Megacities: Inevitable? Desirable? Urban vs. suburban, reconsidered

Bigger is not better when it comes to population growth, writes Joel Kotkin. Here's why he says megacities are detrimental and avoidable.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Is urbanization inevitable?

Are dense megacities even desirable?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Joel Kotkin suggests -- rather sensationally, by default -- that reports of global urbanization are far from a sure thing.

In fact, he suggests that the city -- that tried-and-true economic engine -- is a rather undemocratic, rigid affair that is beat by the lawns and driveways of suburbia. And the World Bank report that says that density equals economic success is, well, wrong.

He writes:

Yes, the percentage of people living in cities is clearly growing. In 1975, Tokyo was the largest city in the world, with over 26 million residents, and there were only two other cities worldwide with more than 10 million residents. By 2025, the U.N. projects that there may be 27 cities of that size. The proportion of the world's population living in cities, which has already shot up from 14 percent in 1900 to about 50 percent in 2008, could be 70 percent by 2050. But here's what the boosters don't tell you: It's far less clear whether the extreme centralization and concentration advocated by these new urban utopians is inevitable -- and it's not at all clear that it's desirable.

Kotkin's reasons? That top-tier megacities such as Tokyo, London, New York and Los Angeles are "nestled in relatively declining economies" that suffer "growing income inequality and outward migration of middle-class families."

Worse, developing megacities such as Mumbai "face basic challenges in feeding their people, getting them to and from work, and maintaining a minimum level of health."

The answer? Spreading everything out, rather than concentrating it, Kotkin suggests. His reasons: a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment and a "lifestyle conducive to creative thinking." (Quick, someone page Richard Florida.)

In fact, Kotkin takes Florida to task for his urbanism, debunking his theories as follows:

  • Cities aren't creative because creativity requires economic success to fuel it. Trade centers beget arts and culture meccas, and all of today's "capitals of culture" started as economic powerhouses.
  • Downtown urban cores are overrated. "Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center." Examples: Cambridge versus Boston; Silicon Valley versus San Francisco; etc.
  • Cities are bad for the environment. They may be more spatially efficient, but the heat island effect counteracts some of that.
  • The gap between the wealthy and the impoverished is greatest in cities. "Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries." Kotkin cites New York, London, Toronto, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Jakarta, Cairo, Nairobi and Manila as examples.

As if that's not enough, the rise of the megacity may itself be a myth, Kotkin writes, citing New York University professor Shlomo Angel's research showing that the percentage of the world's population living in the 100 largest megacities actually declined almost 5 percent as the world's urban population grew from 1960 to 2000.

Urban population densities have been on the decline since the 19th century, Angel notes, as people have sought out cheaper and more appealing homes beyond city limits. In fact, despite all the "back to the city" hype of the past decade, more than 80 percent of new metropolitan growth in the United States since 2000 has been in suburbs.

The smart way to grow, according to Kotkin? A distributed network of smaller cities -- think the Netherlands -- that decentralizes the economy and preserves livability and global competitiveness.

What do you think: are cities smarter than suburbs?

Illustration: John Norden's 1593 map of Tudor London.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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