Just Add People

Joel Kotkin is right that population growth can transform America’s cities and suburbs for the better. He’s wrong to think it’ll happen automatically.

How good will our future be? According to Joel Kotkin in his new book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, pretty darn good. The key to that great future lies right in the subtitle of his book. In Kotkins view, the addition of 100 million people by mid-century, combined with our flexible, entrepreneurial culture, wide-open spaces, and abundant resources, will produce strong, healthy growth, in contrast to our antinatalist, immigrant-unfriendly, culturally closed, demographically stagnating competitors. This includes not just Europe, for which Kotkin reserves particular contempt, but even China, which has grown so strongly in recent decades.

In short, Kotkin is bullish on America. If America were a stock, hed suggest you buy it. And he has a number of more specific predictions for our glorious future. American growth, he says, will continue to be overwhelmingly concentrated in suburbia, since Americans are not about to give up their love affair with low-density living and the automobile. But thats okay, since suburbia itself will evolve toward an “archipelago of villages,” more self-sufficient and urbanlike, chock-full of cultural amenities and a veritable paradise for the increasingly common telecommuter. Kotkin also coins the phrase “greenurbia” (hes very big on coining phrases) to describe how the new suburbia will be environmentally sustainable, living in harmony with the natural world and providing a healthful atmosphere for raising families.

As for cities, well continue to have them, of course, but the successful ones will be like Phoenix, Dallas, Charlotte, and Atlanta”aspirational cities,” spread out (though it will be “smart sprawl”), not much of a downtown, but plenty of relatively cheap space for the middle class to settle down in. And then there will be some “superstar cities”Boston, San Francisco, Manhattan, perhaps Seattle and Portlandthat will become too expensive for the middle class but will attract affluent Americans, young people (especially college students), and recent immigrants.

Rural parts of the country, says Kotkin, will fare surprisingly well. Indeed, he predicts a resurgence of the American heartland, as the middle class moves out of urban areas in search of affordable housing and a family-friendly environment. This renaissance, notes Kotkin, is unlikely to extend to truly remote and isolated regions. The places that will thrive will be those centered around dynamic towns and small cities that have sufficient infrastructure and amenities (catchphrase: “urbalism”) to attract sophisticated in-migrants.

Sounds great. Where do I sign up? Thats the beauty part: you dont have to sign up. According to Kotkin, all of this will happen more or less automatically: just take America, add population growth, and voila! As for those who are pessimistic or even just doubtful that our prospects are quite this rosywell, Kotkin has little patience with them. These naysayers, he says, dont understand either the people of America (our love of open spaces, automobiles, children, religion, and so on) or the countrys strengths (our flexible, entrepreneurial culture, our attraction to immigrants), or both. In fact, Kotkin almost seems to be saying that Americas only real problem is people who think we have lots of problems.

What are we to make of this relentlessly optimistic take on Americas future? On one level, Kotkins optimism is refreshing. The U.S. does have tremendous potential, and predictions of our imminent decline do seem overwrought. Kotkin is right to focus on the dynamic aspects of our demography and culture that hold considerable potential to drive our country forward. And he is not off base in arguing that suburban growth will dominate until mid-century, and that suburbs themselves will adapt over time to accommodate that growth.

But it is the relentless part of this relentless optimism that gives me pause. How can he be so sure that things are going to turn out as nicely as he predicts, and why must he be so adamant in denouncing all those who dont fully agree with him? You dont have to be one of his dreaded “declinists” to believe that things could go wrong on the road to paradise, that we will, in fact, have to work rather hard to overcome serious obstacles to progress over time and make our system work for the common good. Indeed, that was the gist of a recent cover story in the Atlantic by James Fallows, “How America Can Rise Again.” I suspect Kotkin wouldnt like the articlejust the “again” in the title would be enough to set him offbecause it is not positive enough, despite the fact that Fallows basically agrees with him that the case for American decline is overstated.

Which brings me to one of Kotkins main problems: he cant handle it when folks disagree with him, but he cant handle it when they agree with him, either. At that point, he quickly turns from prescient analyst into unhinged contrarian. Take Kotkins analysis of suburbia. He counterposes his analysis to that of “new urbanists” and others who he claims are obsessed with population density and hostile to the kinds of areas where most people actually want to live. But, as William Fulton, economic development columnist for Governing magazine, has pointed out, Kotkins vision of an archipelago of villages with relatively compact and economically self-sufficient communities spread across our landscape is unlikely to provoke disagreement from “even the most passionate New Urbanist [His vision] is no different than most New Urbanists and smart growthers, who understand that most cities are polycentric and that development must be concentrated into a series of villages.” But what fun would agreeing with people be? As Fulton puts it, “When youve based your whole career on being a contrarian pundit, it must be tough to wake up in the morning and face the brutal fact that everybody agrees with you.”

Or at least agrees with you on the goals. There may be some real disagreement here, but its less about the goals themselves than about how you reach them. Many of those people Kotkin aims his fire at believe that achieving healthy suburban development depends on astute planning and a smart role for government. Kotkin, however, generally favors a de minimus role for the state while exhibiting a touching faith in the ability of untrammeled business and real estate development to give people the communities they want.

This faith seems questionable, in light of both the last several decades of enhanced freedom for business and, interestingly, some of Kotkins own statements about how the country needs to change. He spends a good chunk of his last chapter”America in 2050″urging action against a wide variety of problems, many of which would appear to require substantial government activism and investment. These include economic inequality and class polarization; inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure; the rising costs of health care, education, and housing; the decline of manufacturing; dependence on foreign oil; and the excessive power of the financial sector. And he cites the New Deal and the Progressive Era as exemplars of how America in the past adapted to new challenges and then overcame them. But these are both, of course, periods in which government took an active role in confronting the nations problems.

Well, I agree with Kotkin on his list of issuesthey are all seriousand his implicit call for substantial government action, although the latter point seems inconsistent with the automaticity of Kotkins rosy predictions for the country. But no matter. You shouldnt read Kotkins book expecting consistency; you wont get it, not by a long shot. But you will encounter some challenging ideas and interesting predictions about the future of our country along the way, which makes the book worth reading, albeit with a very critical eye.

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