May 08, 2005

A Post about Cities

San Francisco, and much of the Bay Area, defies logic with an increasingly costly housing market in the midst of what is still a regionally lackluster economy. What the housing prices suggest is that this is an area where people want to live, and are willing to pay hefty fees for that privilege.

In an essay in today's SF Chronicle, Joel Kotkin labels San Francisco an "ephemeral city," and the article's subhead sums it up: "San Francisco has lost its middle class, become a 'theme park for restaurants,' and is the playground of the nomadic rich and restless leeches living off them."

This move toward ephemerality is happening all over the globe, wherever cities are becoming too expensive for the median to live. London, Boston, Washington, D.C., Manhattan, and ever greater swaths of Los Angeles are able to truly support one of two types:
1. moderately wealthy couples
2. 20-something types with jobs who don't mind living 3 or 4 to a flat

Such evolution is kind of depressing, since cities thrive on variety. Narrow demographics lead to stagnation.

The thing is, it's not clear what could be done in San Francisco. It's geography limits its residents and residences. And now that the world has gotten small due to air travel and telecommunications, the act of moving is not much of a limiting factor. And so those who can afford to, choose exactly where they want to live. And so the desirable cities end up filled with the wealthier-than-average. Who then end up pushing out those earning average, and turning cities into theme parks for the well off.

Kotkin has written other pieces dealing with these themes:

- The Rise of the Ephemeral City
In this he talks about the foolishness of cities such as Cleveland and Philadelphia to become "cool" cities in an effort to combat downward trends.

Kotkin expresses displeasure with ephemeral cities for losing their core, their heart, for no longer being creative centers.

When talking about cities that work, Kotkin cites Phoenix. Yes, Phoenix is increasingly popular. Yes, you can afford housing there. But the reason is that Phoenix, well, isn't really a city. It's a suburb of itself. It's "affordable" because it can expand for miles, and so land is relatively cheap. Comparing Phoenix to San Francisco is comparing apples to oranges.

I also take issue with the larger economic and environmental cost of Phoenix (or Las Vegas, or similarly rapidly growing cities). They're a huge drain, requiring massive amounts of external resources, particularly water. And they are automobile-centric.

I'm having trouble getting a read on Kotkin, and I can't find criticism (positive or negative) of him. His politics make me uneasy, as does his attribution of religion as a laudable guiding force for our cities. And the idea that he cites Singapore as the city that most exemplifies his criteria for greatness suggests a comfortablity with authoritarianism.

Posted by peterme at 10:07 PM | Comments (4)


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