These days, scholars and activists trying to map the ideal form, function, and identity of cities in our globalizing world are mostly advocating for revitalized urban cores. Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million:America in 2050, offers a counterpoint in the September-October issue of Foreign Policy, arguing that the creation of a strong ring of suburbs and smaller cities is the best way to ensure healthy economic growth and human well-being.
As unfashionable as it might sound, what if we thought less about the benefits of urban density and more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration? Instead of overcrowded cities rimmed by hellish new slums, imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities, suburbs, and towns: Which do you think is likelier to produce a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment, and a lifestyle conducive to creative thinking?
Kotkin’s observation of wealth distribution around urban areas is particularly compelling:
Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center . . . In India, the bulk of new tech companies cluster in campus-like developments around–but not necessarily in–Bangalore, Hyderabad, and New Delhi. And let’s not forget that Silicon Valley, the granddaddy of global tech centers and still home to the world’s largest concentration of high-tech workers, remains essentially a vast suburb. Apple, Google, and Intel don’t seem to mind. Those relative few who choose to live in San Francisco can always take the company-provided bus.
Disparity between living conditions in cities and suburbs, Kotkin concludes, is an element missing from the current urban planning discussion. “The goal of urban planners should not be to fulfill their own grandiose visions of megacities on a hill, but to meet the needs of the people living in them, particularly those people suffering from overcrowding, environmental misery, and social inequality. When it comes to exporting our notions to the rest of the globe, we must be aware of our own susceptibility to fashionable theories in urban design–because while the West may be able to live with its mistakes, the developing world doesn’t enjoy that luxury.”