In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson and Joel Kotkin discuss Kotkin’s new book, The Human City, and what it has to say about modern cities around the world. 

Audio Transcript

Brian: Joining me today to explore these and other questions is urbanist demographer and City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin, who is Executive Director of a new think tank the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston. His fascinating book The Human City argues for a reimagined urbanism for the 21st century. Thanks for coming by Joel.

Joel: Oh it’s my pleasure.

Brian: Now Joel you open The Human City with a quote from Aristotle: “A city comes into being for the sake of life but exists for the sake of living well.” What is meaningful for you in that observation from Aristotle?

Joel: Well I just think it’s one of those basic principles on why do we build cities? What are cities for? I mean, I think this is the question that is not asked very much. Are cities built for aesthetic reasons? Are they built because maybe they would lower the carbon footprint? Do we build them because we just don’t like suburban areas and we only want a certain kind of form?

I think you have to take a much more pragmatic view and say, what works for what people? At what time? At what age? At what income? And when you look at it that way then  you look at a combination of, yes you can have a thriving core economy but you also need places that people can afford to live and most importantly where people can raise families. And I think that’s how I read what Aristotle had to say.

Brian: Urbanists these days tend overwhelmingly to emphasize the importance of high density development, extolling the economic and environmental benefits of crowding lots of people together in relatively small spaces. You contend that the case for high density is at least over stated though you’re not opposed to density across the board. Could you elaborate?

Joel: Yeah sure, I mean basically density works for some people. This goes back to observations of H.G. Wells at the turn of the last century. More recently from Herbert Gans. They serve different purposes. High density is economically efficient for certain industries, and it works very well for certain populations. It works well for people who don’t have children. It works well for singles. It works well for people in their twenties. Most people cannot afford our high density cities. When you look at our high density cities, which are only a few, they are extraordinarily expensive. So, that would already take a lot of people away from it. So, we have to start thinking about the city as something organic that grows or it contracts, changes form due to market conditions to demographics. Instead of something where we have a rigid view: Every city should look like New York City and that’s the way it is.

 I think that that’s completely ahistorical. We have different cities with different patterns of development and we ought to accept that and figure out how to make that work best. To try to go to a Dallas or a Houston and say you cannot build any more freeways; you are going to have to be a transit oriented city, when transit ridership is dropping and at a time when transit as we know it really doesn’t fit how these cities work. If it hasn’t worked in LA which is much denser it’s not going to work elsewhere. And yet there are markets for high density in Houston, in Dallas, but what they do, which I think is incredibly important is they also allow for peripheral development. So a young person comes to Houston. They get a good job. They want to live where the action is. So they live in the inner ring inside what they call the Six Ten Loop. And when they decide that they want to get married and maybe have kids and buy a house, they also have the option of going to a place ten miles to the west which is more affordable. In some parts of the country, in part due to regulation, that option, for instance in the bay area and increasingly in Los Angeles, is just not available. Going to the suburbs is also very very expensive and I think this is going to drive development in the next ten to twenty years.

Brian: Aren’t we blurring here the lines between suburbia and the urban?

Joel: Well I think suburbia and the urban should be considered as part of the same system, but it’s a system that does best when it offers diversity. Other words, if you have… sure you want to have a nice core and the suburbanites will take advantage of that, but you also have to recognize that 80 percent of the population in American metropolitan areas don’t live in the core and likely will never live in the core. And so instead of trying to have a policy which serves 10 to 20 percent of the population you should have a policy that works for everybody. And that means diversity of choices, letting the market take the lead.

Again if, let’s say the inner ring of Dallas has insatiable demand for high density housing, they should build it. But there’s also this demand out in the suburbs, and you should build that too. As a country, we’re not building enough houses for the next generation. That’s particularly true in places like California, and we have to have options.

I don’t understand why we have to have a policy that says, well if you can’t afford to live in Manhattan or brownstone Brooklyn you shouldn’t live anywhere or you should live in somethings that’s an artificial attempt to recreate that.

My family has been in New York for well over 110 years. I understand how New York evolved. It’s a unique place. It’s like London. There’s only a few places like New York, and nobody has to take away from that, but you can’t say, you can go to Phoenix and recreate that as New York. It’s not going to happen.

Brian: You’ve spent a lot of time in Singapore, which is a kind of model of the high density city, but you describe it as an increasingly childless place as the residents simply don’t want to have kids in such a crowded expensive environment. But does it really matter if cities have lots of families? What’s wrong with people coming to the city when they are young and ambitious and then moving out of the city once they’ve got plans to raise a family? What is it that in your view makes a city healthier if it has a lot of families?

Joel: First of all I think there’s nothing wrong with people going at a certain part of their life and some people will be childless, 20 percent, 25 percent. But I spent a lot of time in East Asia and in that environment where really your only option is density and it’s expensive, people don’t have kids. That’s just. It’s clear also in the United States. Take a place like San Francisco. There are more dogs than kids, and so you have those types of cities that don’t have kids. The problem with a city that doesn’t have children is it no longer has to serve basically middle class interests. It doesn’t have to worry so much about whether its schools work or doesn’t work and it becomes kind of a sort of theme park for adults or sometimes a theme park for children who become adults, but really never do become adults.

So I mean I think that what you have in Singapore is that now they had no choice. A small Island surrounded by fairly hostile countries. They did the best anybody could ever do with that kind of density, but there is a negative. The negative is very low birth rates. Singapore gets around it by having immigrants, and that may be sort of one formula, but many parts of East Asia do not have a lot of immigrants. Places like Tokyo, Osaka, many of the second tier cities in Japan are already beginning to depopulate. There are many parts of the world where the birth rates are now so low that you can’t look out twenty years from now and say well what’s the population going to be like? You take Shanghai now has a fertility rate of .7. That’s one third the replacement rate. You’re going to see more and more of that and it’s already dragging the Japanese economy down. It’s going to definitely start to hit the Chinese economy, the Korean economy, and obviously in many of the economies in Europe which also have very low birth rates. High housing prices and density tend to militate against people having children, in the modern world.

Now, when my grandparents came from Russia what the hell did they know? They had five kids in the slums. But people won’t do that anymore. Even people coming from third world countries today, they know that having five kids in Queens is probably not that practical.

Brian: This is a related question. You worry in The Human City about the growing class divide in cities like San Francisco, and here in New York. Could you discuss that worry a little bit, and what’s behind the phenomenon?

Joel: Well the biggest cause for income inequality as it turns out, and this is somewhat from Piketty but also from some research that’s been done off Picketty’s research at MIT, is basically that the big difference is between those who own property and those who don’t. And as property ownership gets more concentrated and, particularly in the very expensive areas, you have this enormous gap between those people who have done great because property prices have gotten higher and those, particularly young people/immigrants, who have a very hard time getting into the market. Which is why we start to see since 2010, very dramatically, the movement of people to second tier cities, to Texas cities which are cheaper, because they simply cannot afford to go to these cities.

So one thing that is happening is the middle class is moving where it is. The danger for any city whether it’s New York or San Francisco is without a middle class the politics will get crazier and crazier, because you really don’t have to have any responsibility for what we would call the middle class institutions of a city, the churches and the schools. And so you get this very bifurcated kind of environment, and I don’t think that that’s politically stable. I don’t think it’s economically stable. I mean one of the things that we’re already seeing, and Aaron Renn is doing some great work here at the Manhattan Institute on exactly this issue, yes when companies have just elite functions, they have 300 employees, they can move to the Loop in Chicago. They may prefer to move to the Loop in Chicago. But if you’re Toyota and you have to take 5,000 people, middle class, middle managers, you move to the suburbs.

So, I think we have to understand that if we’re going to have places that are going to have large amounts of middle class employment, they are probably going to be in suburbs and they are going to be in second tier cities. They are going to be in places like Nashville. They can’t be in New York.

Right here, I talked to the CEO of MetLife right next to you here. And he says that at MetLife they have to put most of their facilities some place other than New York. They only keep in New York what they absolutely feel they have to have in New York. That’s not bad. That’s not a knock on New York, but we have to recognize that we have to employ a large part of our population who, whether they don’t want to live in New York or they can’t afford to live in New York, that population deserves to have a decent way of life and we can’t have a society in which there’s only a few people at the very very top, and then everybody else is kind of a peasant. There’s a word for that and it’s called Feudalism and unfortunately that’s where a lot of our cities are going.

Brian: The world is now home to… I think it is… 34 super dense mega-cities. You are skeptical that they are long-term viable urban options. Why? And what about smaller cities? Do they have an economic purpose in the 21st century?

Joel: That’s a really good question. First of all on the question of mega-cities. Basically the third world mega cities, if you spend any time in them, are just awful places. First of all they are expensive, they are dirty, and, particularly the ones that have emerged recently and are emerging in parts of Africa, some in South Asia but Africa in particular, the Middle East these are not cities that are getting bigger because they are founts of economic opportunity. I mean to give Japan and China credit, their urbanization was based on economic factors, the huge drive of manufacturing and to some extent services into these countries. 

These new mega-cities don’t have an economic basis. I mean they are just places where people get to distribute welfare payments from the rest of the world. I mean there is not like a huge manufacturing boom going on in Lagos or in Cairo. So what we’re finding is big no longer means best or better as it has throughout most of history. A city like Tel Aviv or Singapore that’s a well-run city with lots of entrepreneurship are right now more important than cities that are 3,4 times as large. We never had cities of twenty million that, if they disappeared tomorrow the world really would hardly notice because they are not part of the world economy.

So I think that A we’re chasing this growth for no purpose and really making life worse for people and then what’s interesting what’s happening is the urban population growth in China is showing signs of slowing pretty considerably. We’re also beginning to see the growth in India and China of second-tier and smaller cities, which are able to provide many of the key urban things, the amenities, the purposes, the airports without the problem of being a city of twenty or thirty million.

So you’ll find for instance in many developing countries, that the fastest growing cities are second tier cities, and by the way that’s not necessarily just true in the third world. Here in the United States many of the most dynamic cities coming out of this last 10/15 years are again second tier cities and really very nice places, Nashville for instance or Columbus Ohio. These are places that are more livable more affordable, and they are also going to do well. Again, we have to start thinking about Urbanism in the broader context. As Frank Lloyd Wright, whose writings I greatly admire, makes the point, the city is wherever the citizen is. It’s not up to a bunch of university professors and pundits to say, well the city means you have to live this way. The city is however the people in that region choose to live. Yes, it is the downtown, but it is also the exurban suburb. They are both part of the same system, and what I am trying to do is to correct our obsession with high density and very hierarchical urban forms to something that’s more dispersed and something that has more options, and we’re in a perfect position to do it. New technologies are going to make this more and more possible. None of that suggests that the dense urban core, particularly of the great historic cities like New York and London, they are going to go away. They are going to have this advantage ad infinitum, but there have to be other options for the vast majority of people.

Brian: Joel thanks so much for joining us today. For more background and data on the topics we’ve discussed, pick up a copy of Joel Kotkin’s brand new book The Human City and check out some of his other work on our website Please tweet comments and questions about today’s discussion to @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks, and if you like our show and want to hear more please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thank you again, Joel, for joining us.

Joel: My pleasure.

Photo: Starcevic/iStock

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