Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Debunking Kotkin

Via Snarkmarket >: Joel Kotkin's article "Urban Legends." Kotkin takes on Richard Florida and co. to debunk what he thinks are myths about the rebirth of the American city.

I'm sympathetic to Kotkin's effort to bring in good data to test inventive/appealing theories of urban growth, especially when these theories have become a new orthodoxy. Here, though, I'm going to do my best to push Kotkin's argument, or at least say what he doesn't say.

"Myth #1: Cities are again gaining people." Even by Kotkin's own data, this is less a myth than an incomplete statement of fact. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston did gain people throughout the nineties. These gains were offset in part by a dip in overall population following the dot com bubble and the overall economic downturn.

Another explanation, straight from Economics 101, would be that the sudden migration to these cities in the nineties triggered a burst in demand for real estate, turning whole neighborhoods from undervalued to overvalued. As price shoots up, demand goes down, as fewer people can afford houses and apartments at the new prices (exacerbated further by the economic soft patch). It's not true that people no longer want to live San Francisco -- just that fewer people at any economic bracket can now afford to.

In general, overall population isn't a very good measure for the success or failure of cities. It doesn't tell you how many people want to live in a city. Most people I know would love to live in Center City Philadelphia and would rather live anywhere than the horrible (but still fairly populous) neighborhoods of North Philly. Yet lots of people are priced out of Center City who wouldn't have been five years ago, while others are still stuck in North Philly who would love to leave. This makes Philadelphia something of a mixed success, at best -- but overall population doesn't tell you the story. Fuller demographic data can tell you that many cities are losing their working-class and middle-class families and replacing them with wealthier young singles and childless couples, which is more to Kotkin's point -- so why dwell on overall population?

"Myth #2: Cities are where the successful people are." Kotkin's argument here is frankly quite bad. He takes one admittedly nebulous variable ("successful people") and replaces it with another ("educated people") and covers over the fact that he's doing this with some old chestnuts about information economies and decentralized communication and bad Brooksian observations (lattes in Fargo, $20,000 kindergartens). Would anyone say "Cities are where the educated people are" and expect to be taken seriously? You can measure success by lots of other variables: income, influence, etc., but education and success can't be taken to be identical. The fact that educated people are spread throughout the country (especially as it's both more common and significantly easier for anyone, anywhere to get an advanced degree) is no surprise at all.

"Myth #3: Cool cities attract the best jobs, uncool cities don't." Again, Kotkin pulls off a rhetorical trick with statistical implications. He substitutes "cities" with "cool cites" -- especially strange since he's just gone to some lengths to establish just how cool Fargo is these days. Just what is a "cool city" or an "uncool city"? How do we measure coolness? Politically liberal/conservative? Low/high rates of churchgoing?

And then he haphazardly expands (then shrinks) the temporal window: In 1969, only 11 percent of America's largest companies were headquartered in the suburbs; a quarter century later roughly half were in the periphery... Since 1981, (New York City's) share of the nation's securities industry jobs has dropped from 37 to 23 percent." Nobody believes that American cities in the nineties eclipsed their peak status of the fifties and sixties, or denies that over the past thirty-five years the there's been a shift in jobs and populations to the west and southwest. For Kotkin to try to use this data (or the fact that Wal-Mart is headquartered in Arkansas -- and we've seen what wonders that's done for Arkansas's economy) against the much more limited and local claim of urban renewal over the past ten to fifteen years is disingenuous at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

In general, I think it's unfortunate that Kotkin begins with these headline-grabbing but dubious claims and tries to pose his argument and the various "creative class" arguments as an either/or. Despite these misteps, most of his criticisms of public policy initiatives and identification of underlying problems are quite good. (Especially his disdain for stadium-mania.) I think he does understand the real problem: city services (especially schools, mass transit, and roads) haven't caught up with the price of real estate. This does threaten to turn cities into (as he says) "a way station for the wealthy young and part-time destination for the nomadic rich."

But his adoption of the class warrior pose strikes the wrong note. "Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons." This misses the point -- everyone rides the subway. Everyone wants safe places where they can raise and educate their kids as well as possible. Everyone loses from crime or graft. There's no reason to assume that these are just middle-class problems. As I've written before, improving city services doesn't just help you retain middle-class and immigrant populations: it also can help you attract them from the suburbs.

Also, Kotkin's proposed solutions suggest that this disdain for the rich is really about advancing a conservative-populist agenda:

School reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.

Really? Teacher's unions and arts foundations may have their problems, but I doubt that they're the principal malevolent forces holding the city back. Say what you will, but "new urban progressivism" this ain't.

One broader point: I think we can all agree that the early "creative class" arguments, especially in their most reduced formulations, are incomplete. Cities need to do more and have more to attract and keep the kind of citizens, neighbors, and employees that cities and new companies and industries want. But cities didn't use to (and often still don't) think this way. Under the old status quo, you find a big industry (steel, cars, the military, etc.) and offer them a sweetheart deal to build or stay in your town, then hope the people come after (or stay). Now -- and this is really what's been changed by the communications and cultural revolutions of the nineties -- cities need to attract and retain their people, and the jobs will come after them. Whether you're talking about renovating theater houses or subway lines, it's a matter of pursuing principally civic projects in a new, indirect synergy with private forces (employers and their employees). Hopefully, that change of sensibility will catch on, and turn into something more than new boondoggles with the same old well-connected folks benefitting on the bottom line.

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