America's Future: The Heartland Versus The Coasts

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.

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."

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

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