It's Not Schools vs. Scones

Reviving America's cities takes "back to basics," a bit of the cool, and more. A response to Joel Kotkin's urban prescription.

By Jerold Kayden

Tagged Urban Policy

There is much to like in Joel Kotkin’s
well-written polemic against the latest fashion in urban revitalization
circles [“Urban Legend,” Issue #2]. Dismayed by what he pejoratively
deems the “rise of the boutique city,” Kotkin criticizes its promoters
for focusing on art galleries, coffee-houses, museums, and other
“yuppie accoutrements” as vehicles for urban salvation. Although he
soft-pedals the origin of this advice, he is really taking aim at
George Mason University professor and über-consultant Richard Florida
and his best-selling book of four years ago, The Rise of the Creative
. Powered by an admirable belief in cities as places for “a broad
spectrum of people to improve their lives and that of their families,”
rather than places increasingly populated by extreme haves and
have-nots, Kotkin dismisses urban vogue and stresses a back-to-basics
approach to city governance.

Like Kotkin, I would like contemporary U.S. cities to be places that
accommodate all people rather than only the very rich and the serving
poor. A sandwich composed of bread and little else cannot nourish the
body, let alone the soul. And like Kotkin, I seek policy prescriptions
that would stimulate the appetite of his preferred demographic, middle-
and working-class families, to stay in or return to central cities.
However, the principal problem today is not a myopic addiction of
certain mayors and governors to the seductive calls of “boutique”
pushers. The distressing downward drift of mostly Northeast and Midwest
Rust-Belt American cities has a decades-long and far more complicated
pedigree than that. By introducing the proverbial straw city of the
boutique, Kotkin misrepresents today’s urban policy environment and
unnecessarily trivializes his legitimate back-to-basics reminder.

Kotkin conceptualizes American cities first and foremost as “engines
of upward mobility,” where “newcomers in search of a better life” can
find it. Yet many American cities are no longer places where that
“remarkable social mobility” prevails. Kotkin reminds us that, by
most measures, many central cities are truly troubled. He treads the
well-worn data trail leading to Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia,
Detroit, and other cities beset by persistent poverty, economic
malaise, and population decline. No amount of happy talk can disguise
the facts. It is not a new story, but he tells it well. So far, so

It is when Kotkin identifies the cause of and solution to this problem that he veers somewhat into terra infirma. “The fault, dear Brutus, is ” in ourselves,” he appears to say, speaking to those city and state officials allegedly preoccupied with the latest policy fad. As Kotkin states and restates, in different ways, “Sadly, in recent decades, this notion of cities as mechanisms for upward mobility has broken down. Many cities, rather than trying to uplift their working class and nurture a middle class, have chosen to concentrate on luring the affluent, the ‘hip,’ and the young as their primary development strategy.” Kotkin describes, with borderline inapt phrasing, “a kind of genteel version of ethnic cleansing where middle- and working-class families are being replaced by well-educated, affluent, and often childless households.” He first takes on the purportedly successful “boutique” cities of Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Even they haven’t done so well when you look at the real numbers, he reports. What’s worse is that they have spawned second-rate imitators of the cool model–the Baltimores, Clevelands, and Detroits–with decidedly uncool results. They are “Potemkin villages of coolness in their center” with distressed areas behind the facade.

So where does anti-hipster Kotkin turn for policy answers? Go west
and south, he counsels. Cities seen as “chronically unhip,” especially
the “sprawling new cities of the South and West,” are actually the
“most dynamic in the creation of middle-class residents.” Phoenix,
Houston, Charlotte, and Las Vegas “traditionally have put their focus
on their basic infrastructure and economic competitiveness, and, for
the most part, enjoy relatively low costs of living, particularly for
housing.” Former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier comes in for particular
praise for filling potholes, streamlining regulations, reducing crime,
and building new roads. These cities present a “model for how urban
America can not only rejuvenate itself, but rejuvenate America’s
central promise of upward mobility as well.” Now we know: If only
Detroit would be more like Phoenix, everything would be just fine.
Short of waiting until global warming renders Detroit more like
Phoenix, should the former actively emulate the latter?

Kotkin’s “back to basics” shout is not wrong. His “blocking and
tackling” playbook of better infrastructure, improved schools, more
efficient urban governance, rebuilt housing, a hospitable climate for
entrepreneurs and small businesses, and skills and vocational training
for local residents is unassailable. But who is assailing it? Kotkin
presents no evidence to show that troubled cities have ripped the
“blocking and tackling” chapter from their urban playbook.

Fairly evaluated, every mayor and governor who comes in for Kotkin’s
criticism has plans and programs and budget outlays addressing each of
these basic areas. Could they do more and better? Absolutely, and taken
in that spirit, Kotkin is right on track. That their cities continue to
do poorly in terms of jobs, population growth, and income diversity
compared with mostly Sunbelt cities is not proof, however, that they
have ignored these strategies, any more than the appearance of
umbrellas on any given morning causes an afternoon downpour. That they
try other strategies in addition to the “back to basics” approach is
equally not proof that they have underplayed, let alone ignored, the
basics. The most recent State of the City address by the mayor of
Cleveland emphasizes such “hip” goals as “sound fiscal management,”
“developing a regional economy,” and “safety.” Meanwhile, Baltimore has
been one of the most aggressive cities nationally in reclaiming
abandoned housing.

Diagnosing the problems and coming up with remedies for American
cities is a complicated business. Much of the problem stems from
circumstances out of the hands of governors, let alone mayors. Even
were we to accept Kotkin’s slam of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm
for her “cool cities” strategy, would better schools and roads have
prevented General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler from reporting some
of the worst numbers ever in the history of the U.S. automobile
industry this year? A fairer argument would recognize that certain
cities for years have faced problems whose solutions exceed their own
remedial capacities. They have watched helplessly as changes in
manufacturing technologies and transportation costs have maximized the
need for land-consuming horizontal floor plates and minimized the need
for once-central locations. Along with the rest of the country, they
have suffered from global redefinitions of who manufactures what. When
a traditional working-class job pays a non-working-class wage in a
country thousands of miles away, then American cities are going to have
a problem. Cities that attempt to compete the old-fashioned way will
not necessarily get old-fashioned results.

Moreover, since World War II and continuing to this day, most
middle- and working-class Americans have demonstrated a decided
preference for a built environment not easily found or producible in
old Rust-Belt cities. This preference has been fostered in part by
federal policies that subsidized newly built houses and easy auto
commutes. Kotkin himself gives up the game when he acknowledges that
“[l]ate-twentieth-century cities like Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, and
Dallas were essentially built to meet the tastes of the mass of
Americans for a detached house, a yard, and an automobile commute.”
And, through expansion and annexation, they can continue to meet these
tastes. If he is right that the mass of Americans, particularly his
middle- and working-class families, yearns for the American dream of a
house, yard, and car, then what are Rust-Belt cities supposed to do
about it? Should they raze their existing built environment and replace
it with suburban density and roadways? Should they try to recreate the

Kotkin appears to think so. He especially compliments former Houston
Mayor Lanier for building lots of new roads so that Houstonians could
drive more easily throughout the city. But is this the solution to
Northeast and Mid-west cities’ problems? It’s true that, thanks to the
generosity of American tax-payers’ nearly $15 billion contribution to
Boston’s Big Dig project, I enjoy a much faster commute from Cambridge
to Logan Airport. But I’m not sure that is the model prescription for
improving urban life. If all cities become wannabes of the suburban
experience, then they truly will not offer a differentiated place for
residents and workers that takes advantage of their comparative
advantages of higher density, knowledge institutions, and resulting
spin-off economic and social activity.

To a hammer, everything is a nail. In Kotkin’s eyes, at least as
expressed in his article, economically challenged cities are in trouble
because city officials think Starbucks coffee is better for economic
development than that available at Dunkin’ Donuts. But Dunkin’ Donuts
announced recently that it is upscaling some of its coffee offerings
because it realizes that working- and middle-class families also enjoy
premium coffee. Kotkin’s protean cities, whether they be Atlanta,
Phoenix, Orlando, Dallas, or Charlotte, are building the same museums,
art centers, and other amenities that he poo-poos as yuppie
accoutrements. It just turns out the meat-and-potatoes middle- and
working-class Americans also have a taste for cultural nourishment.
Anti-elitist Kotkin comes across as a bit patronizing, even if

The real point is that no single policy prescription is a magic
bullet. All Americans want a good education, a good job, reasonably
priced housing, safe neighborhoods, open space, less traffic, and good
weather. They also like culture, entertainment, restaurants, and
nightlife. They like these things in different packages and are often
willing to trade off some of one for more of another. Older, colder,
denser cities cannot offer everything that newer, warmer, more
dispersed cities have, and vice versa. It is not surprising that some
demographic cohorts will be more drawn to certain places than others,
and that location diversification across the country may be a condition
of the latest urban landscape. Kotkin’s goal of a working- and
middle-class cohort in every city pot may be not only unattainable, but
not even essential.

Kotkin could have chosen to hammer away at other fashionable urban
policy favorites: development of new stadiums or the reliance on
tourism. He could have given us a history lesson on the failures of
urban renewal. Instead, he chose to hammer away at those who think
coffee bars and young professionals they retain or attract will enhance
a city’s economic position. If someone thinks that coffee bars are
“the” answer, then Kotkin properly throws a monkey wrench. Kotkin’s
wrench-throwing should not, however, drown out attempts to encourage
other things that make urban life worth living, cities worth having,
and urban employment and residence more stimulating. Kotkin’s portrayal
of city policy as a de facto zero-sum game distorts the reality of
day-to-day city practice. After all, you need Joe Montanas and Jerry
Rices–as much as nameless left tackles–to win the Super Bowl.

Read more about Urban Policy

Jerold Kayden is co-chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus