on April 26, 2011
I have a category of books that I want my Dad to read. These books share the theme "the world is getting better, not worse - and the future is brighter than the past". My Dad begs to differ. He is wrong, but he is entitled to his misguided views. (The next book on this list will be The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley - other books include The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook and The Birth of Plenty : How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created by William J. Bernstein
Kotkin grounds his optimism in solid demographics (my Dad's profession - one reason why I'm so excited to hear from him where Kotkin gets it wrong). Kotkin's basic argument is that the United States will reap a demographic dividend of relatively high fertility and immigration rates, one that will result in growing demand for goods and services and an expanding pool of talent, energy and innovation. This growth will be centered in our increasingly vibrant and diverse suburbs, but even the old industrial cities will benefit as their low costs drive in-migration.
Kotkin takes the "anti-suburb and anti-growth" pundits head-on, noting (accurately) that people choose to move to suburbs for amenities such as good schools and good housing. Jobs and culture tend to follow the people, a cycle that increases both productivity and brings new opportunity. The description of Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco has "luxury cities" is priceless - with Kotkin arguing that the new cities (concentrated in the South West spread all over) may get less cultural attention but will be the places of opportunity for our children and their immigrant neighbors.
on March 7, 2010
Joel Kotkin's The Next Hundred Million is going to be a frequently referenced classic. It's a must read for anyone interested in livability planning in our metropolitan areas, and not withstanding our somewhat limited success at drawing a large percentage of our population to community outreach planning workshops - that actually includes most of us.
Kotkin has made connections in the data that has been sitting out there available to us that we hadn't made before. He found patterns that had previously not been discernable to us before. We missed them. The reader will experience that wonderful reaction that occurs when reading any classic major commentary - the light bulb will go off, and you will turn around, look back, and start to make the connections and see the patterns yourself.
He says that suburbia will be reinvented. Well yes. We hadn't really focused on this but actually we are starting to see what he projects right here in our older suburbs. Most older suburbs were originally small towns, with town centers and main streets, and they are indeed being revitalized. We can project that they will begin to develop once again into cohesive communities, within connections to the larger metro area. We can see the beginnings of a trend towards good interactions between these suburbs and our urban downtown core. Our light rail is busy on weekends, well beyond initial projections, with people coming downtown to be entertained in one way or another. On weekdays we have a two way commute as employees go out to the land, available in the older suburbs, which now houses light manufacturing and tech businesses. We've got people out there walking and biking to nearby workplaces.
He says that immigrants will have a big hand in that revitalization. Well yes. I think we are beginning to see that as well - just hadn't really noticed it. There is a reason that even in this very foodie community, arguably the best Indian restaurant in the area, and perhaps even the best Vietnamese restaurant as well are out in the old suburbs. Those are the communities that are attracting immigrants. The prices are lower, the houses, while substantially smaller than the new McMansions in the single developer communities in the newer suburbs, are nonetheless larger than apartments downtown.
Throughout the history of this country the waves of immigrants have always generated small entrepreneurial ventures - they don't have the money, or the language skills to do anything other than bootstrap their way up - and they can hire their extended family to multiply the financial value of their ventures. There are parking lots out here that now house clusters of low cost start up ethnic food carts. The same as a mall's food court, only different. Much different.
Kotkin says that we will be doing more of our work from home now, because we have the technological capabilities. And not just start-ups. I visited a friend in an old suburb. His home is the northwest office of a substantial, albeit narrowly focused, European company. He spends 50% of his time working from his home office, 40% out on the road visiting clients, and 10% back in Europe at company headquarters. Next to him he pointed out, is a couple - both of whom work for IBM -that spend maybe 20% of their time in a company office, 40% out of home, and 40% on the road. Next to them, a similar home-road-office split for a Sony employee. Two more houses down - a former cook who now runs her own food cart a couple of blocks away. Across the street is a woman who was laid off from a state job in the previous financial crisis who is now a consultant, earning more than she ever made before, working out of her office at home. Isn't this going to grow as the technology gets better? Isn't that why more than 200 communities are now hustling with Facebook pages for Google's new hi speed connection project?
The book is impressively well researched and the analysis and arguments he provides for his very supportable conclusions are on solid foundations. There is no doubt that he knows the thinking in the field to date. There are no less than 46 pages of small print references and citations of everyone from Lewis Mumford and Daniel Yergin to Pat Riley! How can you not be impressed with this kind of effort? It's substantiated and rigorous scholarship. This book will be a well thumbed classic for those open minded enough to use it. It will help move planning out of the box of its present orthodoxy.
My major problem with it is that it offers real potential for a positive picture of America in 2050. I surely hope that doesn't cramp my ability to bitch and moan about pretty much everything anyone else ever does. Because I've got my "we're not doing it right" argument down pat by now. It's comforting to me to feel superior. I like figuratively placing little yellow stickies on everything - telling them they need to improve (i.e. do it my way). And Kotkin's effort says if the trends he has identified continue it may not be so bad here after all in a few decades. OMG. Now what will I do for an ego soothing hobby?
on May 16, 2010
Joel Kotkin is concerned about the prospects of the American middle class and threats to upward mobility, but he contends that America does not face inevitable economic decline. In The Next Hundred Million he suggests that the right patterns of urban development can support an "aspirational" society that continues to achieve economic growth. Many readers are likely to be provoked by his forecasts and recommendations (it is sometimes difficult to separate the two) because several are contrarian, against the grain of current thinking about "smart growth" and the desirability of urban density.
Kotkin sees a future with certain "superstar" cities like Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco, west Los Angeles, and possibly Seattle, Portland, and Austin. These will not be the primary engines of broad prosperity, however, but rather havens adapted to work and recreation for elites and young adults. These cities will be too expensive for most families. Instead, most people will prefer to live where they can afford it, with access to a good job, decent schools, and safe neighborhoods.
"Cities of aspiration" that offer these benefits include, according to Kotkin, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Charlotte, for example. Because the entry cost is more broadly affordable, it is venues like these that will drive upward mobility, he says. Revamped suburbs will also fulfill this role, places that are slightly denser than currently, accommodating work as well as residence. He sees a revival of "Heartland" small towns as well, enabled in part by the Internet and instant access to global information.
One attraction of this book is that it offers a palatable overview of much of the history of American city planning and land use and of current thinking regarding these issues. It is polished journalism: Kotkin succinctly and entertainingly covers his subject, acknowledging many different points of view.
The downside is that it lacks rigor. For instance, Kotkin makes no attempt to quantify how much land his model future will consume, even though he has the population forecasts and desired densities in hand to do so. Will enough high quality agricultural land remain to support food production for both local and global markets, as he envisions? We cannot tell for sure, because he does not do the math. Nor, apparently, has he sufficiently thought through the geometry of his advocacy of jobs redistribution to suburbs. Why will future commuting patterns be greatly different from currently, when significant numbers of suburban residents commute long distances to a place of employment in some other distant suburb, a trend that is exacerbated by increasing frequency of changes in employment?
Kotkin suggests that home businesses and telecommuting are part of the answer. Yet he thinks (unrealistically, in my view) that America can regain some of its lost ground in the manufacture of hard goods, an activity that generally requires workers to be in the same place at the same time.
Like others who forecast future economic and social life, Kotkin mixes assumptions that some things will remain the same (reluctance to use mass transit, for example) with assumptions that other things will change (family structures, for instance). His justifications for his assumptions are sometimes spelled out, though often not.
On one very important matter, however, I believe Kotkin has got it right. If America is to remain economically competitive it will in part be because of upwardly striving immigrants, just as it always has been. He notes the significantly more youthful population the United States will have compared to China and Japan by 2050, for example, a distinct economic advantage attributable in large part to continued immigration.
Kotkin says that our urban and land use policies must balance growth and opportunity with sustainability and aesthetics. While many will believe he tilts too far toward the former and too little toward the latter, all should find instructive his emphasis on how individual aspirations intermesh with urban development.
Just one small final observation: I generally do not look for typos, but here one in particular amused me. Kotkin tells us that Santa Clarita, California has an "ethically" diverse population. Does that mean it has its fair share of thieves, cheats, and scoundrels to go along with its majority of law-abiding citizens?
on May 5, 2010
I found Joel Kotkin's book, The Next Hundred Million, to be well written and well organized. He provided an informed perspective on the advantages of the new suburbia and ethnic diversification.
However, what I found incredibly misguided in this book was its central theme of advocating population growth to advance our economy - from the front flap: " In stark contrast to the advanced nations in the rest of the world, the United States is growing at a record rate. This projected rise in population is our long-term indicator of our economic strength."
In embracing population growth, he ignores the current situation: that our economy has lost 7 million jobs since 2007, that we have 14 million unemployed workers, that in our search for energy we are pushing technological limits, that we are "mortgaging our children's future", etc.
Furthermore taking the long-term view: The author praises our population growing to an additional 100 million people by 2050 as a sign of national economic strength. If the population of the world would increase by 33% every 40 years for the foreseeable future - how would this be sustained? I submit that the advanced nations of the world that have been able to limit population growth and live with finite resources - be they Europe, Japan or China - are the nations that merit praise.
This book is well written and the scenarios of the new suburbia are interesting. However I find terribly misguided the author advocating a population Ponzi scheme to drive our economy. What makes an economy strong is productivity - output per capita - innovation - not a continual population pyramid - definitely not in a world of finite resources. As many have learned, and unfortunately many will continue to learn; Ponzi schemes do not end nicely. I cannot understand how this population Ponzi scheme would end well, much less benefit us or for the world.
on February 17, 2010
Obviously some of the high-verbals above have not read this book. Pity. Joel Kotkin dares to posit a future US that differs from the rank and file urbanism of the professoriate. You may not agree with all of his intellectual jiu-jitsu, but here, I think, is one important key: Suburbia is the future, but not the wasteful lonely suburbia of the 1950s. Instead we must fashion a new kind of suburban landscape, one that selectively borrows the successful and vital elements of big city life and uses them to make a more vibrant small cities. The book is a classic urbanist polemic, one that may occupy a place on the right hand side of the same shelf as Jane Jacob's classic Life and Death of the American City. Get the book and read it. If you can handle it...