Joel Kotkin at The Daily Beast:
Once considered backwaters, these Sunbelt cities are quietly achieving a critical mass of well-educated residents. They are also becoming major magnets for immigrants. Over the past decade, the largest percentage growth in foreign-born population has occurred in sunbelt cities, led by Nashville, which has doubled its number of immigrants, as have Charlotte and Raleigh. During the first decade of the 21st century, Houston attracted the second-most new, foreign-born residents, some 400,000, of any American city—behind only much larger New York and slightly ahead of Dallas-Ft. Worth, but more than three times as many as Los Angeles. According to one recent Rice University study, Census data now shows that Houston has now surpassed New York as the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis.
Why are these people flocking to the aspirational cities, that lack the hip amenities, tourist draws, and cultural landmarks of the biggest American cities? People are still far more likely to buy a million dollar pied à terre in Manhattan than to do so in Oklahoma City. Like early-20th-century Polish peasants who came to work in Chicago’s factories or Russian immigrants, like my grandparents, who came to New York to labor in the rag trade, the appeal of today’s smaller cities is largely economic. The foreign born, along with generally younger educated workers, are canaries in the coal mine—singing loudest and most frequently in places that offer both employment and opportunities for upward mobility and a better life.
Over the decade, for example, Austin’s job base grew 28 percent, Raleigh’s by 21 percent, Houston by 20 percent, while Nashville, Atlanta, San Antonio, and Dallas-Ft. Worth saw job growth in the 14 percent range or better. In contrast, among all the legacy cities, only Seattle and Washington D.C.—the great economic parasite—have created jobs faster than the national average of roughly 5 percent. Most did far worse, with New York and Boston 20 percent below the norm; big urban regions including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and, despite the current tech bubble, San Francisco have created essentially zero new jobs over the decade.
The reality is that most urban growth in our most dynamic, fastest-growing regions has included strong expansion of the suburban and even exurban fringe, along with a limited resurgence in their historically small inner cores. Economic growth, it turns out, allows for young hipsters to find amenable places before they enter their 30s, and affordable, more suburban environments nearby to start families.
This urbanizing process is shaped, in many ways, by the late development of these regions. In most aspirational cities, close-in neighborhoods often are dominated by single-family houses; it’s a mere 10 or 15 minute drive from nice, leafy streets in Ft. Worth, Charlotte, or Austin to the urban core. In these cities, families or individuals who want to live near the center can do without being forced to live in a tiny apartment.
And in many of these places, the historic underdevelopment in the central district, coupled with job growth, presents developers with economically viable options for higher-density housing as well. Houston presents the strongest example of this trend. Although nearly 60 percent of Houston’s growth over the decade has been more than 20 miles outside the core, the inner ring area encompassed within the loop around Interstate 610 has also been growing steadily, albeit at a markedly slower rate. This contrasts with many urban regions, where close-in areas just beyond downtowns have been actually losing population.
Pressed by local developers and planners, some aspirational cities spend heavily on urban transit, including light rail. To my mind, these efforts are largely quixotic, with transit accounting for five percent or less of all commuters in most systems. The Charlotte Area Transit System represents less a viable means of commuting for most residents than what could be called Manhattan infrastructure envy. Even urban-planning model Portland, now with five radial light rail lines and a population now growing largely at its fringes, carries a smaller portion of commuters on transit than before opening its first line in 1986.
But such pretentions, however ill-suited, have always been commonplace for ambitious and ascending cities, and are hardly a reason to discount their prospects. Urbanistas need to wake up, start recognizing what the future is really looking like and search for ways to make it work better. Under almost any imaginable scenario, we are unlikely to see the creation of regions with anything like the dynamic inner cores of successful legacy cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco. For better or worse, demographic and economic trends suggest our urban destiny lies increasingly with the likes of Houston, Charlotte, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Raleigh and even Phoenix.
The critical reason for this is likely to be missed by those who worship at the altar of density and contemporary planning dogma. These cities grow primarily because they do what cities were designed to do in the first place: help their residents achieve their aspirations—and that’s why they keep getting bigger and more consequential, in spite of the planners who keep ignoring or deploring their ascendance.
Read the whole thing. I’ve been pimping Kotkin here for years. When you see his name out on the nets, give him your time. He’s been dead right about what’s happening in American cities, where Richard Florida has been dead wrong.1 comment