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America's Future: The Heartland Versus The Coasts

In Kotkin's theory of resurgence in "the heartland," cities such as Omaha; Fargo, N.D.; and Iowa's Des Moines and Sioux Falls will surge. "The Great Plains may be one of the most critical areas in the next 20 to 30 years," Kotkin says. He believes that Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio -- "really dynamic" -- are also on the right track.

Charm is not the attraction. "People aren't moving to Houston and Dallas because of the climate and the topography," Kotkin said. "They're moving there for opportunity." Besides the lower cost of living and the bounteous space, it's technology that makes him bullish about these cities. The Internet "has broken the traditional isolation of the rural communities," Kotkin argues in his book, and that will speed the movement of companies to the hinterlands.

Another reason behind the heartland's rise, he says, is simply greater desire. Cities such as Seattle are incapable of the explosive growth that drives a nation's economy, Kotkin contends, because real expansion happens only where people want it. In a city with a well-developed and prized identity, proud inhabitants are reluctant to tear up the past.

Most of the development will take place, he believes, not in the midsection's cities themselves but in their suburbs and exurbs. He foresees the rings around each landlocked city shining like a charm bracelet, a chain of hubs with distinct personalities. "The basic pattern of the future metropolis will be built upon a predominantly suburban matrix dominated by cars, road connections, and construction such as is familiar to the denizens of contemporary Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston," he writes in his book. "These dense zones will be ad hoc, constantly shifting and ethnically diverse."

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."

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

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