Joel Kotkin’s new book, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, arrives at a propitious moment. During this tumultuous presidential primary season, the major parties face powerful challenges by outsider candidates who denounce their leadership’s indifference to the plight of ordinary Americans. And voters have responded. Whether rallying to Bernie Sanders’ promise to reduce income inequality or applauding Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade and immigration, many feel excluded from the benefits of American political and economic life.
Although unsympathetic to both presumptive candidates—Kotkin equally laments millennials’ capture by the “siren song of socialism” and the helplessness of “corporate Republicans” in the face of Trump’s “crude politics”—he clearly sympathizes with the plight of young and middle-class Americans. Both groups’ legitimate aspirations to earn a wage allowing them to raise a family in the suburban environment they prefer have been systematically thwarted by Democratic and Republican elites alike, who seem increasingly indifferent to, and even disdainful of, their constituents’ dreams. As Kotkin shows, there exists “an enormous gap between what planners, politicians, and much of the business community [advocate] for—ever more density—and the everyday desires of most people, particularly working- and middle-class families.”
Compared to his earlier broadside in The New Class Conflict (2014) against what he calls the “New Oligarchs” of technology and high finance, The Human City offers a less vociferous and more comprehensive analysis of the seemingly irresistible global trend toward urbanization. Among its causes, Kotkin includes spectacular gains in agricultural productivity in both poor and rich nations; crushing rural poverty and rapid industrialization in the developing world; and in richer nations, a regnant “retro-urbanism” in government and planning circles that mandates ever larger and denser metropolitan agglomerations.
Both beneficial and harmful consequences accompany these trends. Some very large cities, like New York, London, and Hong Kong, offer many of their inhabitants an impressively high standard of living. Others, however, manifestly do not. “Megacities” like Mumbai, India, and Jakarta, Indonesia, suffer from what Kotkin calls “megapolitan elephantiasis.” They impose upon their residents polluted air, epidemic disease, claustrophobic housing, congested roads, constant energy failures, and contaminated water.
Even worse, unlike the rapidly industrializing cities of nineteenth-century Europe and North America, these places too often fail to afford even the prospect of economic mobility. On the contrary, these “dystopic…‘cities of disappointment’” possess no dynamic industrial or service sectors that allow their denizens to escape membership in a vast “floating” and “permanent underclass.” Peasants flee the impoverished countryside to improve their lives, but they find in these metastasizing conurbations not opportunity but crushing poverty and inequality. Indeed, they sometimes experience lower life expectancies in megacities than in the rural regions they fled!
Such problems aside, even the stunningly prosperous and luxurious cities of Asia, Europe, and North America are hardly without liabilities. These center on the obstacles with which contemporary urban life confronts younger and less affluent persons. Unfavorably contrasting the poor but fecund middle-class Brooklyn of his father’s childhood with the virtually childless core districts of contemporary “luxury” cities like New York and San Francisco, Kotkin laments the relentless inhospitality of these places to middle-class family life.
Resurgent after the ravages of deindustrialization in the late twentieth century, America’s big cities have refashioned themselves as vibrant financial, technological, and media hubs within the new global economy. But their benefits are restricted to the affluent and well-educated—and disproportionately young and childless—workers who flourish in this economy. Real estate prices are astronomically high, living spaces small, and public education often awful. As a consequence, rich “transactional” cities disproportionately attract wealthy persons who can afford expensive condominiums and private schools. They also lure affluent empty nesters, childless dual-earner couples, and recent college graduates. But while rich couples can raise children in these places, for the vast majority, Kotkin argues, they function as “the ultimate contraceptive.” Like large and dense cities worldwide, American cities “with higher densities and higher prices—the two are often coincident—have considerably lower birth rates.” San Francisco, Kotkin tells us, has 80,000 more dogs than children!
Along with fertility rates below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), these cities are hampered by stunning inequality. New York City is an extreme instance, but not atypical. Most households are occupied by single people, and even in Jane Jacobs’ formerly child-rich Greenwich Village, only one in 20 households contain children. The city as a whole also suffers a “level of inequality that approximates South Africa before apartheid.” The number of workers who can afford the city’s astronomically expensive housing is relatively small, but they still require an “ever-expanding poor service class” to prepare their meals and walk their dogs. As former mayor Michael Bloomberg blandly noted, cities like New York must be a “luxury product” in which very rich provide the “revenue…to take care of everyone else.” These cities, in other words, give most residents little besides the chance to languish permanently as members of a new “servile class.”
To remedy this situation, Kotkin urges politicians and planners to abandon their essentially authoritarian efforts to herd citizens into big cities. In the developing world, this means acknowledging the economic inefficiencies of impoverished megacities and fashioning urban policies that encourage businesses and residents to move to dispersed, smaller cities. In the developed world, Kotkin urges government officials to abandon their elitist disdain for citizens’ preference for suburban living.
Quite simply, planners’ incessant efforts to direct growth to city centers are both ineffective and unjust. Ineffective, since elite criticisms of suburbia are mostly unfounded. “New Urbanist” claims notwithstanding, suburbs need be no more energy-consumptive or polluting than their urban rivals. And unjust, since Americans, like people everywhere, really do prefer suburban living. This is true not only of young and middle-class families, but also of empty-nesters, ethnic minorities and immigrants, and even millennials.
All these groups, Kotkin insists, crave the space, affordability, privacy, and “human scale” that suburbs provide. For these reasons, planners’ efforts to direct growth to city centers—whether by means of restrictive land use ordinances, burdensome environmental regulations, diminishing highway investments, or expensive “green” energy mandates—can succeed only by ignoring citizens’ wishes.
Thus, in the end Kotkin does not recommend abandoning dense luxury cities like New York or San Francisco (or Singapore or London) that perform essential functions in the new global economy, and clearly provide some citizens with valuable experiences and opportunities. He proposes, instead, to complement public support for these places with aid to others: suburbs, small towns, and even remote exurban locations. Such a balanced “urban pluralism” would allow government to serve the interests not only of the affluent families and young “hipsters” who inhabit our densest cities, but also of the other Americans who cannot, and do not want to, live there.
Politicians and planners, Kotkin warns, too often “want to impose their visions from above.” A more just, sustainable, and democratic policy would be to “listen more to… the vast majority.” Citizens don’t like being ignored, or having their legitimate preferences disparaged.
Brian J. Shaw is a professor of political science at Davidson College.