Wednesday, February 22, 2017


"Actions believed to alleviate the difficulties of a city can actually make matters worse." 
Jay W. Forrester

Jay Forrester penned his revolutionary article "The Counterintuitive Nature of Social Systems" (link to pdf full article) back in 1971.

His article is as relevant today as the day it was published.   Since 40 year old academic articles aren't likely to reach the public, I think it's a good time to revisit this masterpiece.

His article examines "four common programs for improving the depressed nature of central cities:
  1. ...creation of jobs by busing the unemployed to suburban jobs or through governmental jobs as employer of last resort;
  2. a training program to increase skills of the lowest-income group;
  3. financial aid to depressed cities from federal subsidies; and
  4. construction of low-cost housing. 
All of these were shown to lie between neutral and highly detrimental.

Forrester's investigation shows "how depressed areas in cities arise from excess low-income housing rather than from a commonly presumed housing shortage."
Forrester describes the counterintuitive downward spiral as efforts to help the poor miss their mark:
" and tax structures...combine to give incentives for keeping old buildings in place. As (the) ... buildings age, employment opportunities decline. As (the) buildings age, they are used by lower-income groups who are forced to use them at higher population densities. (Thus) ...aging buildings cause jobs to decline and population to rise. Housing, at the higher population densities, accommodate more low-income urban population than can find jobs. A social trap is created where excess low-cost housing beckons low-income people inward because of the available housing. Unemployed people continue coming to a city until their numbers sufficiently exceed the available jobs that the standard of living declines far enough to stop further inflow. Income to the area is then too low to maintain all of the housing. Excess housing falls into disrepair and is abandoned. Extreme crowding can exist in those buildings that are occupied, while other buildings become excess and are abandoned because the economy of the area cannot support all of the residential structures. Excess residential buildings threaten an area in two ways—they occupy land so it cannot be used for job-creating buildings, and they attract a population that needs jobs. Any change, which would otherwise raise the standard of living, only takes off the economic pressure momentarily and causes population to rise enough that the standard of living again falls to the barely tolerable level.

Want to read more? Check out blogger Andrew Taylor aka "The Artful Manager" as he takes on the same topic from a different perspective in a 2004 post called Finding Forrester.

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1 comment:

janet said...

To begin with, I admit up front I am not responding to the larger article, only what you have written here.

This article was evidently published in 1971 (as you state here,) three years before the first Community Development Block Grant legislation was enacted (Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.)

As much as it might be delicious to read this in a vacuum, it is important to know this cannot possibly be an evaluation of the universe we are accustomed to. Post WWII domestic economic development stressed the creation of housing in an environment marked by housing shortages more related to England after the Enclosure Acts than anything in our recent experience.

Until critical legislation in 1964 (The Economic Opportunity Act) and 1965 these urban renewal projects didn't really address anything except construction. The Model Cities program was one of the first to try a more integrated approach.

In all likelihood, the ostensibly failed programs referenced in your brief summary are more likely to be Depression Era models than those enacted in the prior few years, as it would have been far too soon for such an evaluation. Further, 1971 is pre-digital, so whatever information is evaluated is qualitative and limited at best. Even the Census data was limited. It consisted of a short list of questions asked in face to face interviews ONLY. That information was tabulated by hand, and typically did not become available until at least 4-5 years later. Hence it would have been impossible to have used extant census data in 1971 to evaluate 1960's era programs.

As far as the reference to 'excess low-income housing' (what a concept,) in contrast to a perceived housing shortage, one must remember he is referring to an era when the population shifted en masse from rural to urban. The new public housing projects were generally unavailable to people of color until the legislation of 1964 and 1965, and the abandoned old buildings referenced here were in our oldest cities, certainly antediluvian (Johnstown) some dating to before the Civil War.

More important, I can't quite decide if he just read Malthus and Ricardo, fell in love with their theories and just stuffed US Urban Renewal into a procrustean bed. Maybe I should read the entire article to see if he read Swift and had a plan to end hunger as well.