Magazine | August 29, 2016, Issue

Huddled Masses

(Allan Baxter/Getty Images)
The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, by Joel Kotkin (Agate B2, 304 pp., $24.95)

What are the effects on families of living in a city of skyscrapers?    

That’s one of the pivotal questions raised by Joel Kotkin’s new book. Kotkin is both a field researcher who travels widely and a demographer who makes extensive use of Census Bureau research. He employs both these avenues of inquiry on behalf of a provocative thesis: One of the main causes for the declining birth rates seen in the industrialized world is the experience of life in crowded metropolises.

From this idea, Kotkin goes on to a further argument: There needs to be a complete reappraisal of urban design and a new appreciation for the merits of suburbs.

This is radical thought, and attached to it are a series of other contrarian propositions — including stinging critiques of the widespread advocacy for expanding public transportation, and of environmentalists’ calls for the conversion of areas along the outskirts of cities into wildlife refuges. For Kotkin, the latter is a plan that will endanger a native creature commonly known as the child.

The evidence Kotkin cites may be unfamiliar to the urban elite living in the country’s coastal cities. Contrary to their immediate perceptions, nearly all of the nation’s population growth is in low-density areas. This is reflected in the rapid expansion of sprawling cities such as Houston, Austin, Phoenix, and Dallas, and in the continued development of less concentrated neighborhoods at the edges of newer metropolises and in towns outside them. Simply put, gentrification is reshuffling populations in the urban core of cities such as New York and Washington, but it offers few answers to the question of where to place the country’s still growing numbers of people.

However, Kotkin goes beyond this observation to an even more dramatic proposal. What urbanists call densification — increasing the numbers of people in a given area — is mostly bad, he suggests. In presenting this view, Kotkin is taking on the ideas of Jane Jacobs, doubtless America’s most influential writer about civic life. While Kotkin never makes the point directly, he is identifying a fundamental conflict in her writings. Although Jacobs heralded the variety and richness of life that arises from neighborhoods with concentrations of people, the places she presented as models, such as the section of Greenwich Village in which she herself lived or the North End of Boston, were actually low-rise areas, stretches with few tall buildings. Hence, those of her followers who are calling for building large new apartment complexes in order to increase population density, in the hopes of wakening a spirit of urban vitality, may not in fact be working toward Jacobs’s vision or her aims.

In rendering his arguments, Kotkin is also making a frontal assault on the ideas of Richard Florida, the promoter of the notion that a “creative class” of young, single artists and intellectuals can turn hipster enclaves into engines of economic activity that will provide upward mobility for the poor living alongside them. As even Florida himself has been forced to admit, this simply isn’t happening. The principal beneficiaries of the relocation of technology, fashion, and media companies into urban centers are the people employed by these firms — mostly recent college graduates.

One serious criticism that may be leveled at Kotkin is that he fails to examine the possibility that some of his data on low urban birth rates might reflect selection bias. Is it that people living above Times Square don’t feel comfortable having and raising children with mobs of tourists milling about beneath them, or are they living there because they have no interest in rowdy tykes in the first place? This is a difficult problem to tease out, but Kotkin points out that suburban child-rearers and urban non-child-rearers are often the same people at different stages in their lives. Last year’s bearded singleton with a nose ring may be next year’s suburbanite with a mortgage and a two-car garage. For all the talk of couples’ staying in trendy neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park and raising children there, Census Bureau figures continue to show a pattern of parents’ migrating away from the centers of cities to bedroom communities.

Still, Kotkin presents such a mountain of data on birth rates in different countries and locales that at some point it becomes hard to avoid his basic conclusion: Life in densely populated urban environments really does discourage couples from starting families or from having more children. And while rabid environmentalists may see this as a welcome outcome, the rest of us cannot but regard the pattern as a profound economic, social, and demographic peril. Who will pay for the costs of an aging population? Who will care for retirees? A society that encourages its people to live in neighborhoods where they won’t reproduce is obviously going to have trouble meeting its future needs.

One of Kotkin’s most intriguing arguments follows from his field research in East Asia. Emigrants are eager to flee many of its richest, most technologically advanced cities. One in ten people in Hong Kong and Singapore are emigrating, and half say they would if they could. Kotkin believes the principal cause is the desire to start families. As evidence, he cites polls showing that 45 percent of couples in these cities say that, because of the cost of living, they can’t do that over there. Kotkin then associates these data with an interesting shift. Where once almost three-quarters of immigrants to the U.S. moved to cities, census data show that two-fifths of non-citizen immigrants are now moving directly to the suburbs.

It’s long been known among demographers that rural folk have higher birth rates. Perhaps this is because humans are unlike most other animals: We desire privacy in our moments of intimacy, and the sense of being surrounded by others simply isn’t conducive to reproduction. And one might go beyond this belief to a more general one: The “densification” of the mass media in places void of children is grossly distorting our news coverage. One wonders: If CBS and ABC News were not headquartered on New York’s Upper West Side, but rather in a leafy suburb like Armonk, would they still think that transgender bathrooms were a crucial issue? Might they have greater concern for road maintenance and less preoccupation with calls for higher gasoline taxes?

Such questions and avenues for discussion lead Kotkin and his readers to a final irony. The present intellectual preference in academia for dense cities comes at a time when the low supply and consequent high prices of apartments in fashionable central-city locations has led to homogeneity within them: Banana Republics boxed in next to Victoria’s Secrets set cattycorner to H&Ms. In short, the very thing that was traditionally presented as an argument against the suburbs now afflicts many of the hipster havens. Yet this shift is taking place even as changes in technology make our choices in friends and in entertainment unrelated to where we live.

Kotkin has a lot to say, and it demands a hearing. Wholesale reassessment of the role of our cities and the areas around them is long overdue.

 – Mr. Leaf is a playwright and journalist in New York City.

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