The Future of Cities
Edited by Joel Kotkin and Ryan Streeter.
American Enterprise Institute, 2022.
Reviewed by Mark G. Brennan.
Those who care about the future of cities need to pay attention to Chapman University Urban Futures Fellow Joel Kotkin. The New York Times aptly described Kotkin as “America’s über-geographer.” His body of work justifies that title. In addition to his regular pieces at The Daily Beast, Kotkin’s important works include 2010’s The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 and 2014’s The New Class Conflict. Those two books explain how today’s high-tech oligarchy, media and academic clerisy, and overreaching government have combined to change American culture and society, mostly for the worse. Unfortunately, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, which Kotkin published in 2020, proved the prescience of his previous two works.
The American Enterprise Institute (“AEI”) would have been hard pressed to find a better editor than Kotkin for its recent essay collection, The Future of Cities. With the help of the AEI’s Director of Domestic Policy Studies Ryan Streeter, Kotkin has assembled fifteen brief articles on our urban future, ranging geographically from Youngstown and Indianapolis all the way to China and Africa. Several authors focus on themes—housing, politics, and homelessness—with location as their secondary concern. However, if you come to The University Bookman for its self-professed goal of “Reviewing Books that Build Culture” or because you agree with Russell Kirk that “the elaborate fabric which we call our civil social order…is the product of filtered wisdom,” then The Future of Cities probably isn’t for you.
Instead of a Kirkian “filtered wisdom,” The Future of Cities too often reads like a platitudinous white paper, undergraduate Power Point presentation, and careless data dump. Banality abounds. Wendell Cox concludes his piece, The Urban Future: The Great Dispersion, with this thundering bromide, “However, to compete with suburban and exurban areas, they [urban areas] must foster a quality of life that attracts and retains people.” “Quality of life”? “People”? Would that be taxpayers, teachers, toolmakers, or tech support? Alan M. Berger includes color pictures showing how McKinney, Texas, could repurpose its suburban gridscape with green space and EV charging stations in his Next Generation American Suburbs. Thanks to urban planning jargon like “middle neighborhood upzoning strategies,” “existing infrastructural overburden,” and “increased mobility access,” readers might think they hear a college-aged voice say “Next slide, please” as they turn the page.
If you didn’t know that Africa’s coastline measures only one-third the length of Europe’s despite having almost three times the landmass, or that Sub-Saharan Africa spends “around 27 percent of its gross domestic product on transport services,” then you will after reading Africa’s Urban Future. And if those facts don’t sate your hunger for trivia, a two-page chart listing the responses of African countries to five questions like “Do sons and daughters have equal rights to inherit assets from their parents?” should do the trick. Before the suspense kills you—and to save you the trouble of looking it up—the previous question would be a “Yes” for Mauritius and a “No” for Mauritania.
Despite its title, The Future of Cities ranges too broadly from inner city cores out to auto-dependent suburbs before finally drawing the line at rural areas. New York City has less in common with the aforementioned McKinney and more in common with Salt Lake City and Indianapolis, but not much. Harry Siegel’s essay on the Big Apple, The Evolution of New York City Politics, has aged fairly well even though the New York Daily News columnist wrote it in January 2022. This Gothamite hopes Siegel’s three arguments for why betting against New York this time around is “probably a mug’s game” succeed. Siegel cites global capital’s preference for New York’s real estate and financial markets, New Yorkers’ resilience, and Mayor Eric Adams’s leadership as reasons to bet on the Big Apple. Let’s hope Mayor Adams doesn’t get any silly ideas from Aaron Renn’s account of how private philanthropy, activist mayors, and sports teams made Americans think positively of Indianapolis for reasons other than its annual auto race. Indianapolis’s perfect storm of luck will be hard, if not impossible, to replicate.
And as migrants sleep on the sidewalks outside New York’s groaning homeless shelters, Salt Lake City’s success in solving its homelessness crisis via “the Utah Way” will only make New Yorkers—and San Franciscans, Portlanders, and Angelenos—aware of their city’s civic shortcomings. As Natalie Gochnour shows, the Utah Way succeeds thanks to “high levels of collaboration…and social capital,” each of which are glaringly absent from those socially, culturally, and geographically sprawling cities.
Unlike most of this collection, both Gochnour’s article and Michael Lind’s False Dawn: The Future of Work and Cities After the Illusions of Globalization employ Kirk’s filtered wisdom in their analyses. Now compare J. H. Cullum Clark’s claim that “weak transit systems constrain opportunities for people without automobiles” in South Dallas in The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Metropolitan Model in the Lone Star State. Kirkians will reflexively think first of the social pathologies like out-of-wedlock births, declining family formation, and indifference to education afflicting South Dallas and how chauffeured limousines would most likely fail to stir urban America from its economic inanition. The inclusion of Gochnour and Lind will remind University Bookman fans that Kotkin should have included more humane thought and less technocratic social science in his selections.
Nevertheless, Kotkin himself sounds downright Kirkian. He cites “social stability” as one of three challenges facing American cities, and suburbs, for this mistitled book’s purpose. His must-read conclusion goes so far as to say that without social cohesion American cities will descend into the “worst aspects of medievalism,” including “vast poor populations, endemic disease, and massive social and geographic separation between the classes.” With 18% of its 8 million residents living below the federal poverty line, a summer spike in Covid infections, and two isolated classes of residents—one that depends on an underfunded subway system for subsistence and another that depends on helicopters to whisk them to the Hamptons—New York City has already become medieval Bruges but without the charming canals. I can think of no one better than Joel Kotkin to assemble a collection of essays devoid of technocratic jargon and irrelevant data, yet replete with humane learning and deep thought. Alas, that didn’t happen here. Whatever hope other American cities might have depends on time-tested, filtered wisdom, not on a haughty, overpaid consultants’ findings or ivory tower social scientists’ musings.
Mark G. Brennan lives in Manhattan and teaches at New York University.
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