A fascinating article on the future of American downtowns by Joel Kotkin in The American, the journal of the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute — an article that has profound relevance for what’s happening in Dallas.
Kotkin argues that when it comes to street level demographics, the “new urbanization,” the return to downtowns that has been much touted the past decade, is really only a slowing down of the mass migration out of many American cities. The hard, expensive, crippling factors that have turned many urban neighborhoods unattractive — schools, cost-of-living, crime, blight, city services — still work against cities, despite the boomlet in hipsters renovating trendy lofts or in cities and developers putting up shiny new attractions, nightclubs and parks.
In fact, Kotkin argues that those nuts-and-bolt problems persist in troubling urban neighborhoods partly because many cities have deliberately neglected middle-class family needs. Instead, the cities are competing to become what New York Mayor Bloomberg termed “the luxury city.” They want to target the creative singles, the up-market professionals, the empty-nest baby boomers:
The University of Chicago’s Terry Nichols, one of the most articulate advocates for this new urban pattern, says cities should focus not so much as being vehicles for class mobility, but as an “entertainment machine” for the privileged. For these elite residents, the lures are not economic opportunity, but rather “bicycle paths, beaches and softball fields,” and “up-to-the-date consumption opportunities in the hip restaurants, bars, shops, and boutiques abundant in restructured urban neighborhoods.”
In this formulation cities become the domicile primarily of the young, the rich (and their servants), as well as those members of the underclass who persist in hanging around. What emerges, in the end, is a city largely without children, particularly of school-age, and with a diminishing middle class. Ironically, these are places that, despite celebrating diversity, actually could end up as hip, dense versions of the most constipated suburb imaginable.
Obviously, Kotkin concludes, this whole approach has “severe limitations.” He does see some glimmers of hope but part of it is based on ideas that one rarely ever hears mentioned in the context of redeveloping downtown Dallas: neighborhoods, community, jobs. It’s hard to imagine Victory Park as any sort of real neighborhood. The problem is — this stuff doesn’t sound as nearly as exciting as a new bridge, parkway or convention center hotel.
As one might expect, at times, Kotkin’s article sounds like an attack on “elitists” and a hymn for building a new conservative voting bloc in cities, which have tended to be Democratic vs. the Republican strongholds in the suburbs. (Kotkin, also, is no admirer of “the green agenda.”)
But some of the article simply makes a lot of ground-level sense:
It is possible to imagine the rise of a new kind of urban economy built around people working in small firms, or independently in growing fields such as information, education, healthcare, and culture, or as specialists in a wide array of business services. These are professions that continued to grow in many older cities, even as other fields declined. …
This “sense of community” will become the key currency of sustaining urban communities. Such middle-class sensibilities get short shrift by urban scholars such as Richard Florida, who argue that in the so-called “creative age” places of residence should be “leased” like cars. In his mind, single-family homes, the ideal of homeownership, should be replaced “by a new kind of housing” that embraces higher forms of density without long-term commitment to a particular residence or location.
In fact, the sustainable city of the future will depend precisely on commitment and long-term residents.