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Cities Should Have Room for Everyone

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Nearly a century ago, in 1920, the Census Bureau caused a ruckus when it announced that, for the first time, a majority of Americans lived in cities -- even though its definition of a city included every hamlet with a population of 2,500 and above.

Today a majority of Americans live in what are by any reasonable definition very large cities, metropolitan areas with populations above 1 million. But the urban planning profession remains fixated on just one small portion of these metropolises, the central city downtowns, though none outside New York contains more than 10 percent of metropolitan area jobs.

That's one of the lessons of Joel Kotkin's new book "The Human City," which takes a wider and longer view. Kotkin shows how cities developed as religious, imperial, commercial and industrial centers. And he shows how what planners disparage as suburbs and sprawl emerged a century ago as natural parts of the city -- and are now the home and workplace of the large majority of American city dwellers.

That's not how planners like to think about cities. Their focus is typically visual, and on the exterior of buildings and cityscape, easily reproduced in glossy coffee-table books, rather than on the interiors where people spend most of their hours. They take their cues from 20th century architects like Le Corbusier, who wanted to knock down all of Paris' historic structures and replace them with a few skyscrapers rising from parkland.

There is an obvious authoritarian thrust here. It is visible in Kotkin's home state of California, where zoning restrictions and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protests prevent new construction in coastal metropolises. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing policies that would concentrate new housing in high-rise clusters around mass transit stations, with ready access to bike paths and walking trails but not to streets and roads for private cars. It's a good thing to offer people such a choice. It's a bad thing to deny them any others.

The result is that housing costs in coastal metropolises have skyrocketed far above the level affordable for median-income singles, much less married couples with children. These cities are increasingly the home of the connected rich and the disconnected poor. They have the nation's highest levels of economic inequality and the highest percentage of singles. The central city of San Francisco has 80,000 more dogs than children.

As Kotkin points out, the rationales for confining development in this way don't stand up to scrutiny. It's argued that suburbs, whose residents drive dozens of miles each day, are more wasteful of energy than high-rise central cities. Data don't bear that out. It takes lots of energy to build and maintain the high-rises, more than enough to compensate for less driving.

Central cities are also portrayed as more ethnically diverse. But that's not necessarily true: As Kotkin notes, blacks have been moving to suburbs, and most Asian and Latino immigrants head there directly. Meanwhile, the hippest neighborhoods of San Francisco and Portland, Brooklyn and Boston are increasingly monochromatically white.

And it turns out that tightly packing people from various ethnic backgrounds into small central city neighborhoods doesn't promote harmonious interaction. On the contrary, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam found to his horror, it reduces social trust and social connectedness. People hunker down and avoid contact with others.

You get more social connectedness and higher levels of trust in the supposedly dreary and dull suburbs. One reason is that people with children tend to head toward the suburbs, and childrearing encourages participation in school- and church-related voluntary associations.

Another is that suburbs, unlike central cities or university campuses, actually have populations with diverse opinions. On any suburban cul-de-sac you can find people who vote both Republican and Democratic. Good luck trying that in Manhattan or Harvard.

To his subject Kotkin brings a useful worldwide perspective. He appreciates the strengths and shortcomings of Singapore, understands that most Europeans, like most Americans, live in suburbs and notes that population growth rates have been falling in megacities like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Beijing, as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Some cities evidently get too big for people.

Which is Kotkin's point: Cities exist for people, not the other way around. He champions "urban pluralism," cities that have room for singles who think they're the wave of the future, and, especially, for parents who are actually creating and raising the citizens of the future.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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