The Rise of the Ephemeral City

In affluent parts of the world, a new kind of urban center is taking shape, catering to the nomadic rich and the restless, rootless young.

Cities have always been about change. And as we plunge deeper into the millennium, we may now be witnessing the emergence of a new kind of urban place, populated largely by nonfamilies and the nomadic rich. This “ephemeral city” might become the prototype for advanced countries in the twenty-first century. San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and parts of New York already serve as ephemeral cities. Unlike the imperial capital, which administered a vast empire and extracted riches from it, or the commercial city, which thrived by trading goods, the ephemeral city prospers by providing an alternative lifestyle to a small sector of society.

The ephemeral city’s relationship to surrounding regions and the wider world is somewhat symbiotic. It feeds off the wealth generated elsewhere while providing a stage where the affluent classes can expend their treasure most fashionably. These cities have developed in part because most industrial, commercial, and service functions are now more economically performed other places. In virtually every critical field—from manufacturing to financial and business services—employment and even headquarters functions have moved increasingly to the suburbs. The digital revolution has accelerated this process, allowing most of the primary centers for information industries—software, telecommunications equipment, and computers—to locate outside the metropolis, or even the country. High-end services, the supposed linchpin of “global city” economies, have also continued to disperse not only in America but in Europe, Japan, and developing parts of East Asia.

Having lost the economic and demographic initiative to the hinterlands, cities have two alternatives. They can work to become more competitive in terms of jobs, attracting skilled workers and middle-class families, or they can refocus their efforts on providing playpens for the idle rich, the restless young, and tourists. All too often the latter strategy is what many municipalities appear to be adopting. A number of cities now regard tourism, culture, and entertainment as “core” assets.

Berlin is an interesting case. Having largely failed to meet its aspirations to once again be a world business center, the city now celebrates its bohemian community as its primary raison d’être. Its relevance is increasingly defined not by the export of goods or services, nor by agglomerations of major companies, but by its galleries, shops, lively street life, and growing tourist trade. Its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, calls Berlin “poor but sexy.”

In a globalized economy, certain cities—Paris, San Francisco, perhaps even Berlin and Montreal—have a chance of making this work. Given their reservoirs of great entertainment, cultural institutions, and “hip” districts, they may be able to attract a sufficient customer base from tourists, young professionals, and a growing population of older affluents hoping to experience a more pluralistic way of life. Far more likely to fail, however, are the attempts of places such as Manchester, Cleveland, and Detroit to tie their futures to becoming “cool.” With an emphasis on what the Romans would have called “bread and circuses,” leaders in these old industrial centers think cultivating their cultural cachet will lure enough skilled workers and affluent singles to their towns. And indeed, subsidies for this kind of development—lofts, restaurants, clubs, and museums for sizable gay and single populations—have succeeded in creating at least a chimera of an urban renaissance. But over time this form of culturally based growth will do little to halt the slide of these cities toward greater irrelevance.

Just look at the sad example of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s “cool cities” initiative, which stresses the development of the arts, hip districts, and downtown living. Despite the hoopla, Michigan’s “cool cities”—Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Grand Rapids, and even Lansing—have experienced some of the most severe job losses in the nation during the last few years. Under the leadership of its young “hip-hop” mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit continues to fall toward what former Comerica Bank chief economist David Littman calls “a graveyard spiral.”

Cleveland and Philadelphia have opted for “ephemeral” strategies: the usual assortment of convention centers, museums, arts festivals, and central city lofts. But what have the results been? Cleveland’s widely praised attempt to become hip has not prevented the city from entering the twenty-first century with the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any large American city. Its population and job base continue to decline almost inexorably. According to Wharton real-estate professor Joseph Gyourko, Philadelphia’s much ballyhooed “center city” resurgence represents a more substantial success. But the downtown glitz has not halted the continued decline of many neighborhoods, or the ebbing of jobs and exodus of the middle class to the suburbs. New lofts are built just a short ride from neighborhoods where thousands of abandoned buildings stand ready to collapse.

In places like Philadelphia, these central areas serve as “Potemkin cities” that persuade outsiders and suburbanites that the city is still habitable and worth visiting. But those who study the urban condition understand the limitations of this strategy. “Downtown has done great, but it does not represent the rest of Philadelphia,” Gyourko says. “That’s our story—a bright spot where fundamental decline is still in play.”

Even at their best, places like Cleveland and Philadelphia will never be able to complete on a global scale with the likes of San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Paris for the dollars of young professionals, the nomadic rich, and tourists. “There are simply not enough yuppies to go around,” demographer William Frey says. These “cool city” wannabes are unlikely to be anything other than “me too” copies of hipper, more alluring places. It would make more sense for these cities to work on the basics—public safety, education, regulations, taxes, sanitation—so they could woo entrepreneurs and cost-conscious homeowners. The amenities will follow once there is a market to consume them.

But what about the amenity-rich places, the ones capable of appealing to part-time urbanites and sojourning young people? They need to ask an even more basic question about what kind of city they want to become. Art galleries, clubs, bars, and boutiques make these places undeniably fun, but they are not the things that convince the middle class, families, and most businesses to commit to a city for the long term. Relying on the culturally curious, these cities could be destined to become hollow places, Disneylands for adults.

Even the artistic potential of a culturally centered metropolis may prove severely limited. In the past, achievement in the arts grew in the wake of economic or political dynamism. Athens first emerged as a great bustling mercantile center and military power before it astounded the world in other fields. The extraordinary cultural production of other great cities—Alexandria, Venice, Amsterdam, London, New York—rested upon similar nexuses between the aesthetic and the mundane.

History shows that even the most culturally rich cities cannot thrive long when deficient in families, a strong middle class, and upwardly mobile working people. This sociological dynamic occurred in late imperial Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, eighteenth-century Amsterdam, and in the industrial cities of the West since the 1950s, and it can now be seen in many contemporary cities, particularly those—like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston—that have low percentages of children and high housing costs.

Perhaps most important, an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism, and “creative” functions is ill-suited to provide opportunities for more than a small slice of its population. Following such a course, it is likely to evolve ever more into a city composed of cosmopolitan elites, a large group of low-income service workers, and a permanent underclass—or into what San Francisco is already becoming, what historian Kevin Starr describes as “a cross between Carmel and Calcutta.”

To retain an important role in the future, a city needs upwardly mobile people whose families and businesses identify them with a place. A great city is more about clean and workable neighborhoods, thriving business districts, and functioning schools than massive cultural buildings or hipster lofts. Architects may prefer to design stunning museums or luxury high-rises, but they would do better to focus on middle-class housing, places for artisanal industry, family-friendly public spaces, and houses of worship both large and small.

The great work of cities is best accomplished in small steps, block by block. It confirms a sense of place and permanence. Rooted in ephemera, a city can only lose its historic relevance, or at best fade into a graceful senescent dowager who everyone admires but no one takes seriously anymore.

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