The New Shame of Our Cities

A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. . . . Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.
  —Jane Jacobs

Perhaps no song has been belted out more often than the one that claims that America is moving “back to the city.” Newspapers, notably the New York Times, devote enormous space to this notion. It gained even more currency when the Obama administration sec­retary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Do­novan, pro­claimed that the suburbs were “over” as people were “voting with their feet” and moving to dense, transit-oriented urban centers.

This celebration perhaps reached its crescendo when Amazon initially announced its move to Crystal City, Virginia, and Queens, New York. “Big cities won Amazon and everything else,” Neil Ir­win of the Times predictably enthused. “We’re living in a world where a small number of superstar companies choose to locate in a handful of superstar cities where they have the best chance of re­cruiting superstar employees.”

In fact, however, these views are more aspirational, or even delusional, than reflective of reality. Overall, data suggests that we are not seeing a great “return to the city” but, with few exceptions, a continued movement out to the suburbs and less dense cities, nota­bly in the sunbelt. The spurt of urban core growth that occurred immediately after the housing bust turned out to be remarkably short lived, with the preponderance of metropolitan growth—roughly 80 percent—returning, as has been the case since at least the late 1940s, to the suburbs and exurbs. Indeed, at no point did Census Bureau estimates show net domestic migration from suburbs to core cities, only a reduced rate of migration in the opposite direction.

Even the country’s most influential urbanist, scholar Richard Florida, now suggests that the great urban revival is “over.” Rather than the usual belief that density leads to productivity and innovation, a new Harvard study demonstrates that, between 1970 and 2010, suburban areas have overall steadily increased their economic advantages: the share of suburbs making up the top ranks of all urban and suburban neighborhoods (measured as the top quartile) went from roughly two-thirds in 1970 to almost three-quarters by 2010.

Shifting Demographics: Exaggerating the Urban Renaissance

Even at the peak of the urban “renaissance,” most of the population and job growth continued to occur in the suburban periphery. Cities achieved some parity in growth rates in the period between 2009 and 2011, as presidents Bush and Obama provided “a covert bailout”  to banks, universities, and government bureaucracies concentrated heavily in and around urban cores.

Yet as the rest of the economy improved, and urban land prices rose, population movement again shifted away from the dense inner city to less compact, more affordable locales. Analysis of census data by demographer Wendell Cox found that the core counties of the metropolitan areas with populations of more than one mil­lion, after losing only ten thousand net domestic migrants in 2012, experienced an outflow of nearly 440,000 by 2017.

Read the entire article on American Affairs.

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.

After Amazon: What Happened in New York Isn’t Just About New York

The fiasco surrounding Amazon’s recent escape from New York reflects a broader, potentially devastating trend. By driving the Seattle-based behemoth out of the Big Apple, New York’s increasingly militant progressives have created a political paradigm that could resonate in cities across the country.

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Our Suicidal Elites

The French nobility, observed Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime and The Revolution, supported many of the writers whose essays and observations ended up threatening “their own rights and even their existence.” Today we see much the same farce repeated, as the world’s richest people line up behind causes that, in the end, could relieve them of their fortunes, if not their heads. In this sense, they could end up serving, in Lenin’s words, as “useful idiots” in their own destruction.

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Clippers Offer A Better Model For SoCal Than The Lakers

This year’s basketball season, with the collapse of the Lakers and the surprising rise of the Clippers, poses a metaphor for the region. On the one hand, there’s the Laker obsession with the “star system” and impressing outsiders, notably on the East Coast. The Clipper model, reflecting a culture of hard work and teamwork, relies not only on celebrity but the raising of often obscure people into prominence.

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Restoring the California Dream, Not Nailing Its Coffin

Virtually everyone, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, is aware of the severity of California’s housing crisis. The bad news is that most proposals floating in Sacramento are likely to do very little to address our housing shortage.

Newsom has promised to have 3.5 million homes built over the next seven years to solve the problem. That is, conservatively stated, more than 2.6 million that would be built at the current rate of construction.
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Looking Forward: A New Agenda

In their essay, “Looking Forward: A New Agenda,” Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox lay out five key principles for inclusive urban growth. Their piece is part of a new report by the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, Beyond Gentrification: Towards More Equitable Growth, which explores how unbalanced urban growth has exacerbated class divisions, particularly in the urban centers of our largest metropolitan areas. To read or download the full report click here.

Read an excerpt of their piece below.

Life may have improved for many in our urban centers, but, as we have seen, many others are being left behind. Gentrification strategies, often focused on the downtown core, have done little for either the remaining middle or the largely impoverished working class, who together comprise the majority of urbanites. A recent Brookings analysis found that from 2010 to 2015, of the 30 US metros that increased their productivity, average wages, and standard of living, only 11 metros achieved inclusive economic outcomes.

Still, some urban writers embrace the idea of keeping poor neighborhoods as they are, with their low consumption rates and lack of cars, in part to reduce the area’s carbon foot-print. This seems a cruel and misplaced view. Rather than treating inner city residents as environmental lab rats, we should embrace the idea that cities, first and foremost, be places of opportunity, not only for the well-heeled and well-educated, but for all residents. The current approaches, as we have shown, lead to negative consequences in terms of higher rents and house prices, and even in reduced economic opportunity.

We believe it is time to move beyond the focus on gentrification led by the “creative class,” as Richard Florida, the term’s own author suggests. Overall, according to two recent Oregon studies, lower-income people in cities now experience less upward mobility than people from rural areas. The poorer people left in the urban core suffer from lack of opportunity, and seem to carry with them cultural and economic burdens that keep them from ascending to the middle class.

This situation is not sustainable. History shows us repeatedly that huge income gaps and a sense of diminished opportunity can lead to disorder, alienation and a breakdown of the civic order, as evidenced by the growth of moves for rent control, greater housing subsidies and low levels of labor participation.6 Ancient Rome, industrial-era London, Manchester, St. Petersburg and Shanghai, for example, all experienced revolts, and in some cases revolutions, led by the neglected classes. Substantial unemployment and economic insecurity can undermine social stability.

How do we meet this challenge? The current resources for this report were not sufficient to lay out a specific strategy. Instead, we provided a set of new principles that should shape urban policy. We do not oppose gentrification that occurs naturally, as people seek out the urban core. However, the massive funds that are spent to attract more of the creative class and appeal to the hyper-affluent have not, and will not, improve life for most urbanites. For many, this approach can only mean further impoverishment, largely due to higher rents, or lead to mass migration out of the cities that, for some, have been home for generations.

Read the full report here (PDF).

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.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Canada. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, served on the Amtrak Reform Council and served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a Paris university.

Today’s Cultural Engineers

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once labeled writers and other creative people “engineers of the soul.” In his passion to control what people saw and read, Stalin both coddled artists and enforced unanimity through the instruments of a police state. Today, fortunately, we don’t face such overt forms of cultural control, but the trends in American and to some extent European mass culture are beginning to look almost Stalinesque in their uniformity. This becomes painfully obvious during awards season, when the tastes and political exigencies of the entertainment industry frequently overpower any sense of popular preferences, or even artistic merit.

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The Bifurcated City

After drifting toward decrepitude since the 1970s, the urban core of many cities have experienced real, often bracing, turnarounds. Yet concern is growing that the revitalization of parts of these cities has unevenly benefited some residents at the expense of others. The crucial, and often ignored, question remains whether the policies that have helped spark urban revivals have improved conditions for the greatest number of residents. In a new study for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, we found that, in most cities, unbalanced urban growth has exacerbated class divisions, while doing little to address the decline of middle-class households. Read more

The Democrats Finally Won the Suburbs. Now Will They Destroy Them?

The Democratic Party’s triumphal romp through suburbia was the big story of the midterms.

In 2016 the suburbs, home to the majority of American voters, voted 50 to 45 for Donald Trump; this year, 52 percent went Democratic. In affluent suburban districts once controlled by the GOP—outside Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia, and in Orange County, California—long-held GOP seats flipped and are unlikely to flip back unless Democrats alienate their new constituents by seeking to destroy suburban life.

The suburbs are where most Americans, including roughly four in five residents of our largest metropolitan areas, live. Historically, they have favored Republicans in most elections. But that tie has been weakened for reasons including the growing diversity of these areas and revulsion at Trump, particularly among educated women. Read more

The Next Housing Crisis

Little over a decade ago, the housing sector almost brought down not only the American but the world economy. Today the reprise of the housing crisis will be playing a very different tune.

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