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The Urban Future Isn't All About Population Booms

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sunbelt-and-sprawl advocate Joel Kotkin wrote two years ago that the future of American urbanism wasn't in the "elite cities," such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but in "younger, more affordable and less self-regarding places." He named (his order) Houston, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas and Riverside, Calif.

Boom-city boosters like Kotkin play a numbers game, where the place with the biggest population explosion wins. This is also a kind of Blue America-versus-Red America urbanology, which includes an element of liberal-bashing: Any place that refuses to be steamrolled by developers is called "elite."

In the aftermath of the real-estate bust, areas overly dependent on building houses, selling houses and financing houses are in the worst shape. Economies need non-bubble jobs. Unemployment rates in the recent hyper-growth centers, Riverside and Las Vegas, are now well above those in the aforementioned "elite cities." And Boston's 9 percent unemployment is only a point above that of the more economically diverse Sunbelt powerhouses: Houston, Dallas and Phoenix.

There's little point in pitting cities, regions and states against one another. This is a big country. One can like San Francisco for some things and Las Vegas for others. By the way, what gave anyone the idea that Houston, Dallas and Phoenix are not "self-regarding"? They are, as well they should be.

And whereas Texas is still a largely conservative state, Houston and Dallas are fairly progressive cities. Dallas now has a nifty light-rail system, and Houston just elected a lesbian mayor.

One other thing: The older coastal cities tend to be hemmed in by water on one or more sides. Their housing is expensive because they don't have much land left to build on. To blame just their zoning laws is simpleminded.

This conversation has left out the "youth magnets," the liberal cities that draw armies of educated young people by virtue -- not in spite -- of their protected environments and urban cool. We speak of places like Seattle, Austin and Portland. Migrants to these cities are not necessarily looking for cheap homes with three-car garages. They're living in walk-ups and sharing apartments and lofts. Bike paths and public transportation are attractions.

Las Vegas has suffered the double-whammy of the real-estate bust and drop-off in tourism, the city's main economic engine. Tourism has declined 6 percent from last year, and convention business is down a third. Luxury hotel rooms are approaching "roadside motel prices," as Business Week put it.

Kotkin is right about one thing: Las Vegas is certainly affordable. House prices there have fallen 55 percent since peaking in August 2006.

Las Vegas, as well as that other boom country, Florida, now have gigantic new condo towers with only a handful of occupants. (Real estate professionals call these "see-through buildings" because they are so empty, there's nothing to stop you from seeing from one side to the other.)

Last year, populations actually fell in Florida and in Clark County, Nev., which is mostly Las Vegas. Florida's is the first loss in over a century, other than during world wars.

These parts of the country will rise again. They have warm weather and fun cultures. But they need more varied sources of jobs. And Florida, especially, must tighten its zoning laws -- the lack of which helped create the congestion that has begun to scare newcomers away.

It makes sense that more urban growth will happen outside the older, already crowded metropolises. But let's drop the childish notion that if Houston is growing, San Francisco, a coastal city with a more stable population, must somehow be declining. There's more to happiness than the census count reveals.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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