Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue May 26th 2009 at 1:23pm UTC

America’s Urban Dilemma

Megan is skeptical that cities can outlast the crisis. Crime will get worse, she fears, tax revenues will shrink, and middle class families will once again head for the ‘burbs. Ta-Nehisi (and many of his commenters) say economics favors big cities, especially Gotham. Case in point: how expensive it (still) is to live in Manhattan. I side with Ta-Nehisi, especially on the question of New York City, for reasons I outlined here.

As an American living in Toronto, I’ve come to learn this is peculiarly American condition and conversation. Toronto is loaded with families: middle-class, working class, upper-class, immigrant, and Canadian-born; gay and straight; married and so on. Crime, violent crime at least, is relatively low; the public schools stellar by American standards. I live downtown in a largely residential neighborhood loaded with middle-class families, of roughly the same demographic that would live in, say, Bethesda or somewhere like it. Toronto provides a workable model of an “urban family land” – which stands in sharp relief to the barbell demography of American cities which divide into the young (singles and “strollerville” couples) on the one hand and empty-nesters on the other.

This missing middle is less a problem for America’s biggest and best cities. Places like New¬† York and San Francisco have shown they can function without a large contingent of families. But it poses a looming problem for American competitiveness. It means America’s leading metro centers remain, by definition, considerably more stretched out. In an era where density and talent clustering are key drivers of innovation and economic prosperity, this may ultimately prove a significant competitive disadvantage for the nation as a whole, even as its biggest cities continue to fare relatively well.

14 Responses to “America’s Urban Dilemma”

  1. hayden fisher Says:

    …but could this be changing, more and more young couples with kids are looking for alternatives to moving out to the burbs. The re-calibration of cities as places to live, work and play is a fairly new trend in the U.S. Obviously cities like New York have led the way but the model is being embraced across the country. The elimination of concentration-camp style urban housing projects is a big step forward and we cannot forget that ‘white flight’ led to the decay of a lot of American cities during the ’60’s and ’70’s in the first instance; but the pendulum is swinging back. If Obama solves the urban education problem through a host of remedies including vouchers; magnet schools; faith-based funding; the creation of more green space and more park and recreations funding generally; etc.– lots of progress is ahead. That, coupled with the future decay of suburbia, would lead me to bet on cities going forward; and not just NYC.

  2. Eric Says:

    New York City is just barely affordable if you’re single, have a good paying job, and you’re willing to live in a broom closet with roommates.

    To get an apartment big enough for a family to live in, and throw in the cost of private schooling (because no one wants to send their kids to NYC public schools if they can help it) and you’re basically only talking about millionaires who can afford this.

    The other issue I’d raise is that there’s always a little bit of a schism between the interests of people with families and people without. If you have a family, your concern is safety, space, and quality of schools, and child-friendly community activities, to name a few things.

    Single people and childless couples are mostly looking at cost of living and adult oriented activities – bars, intellectual fare, that sort of thing.

    So to a large extent they self segregate – families are attracted to suburbs with their big houses, fenced in yards, and good schools – and they’re even attracted to the car dependent lifestyle, shuttling around their kids in these “safe” vehicles. Single people are put off by the high taxes and property values associated with these places, and migrate towards cities with their hipster bar scene and other attractions.

    I suppose it’s possible to imagine a NYC where there are “single” neighborhoods and “family” neighborhoods, but it’s also just as easy to imagine the status quo – where families live in the burbs of NJ and Long Island but are still very much a part of the NYC economy by virtue of commuting, and the childless prefer to take up residence in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken, etc.

  3. Rockfish Says:

    NYC is not inherently expensive for some mysterious reason, it is expensive because of DEMAND. There is a finite amount of space and a lot of people want to be there really, really badly. It is arguably the global epicenter of the “creative class” and a mecca of sorts for millions around the world, for various reasons. You can critique their motivation all you want, but when it comes down to it they will pay a lot to live in NYC.
    Real estate is expensive because there are dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people who will take that apartment if you don’t. The mythical $8 Coke exists only in the Statue of Liberty gift shop – I’ve paid less for a coffee and bagel in Manhattan than in Michigan, Massachusetts, or Maryland.
    Whatever it is about NYC, San Fran, London, etc. it’s not a bad thing at all, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

  4. Carl Says:

    Hayden Fisher hit the nail on the head. Somewhere between the continuum of successful delivery of basic services and quality urban design lies the promised land for American cities of marketplace desirability. And yet, almost no quantitative analysis of the qualities that make the most desirable places desirable exists.

    For example, in Chicago, where Mayor Daley has spent millions on improved streetscapes, there is no research that quantifies the benefits in terms of increased investment or assessed property values. The observable evidence is there, certainly, but how does this translate into something from which other cities (especially those in the Midwest) can learn?

    In the end, it’s all about making economically sustainable urban environments that are desirable products in the marketplace. It’s not the only dimension to consider, but the places that do not are destined for oblivion in the global marketplace.

  5. Wendy Says:

    The one big difference between Toronto and most / all US cities for families — the schools, as Eric raises. In Toronto (and Vancouver and other Canadian cities) there are great benefits to raising kids in an older, more densely populated urban area — lots of choice of decent schools.

    There are three public elementary schools within 5 blocks of our home that offer slightly different styles, with 2 of the 3 are considered quite good schools. There are also two public schools offering French Emersion education, each one is about one mile from our house. There are also at least two private schools in close proximity — one catholic, one independent.

    The US has to solve the public education issue for so many reasons, including the livability and appeal of cities to their creative class parents.

  6. IB Says:

    There was an small but interesting bit of news in NYC this past week about that relates to some of the things being discussed here. This was that the NYC Dept of Education is now facing serious overcrowding problems of incoming pre-k/kindergarten students in one (of the most affluent) districts (2), which is located in Manhattan.

    Rockfish, what you are stating, as I raised here in a previous post, may be more of a problem of supply and demand, that not only includes NYC relative to the space in its vicinity, but NYC relative to other options in the United States, relative not only to just American citizens, but to those interested in living in NYC in some way or form from all over the world.

    This seems to relate to what one could call the lack of a real cosmopolitan, tolerant, urban experience options that is attractive to not only various American bobos (with or w/o children) and hipsters, looking to either or escape strip mall culture and/or fulfill their career ambitions, but to much of the world that is FAR more urbanized than the United States is this makes cities like NY and SF, that also have limited space, THAT much more expensive.

    In other words, I continue to argue (in conjunction with Prof. Florida) that it would be quite useful to see more American cities improve their attractiveness to these groups so everyone doesn’t end up going to the same few cities.

    The concern I have, is that even with trends in culture, particularly regarding the U.S. economy and culture as being less dominant — which we this blog continues to report — I am not so certain many of our “cities” and citizens who live in them are quite interested or ready to do this just yet for a long list of reasons. We will certainly see, and there may be signs of ability for progress to be made in this area, without being about “elites” coming in and “taking over” (aka gentrifying) the “heartland” of America. Of course, if that culture is leading to everyone’s demise, sustaining it can’t exactly be the best framework for living to hold onto.

  7. Buzzcut Says:

    The talk about good urban public schools in Canadian cities is interesting.

    The reason that urban public schools are so poor in the US is the existance of the urban underclass. The underclass doesn’t value education, thus the schools are totally unusable.

    Canada, with no underclass, can thus have good urban public schools.

    But at least in the case of Chicago, more families are trying to stay in the city, which is creating anxiety. The competition to get into magnet schools is incredibly intense. You simply can’t go to neighborhood schools, and for many, private schools are out of reach.

    Anyway, as with so much in America, it all boils down to getting yourself into the right social stratta. A driver of the ‘burbs has been escape from the urban underclass. Maybe we should just deal with that underclass, rather than dancing around the subject? Or when we say things like, “The US has to solve the public education issue for so many reasons, including the livability and appeal of cities to their creative class parents.”, know that that’s impossible without ackowledging that the real problem is, the urban underclass.

  8. Laffrat Says:

    Canada has no underclass? I presume the writer is American and is thinking back to the demographics of Canada in maybe the 1960’s. The demographics of Canada has changed since then. We have an urban underclass with all the usual sorts of guns and gang activity and lack of interest in education. It’s just not as large as in the US.

    Their members tend to be found in pockets or clusters in the city often near the working class suburbs that may have been developed after WWII. And clustered around public housing projects of course.
    Members of the urban middle class cluster as well into older neighbourhoods often nearer the core and in the new outer suburbs creating a bit of a “ring of poverty” between them. And of course for education, members of the urban knowledge class avoid the “bad schools” by sending their kids to French Immersion schools which acts as an informal filter between the urban knowledge and under class.

  9. Buzzcut Says:

    Size matters. If the underclass is small and isolated, then you don’t have to take extreme measures to insulate yourself from it (like moving to the ‘burbs, or driving instead of taking public transportation).

    But if, as in the US, the underclass is the entire population of the city (Detroit) or a large part of it (Chicago), then you need to take some extreme measures.

  10. Wendy Says:

    Buzzcut makes a good point about a difference between US and Canadian cities being the size of the underclass, and its existence in pockets surrounded by other classes, rather than in one large contiguous space.

    I could have been more clear above — there is definitely an underclass in Canada and I live in a neighbourhood right up against one of those “pockets”.

    In Canadian cities the underclass is often “First Nations” (what Canadians call “native americans”) and in my area, that is the case.

    These neighbourhoods with high concentrations of first nations are right up against areas with a more international, middle class population. Therefore, even if the closest public school to your house is an “inner city” designated school, you can request placement for your child in another nearby school that has a different catchment.

    There are three schools nearby our house that have very high first nations enrollment with some having better academic outcomes than others (and then there are the two I mentioned with very good academic outcomes that also have many fewer “urban underclass” students enrolled).

  11. Wendy Says:

    On another tone, I’ve been pondering whether America really can become more urban (a la Europe or Toronto) and still be “America”

    There’s something about the suburbs that connects with deeply held beliefs about America’s history and culture.

  12. Rockfish Says:

    It’s a gnarly question, allright. There are lots of correlations, but just as many exceptions. NYC, Boston, Philly, Chicago, Washington and San Fran are the most densely developed metro areas in the US, they have the most extensive transit, are generally walkable, have large business and high-income personal tax bases, attract creative types, yet many have a large “underclass” and many structural problems, including marginal schools. So, are they “good” cities or “bad”?
    Why is there an equally large, and growing, suburban “underclass?” The entire northeast mega-region is packed with 3rd and 4th tier cities (Bridgeport, CT, Newburgh, NY, Trenton, NJ) that have 10 times the problems of their big city neighbors and none of the positives. If size were a problem, wouldn’t they be better off?
    So there is no one thing whose presence or absence guarantees success. This makes the perennial success (relatively)of a place like NYC very hard to distill and replicate.

  13. Cheryl Says:

    Different slant on the urban dilemma from another author.

  14. Paul Says:

    @ Rockfish, 5/26:
    “NYC is not inherently expensive for some mysterious reason, it is expensive because of DEMAND. There is a finite amount of space and a lot of people want to be there really, really badly.”

    For everyone who wants to be in NY, there’s probably one who HAS to be there. Our country has a way of making sure that places with a laidback pace and pop density cannot support a thriving culture or plentiful employment.

    I hope what Richard’s book is about is not that we are all going to have to live in snake pits.