James C. Banks

Would the Decline of the City Be All That Bad?

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2011 at 12:36 am

Joel Kotkin writes on the decline of the city as reflected in the latest census statistics.  Kotkin is one of the most interesting voices on issues of city planning precisely because he is also one of the least conventional.  Whereas almost every voice that has bother to make a sound on city planning in recent years has concentrated on building “sustainable communities” or promoting “new urbanism,” Kotkin has become a vocal apologist for suburban lifestyle, even while David Brooks has fallen away.

Even as one who has loved living in the city and hates living in suburbia, I have to say that Joel Kotkin is probably right.  Suburbia has been attacked both on the Left and the Right, but this should not necessarily be the case. 

This is by-and-large because suburban hideousness is tied to the sub- being tied to the urbs.  In Fairfax County (where I live), the sprawling highways and decentralized townships are meant to serve the convenience rather than the aesthetic tastes of their inhabitants. If anyone wants monuments, they can go to Washington, but if you want a wider variety of grocery store retail, go to Northern Virginia.

However, technology is breaking the barrier between this old dichotomy. If the car made it possible for individuals to work in cities without living in them, the computer has made it possible—if not yet economical—for individuals to live and work without visiting a city at all.

I don’t find convincing the argument that technology could never change society so much as to bring down the city, because the city—at least as we know it today—is a product of technology (and, more specifically, industrialization).  When manufacturing was still central to the American economy, it made sense to concentrate labor in urban centers.  Even through the 1950’s when workers began moving from factories facing waterfronts to offices high above city streets, it was natural that everyone should work in an environment where they could look over one another’s shoulders and interact more directly.

This is still true to some degree, but every new technological development makes the office center seem quainter and quainter.  People can converse on mobile phones rather than office lines, can deliver messages through e-mails and blackberries rather than post offices, and speak virtual-face-to-virtual-face on Skype rather than, well, face-to-face. 

Eventually, there may come a time when it will be cheaper for companies to contract most of their work out to individuals who work from home, rather than reimbursing their public transit or gasoline costs and renting an urban office. Most businesses could probably already save money this way—they just haven’t realized this yet.  I doubt that a time will come when they “realize this” per se.  More likely, companies that contract out will slowly overcome companies that don’t and cities will slowly shrink to their more natural sizes.

This will definitely be good for suburbia, but what will the suburbs do without the urbs?  It remains to be determined, but, if nothing else, the decline of the city would mean that the car would become less essential to suburban life.  If this were to occur, then suburbanites might see fit to turn to a more town-oriented model, pushing to become a center distinct communities unto themselves, rather than an outskirt of a larger—but every hollowing-out—urban center.  Hopefully, they will need something to satisfy the aesthetic and cultural experiences of city life.  This is indeterminate, but the descent of the city might not mean the ascent of suburbia; it might mean the rebirth of the township.


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