America's Future: The Heartland Versus The Coasts

To be sure, Florida and Kotkin hold strong views and are quick to broadcast them, a trait that can rankle economic and demographic experts who see the prolific authors' work as undisciplined. Both of them are often wrong, says UNLV sociologist Lang. "The problem is, the country is big and messy and complicated." Lang predicts that the future will follow a middle course. The next 100 million Americans will probably be "layered over the existing metropolitan areas," he said. In other words, both futurists may be right -- to a point.

If Phoenix Rises

The proving ground for the clash between Florida and Kotkin may lie in Arizona. Phoenix is where "the rubber meets the road" in economic theory, said David Plane, a professor of geography and regional development at the University of Arizona. The city may become either a shadow of its former intentions or a surging tale of rebirth, signaling whether Florida's vision or Kotkin's is more likely to become reality.

"In the next few decades, Phoenix, not Boston, will represent the predominant form of urbanization," Kotkin writes in The Next Hundred Million. While Boston has stalled in growth, sunny Phoenix and its suburbs have boomed in square miles and population, becoming one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas -- home to 1.6 million people, an astonishing 21 percent increase from 2000 to 2009.

Plane recalled how economists and experts in growth would meet regularly and talk about the area's inevitable collapse. "The whole economy was building housing," he said. "The people here knew for a long time that disaster was looming." And it was. In July, foreclosures represented 43 percent of the city's home market, according to an Arizona State University report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 191,000 workers in metro Phoenix are jobless, more than twice as many as five years ago.

Kotkin remains optimistic even so. Once Phoenix overcomes its severe housing downturn, he has argued, its growth pattern -- like that of Los Angeles, where he lives -- "is likely to recur eventually, as people begin to purchase or rent increasingly affordable homes, condos, or apartments."

Florida begs to differ. He thinks of Phoenix, like its mythical namesake, as having flashed painfully into ash, consumed by its long flat stretches of overbuilt housing. He regards the city as a cousin of Las Vegas, without the economic vitality. "It is not surprising to me that the whole Sun Belt house of cards came crashing down," he says. It was "a false economy."

The tug-of-war between Florida's vision of close-quartered anonymity and Kotkin's isolated togetherness may never produce a clear-cut victor. Low-density economic enclaves may well burst onto the Great Plains, and the dazzle of cities may well continue to lure footloose Americans from sedate surroundings.

The nation itself seems to be of two minds. Dallas is experiencing job growth that will surely expand its suburbs' prairie borders. At the same time, the second-highest year-over-year job gain occurred in one of Florida's favorite locales, Washington, D.C.

And that brings us back to a certain graphic designer in Seattle. The king city of the Pacific Northwest has had many futures. In 1853, it was a harvest vision, the seaport funnel for continental swaths of timber. Then it was a gateway for gold rushers and, later, the world's leading builder of jets. In this latest generation, the urban landscape -- stretching virtually unbroken along 70 miles of emerald flats beside the Puget Sound -- has thrived as a metro muse for the high-tech boom. Census data show that fully 45 percent of Seattle's labor force works in finance, information, or other professional occupations, compared with 36 percent in Houston.

Include Matthew Brown in that 45 percent. He moved downtown because he wants "access to various things to keep me inspired and entertained. I like to eat out and shop. I like walking down the stairs and out the front door and having people on the street."

His living room window doesn't look out on Kotkin's vista of lawns, low-slung buildings, and ample parking. His view is closer to Florida's cliff faces of anonymous windows, stacked into grids, albeit with a visible sliver of shipping traffic on Elliot Bay. Brown has definitely cast a vote for Seattle, as it waits in line with the Orlandos and Austins, the Pittsburghs and San Joses to earn a ticket to the next round of prosperity -- or to be left wallowing in yesterday's skill sets.

As a Sisyphean economy struggles to inch back up its hill, Brown has taken Richard Florida's side. So far. "In the back of my mind, my plan when I'm ready to purchase something is to move into more of a neighborhood," he said. "I don't see myself when I'm married and living with children, like, living right here."

And, somewhere, Joel Kotkin is smiling.

Josh Freedman contributed to this article.

This article appeared in the Friday, September 10, 2010 edition of National Journal.

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

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