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.

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.

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."

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."

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.