After Coronavirus We Need to Rethink Densely Populated Cities

For the better part of this millennium, the nation’s urban planning punditry has predicted that the future lay with its densest, largest, and most cosmopolitan cities. Yet even before the onslaught of COVID-19, demographic and economic forces were pointing in the exact opposite direction, as our biggest cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—all lost population in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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The End of New York

For over two centuries, New York has been the predominant urban center in North America. It remains the primary locale for the arts, culture, finance, and media, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. It has also served as the incubator of the many Americas—including Jewish, Italian, African American, Irish, and, increasingly, Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian cultures—and nurtured their contributions to the arts, business, and intellectual life.

Yet today, New York faces a looming existential crisis brought on by the coronavirus. It suffers the largest outbreak of infection by far, accounting for the largest numbers of both cases and deaths outside of Wuhan and Milan. New York is home to nearly half of the coronavirus cases in the United States, and a majority of deaths.

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The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.

Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, for example, have occurred in Madrid while the Milan region, with its cosmopolitan population and economy, accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.

In the US, known cases and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Seattle area, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Gotham, with six percent of the US population, now accounts by itself for nearly half of the 18,000 cases in the country. Even the New York Times, a consistent booster for packing people into small spaces, now acknowledges that the city’s high densities are responsible for its much higher rate of infection even than relatively dense but far more dispersed areas like Los Angeles, which is equally diverse and global but still consists largely of single family houses.

In places like New York, crowded mass transit systems remain essential to many commuters, while suburban, exurban, and small-town residents get around in the sanctuary of their private cars. These patterns can be seen in a new report by the mid-American think tank Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), which shows how relatively slight the impact has been outside of a few large urban centers on the coasts. Rural areas around the world have been largely spared, at least for now. The North American hinterlands, according to health professionals, benefit from less crowding and unwanted human contact.

Living in dispersion may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and having neighbors you know, does have its advantages in times like these. Even the urban cognoscenti have figured this out—much as their Renaissance predecessors did during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, wealthy New Yorkers today are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the locals over depleted supplies of essentials.

Back to the Dark Ages?

In classical times, plagues devastated Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Along with barbarian invasions, they reduced the population of the Eternal City from 1.2 million at its height to barely 30,000 by the sixth century. Outside Europe, pandemics devastated cities such as Cairo, Canton, and Harbin. Following the conquest of the New World, the indigenous population suffered massive casualties from exposure to European diseases like smallpox.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Pavel Dvorak via Wikimedia under CC 1.0 License.

The Luxury City is Going Bust

In a year when two boosters of the “luxury city,” Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, are vying to run the whole country, the very model that created their “success” is slowly unraveling. After roughly 20 years of big-city progress, measured by economic growth and demographic progress, the dense urban centers, including New York, are again teetering on the brink of decline.

Long associated with glamour, money and cultural influence, the rise of the luxury city has foundered on the rocks of inequality and, increasingly, diminished upward mobility. Indeed, according to Pew research, the greatest inequality now exists in superstar cities such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Rather than working to create and sustain a middle class, as Jane Jacobs once suggested, by building local economies, these cities have depended on luring both the ultra-rich and the young and ambitious of the global marketplace to secure and enhance their place.

This approach worked somewhat in the first decade of the millennium, as illustrated by a remarkable rise in New York City’s newly listed condo prices over the last decade from $1.15 million to $3.77 million. But the gold rush is fading now, in part due to the decline of globalization which is also weakening the economies of rival global capitals like London and Hong Kong. Today, as The Atlantic recently noted, Manhattan now suffers conditions where “the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.”

Even the world’s arguably most influential urbanist, scholar Richard Florida, agrees that the great urban revival is “over.” Since 2010, urban inner rings, including central business districts, accounted for barely 10 percent of population growth in the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan areas. More revealing still, the country’s three largest metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—are now losing population. Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs, which have seven times as many people as the core, are again growing faster. Suburbs are also seeing a strong net movement among educated people, those earning over $75,000 and especially those between the ages of 30 and 44. Far from being dead, as often asserted in the big city media, a new Harvard study shows that over the past 40 years the periphery has increased its lead in terms of wealth and jobs compared to core cities.

The changing dynamics of millennial migration—long held as the secret sauce powering inner-city revivalism—represent perhaps the most ominous sign of things to come. Dense, high-priced cities, the object of endless love from architectural critics like The New York TimesMichael Kimmelman, do still attract many talented young people straight from college, but many don’t stay long, and increasingly are seeking out other, less dense and more affordable places. A recent Brookings study shows that New York now suffers the largest net annual outmigration of post-college millennials (ages 25–34) of any metro area, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Diego. The biggest gains, outside Seattle, have been concentrated in the central and mountain time zones in places like Austin, Dallas, Houston and Denver.

Read the rest of this piece at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Ted McGrath via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

The Jewish Dilemma

Es iz schwer tzu sein a yidIt is hard to be a Jew.
~Sholem Aleichem

When Britain’s Jews go to the polls next week, they do so at an uncomfortable moment. For the first time in at least a half century, their community—roughly 330,000 citizens—has become a major, if unwelcome, political issue. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a long-standing ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, and a fierce opponent of Israel’s right to exist, so the prospect of him becoming Prime Minister has made Jews nervous. As the New York Times suggests, British Jews are “Labourites practically by birth,” but many of them are likely to vote Conservative this time around.

The dilemma British Jews face is an increasingly common one across Europe. Britain’s Jews may not much like Boris Johnson, as they opposed Brexit by a factor of two-to-one, but many, in the words of the former Chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, see the prospect of Corbyn’s election as “an existential crisis.” Polls suggest that just six percent of UK Jews plan to vote Labour.

What is occurring in Britain, and much of Europe, reflects changes in the nature of antisemitism. In the past, this oldest of prejudices was widely linked to the far-Right, where it still resides. But in many countries today, the primary instigators of anti-Jewish conspiracism tend to be found on the Left, and often allied with Muslim activists. Under this pressure, it is increasingly dubious that Europe’s Jewish communities can do anything but decline.

Whether from the Right or the Left, from Muslims, reactionary Christians, or progressive Greens, European Jews are confronted by a threat not seen since the 1930s. Some 90 percent of European Jews, according to recent surveys, have experienced antisemitic incidents, and more than 80 percent of European Jews aged 16 to 34 believe antisemitism is a growing problem in their countries. According to a recent EU survey, half of German and Belgian Jews and well over a third of Jews in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden report being harassed for their religious affiliation; the rates have grown everywhere over the past five years.

If these trends persist, we can expect Europe’s Jewish populations to erode further. The triumph of Corbyn—a man 87 percent of British Jews polled believe to be an antisemite—could cause nearly half to “seriously consider” emigrating, most likely to more congenial places like Israel, the United States, Australia, and Canada. France’s Jewish population, the largest in Europe, has been sustained largely by the mass migration from North Africa, although that source has pretty much dried up now. Even so, France still has fewer Jews than it did in 1939 and that number seems destined to continue shrinking. Since 2000, nearly 50,000 Jews have left, mostly for Israel, the United States, or Canada

In fact, it’s hard to find a place in Europe—with the odd exception perhaps of Hungary—where Jewish prospects are anything but dismal. Eastern Europe, the center of the Jewish world in 1939 with its eight million Jews, has less than 400,000 today. Germany, home to 500,000 Jews in 1933, now has as little as a third of that, most originally refugees from eastern Europe. Fewer than 15,000 of the Jews living in Germany today can trace their roots to the pre-Nazi era.

Read the rest of the piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, will be published early next year. You can follow him on Twitter Twitter @joelkotkin

The Middle Class Rebellion

We usually associate rebellions with the rise of the desperate. But increasingly we are seeing large protests in comparatively wealthy countries that are led not by working class sans-culottes or starving peasants, but what was once the stable middle class.

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Stomping on the Suburbs

Our way of life is a miracle for this kind of world, and … the danger lies in thinking that of it as ‘natural’ and likely to endure without a passionate determination on our part to preserve and defend it.”
— W.V. Aughterson, The Australian Way of Life, 1951

For generations, Australia has enjoyed among the highest living standards in the world. The “Australian dream”, embodied largely by owning a single-family home with a small backyard, included well over 70 per cent of households.

Today that dream is fading.

Those who are aged above 55, notes the Grattan Institute, still enjoy homeownership rates around 80 per cent but property ownership rates among 25-34-year-olds have dropped from more than 60 per cent in 1981 and to 45 per cent in 2016. Equally disturbing, new migrants, the lifeblood of an increasingly diverse country, have experienced a significant fall; skilled immigrants, for example, have seen their homeownership rate plunge just this decade from over 40 per cent to barely 25 per cent.

The obvious villain here is high-housing prices, that have risen twice as fast as incomes over the past four decades, a rate far higher than other high-income countries. Today, notes demographer Wendell Cox, “Sydney’s house prices, even after a recent readjustment, are higher, based on income, than any first world city besides Hong Kong; its housing costs eclipse great global cities like Los Angeles, New York, and London.”

Needlessly Pricey

To an outsider, Australia’s high housing prices are puzzling for a big country with relatively few people. Only 0.3 per cent of the country’s land is already urbanised compared to 6 per cent in the UK and 3 per cent in the US. To be sure, much is desert, as is the case in America as well, but huge swathes near both east and west coasts remain largely uninhabited.

Most Australians should feel free to dream but instead must struggle against regulations designed to force densification and curb “sprawl”.

Read the rest of this piece at The Daily Telegraph.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class,” will be out this spring.

Elites Against Western Civilization

The intellectual class across the West—encompassing its universities, media, and arts—is striving to dismantle the values that paced its ascendancy. Europe, the source of Western civilization, now faces a campaign, in academia and elite media, to replace its cultural and religious traditions with what one author describes as a “multicultural and post-racial republic” supportive of separate identities. “The European ‘we’ does not exist,” writes French philosopher Pierre Manent, assessing the damage. “European culture is in hiding, disappearing, without a soul.”

The increasingly “woke” values of the educated upper classes reflect, as Alvin Toffler predicted almost half a century ago, the inevitable consequence of mass affluence, corporate concentration, and the shift to a service economy. The new elite, Toffler foresaw, would abandon traditional bourgeois values of hard work and family for “more aesthetic goals, self-fulfillment as well as unbridled hedonism.” Affluence, he observed, “serves as a base from which men begin to strive for post economic goals.” Read more

So Much for Localism

In the months that followed President Trump’s election, many thoughtful Democrats and progressives re-discovered the beauties of federalism.

After all, with a brute in the White House, maybe the best thing to do was to devolve power to the local level, notably in urban centers where Trump is about as popular as the bubonic plague.

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Property and Democracy in America

To understand how American democracy has worked, and why its future may be limited, it’s critical to look at the issue of property. From early on, the country’s republican institutions have rested on the notion of dispersed ownership of land — a striking departure from the realities of feudal Europe, east Asia or the Middle East. Read more