America's Future: The Heartland Versus The Coasts

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SEATTLE -- Matthew Brown walks. He walks to work from his downtown apartment. He walks to get food and to be entertained. He doesn't own a car. Why would he?

"I like living where there are buildings and things to do, restaurants and shops," he said as the din of passing traffic poured through his open window. "I kind of like the busyness of the city."

Brown, a graphic designer, has designed himself a life of vibrant convenience, a couple of city blocks from the tech and media firm where he works.

Two visions of America: a mega-tropolis nation of high density and clean energy; or a suburban expansion marching through the Great Plains

If the 29-year-old had planned it, he could hardly be a better illustration for urbanist and futurist Richard Florida -- who believes that a "creative class" of Matthew Browns will drive the next U.S. economy, pumping up immense urban areas with new life.

Other futurists think that Brown's situation may be more of an exception, as city centers limit themselves with pricey obsolescence while their outer fringes develop into desirable enclaves of self-contained life and work. Joel Kotkin believes, moreover, that the young Matthew Browns are destined to follow previous generations away from the bustle when life makes other demands.

Most Americans already live in some fledgling version of Kotkin's country or Florida's country. As each slow day of economic recovery stokes the future, either Florida's or Kotkin's vision could rise with it. In the gray field of economics, the two camps offer an almost black-and-white clash. Florida believes that cities will grow and meld, mostly along the East and West coasts, as their residents dial back on consumption. Kotkin sees the generations-long ascent of suburbs continuing, with the most-frenzied expansions around smaller cities in the country's midsection.

Kotkin, an urban development scholar at Chapman University in California, says that the old supremacies will wane. "The very high-end urban areas had a real lock on power," said the native New Yorker, who recently authored The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. "That, I think, will come to an end.... For most people's lives, they want to live in a low-density environment. When you ask them whether they want to live in an apartment or a house, they say they want to live in a house. You generally find that most people will end up in the suburbs."

The best bet for creating such communities, Kotkin insists, is in growth-friendly places in the often-overlooked Great Plains or the Intermountain West. The previously "elite" cities, the Bostons and San Franciscos and Washingtons, he believes, will give way to places such as Omaha, Neb., where homes are cheaper and businesses can locate at less cost. "You can't have places where the vast majority of people can't afford to live decently," he said.

Florida, who is a business professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, lives on the other side of that coin. He believes that the lingering economic trauma is of history-swerving importance, the first moment of a reinvention of America's economic geography, into something of a throwback to a car-less, city-centric past.

He calls his vision, as his latest book's title suggests, The Great Reset. Florida recounts how the fiscal plight of the 1870s began a movement of people from farms to industrial cities. Recovery from the Great Depression eventually led to the suburbs. The Great Recession, he believes, will draw people into ultra-urban "mega-regions" -- expanses linking today's metropolitan areas. Boston, New York, and Washington, for instance, will grow into one mega-region -- "Bos-Wash" -- with planned growth filling the gaps between the cities.

Such urban giants are already forming, he believes, and government should encourage the trend by nurturing high-rise livability alongside the creative industries that can reignite the economy. People in Florida's future would live in dense and environmentally efficient housing, many without cars, close to their workplace.

Neither thinker is blind to the new American voice -- and priorities -- that could emerge from their respective visions. Both know that an increasing urban population could have a liberalizing effect. Living in dense developments makes people "post-materialist," Florida says, "much more concerned with broad public policy issues."

Kotkin suspects that density -- which he thinks politicizes people and increases their concern with public infrastructure -- is one of the Obama administration's aims. He sees the administration favoring Wall Street and Washington over agricultural economies or energy resources -- the lifeblood of places that he believes would likely harbor a greater distrust of government and a propensity for a less centralized nation. Kotkin characterizes President Obama as an urban politician "in a decidedly nonurban country."

The political implications of these contrasting futures are vast. During the past quarter-century, densely populated places have been more Democratic; the exurbs and the sparse heartland have leaned Republican. Florida implies that Americans will move to Democratic-leaning places to obtain higher-quality public services. Kotkin seems to suggest that successful people will prefer to settle in Republican-leaning communities because they tax and regulate less.

Who is right? The answer might matter a lot in the tenuous balance of power between the political parties -- and between the Americas they represent.

A Resurgent Heartland

In the decade before the 2000 census, America's population center moved 12 miles south and 33 miles west from the previous census, shifting toward California and the Sun Belt, especially the bounding suburbs of Phoenix and Las Vegas. Kotkin, with contrarian enthusiasm, argues that the next major demographic shift will instead favor the country's vast center.

Presented by

Jesse A. Hamilton is a former Washington bureau chief for The Hartford Courant.

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