Urban economics: Superstar cities vs. 'mellow' cities
Do smaller urban centers promise a better life than a congested megalopolis?
The Wall Street Journal has provided Joel Kotkin with the space to sketch the tradeoffs of living in megacities (such as NYC or Tel-Aviv) vs. living in smaller cities such as Raleigh. His thesis boils down to "Smaller, more nimble urban regions promise a better life than the congested megalopolis." Is this correct? Will Don Trump and Derek Jeter read his column and move to Nashville? These immediate counter-examples highlight that we need to be a pinch nuanced here.Skip to next paragraph
Mathew is an economics professor at UCLA and has written three books: Green Cities (Brookings Institution Press); Heroes and Cowards (Princeton University Press, jointly with Dora L. Costa); and in fall 2010, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter World (Basic Books).
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
To his credit, Kotkin later reveals that he is talking about the middle class and the urban poor. If this is really his focus, then why did the Wall Street Journal publish it? (that was a joke). Consider this quote from his piece;
"Consider Mumbai, with a population just under 20 million. Over the past 40 years, the proportion of its citizens living in slums has grown from one in six to more than half. Mumbai's brutal traffic stems from a population density of more than 64,000 per square mile, fourth-highest of any city in the world, according to the website Demographia."
Now, to a non-economist the first sentence appears to suggest that quality of life is growing worse in Mumbai for the urban squatter poor. The slums are growing more dense. But, if we take revealed preference seriously then the people who are moving into such slums must prefer it to the even poorer rural areas. So, the incumbent urban poor are made worse of as the urban slums grow (rents rise, density increases, urban wages fall) but the new migrants must prefer their new destination or they would not have made the costly move to the city. So, overall --- does Mumbai offer the urban poor a good "quality of life" or not?
Returning to the United States, Kotkin makes a very reasonable point about the fate of the middle class in the U.S Superstar cities;
"The largest American cities—notably New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—also show the most rapid decline in middle-class jobs and neighborhoods, with a growing bifurcation between the affluent and poor. In these megacities, high property prices tend to drive out employers and middle-income residents. By contrast, efficient cities are where most middle- and working-class Americans, and their counterparts around the world, will find the best places to achieve their aspirations."
Now, he is ignoring the fact that NYC, LA and Chicago all have suburbs where the price of land heads to zero. You can live in a very large, very cheap home in LA as you go east towards Riverside. As employment has suburbanized, commute times do not go to infinity as people suburbanize. More and more people have suburban home to suburban jobs commutes.
If few middle class people can afford to live in Manhattan, or near Santa Monica in LA or in Lincoln Park in Chicago; what problem arises? I wish I had a fancy Mercedes but I can't afford one. I'm not going to lead a revolution because I know that Don Trump has 22 of them.
He is correct that for some middle class people that there may be better cities for them to live in that NYC, LA or Chicago but so what? It is up to them to make this choice. The key is that they have choice. In nations around the world, we need different cities to pursue their own competitive edge in terms of amenities, job opportunities and culture. Today, Detroit has a growing Arab-American population. As this group grows in terms of education, numbers and income, Detroit will become a stronger city because of this. Young Arab immigrants to the United States know that if they move to Detroit that they will have access to religious events and sympathetic social networks to start their life in our nation.