leave NYC for Singapore with little or no trouble, then all kinds of things that are very basic concerns of most people (e.g. exposure to hurricanes, quality of infrastructure, political stability), are of little or no concern to me, because I can leave.

    A fundamental aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for individuals is that higher-order needs cannot be addressed (and sometimes do are not even perceived as needs) unless the lower needs already have been met. I’m not sure this is the case in cities.

  4. By John Macomber

    Interesting to compare this to one point of view expressed in class: that PlaNYC by emphasizing climate change and response FIRST for promotional reasons drives in the opposite direction towards some of the action steps. And does not even drill down as far as homelessness (admittedly not the remit of PlaNYC as was also pointed out).

    If one looks as the layers in the hierarchy in terms of degree of difficulty or magnitude of cost they also are more expensive to do as you go to the bottom level, more “survival/prosperity” oriented ones (assuming that actions in NYC alone cannot address all of global climate change). So PlaNYC might be a clever way to focus on the items that differentiate New York in the minds of those who have a choice about locating there, without costing that to much to deliver relative to the potential expenditures in the lower tiers of this pyramid.

    It would appear that Mayor Bloomberg believes that the creation and attraction of high paying jobs and high wage earners then trickles down to benefit the lower tiers via personal spending, taxation, other jobs, public spending, and so forth. For the hand of cards that New York holds, good strategy. Chain of Causality….Big jobs –> public revenues –> public goods –> public benefits to the base. This is the virtuous cycle that KAEC is trying to figure out how to start. At PMH it was clearly electricity–> EPZ tariff favored jobs –> mid income residential –> office –> high income residential –> retail. PMH had time to let it evolve organically. This might indeed be a useful way to think even qualitatively about comparing diagnosis and prescription for cities.

  5. I find your reference to the Maslow pyramid very convincing and hard to rebut. I thought that the lack of (affordable) housing is the major issue that NY faces. The figure of 50,000 homeless is astonishing (even for the total population of NYC).

    I wonder how NYC (and its metro area) will be able to house 1 million more people in 15 years within all the existing contrains: lack of housing supply (NYC has a record-low vacancy rate; lower than 1%, physical limitations (sea, rivers), density (one of the most populated areas in the US; not only NYC but the BOS-WAS corridor) and government constraints (it took NY decades to start construction on a new metro line… how long will it take to build all the necessary infrastructure to accommodate 1M people – other than housing? -).

    By any measure, New York City is probably one of the most sustainable cities in the US; for instance low car ownership and high ridership of public transportation. And, as someone said yesterday, “New Yorkers tend to “buy” climate change”. So I don’t think that NYC’s lack of sustainability is a major issue today (how to upgrade its infrastructure to face new “Sandys” is a different issue); and the effect that those policies can have in the global context are minimal.

    Overall, I think that the concerns about the number of trees planted in the streets (or the sizes of soda on sale) are quite illustrative of the kind of city New York (or London or Paris) is turning out to be: a ghetto for tourists and a theme park for the global very rich. We have talked about cities in developing economies to accommodate the new emerging middle classes. However, we seem to forget that not everyone in Manhattan can or should work at Goldman Sachs… New York will still need teachers, firemen or nurses and they are on the way to become the new “working poor” if the city does not provide housing alternatives. New York, contrary to some of those “new cities” has and will have no problem to attract talented or educated people… but it might have a major issue to retain those other workers, or educated people looking for a more affordable lifestyle anywhere else. In my opinion, PlaNYC seems to minimize attention to that less “glamourous” side of New York.

    A couple of interesting articles I saw recently:

    What Is Middle Class in Manhattan? O’Leary, A. Published: January 18, 2013

    Income Data Shows Widening Gap Between New York City’s Richest and Poorest Roberts, S. Published: September 20, 2012

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