Cities of Tomorrow
The future of urban America is horizontal.
Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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.
Recent Blog Posts