Western cities are new urban model advertisement
May. 2, 2004 12:00 AM
Despite its self-image as a land of wide-open spaces, the American West is among the most urbanized regions of the planet. Yet despite this, and the considerable success in city building across the region, Westerners tend to have a sense of inferiority about their civic culture and often look longingly to the East Coast, or Europe, for role models.
Rather than think of itself as a laggard, the American West has done more than any region in the world to build the new archetype of the modern city. We may like to visit Boston, New York or Paris, but the reality is that most cities, as they develop, look more and more like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas than any idealized, densly packed 18th- or 19th-century burg.
This is increasingly true not only in the United States, but also in Europe and Japan. And China, India and South Africa are rapidly constructing their suburban rings as well.
This fundamentally horizontal form of urbanism - based around the car and relatively low-density development - has few admirers in planning schools, think tanks or among "progressive" politicians, but seems to have won overwhelmingly as the first choice of the individuals and businesses who have migrated there.
"Western cities are from a different era and reflect a different way of life," suggests William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and expert on population shifts in contemporary America. "They are filled with people who came for less control and crowding. They don't want the hierarchy or the downtown civic culture."
For most of human history, cities had to be dense places due to the limits of transportation and communications technology. Starting in the late 19th century, this began to change with commuter railways and the telegraph. H.G. Wells predicted that these improvements would eliminate the need for "massing" people in town centers. Instead, Wells foresaw the "centrifugal possibilities" of a dispersing population. He foresaw that eventually all of southern England would become the domain of London while the vast landscape between Virginia and New England would become part of greater New York.
The development of the automobile, telephones, jet travel and the Internet further accelerated this pattern. The largest numbers of Americans over the past 50 years have chosen to locate in those cities, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, San Jose and Houston, that are fundamentally multipolar in their business geography and heavily suburban in residential patterns.
The key driver in this process is what prominent urbanist Edgardo Contini called "the universal aspiration" to own one's own house. "The suburban house," he wrote in the mid-1960s , "is the idealization of every immigrant's dream - the vassal's dream of his own castle."
This "universal aspiration" has continued unabated, although slowed by such things as the Depression and World War II. In the 1990s, for example, highly suburbanized, multipolar Phoenix ranked as the top destination for domestic migrants. Similarly constructed Las Vegas, Orlando and Denver also stood in the top.
Since 2000, this pattern has accelerated further with the largest migration of people moving from more traditional cities, such as San Francisco, Boston and New York, to "sprawl" centers such as central Florida; San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif.; suburban New Jersey; Atlanta; and Phoenix.
Where the jobs are
Businesses have beaten a similar path. In the recent business survey I conducted for Inc. Magazine with economist David Friedman, we found that the fastest job growth over the past five years took place in cities such as Phoenix, Orlando, Palm Beach and Riverside-San Bernardino, while some of the slowest took place in traditional cities such as New York City, San Francisco and Boston.
This has occurred even in those industries that have long been seen as dependent on "clustering" in central locations. Since the 1970s, and particularly in this decade, business service and financial services have been decamping out from locations such as Manhattan or San Francisco to new locations - their own suburban peripheries, the suburbanized cities of the South or West, or abroad.
This process of "de-clustering" is particularly marked in high-tech industries. In the tech bust of the early 2000s, the most dramatic tech job reductions, both in percentage and total numbers, have been in the most densely "clustered" areas, notably San Jose and Boston, while the industry has generally fared better in more obscure locations. The best economies, for the most part, were unclustered, but had a more diverse, balanced job base.
There are critical reasons for this shift to the less-concentrated cities. First, technology and the Internet have made de-clustering more possible than ever. Second, soaring home prices are driving middle-class people out of the coastal regions toward the interior and the South. Finally, there are often difficult regulatory environments that discourage business formation and growth in many large coastal cities.
Unfortunately, many in the media and planning elites in the West seem inured to these trends. Instead of looking on how to capitalize on their past success, they look elsewhere - mainly to the economically weak regions along the coasts and the big cities.
Two forms of "Kool-Aid" are particularly in vogue. One lies in the "clustering" approach, popularized by Harvard Business School's Michael Porter, which attests that regions should target agglomerations of industries, creating a specialized economic base.
The second, more trendy approach focuses on turning Western cities into what may be called "cool towns." Politicians, academics, the media, planners and developers from Denver to Phoenix increasingly see the promotion of the arts, entertainment and other amenities as the most critical aspect in attracting the much-sought-after "creative class" of educated workers.
In many ways, these two forms of Kool-Aid constitute the latest in a series of bromides tried with meager success since the 1960s, from downtown pedestrian malls to convention centers and sports arenas, as ways to breathe life into regions. Neither is likely to lead to anything more than continued frustration in the long run for those who want to spark new growth.
Fashionable bread lines
Indeed, it is odd to see places like Phoenix, a primary beneficiary of de-clustering, trying to duplicate the "success" of places like Silicon Valley or New England, which have been hemorrhaging jobs to places as diverse as Orlando, Phoenix and Bangalore. This seems a little bit like drawing your economic game plan for a book concocted by economists from the former Soviet Union.
The fashionable "cool town" approach also is deeply flawed. The logic here rests on a assumption that culture-rich traditional cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston or, for that matter, Paris or Berlin provide enviable role models for younger, Western cities.
Reality has eviscerated this notion over the events of the last five years. The areas that are held to be the paragons of this "creative class," such as San Francisco and Boston, have been losing more population and jobs of all kinds than virtually anywhere in the country.
The failure of the "cool town" approach also reflects a profound misreading of sociological trends. Although there is a segment of the population that really cares about being "hip and cool," most educated workers, particularly those over 30, appear more concerned about such mundane things as affordable housing, economic opportunity, secondary education and public safety.
This is perhaps even more important to immigrants, who tend to be more family oriented than native-born Americans. To them, the prime appeal of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix - increasingly recipients of both direct and "secondary" migration from places like Los Angeles - lies not in cultural amenities but in such things as affordable housing, good neighborhoods and economic opportunity.
People, people everywhere
Immigration, far more than the current emphasis on "hipness" or cluster development, may well prove the major challenge of all Western cities, including Phoenix and Las Vegas, in the next decade.
The problems of Los Angeles, in terms of congestion, crime and competition for jobs, will soon visit the other Western cities that once looked down on the City of Angels as positively hellish.
Many may feel immigrants threaten more than they promise, but the new ethnic groups also played a critical role in the revival of the local economy over the past decade. More and more immigrants not only found jobs, but many also started businesses and bought houses, particularly in places like San Bernardino-Riverside.
Providing for such upward mobility - not cool bars or clusters - is what really makes a successful region. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs once put it: "A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people . . . greenhorns into competent citizens. . . . Cities don't lure the middle class, they create it."
None of this suggests, though, that such things as the arts, entertainment and "coolness" - or clusters, for that matter - cannot help with regional development. And certainly there is great opportunity to improve the urban structure not only around downtown, but by further development of "urban villages" in key subregions such as Tempe or Mesa .
Yet such initiatives should not be substituted for keeping an eye on the fundamentals, such as affordability, safety and business climate, that drive the local economy and provide its people useful opportunities.
Ultimately the fate of any region relies on retaining its middle class and helping them develop their capabilities. This, not aping failures elsewhere, is how cities of the West best can create their own vibrant urban paradigm.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. He is writing a history of cities for Modern Library.