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Cities of Tomorrow

The future of urban America is horizontal.

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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The Next
Hundred Million

Cities of Tomorrow

Dallas skyline, 2005

America in 2050
by Joel Kotkin
Penguin, 320 pp., $25.95

My wife and I spent a delightful weekend with our twin children in New York City as the school year ended. Being only seven, our young Texans had never set foot in New York. But they knew about it, thanks to Eloise’s haunts at the Plaza. New York held a special fascination for our daughter after she read umpteen jillion Eloise books and watched hours of Eloise DVDs with her brother.

Many people hate New York, but it has a special draw for other Americans. Put me in that camp. I love its density, crowds, and pace. But the reality is that the typical American city is moving away from the model of New York, especially Manhattan. Many Americans, including those of us who love New York, are choosing to live in newer cities such as Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas. (The latest census data show Dallas-Fort Worth is America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area.) 

They operate with a set of arrangements that contrast with the European-style city you see in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco: walkup apartments, towering skyscrapers, pedestrian traffic. Those feed the pulse of Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco, much as Paris and London thrive around the clock with restaurants, groceries, and shops that residents walk to on their way home, or stop by late at night. As Joel Kotkin expertly explains here, American cities are mostly operating on a new template. They are “multipolar, auto-car-dependent, and geographically vast,” he writes. Kotkin contends that these decentralized cities benefit from their vast geography and “smaller constellation of subcenters.”

The Next Hundred Million is worth reading on several levels, but Kotkin’s analysis of the type of metropolitan areas we are living in today is the most important. Whether you are just curious about what’s ahead, a real estate developer looking for the trends shaping America, or a political strategist thinking about what the public square will look like over the next few decades, his ideas must, at least, be considered. 

Sure, cities like Houston present a “wow” skyline and ample new options for living in the central core, often built up around new downtown stadiums. And within the confines of those downtowns, you can have the urban lifestyle that attracts people to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. But their downtowns are only one node among many. Once you leave the central business district, the skyscrapers fade away into miles of low-rise residences and businesses until you hit the next set of high-rises, office towers, and multilevel shopping malls. That is certainly true for Dallas and Houston: They are more like Los Angeles, the granddaddy of the new American city, in that they have a business district in their downtowns, a medical district someplace else, a technology corridor (or what’s left of one) over yonder, and big shopping districts built up around malls. Each node is connected to the other by freeways, which allow people to move fairly quickly from point to point.

Those who love the New York model may loathe the car-dependent, decentralized nature of places like Phoenix. But Kotkin, who lives in Los Angeles, points out that their big size allows them to remain affordable for middle-class families. There is room for more people, which keeps the supply-and-demand curve in relative balance. And he offers a great term for these new metropolitan areas: He calls them “aspirational cities.” They don’t have a Broadway or a Times Square, which “superstar cities” such as New York offer, but they aspire to greatness through creating opportunities. And they do so largely through being relatively easy places in which to live. Housing is more affordable; quality schools exist in their suburbs; new art centers provide good cultural offerings.

One thing that struck me after moving back to Texas from Washington in 1991 is how many times you hear transplants to Dallas say that they like the “ease” of the place, even if they don’t like the heat and the flatness. They also like getting more bang for their housing dollars. That not only includes getting more square feet at a reasonable price, but also a large lot, often in those suburbs that Kotkin extols. They are a major part of the decentralized city, offering people “a spot of land and a little breathing room,” as he puts it.

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