What's the proper model for an American city?

  • Article by: JOEL KOTKIN
  • Updated: August 19, 2014 - 12:13 PM

The people doing the designing don’t care what you want — they’re planning for hipsters. They ought to be planning for the middle class.

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A free downtown shuttle moved through the historic East Village district, in Des Moines, Iowa. The city and its metro area have experienced a popularity surge in recent years thanks to new businesses and housing opportunities.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall • Associated Press,

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– What is a city for?

It’s a crucial question, but one rarely asked by the pundits and developers who dominate the debate over the future of the American city.

Their current conventional wisdom embraces density, sky-high scrapers, vastly expanded mass transit and ever-smaller apartments. It reflects a desire to create an ideal locale for hipsters and older, sophisticated urban dwellers. It’s city as adult Disneyland or “entertainment machine,” chock-a-block with chic restaurants, shops and festivals.

Overlooked, or even disdained, is what most middle-class residents of the metropolis actually want: homeownership, rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area, good schools and “human scale” neighborhoods.

A vast majority of people — roughly 8o percent — prefer a single-family home, whether in the city or surrounding communities. And they may not get “creative” gigs at ad agencies or writers collectives, but look instead for decent-paying opportunities in fields such as construction, manufacturing or logistics. Over the past decade, these jobs have been declining rapidly in “luxury cities” like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In contrast, such jobs, which pay $60,000 to $100,000 annually, have been growing — particularly as the industrial and energy sectors have recovered — in cities like Houston, Austin, Nashville and Salt Lake City. These locales also feature housing, relative to incomes, that is more affordable.

Of course, few urbanists wax poetic about Dallas or Des Moines. They lack Brooklyn’s hipster charm, and often maintain some of the trappings of the suburbs. But these “opportunity cities” offer what Descartes called “an inventory of the possible” — urbanity as an engine of upward mobility for the middle and working classes.

Ever since the Great Recession, many in America’s urban-focused pundit class have written off these cities, particularly in the Sun Belt, as places where the “American dream” has gone to die. Yet over the past 30 years, and now again, virtually all of the fastest-growing American metropolitan areas were located in the West or the South. In 2012, nine of the 10 fastest-growing large metropolitan areas were in the Sun Belt, including big Texas cities like Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, along with Denver, Raleigh, N.C., and Phoenix. In 2013, Houston alone had more housing starts than the entire state of California.

At the same time, immigrants — traditionally the most determined seekers of upward mobility — are now also flocking to places like low-cost Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, which ranked second to New York in the last decade as a destination for the foreign-born. Immigrants are even heading in large numbers to locales such as Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, where foreign-born populations have doubled over the past decade. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly given the prevailing tone of media coverage, these cities also have enjoyed generally faster growth among both college graduates and people ages 20 to 29 than New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

These trends can also be seen in population projections. A U.S. Conference of Mayors study predicts that Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston will grow to be nearly as large as Chicago by 2042. If the same growth rate were to continue through 2050, both Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston would be ahead of Chicago by 2050.

To a large extent, this growth is fueled by middle-class movement to regions that offer both better economic prospects and more affordable housing prices. Before 1970, housing prices were largely even, relative to incomes, across the nation. Today, in large part due to regulatory and tax policies, they differ by as much as two to three times among cities like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, on the one hand, and New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Then there is the critical issue of employment. Since 2008, Houston has added more than 185,000 jobs and Dallas 115,000, more than New York, which is much larger. Los Angeles and Chicago still remain well below their 2008 employment levels.

It is also often alleged that these are primarily “crummy,” low-income jobs, but the opportunity cities have generally enjoyed strong mid-skilled growth and, over the past decade, also higher levels of STEM jobs. Since 2001, Houston has led the nation’s large metropolitan areas in the percentage growth of net STEM jobs; Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix have expanded these jobs more than San Francisco, even accounting for the current social-media activity. Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago have suffered a net loss since 2001.

Perhaps most important, these are overwhelmingly the places where people choose to start families and raise children. All 10 of the cities (metropolitan areas) with the largest shares of children 0-14 years of age are opportunity cities, with Salt Lake City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Riverside-San Bernardino and San Antonio taking the top five positions. On the other hand, luxury cities, such as San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle and Miami, tend to rank in the bottom third, according to American Community Survey data.

Meanwhile, cities like New York and San Francisco continue to reflect the media’s preferred form of urbanism, first articulated by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that, to survive, a city must be primarily “a luxury product,” a place that focuses on the very wealthy whose surplus can underwrite the rest of the population.

“If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend,” Bloomberg, himself a multibillionaire, suggests. “Because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.”

This reliance on the rich, notes a Citigroup study, creates a “plutonomy,” an economy and society driven largely by the wealthy class’s investment and spending.

Luxury cities, increasingly, are less places of aspiration than geographies of inequality. New York, for example, is by some measurements the most unequal of major U.S. cities, with a level of inequality that approximates South Africa before apartheid. New York’s wealthiest 1 percent earn a third of the entire municipality’s personal income — almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country.

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