Urban Plight: Vanishing Upward Mobility

Appearing in:

The American

Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented “an inventory of the possible,” a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.

What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam—and, later, places such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo—was the size of their property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.

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Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future

Appearing in:

Foreign Policy

The human world is fast becoming an urban world — and according to many, the faster that happens and the bigger the cities get, the better off we all will be. The old suburban model, with families enjoying their own space in detached houses, is increasingly behind us; we’re heading toward heavier reliance on public transit, greater density, and far less personal space. Global cities, even colossal ones like Mumbai and Mexico City, represent our cosmopolitan future, we’re now told; they will be nerve centers of international commerce and technological innovation just like the great metropolises of the past — only with the Internet and smart phones. Read more

Mass Transit: The Great Train Robbery

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

Last month promoters of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Los Angeles rail projects, both past and future, held a party to celebrate their “success.” Although this may well have been justified for transit-builders and urban land speculators, there may be far less call for celebration among L.A.’s beleaguered commuters.

Despite promises that the $8 billion invested in rail lines over the past two decades would lessen L.A.’s traffic congestion and reshape how Angelenos get to work, the sad reality is that there has been no increase in MTA transit ridership since before the rail expansion began in 1985.

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Singapore’s Demographic Winter

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

Over the past half century arguably no place on earth has progressed more than the tiny island state of Singapore. A once impoverished, tropical powder keg packed into 268 square miles at the foot of the Malay Peninsula, the Mandarin-led republic has ascended from its difficult founding in 1965 to one of the richest economies on the planet. Today, in terms of purchasing power, its per capita income stands higher than most European countries’ or Japan’s and is roughly equal to that of the U.S.

But a catastrophic plunge in the country’s birthrate–a problem plaguing many of the world’s affluent economies–could undermine Singapore’s success. In 1965 Singapore’s leaders feared it could not survive an unsustainable fertility rate above 3.5 and embarked on a campaign encouraging citizens to have smaller families. Today the country’s fertility rate–the number of children per female–has sunk to roughly 1.2 , a rate lower than all but a handful of countries and well below replacement level.

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The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration

Appearing in:

Wall Street Journal

Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called “creative class,” and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into “the new slums” as people trek back to dense urban spaces.

But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox’s analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000. Read more

L.A.’s Economy Is Not Dead Yet

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

“This is the city,” ran the famous introduction to the popular crime drama Dragnet. “Los Angeles, Calif. I work here.” Of course, unlike Det. Sgt. Joe Friday, who spoke those words every episode, I am not a cop, but Los Angeles has been my home for over 35 years.

To Sgt. Friday, L.A. was a place full of opportunities to solve crimes, but for me Los Angeles has been an ideal barometer for the city of the future. For the better part of the last century, Los Angeles has been, as one architect once put it, “the original in the Xerox machine.” It largely invented the blueprint of the modern American city: the car-oriented suburban way of life, the multi-polar metropolis around a largely unremarkable downtown, the sprawling jumble of ethnic and cultural enclaves of a Latin- and Asian-flavored mestizo society.

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The Future Of America’s Working Class

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

Watford, England, sits at the end of a spur on the London tube’s Metropolitan line, a somewhat dreary city of some 80,000 rising amid the pleasant green Hertfordshire countryside. Although not utterly destitute like parts of south or east London, its shabby High Street reflects a now-diminished British dream of class mobility. It also stands as a potential warning to the U.S., where working-class, blue-collar white Americans have been among the biggest losers in the country’s deep, persistent recession.

As you walk through Watford, midday drinkers linger outside the One Bell pub near the center of town. Many of these might be considered “yobs,” a term applied to youthful, largely white, working-class youths, many of whom work only occasionally or not at all. In the British press yobs are frequently linked to petty crime and violent behavior–including a recent stabbing outside another Watford pub, and soccer-related hooliganism.

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The Broken Ladder: The Threat to Upward Mobility in the Global City

A Study on Upward Mobility, written for the Legatum Institute, London, UK

Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been the crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the 17th Century, represented “an inventory of the possible”, a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.

In the 21st Century – the first in which the majority of people will live in cities – this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility will become ever more critical. Cities have become much larger. In 1900 London was the world’s largest urban center with seven million people. Today there are three dozen cities with larger populations.
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Houston: Model City

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

Do cities have a future? Pessimists point to industrial-era holdovers like Detroit and Cleveland. Urban boosters point to dense, expensive cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. Yet if you want to see successful 21st-century urbanism, hop on down to Houston and the Lone Star State.

You won’t be alone: Last year Houston added 141,000 residents, more than any region in the U.S. save the city’s similarly sprawling rival, Dallas-Fort Worth. Over the past decade Houston’s population has grown by 24%–five times the rate of San Francisco, Boston and New York. In that time it has attracted 244,000 new residents from other parts of the U.S., while older cities experienced high rates of out-migration.
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The Best Cities For Jobs

Appearing in:

Forbes.com

This year’s “best places for jobs” list is easily the most depressing since we began compiling our annual rankings almost a decade ago. In the past–even in bad years–there were always stalwart areas creating lots of new jobs. In 2007’s survey 283 out of 393 metros areas showed job growth, and those at the top were often growing employment by at least 5% to 6%. Last year the number dropped to 63. This year’s survey, measuring growth from January 2009 to January 2010, found only 13 metros with any growth.

Mike Shires at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, who develops the survey, calls it “an awful year.” Making it even worse, the source of new jobs in almost all areas were either government employment or highly tax payer-funded sectors like education and health. This year’s best-performing regions were those that suffered the smallest losses in the private economy while bulking up on government steroids.

So far the recovery has favored the government-dominated apparat and those places where public workers congregate.After all, besides Wall Street, public-financed workers have been the big beneficiaries of the stimulus, with state and local governments receiving more than one-third of all funds. Public employment grew by nearly 2% over the past three years, while private employment has dropped by 7%.

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