Forging digital landscapes

Lawrence Solomon
The National Post
March 13, 2001

By Joel Kotkin
Random House
 

In the digital age, will people need to commute to cities, and will industries be tied to transportation corridors and other locations? A smart new book, The New Geography: How the digital revolution is reshaping the American landscape, has answers for us, many of them compelling, all of them thought-provoking.

"By its very nature, the emerging post-industrial economy – based primarily on information flows in an increasingly seamless net – frees location from the tyranny of past associations," explains its author, Joel Kotkin. "Even such centres of gravity as Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, though possessing functions and allures that are mutually reinforcing, are increasingly not mandatory for the building a successful firm or career in finance, film, or the computer industry. Increasingly, companies and people now locate not where they must but where they will."

Many who hold such views have concluded that we are living in a largely placeless society, one in which it matters little where a company or its employees locate. Mr. Kotkin is not among them. It’s still location, location, location – more so than ever before, he affirms – only now the location will recognize that workers are becoming "sophisticated consumers of place" who gravitate to locales that suit their lifestyles. To attract them, companies must position themselves accordingly. Sometimes that positioning may demand a pastoral paradise offering year-round golfing or biking, sometimes a sophisticated city that offers culture, entertainment and man-made beauty.

To digital-age companies that live or die by their ability to attract and hold high-calibre talent, where to locate becomes a quality-of-life matter that trumps low taxes, lax regulations, cheap land and other traditional factors. "The primacy of this factor helps make expensive, highly regulated San Francisco and its suburbs among the wealthiest places in the nation and also explains why aesthetically unpleasant places such as Fresno, inexpensive and located in a highly fertile valley, rank near the bottom in terms of economic health," Mr. Kotkin elaborates.

Because talent creates wealth, wealth will accumulate where talented people cluster. And repeatedly in his book, Mr. Kotkin stresses the city’s superiority in attracting the most original among us. In describing Houston, he tells us of the "qualitative experience that only a central core can provide – restaurants, jazz clubs, the sense when people are out walking in the hot, humid, Texas night, that they are in a city, that they are somewhere." He quotes the founder of a New York-based multimedia software firm who explains that "You can put a chip firm in Boise, Idaho, but you’ll never have a major media play operating there. You can’t get the kind of creative people you need to move to Plano, Texas. They want to be somewhere they sense there’s action."

More generally, Mr. Kotkin affirms that "the new digital industries are largely sustained by interaction between specific groups who seek out and find one another uniquely in the urban milieu." Cities foster the intellectual exchange and trade that fuels prosperity, he says convincingly and often.

And yet he, himself, is not convinced, and he doesn’t clearly tell us why. Looking to the past and especially at the present, Mr. Kotkin’s analysis is unsurpassed – I have long admired him for his insightful "Grass Roots Business" columns in the Sunday New York Times, and consider him among the continent’s most perceptive writers about settlement patterns. But though he tries to peer confidently into the future, either his instincts or his analysis betrays him, and he slips into the conventional wisdom about where the city is heading.

He notes that demographics tilt to the city’s favour, with the children of the Baby Boomers outnumbering their parents by 2010 – "a new generation of young, single, unattached, and childless professionals who, in the past, have shown a proven proclivity for city living."

Yet he believes cities are doomed as economic engines and as homes for the middle class. Only Manhattan and Chicago – exceptions which he dubs magnificent anachronisms – have successfully resettled their urban core: "These two cities account for nearly one-third of all America’s downtown resident population," he writes, underlining the after-dark emptiness of America’s downtowns.

Yet why are they exceptions? Not because of immutable market forces, as readers might surmise, but because most city governments have circumscribed or banned downtown urban life. New York’s spectacular success at attracting downtown residents, for example, stems largely from the willingness of landlords and tenants to flout the law. Although New York’s official plan banned residential use of factories and warehouses, sky-high rents in legal apartments drove the rental market underground. City planners and politicians acted wisely – they turned a blind eye to the widespread illegalities, and then, after the law-breaking had become a fait accompli, they legalized the new living arrangements.

The list of exceptions would become exceedingly long if many of the cities for which Mr. Kotkin forecasts a dim future – Seattle, Miami and Philadelphia among them – stopped destroying their remaining neighbourhoods and heritage buildings, and started to deregulate their housing markets and commercial districts.

In this, there is hope. Many planners and politicians now understand the need to preserve special places, and to discard excess planning. If the digital revolution can spread the word a little quicker, the new geography could be decidedly urban.

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