NYU’s Development Research Institute (DRI) is proud to announce the launch of its interactive website www.greenestreet.nyc. The “Greene Street Project” website, based on the academic paper, A Long History of a Short Block: Four Centuries of Development Surprises on a Single Stretch of a New York City Street, is a study of the historic development of the 486-feet strip of pavement, today known as Greene Street, between Houston and Prince Streets in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. Today, the block is one of the richest in the city and the world.

Greene Street

The “Greene Street Project” includes an interactive online portal that allows users to trace the development trajectory of Greene Street over four centuries, offering:

  • Easy to use annotated timeline interface, offering users a guided tour through hundreds of years of history of this block of New York City, aided by photographs, maps, newspaper articles, survey data, and more.
  • An interactive “Then & Now” section, allowing users to compare and contrast pictures of particular sections of the block from as far back as 1933, to the present day.
  • A detailed “Maps” section, which allows users to explore the block’s cartography across different eras.
  • A “Data” section that gives users the chance to evaluate everything from the typical occupations of Greene Street residents from 1834-1881, to the evolving market value of Greene Street real estate over four centuries.

So what are you waiting for? Dive into the history of Greene Street, now!

The behavioral economics pioneer Richard H. Thaler wrote a column in the New York Times yesterday, on how people can behave irrationally in a way that leads to not so great outcomes. The column gave examples of such problems and some suggested fixes.

I posted a comment on Twitter that came across as a harsher and more dismissive critique of Professor Thaler than I intended:

Behavioral econ @R_Thaler says we are too dumb to fix our own mistakes but smart enough to fix everyone else’s

I will try to blame the rudeness on the severe 140 character limit on Twitter, combined with bad judgment and orneriness. (But I think another  irrational bias is that we all tend to dismiss situational explanations for behavior like 140 character limits and to  believe that everything is intentional; plus I should be held responsible anyway.)

I put the longer and politer version of the intended (unoriginal) critique –the Paradox of Behavioral Economics — into an email apology to Professor Thaler (which he graciously accepted):

What I meant was that any fix to irrational behavior would still have to be designed, approved, and implemented by other individuals who are also themselves subject to irrational biases. Sometimes the fix will be possible and a clear improvement, other times not so much.

Professor Thaler’s brand new book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics is getting great reviews. Hopefully it will lead to a discussion of the Paradox not constrained by 140 character limits. And I am also looking for behavioral insights into how to fix my own rudeness on Twitter.

DRI’s annual conference took place on November 18, 2014 in the Rosenthal Pavilion of NYU Kimmel Center.  350 guests attended to hear the presentations and discuss research that examines cities as dynamic units at which development happens. The event was co-hosted by the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management.

Program and Speakers:

Download the conference program with speaker bios here.

Photographs (courtesy of Dave Anderson):

Videos (courtesy of Dave Anderson):

Click to view the conference abstract
The success and failure of cities reveal powerful development forces which are hard to see on a national scale. Ideology, policy, risk, and the spread of people, goods and ideas operate in unique ways in urban environments. “Cities and Development: Urban Determinants of Success” presents city-level analyses that bring new perspectives to development debates. 

 

Click to view the abstract for Paul Romer's 'The Power of the Grid'

In coming decades, urban populations will grow fastest in places where government capacity is most limited. If governments set the right priorities, these limits need not preclude successful urban economic development. The history of New York City shows that a government with limited capacity can implement measures that cost little, have a high social rate of return, increase its future tax base, and encourage the development of norms that support the rule of law. The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 defined and protected a network of public space in the city’s expansion area that could then be used to encourage mobility, provide utilities, and directly enhance the quality of urban life. City governments that focus first on this foundation and then follow with laws and a system of enforcement that protect public health and limit violence can create urban environments in which private actions can drive successful economic development. 

 

Click to view the abstract for Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi's 'A Long History of a Short Block: Four Centuries of Development Surprises on a Single Stretch of a New York City Street'

National and even city aggregates can conceal dynamism at smaller scales. A history of one block in Manhattan over more than a century shows how it had many ups and downs and many turbulent transitions, but twice achieved unexpected and remarkable success. (Work is co-authored with Steven Pennings.) 

 

Click to see the abstract and get the paper download link of Alain Bertaud's 'The Effects of Top-Down Design versus Spontaneous Order on Housing Affordability: Examples from Southeast Asia''

The spatial structure of large cities is a mix of top-down design and spontaneous order created by markets. Top-down design is indispensable for the construction of metropolitan-wide infrastructure, but as we move down the scale to individual neighborhoods and lots, spontaneous order must be allowed to generate the fine grain of urban shape. At what scale level should top-down planning progressively vanish to allow a spontaneous order to emerge? And what local norms are necessary for this spontaneous order to result in viable neighborhoods that are easily connected to a metropolitan-wide infrastructure? Examples from Southeast Asia show that an equilibrium between top-down designed infrastructure and neighborhoods created through spontaneous order mechanisms can be achieved. This equilibrium requires the acknowledgement by the government of the contribution of spontaneous order to the housing supply. Spontaneous order ignored or persecuted by government results only in slums. Download paper here.

 

Click to view the abstract for Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'Small Is Beautiful--But Also Less Fragile
We use fragility theory to show the effect of size and response to uncertainty, how distributed decision-making creates more apparent volatility, but ensures long term survival of a system. Simply, economies of scale are more than offset by stochastic diseconomies from shocks and there is such a thing as a “sweet spot” in optimal size. We show how city-states fare better than large states, how mice and small species are more robust than elephants, and how the canton mechanism can potentially solve Near Eastern problems. 

Coverage

Urb.im has launched a series of blog posts about our conference. Here are the first two posts on Paul Romer’s presentation, and William Easterly and Laura Freschi’s talk.

 

Possibly the most controversial recent development endeavor is one with the most minimalist design – “just giving money to poor people.”

Unconditional cash transfers, said to be less expensive and less paternalistic than in-kind aid or conditional payments, have gained wide exposure and generated many questions. What will the recipients buy with this cash? Surely they know better how to improve their own lives than aid officials do? Will the cash make a meaningful differenceWill it have a bigger (or more lasting) impact than other ways to help? Can one forget that an unconditional handout is still a handout?

To date, the poor who received money under the programs have not been wasting itThey did not become worse off in the short run after their (usually mobile) wallets got heavier. Yet on most other questions, the debate is ongoing.

On December 8th, 2014, the NYU Wagner Financial Access Initiative will co-host a discussion on this trend between academics and the founders of GiveDirectly – an unconditional cash transfer NGO. More information and registration are available here.

Shameela

Photo by James Mollison

Meet Shameela, 5, a stateless child from a Thai refugee camp. Shameela’s battered shack has holes in the roof and walls. She has to share an outdoor bathroom with 100 other people. Shameela is crying while a photographer takes her portrait.

Harrison

Photo by James Mollison

Meet Harrison, 8, who lives with his parents in a New Jersey mansion with a marble staircase. He has his own bedroom with a flat screen television. Harrison’s clothes are neat and his smile is calm.

Shameela and Harrison, along with 54 other kids and teenagers around the world, are part of a beautiful glow-in-the-dark photobook called Where Children Sleep. To make it, photographer James Mollison traveled around the world to take snapshots of children and places they call their bedrooms.

Mollison has a cosmopolitan background — he was born in Kenya, grew up in the UK, and is now based in Venice. Book reviews mention this fact as if to suggest how broad-minded and fit for the job it made him. “To begin with, I called the project ‘Bedrooms,’” says Mollison in the book’s foreword, “but I soon realized that my own experience of having a ‘bedroom’ simply doesn’t apply to so many kids.”

WhereChildrenSleepCover

The photographer embarked on the project trying to avoid clichés: “From the start, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations.” Yet half of his images are of deprived children from developing countries, and another quarter are of well-to-do Western kids who in comparison look unallowably privileged.

The poverty and inequality landscape is not what it was, and certainly not what it is often believed to be. Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries. The United States is now almost as unequal as Brazil. Yet in Mollison’s collection four out of five Brazilian kids reside either in favelas or on the street, while nine out of eleven American kids enjoy expensive hobbies, New York City penthouses, or marble-staired castles. In Nepal, one can’t deny that income statistics are dire: 25% of the population lives below the national poverty line (about $15 a month). Yet Mollison’s sample selection distorts this image further — five out of his eight Nepalese models are abjectly poor.

Each photo on its own tells a deep, complicated, and often hopeful story. Shameela is the first girl in her family to go to school. Preena, a young Nepalese housemaid, sends remittances to support her family in the village. Sherap goes to a Tibetan monastery school and admires his teacher. But when all the photographs are put together into a 120-page book, the story changes.

Mollison says he wants his book to help kids learn about poverty and inequality, “and perhaps start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond.” Yet unintentionally, the misguided and often harmful stereotype that some of us can and should fix the lives of others is passed on from our generation to the next.

This photobook can enrich a child’s worldview. It will familiarize children with ethnic conflict, public health issues, cultural prejudices, and more. But to educate kids about inequality and poverty – ideally before they spend their gap year and thousands of airfare dollars on a questionable voluntourism stint – you might need to find other didactic material.