If San Francisco is Future Harbinger, Let’s Look for Another Model

Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in California & Executive Director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism

I think the city’s a mountebank. Always struggling to approach the tremendous and impressive urbanity ascribed to it. Trying to be romantically metropolitan

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cities have best symbolized collective hankerings as well as assiduousness, focus and ambition. They represent both human endeavor and vanity at its finest and are the microcosms of a society. Trappings of urbanism have immensely contributed to rounded modern individuality, trade, and high-octane growth, but as cities expanded, the usual afflictions compounded.

In a bid to mitigate them we today have everything from location intelligence, drones to real-time data and Machine Learning algorithms, but before we deploy advanced tech solutions to address longstanding perils of urbanity, we need to get at the root of the intersection between demography, geography, sociology, and urban planning for a panoramic view.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in California and Executive Director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He is exploring the cross-section of people, geography, and cities for decades, and is among the most distinguished experts on socio-economic trends and their relation to urbanism.

Called ‘America’s uber geographer’ by the New York Times, he’s also a widely acclaimed author of multiple books and a columnist for Forbes. Here, Joel Kotkin discusses cities, technology, future of urbanity and the post-pandemic world.

You have extended Descartes idea of 'an inventory for the possible' to reimagining urban avenues as spaces that heighten human possibilities. At a time when everyone talks about designing connected cities for future mobility, constant location tracking and data surveillance could turn these habitations into decentralized Panopticons of sorts. What's your take on this heady transition to smart cities?

Cities have always thrived by not being predictable. They broke patterns of control common in the countryside. “Smart cities”, i.e. urbanism shaped by Google or other tech firms are actually the exact opposite — devices of social control. 

Go to Chinese cities and you can see how bleak and expressionless urban culture can be. The great danger of the ‘smart city’ is already evident there due to the marriage of convenience between Orwellian politics and high-tech. In the west, authoritarian governance may get subcontracted to firms like Google who have their own, increasingly obvious, political agenda.

The smart city represents a potential threat to the very eclecticism that make cities great, replacing it with a dull mechanism. To get a glimpse of how this may work, I would recommend reading some of the excellent recent Chinese science fiction.

Technologists love gadgeting but cities are not machines. As some have suggested, they are human constructs and we need to view people, not technology, at the center.

In the 1960s, New York and Tokyo were only two cities in the world with over 10 million population. Joan Didion wrote of New York then, 'to think of living there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one doesn’t live at Xanadu'. Today, there are more than 30 global megacities, and their alluring charm has only enhanced, and so have the discontents. What do you think is the future of megacities ?

The rush into megacities is an enormous mistake, particularly when so much work can be dispersed, and industrial growth is headed to the countryside. 

These places may be exciting to western urbanists, who get to come back to places that are at least somewhat livable, but they promise a very poor quality of life for most citizens. Moves to disperse population to smaller cities and towns would be wiser.

The pandemic has been a total disruption and a rupture from the past in various ways. You anticipated an ‘Age of Dispersion’ – an exodus from dense urban clusters to inner cities and towns due to the rise of new work models and business paradigms. Now that the pandemic is on a wane and people talk about going back, would this trend continue with the same momentum, or reverse?

Critically, people were leaving dense cities before the pandemic, which simply accelerated the trend. 

Since 2015 smaller cities have been growing faster, and suburban/exurban populations accounted for 80 percent or more of all metropolitan growth. The pandemic’s biggest impact will be that so many people now can work in dispersed centers or at home. 

Roughly 20 percent of all work, Stanford projects, will be home-based, and suburban offices seem to be recovering faster than in commercial business districts. To be sure, the low occupancy rates will recover, but it is highly unlikely that core cities will recover their office markets to the point that there won’t be massive write downs — unless Washington bails the mortgage holders out.

Digital geography helps chart the course of urbanism and plan better and more effectively. Do you think spatial thinking and a geospatial way to solve the travails of urbanism, is needed for a regenerative transformation?

Your terminology suggests technology is the solution. It can certainly make cities cleaner and better functioning, but the real test is how people like these places. 

Planners and mega-capitalists love models of how they think people should live — small, crowded, expensive apartments connected by mass transit. The problem is that most people, particularly families, would rather live in a townhome or single family detached residence. They have been voting with their feet since the 1920s, something reversed only by the recession and World War II.

Americans fled big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and Chicago between April 2020 to July 2021 in favor of the South West, according to the US Census Bureau. Joel Kotkin points out that people were leaving dense cities even earlier, and the pandemic only accelerated the trend

You have called for a new approach to the city as opposed to 'retro urbanism'. Is there any city in the world that resembles your idea of urbanism? Also, what role can geolocation and technologies such as AI and IoT play in this urban redefining?

No city, of course, is perfect. The key is how cities relate to the aspirations of people and families. The key is to meet people’s needs. Regions like Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Nashville and even Columbus in the US offer affordable housing, urban amenities, and a lot of economic opportunity.

Technologists love gadgeting but cities are not machines. As some have suggested, they are human constructs and we need to view people, not technology, at the center.

Your latest book 'Coming of Neo- Feudalism' warns about the danger of extreme inequality, stagnating incomes, lack of upward mobility, crumbling public services, and dimming prospects. What do you think are the contours of this Neo-feudalism, and would it bear some resemblance with the technocratic ‘Managerial Revolution’ of James Burnham?

That’s a complex question. This is far more than the managerial revolution that has taken place. The concentration of wealth is much greater than in the 1950s, and the technology of control and concentration far more powerful.

San Francisco, where I once worked, epitomizes these trends, and has turned from one of the greatest urban jewels into a dystopia of the ultra-rich and the permanent poor, with an ever-shrinking middle class. If San Francisco today is the harbinger of the future, let’s look for another model.

As per scientific predictions, natural hazards caused by climate change would cause massive dislocation and demographic change in the next 50 years. What would be its impact on smart urbanism, and how would it pan out in terms of socio-political aftereffects?

There may be changes but as some climate scientists point out we suffer fewer natural disasters, with far less loss of life than in the past. There is an industry promoting catastrophism for many reasons, including profits for “transitions” and justification for ever more social control.

What we need to do is adapt to changes, as the Dutch did in the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

The Green Movement seems to see the future as best served by immiseration and seems to be relentlessly pursuing that agenda. This is not going to end up well in the West and will be clearly disastrous in the developing world.

Jane Jacob’s 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' is among the seminal texts in urban planning and the city economy. You say that her ideal, family-friendly city is outmoded today because of trends such as demographic shifts, ageing population, falling fertility rates, declining community life etc. How can this challenge be tackled so that cities get more vibrant and don’t turn into abandoned, rusted industrial settlements?

I have never said they will be abandoned. But the chances of going back to the urban New York I knew as a child, and where my family has lived for well over a century, are slim. The schools alone are pushing people out, rising crime is doing the same, and employment opportunities appear to be dispersing.

Cities can survive and thrive — but will not dominate — if they become more friendly to the basic needs of residents and visitors. If not, the stronger ones, like New York, will become, as HG Wells predicted, places “of concourse and rendezvous”, attractive largely to the rich and the childless.