Houston, the cover story subject in the current issue of WORLD magazine, is ground zero for the biggest debate among urbanologists these days: Who’s right, Richard Florida or Joel Kotkin?
In University of Toronto professor Richard Florida’s ideal future America, centralization reigns: Government will push urban growth in densely populated cities along both coasts, where many people will live in small apartments close to their workplace and go carless. In Chapman University professor Joel Kotkin’s America, decentralization triumphs, and more people will live in low-density suburban and small city houses in the nation’s interior.
Each criticizes not only the other’s urban planning but also his worldview. Kotkin says Florida and Florida’s followers remind him of “the Middle Ages [when] you had the priesthood at the University of Paris. They were inculcated with a certain theology” that promoted the interests of “the aristocracy and the kings … without even really thinking about what people want.” Florida complains that Kotkin sees urban conflict—“sophistos, trendoids, and gays versus real families”—and has even received support from a pro-life evangelical, Howard Ahmanson.
These dueling visions also have a political edge. People living in dense urban settings become more dependent on government and tend to vote Democratic. People who live in their own houses, drive their own cars, and have larger families often favor less taxation and regulation. Florida and Kotkin agree that big downtown projects—sports stadiums, casinos, museums, and other tourist attracters—don’t build a strong base for a city, but they disagree on just about everything else, including what they think the great cities of the future will be.
That disagreement brings us to Houston. Florida says the future great cities must have density so that “ideas mate, combining and recombining to generate the innovations that power growth.” He points to New York City, not only No. 1 in population but easily No. 1 in density, with 27,000 persons per square mile, and holds his nose regarding car-happy Houston, the fourth most populous city but one with a density only 13 percent of New York’s. Kotkin, on the other hand, praises Houston’s liberty and calls it the world’s next great city.
I hope you take a look at our current cover story and listen to stories about Houstonians on The World and Everything in It over the next three weeks.