America's Future: The Heartland Versus The Coasts

What will drive this pattern of growth? In Beijing, the government can force residents from hutong to high-rise. But in the good ol' U.S.A., people vote with their feet. Kotkin prides himself on taking a "less elevated view of why humans do what they do." People aren't about to abandon their cars, he believes, and if American families want single-family houses and automotive freedom, the suburbs will expand.

They won't necessarily be suburbs as we've known them, however. They would still surround cities but wouldn't rely on them. Kotkin foresees these suburbs and exurbs developing as interconnected but self-contained places, sort of preindustrial villages where office parks and shopping districts take the place of blacksmiths and haberdashers. But these developments won't be too dense. "There's a danger when you over-densify," he said, "that the very thing that you loved no longer exists."

Some early evidence shows that Kotkin is onto something. According to Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics, the nation's "most steadfast economy" now occupies a 600-mile-wide strip from Bismarck, N.D., to San Antonio. Those agricultural and energy-rich lands weren't nearly as affected by housing fluctuations, he explained, as the Sun Belt and the coastal cities were.

Yet Robert Litan, the vice president for research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, isn't persuaded that companies will dash for lower-density horizons. "Even in the age of the Internet, distance has not died," he said. "Closeness still matters, and it helps to be in a labor pool that's well developed." As for workers, he says, "smart people like to be around other smart people."

The Joys Of Density

At least one well-established East Coast city belies Kotkin's Great Plains vision. The biggest winner from the Great Recession, by futurist Florida's lights, has been the nation's capital. But not for the reasons you'd think. Government work has helped, but more important is that metropolitan Washington has become a center for high technology, media, entertainment, and the creative density that Florida savors.

D.C. is the southernmost link in Florida's eastern behemoth, Bos-Wash, one of a dozen mega-regions that he sees already spreading like gray amoebas on satellite images of the nation. Also taking shape are the Midwest giant of Chi-Pitts; Char-lanta, which includes Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and So-Flo, encompassing Miami and Orlando. Residents may call their home terrain by different names -- Santa Monica, Pasadena, Long Beach. But the satellites see no borders in greater Los Angeles -- or So-Cal, in Florida's parlance.

Unlike Kotkin, who anticipates a more decentralized America, Florida celebrates density. "The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people and the highest rate of metabolism," he writes. As he sees things, "We're going to have to become denser. If we don't have density, we don't grow."

This future could call for lifestyle changes that drill to the marrow of American identity. Florida argues for a U-turn in the country's bond with cars, through policies that charge for road use and remake suburbs for walkability. He champions an advance in public transportation. " 'Velocity' and 'density' are not words that many people use when describing suburbia," he wrote. "Older suburbs, especially those on transit routes, are being reorganized and rebuilt into denser communities offering more condos and town houses."

More provocatively, Florida believes that homeownership should be detached from the American Dream, because it has shackled too many workers to distressed mortgages and kept people from chasing jobs. "Older manufacturing firms, jobs, and industries are being destroyed, and new industries, occupations and firms are being created," he contends. "In this kind of situation, it's much harder for workers, particularly low-skilled ones, to find jobs where they live."

Florida, an American who owns a home in Toronto, wants the U.S. government to end the tax deduction for mortgages, which has "outlived its usefulness and massively distorted our economy." He hopes for a stronger market for rental housing that is run by highly professional organizations operating in multiple locations, making it easier for job seekers to move.

He also calls for a government commitment to transit that would knit each mega-region together, and high-speed rail to link one mega-region to another. Shifting to public transportation, though, wouldn't be easy. Even in Washington, with its relatively modern subway system, only one in seven workers commutes by public transit. The national average is one in 20; in sprawling Phoenix, it's one in 42.

Indeed, Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West and a sociology professor at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas), finds Florida's notion of mega-regions fanciful. The Nevada sociologist, who is writing a book about clustered cities, says that mega-regions are based on no data that a census official would recognize. Lang studies cities with evident ties -- commuter exchanges and overlapping economies. He dubs these smaller relationships, spanning 80 or 100 miles, "megapolitans." Washington-Baltimore. Providence-Boston. Orlando-Tampa. "Is Miami in that?" he asked. "No. Does Atlanta reach Charlotte? No. There is no relevance between Chicago and Cleveland. There just isn't."

Or A Middle Course

The dueling futurists don't disagree on everything. On some ideas, their views overlap. Florida, who is enamored of cities, acknowledges that the "stark distinction of city and suburb" is becoming dated. The two are converging, he says, as cities concede more to comfort. Kotkin, meanwhile, seeks walkability and urban amenities in his future suburbs.

Florida and Kotkin also see eye to eye about certain cities -- Dallas, for instance. It currently leads the nation's largest metropolitan areas with the highest year-over-year increases in employment, at a time when most cities lost jobs. Kotkin predicts that Dallas and its environs will continue to boom, in thriving suburbs beyond the city itself. Florida agrees with Kotkin, and not only about Dallas. "Places like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston," he says, "will do fine."

The two visionaries also concur on what can hold a city back. Both of them reject downtown renaissance projects -- casinos, museums, arts centers, sports stadiums. "It's a failed strategy, and it has to be abandoned," Florida said, because cities throw away tens of billions of dollars on such ill-advised efforts. Kotkin faults New Orleans for having invested in "ephemeral things." He contends, "Even as critical infrastructure such as levees declined, the city chose to invest in arts, culture, and tourism as sources of civic salvation." Relying on a tourist economy "doesn't generate a lot of high-paying jobs," he notes.

And Kotkin and Florida have something else in common: skepticism from their peers. Litan, for one, refuses to pick a winning model for the future. "The places that will be successful will be determined by the firms that will be successful," he said. "Whenever new things happen, they will happen largely because of accident or serendipity." There's no telling which start-up will become that next Google.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, says that popular scholars such as Kotkin and Florida "have an eye for the sexy-sounding trends" but not always for the data to back up their predictions. "I think it's all pretty murky, myself," he said. Teixeira figures that these very public futurists will be celebrated if their guesses turn out right. Wrong guesses will be forgotten.

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

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