The Lives of the Next 100 Million

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It’s regrettable that Joel Kotkin’s vision of America in 2050 is not more imaginative.  His rejection of the entire new urbanism agenda as a tool to accommodate the next hundred million U.S. residents ties his “cities of aspiration” to the automobile, to fossil fuels, to the large single family dwelling and to an expectation that high speed Internet service – and the subsequent jobs this will create – will be ubiquitous in the unspoiled green space that is presently rural America.

To be sure, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 has many salient thoughts.  Kotkin favors localism over control from the national government.  He envisions mid-size cities such as Fargo, North Dakota, Ames, Iowa and Boise, Idaho, capturing a greater degree of power and importance at the center of their respective regions.  And he acknowledges that there must be a balance between economic growth and preserving the quality of the environment.

What needs to be rejected in his analysis however are the assumptions that all density is bad, that only the rich can live in the “luxury” or “superstar cities” on the coasts, that business innovation and adaptation will be achieved by an entire generation of work-from-home cyber-entrepreneurs, and that modest town houses and mass transit are evils to be loathed rather than encouraged.

Kotkin’s vision continues to value the worst aspects of sprawl.  He rejects any effort to make better use of already developed areas in or on the edges of urban centers in favor of rapid outward development.

His generalizations are sweeping.  All Americans, including all the expected immigrants, want detached single-family homes on suitable sized lots on the urban fringe.  These homes will be havens from crime, poverty, poor schools and crowds.  They also will serve as venues for employment, bastions of family togetherness, and the terminus for technological innovations and connectivity (not now available in anything near universal access).  Leaving the homestead will be all but unnecessary.

The U.S. will reap many benefits from population growth in the next four decades.  In fact, our economic future depends on population growth. What is required to meet the needs of all these new residents is the expansion of mixed use walkable neighborhoods served by transit.  Places and neighborhoods are where the lives of citizens are intertwined and interdependent and where they are nurtured and stimulated.  The purpose of the city is to allow people to share their lives and to solidify the kinds of community bonds that are created through personal interactions.  This nation will need all its wits and all its combined gifts in order to come through this demographic leap.