What is a city for?
It’s a crucial question, but one rarely asked by the pundits and developers who dominate the debate over the future of the American city.
Their current conventional wisdom embraces density, sky-high scrapers, vastly expanded mass transit and ever-smaller apartments. It reflects a desire to create an ideal locale for hipsters and older, sophisticated urban dwellers. It’s city as adult Disneyland or “entertainment machine,” chock-a-block with chic restaurants, shops and festivals.
Overlooked, or even disdained, is what most middle-class residents of the metropolis actually want: home ownership, rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area, good schools and “human scale” neighborhoods.
A vast majority of people — roughly 8o percent — prefer a single-family home, whether in the city or surrounding communities. And they may not get “creative” gigs at ad agencies or writers collectives, but look instead for decent-paying opportunities in fields such as construction, manufacturing or logistics. Over the past decade, these jobs have been declining rapidly in “luxury cities” like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In contrast, such jobs, which pay $60,000 to $100,000 annually, have been growing — particularly as the industrial and energy sectors have recovered — in cities like Houston, Austin, Nashville and Salt Lake City. These locales also feature housing, relative to incomes, that is more affordable.
Of course, few urbanists wax poetic about Dallas or Des Moines. They lack Brooklyn’s hipster charm, and often maintain some of the trappings of the suburbs. But these “opportunity cities” offer what Descartes called “an inventory of the possible” — urbanity as an engine of upward mobility for the middle and working classes.