Cities in the Digital Age

City scholar Joel Kotkin argues against the idea of an urban revitalization panacea.

Joel Kotkin may be one of the most hardheaded futurists on the planet. In a field where fuzzy predictions are commonplace—many of them based on anecdotal evidence as flimsy as a Google search—his predictions are often tough and contrary. During the 1990s, for example, when lifestyle journalists were heralding the urban revival, Kotkin took a close look at the numbers and cautioned that a smattering of coffee bars in a handful of cities does not constitute a rebirth.

A senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy, at Pepperdine University, Kotkin has been researching and writing about cities for the better part of two decades. His previous books include Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy (1993); The Third Century: America’s Resurgence in the Asian Era (1988); California Inc. (1982); and even a novel, The Valley.

In addition to his work as an author and lecturer, Kotkin also serves as a consultant to regional-planning organizations in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and several rural communities in the Great Plains. In September, he coauthored a study (with Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future) entitled “Engine Failure” that examines the economic realities facing New York City. The report offers a blueprint for renewal that is starkly different from the redevelopment efforts currently under way downtown.

Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen called Kotkin—a native New Yorker—at his home in Los Angeles to talk about the soul of cities, his beef with Richard Florida, and his old hometown’s civic blind spot.

In your last book, The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape (2001), you argued that technology was making cities like New York and Los Angeles increasingly less central. Do you still believe that?
It’s interesting that you interpreted the book that way, because a lot of people read it and said, “Oh, my God! He’s predicting that cities are going to bounce back.” What I said was the overwhelming trend borne out by the 2000 census is that the decentralization of industry and population seems inexorable. But I also said that cities were finding ways of renewing themselves, especially in what I would call the boutique cities, the high-lifestyle cities.

Speaking of boutique cities, you’re critical of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class. In it he argues that cities attracting hip young “creatives” will fare best in the twenty-first century. What’s wrong with Florida’s analysis?
A piece of Florida’s theory is correct. There is a niche for these kinds of boutique cities, but the idea that there’s this formula that other cities can follow is shortsighted. He never addresses the issue of affordability. I do a lot of focus groups. When you talk to young people what you find is that many things influence their decision on where to live. It’s true that people in their early twenties are interested in cool urban amenities. Then something really bad happens to them: they turn thirty. And when they hit thirty they start thinking, Well, do I want to live in a Motel 6 and pay $3,000 a month? Can I get a job? Maybe I’d like to get married and have children.

One of the worst aspects of the Florida book is that he takes the 1997—2000 period and extrapolates it out as this new paradigm. His work has become an excuse for cities to say the way we’re going to pursue development is by creating entertainment districts. Let’s show we have more brewpubs than some other place. It doesn’t work that way. Jane Jacobs had it right: a great metropolitan economy doesn’t lure a middle class—it creates one.

In your role as a consultant, what do you tell officials they must do to make their cities competitive in this century?
It’s arrogant for consultants to come in and say, I’ve got the answer. I think a lot of places are not treated with respect by experts who come in like rock stars with their Sermon on the Mount, say their piece, and leave. Unfortunately economic-development officials tend to be pretty gullible. There is no single formula.

Cities are like individuals. They evolve in unique ways. Every city has a soul. You have to try to understand what that soul is first, and then you get a better sense of what the problems are. You start by looking at a city’s history and thinking about ways to help nurture its intrinsic strengths. For example, I’d say to people in St. Louis, Forget about being Soho. You’re never gonna be Soho. You never were Soho. But you could be an affordable place where people can live in a great urban neighborhood near a beautiful Olmsted-designed park with an excellent art museum.

How do cities prevent their declines?
There are several ways. A lot of it is just blocking and tackling: reducing crime, improving transportation, providing education and public safety. In the book I’m writing about the history of cities, I define cities as places sacred, safe, and busy. You need all three. Busy is the commerce. Sacred is the sense of identity, which is very important. There has to be a genuine identity based on the city’s real history. And it has to be safe. The best thing to happen to New York in my lifetime was the reduction in crime. It did more than all the economic-development schemes, museums, restaurants, and clubs.

I agree. Recently I visited the South Bronx and found it more alive than most Manhattan neighborhoods. And a lot of that is a direct result of people feeling safe.
The hope for New York is in the boroughs and neighborhoods, in places that are still affordable, where a degree of upward mobility is possible. In a lot of cities today you get a kind of genteel decline. That’s what happened to San Francisco. Places became so expensive that the only people who can afford to live there are people at the very top of the global economy. They can live anywhere they want. They might choose San Francisco. There are people who will choose New York, people who choose Santa Monica. There are a bunch of cities at that level. But cities dominated by that kind of demographic are not going to be vital places.

Recently I visited Paris, and the only vitality I saw there was when I got out into the ethnic neighborhoods, the African neighborhoods. The term museum city is not a compliment.

Why is it so difficult for cities to provide affordable housing?
I was talking to a New York developer who told me: “I could build fifty thousand $300,000 town houses in Greenpoint and sell them overnight. But the city isn’t interested in that.” Generally I find cities interested in either low-income or luxury housing. This is my critique of what’s happening in downtown L.A. In some cases, developers have to build high-end because if you’re going to subsidize low-income, the only way it cancels out is to attract the high-end that will carry everybody else.

But the real issue is, Can we create middle-class housing? It would be wonderful if people at regular jobs in downtown L.A. could afford to own a condo and walk to work. That would do more for the city.

It seems to me that cities are like lost souls right now. They’re looking for new religions to glom onto. First it was the religion of the pedestrian mall, then it was the religion of convention centers, then it was the religion of ball stadiums and sports arenas. Now it’s the religion of culture. There are elements in all of those that may make some degree of sense, but they’re not the ultimate solutions to the problems.

How do you see America’s urban landscape evolving in the next ten years?
The next great frontier is going to be the urbanization of suburbia. We will see the development of more urban villages. You have too many people who cannot afford to live any place near work. Land pressures, environmental pressures, NIMBY-ism, and people’s exhaustion with the commute will lead to the creation of denser, more self-contained environments.

If you look at where single people and couples without children are moving, there’s been a dramatic shift to the suburbs. Their growth has been more dramatic than the growth of families. So the way we’re going to contain sprawl will be by creating these village-like environments in suburbia, both in the older suburbs and further out. In many cases, what’s great about older suburbs is you already have a neighborhood structure that you can build around. If you have open land, or a deserted industrial area, you can build a community and walk a couple blocks to an existing neighborhood. That’s what we’re seeing people try in California. There’s a very exciting opportunity in certain areas of St. Louis. You have both the creation of new communities and then the refurbishing of older communities with some denser village-like environments. From a developer’s point of view, that’s probably where the big bucks are.

The one thing that wasn’t around three years ago but now lurks in the background is the threat of domestic terrorism. Does this hurt cities?
From a corporate point of view, it will certainly encourage de-clustering. David Schulman at Lehman Brothers says “terrorism demolishes agglomeration economies.” This is a complicated way of saying people are scared. So I think that high-rise construction is not going to be en vogue.

People will not want to call attention to themselves. Companies will look for redundant systems. Plus you’ll have people a little more reluctant to live in a place that is seen as a primary terrorist target. Now the reality is terrorists could blow up Des Moines tomorrow. It’s possible. But they do seem to concentrate on high-profile locations. The threat is going to have an impact over time.

So far, it’s been more psychological.
Yes. The fear of terrorism has had a sociological impact. People are more oriented towards spiritual, community, and family values—but not in the Jerry Falwell sense. But there’s a realization that what ultimately matters is your family, neighborhood, and community. The ’90s were like the roaring ’20s, a period of exuberance and acquisitiveness and sexual energy. Those eras happen every fifteen or twenty years. Now we’re in a different era, one that is more somber.

From a development point of view, the problem with city planning directors is that they’re like a school of French generals: they’re always fighting the last war. Now they’re saying, “Oh God, we’ve got to attract culture, young bohemians, high-tech.” Well, yes, that worked well for San Francisco between 1996 and 2000, when there was all this funny money running around and a 22-year-old with a dot-com could raise 50 million dollars. This isn’t that environment anymore.

I have to ask a last question to an ex—New Yorker. Is your old hometown in inexorable decline?
Not at all. New York has a great future if it rediscovers a diverse economy, if it begins to understand that a great city also has to fight for its place. It is not a divine right. Shortly after 9/11, Andrew Cuomo asked me to speak at a conference about the future of New York. I was talking about how other cities were doing innovative stuff, telling them that people and businesses have options. This guy turned to me and said, “No. New York is the place. Smart people have to be here.” Mayor Bloomberg said, “This is still the city where you want to locate your company if you want to be successful.” Tell that to Wal-Mart. Tell that to Microsoft. Tell that to SYSCO. Tell that to Sun. Tell that to the Walt Disney Company. They seem to run themselves very successfully from someplace else.

New York has to get rid of its divine-right concept and begin to realize that it’s in a fight. As Plato said, cities are in a war everlasting with each other. What was true of Athens and its conflicts with Syracuse is true of New York and its conflicts with Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Shanghai, Bangalore, and Bombay. It’s a constantly shifting world. It’s clear that New York has amazing assets, but the more it sees itself as without competition, the more into decline it will go.

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