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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.

I confess that my family and I live in an old neighborhood near downtown Dallas where you don’t see many strip malls or big box stores. So I’m one of those who cringe while driving through Dallas’s many suburbs with their malls, chain stores, and same old-same old restaurants. But those suburbs are what keep places like Dallas affordable. Kotkin calls this “the power of vanilla,” and their ordinariness keeps them accessible places, especially for families with children. By contrast, the middle class is being squeezed out of Manhattan, which is increasingly a luxury city for high-income workers. (Kotkin notes that a recent Brookings Institution study reports that New York has the smallest share of middle-class families in America.)

There’s a temptation, even in aspirational cities, to focus money and attention on developing “glamour zones” such as New York offers. We have one in Dallas, built up around a new basketball arena. There’s nothing wrong with destination attractions, per se, but Kotkin’s point is that aspirational cities must not forget that good jobs, safe neighborhoods, and affordable housing are what draw people to them. 

One interesting wrinkle in this tale of the suburbs surrounding the “new American city” is that they are getting more diverse, as Kotkin reports. He considers them the new melting pot. You can see this diversity in one of Dallas’s oldest white-bread suburbs, Richardson, where its school district now educates children who speak dozens of different languages. Its Asian shopping district hums with food stores you wouldn’t find anywhere else in North Texas. And perhaps not so notably, it was home to the Holy Land Foundation, which the Bush administration busted on charges of financing terrorism. 

Diversity figures prominently in The Next Hundred Million, and smart conservatives will listen up. Some may dislike the prevalence of immigrants in our communities, but immigrants will drive America’s growth—especially if we make room for them through a saner immigration system. At the outset, Kotkin contrasts the projected growth in America’s population, that next hundred million, to the flat population rates projected for Europe and parts of Asia. The fact that people want to come here speaks to the vibrancy of our society—and to what will keep our economy growing as well. And not just in creating low-skill jobs—which no society should bet its future upon—but in generating high-skill jobs, which attract educated immigrants.

There is a risk, of course, if we don’t manage immigration right, and that is where conservatives are right to worry. We need to make sure we master the assimilation of immigrants into our society. As Kotkin writes, “It will not be bloodlines but the ideals and attitudes shaped by a uniquely diverse society.” He believes the “binding principles” that differentiate us from the rest of the world will be “a common belief system and a spiritual core, a sense of a shared destiny, a culture of opportunity and a recognition of the importance of community and family.”

Perhaps we could add a few more principles to this, such as understanding the history of the United States of America. But he’s basically correct, particularly with that last part about community and family. 

As it happens, my newspaper is engaged in a campaign to close the gap between Dallas’s wealthier northern half and its poorer southern half. We’ve been writing about economic strategies, but we’re also focusing on the difference that strong families can make in turning around the southern districts of Dallas where many new immigrants live. Good schools are a big part of the equation, and not just in Dallas: They are the key to social mobility and to acquiring a sense of America’s binding principles. Here’s hoping Republicans will take up where George W. Bush left off with his important emphasis on good public schools.

I don’t buy all of Kotkin’s points. He’s too down on downtowns, for example, seeing them as having mostly symbolic importance in the future. (In Dallas, at least, many businesses still flock to the central city.) But his main point is an important one: America’s future doesn’t rest with Washington calling the shots but with the evolution of our local communities. New York remains a helluva town, but there’s a counter-reformation going on across the rest of urban America.

William McKenzie, a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. 

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