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Sydney Suburbs (NSW) Inc.
News Release February 2006
Hi SOS Members
Joel Kotkin: For thriving cities, it's not enough to be cool
20 Feb 06
Dense, arty neighbourhoods have failed to attract talent and capital, writes Joel Kotkin. What people really want is affordable space
THE West's great cities face serious challenges, with terrorists plotting to blow them up even as jobs and capital flee to the low-cost havens of the developing world. However, from Sydney to San Francisco, the political imperative all too often has been not to look for ways to stay safe or competitive, but instead how to make cities cool and hip.
To many public officials, the key to building a great city in the 21st century
lies in cultivating the arts and entertainment venues that appeal to a so-called
creative class of youngish, hip professionals.
The pied piper of this theory, the American academic Richard Florida, has some cities sold on the notion that "without gays and rock bands" they are doomed to lose "the economic race" in the new century.
Across the world, cities have adopted strategies such as promoting gay districts, focusing resources on building cool downtown lofts and investing heavily in the construction of arts palaces and other such cultural ephemera. "Instead of having the arts we can afford," gushes one true believer, Andrew Refshauge, former deputy premier of NSW, "we need the arts for the economy to bloom."
Of course, this kultur uber alles approach negates the pattern traceable as
far back as ancient Greece that arts and culture do not foster, but follow,
the growth of economic and political power. After all, every great arts city
since then -- from Venice and Florence to Amsterdam, London and New York --
emerged first as a centre of commerce and trade, and only then evolved into
a centre of artistic brilliance.
The dunderheadness of this urban schemata is epitomised by the experience of San Francisco, a city consistently ranked among the highest on Florida's rankings of successful cities. Led by some of the wackiest politics this side of Havana, San Francisco has for years taxed and regulated its business community with unremitting fervour while counting on its arts and culture assets to drive its economy.
What these policies have produced instead is a city that has lost about 4 per cent of its population and 10 per cent of its jobs since 2000. Although many wealthy people still enjoy living there, the city has seen many of its largest corporations and promising young firms leave for either the surrounding suburbs or other regions.
As a result, notes native son and California historian Kevin Starr, San Francisco increasingly resembles "a theme park for restaurants". Its once diverse population is increasingly bifurcated between the nomadic rich and a sizeable population of servants as well as a large homeless population. Today the city -- which Starr described as "a cross between Carmel and Calcutta" -- has the highest concentration of inherited wealth and among the highest per capita incomes of any American city. It also has experienced one of the greatest increases in homicides and is No.1 in terms of cases of syphilis per capita in the US, eight times the rate of New York and 10 times that of Los Angeles.
Other cool, culture-centred cities in the US also appear to be less than idyllic. Since 2000, pillars of urban hipness such as Portland, Boston and Austin have suffered anaemic economic growth while key industries -- from manufacturing to high-end business services -- have migrated to such unhip cities as Las Vegas, San Bernardino-Riverside, Orlando, Boise and Reno.
A strong focus on hip culture also hasn't done wonders for a host of less renowned cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans and Newark, which have also continued along their decades-long pattern of deterioration.
In all these places, fancy new art museums, rock palaces and overheated loft districts have failed to reverse the flight of jobs and middle-class families.
This record of failure is not limited to North America. Take the case of Berlin. In the 1990s, vast amounts were expended to turn the restored German capital into the business capital of Mitteleuropa. These ambitions foundered on the city's high taxes, regulations and a generally anti-business culture. More than 100,000 jobs have disappeared in recent years, unemployment is at almost 20 per cent, and the population is declining as people flee to the suburbs or other, more prosperous parts of Germany.
Faced with such problems, what does the mayor of the bankrupt city propose? Cutting taxes, building new infrastructure, finding ways to keep the middle class and entrepreneurs? Not quite. Mayor Klaus Wowereit pegs the future to selling his "sexy but poor" city as "the city of glamour". To him, "the most decisive aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin". Somehow, he believes, this would turn the city's sad economy around.
Perhaps most troubling, the craze over coolness stops cities from focusing on the fundamentals -- such as investing in basic infrastructure, education, broad-based economic development, good parks and efficient sanitation -- critical to their long-term prospects. These basic functions affect the lives of most adults, including members of the bohemian creative class, once they begin to worry about buying a decent house, expanding a business and the imperatives brought on by raising a family.
These observations apply as well to Australia. Sophisticated hip cities such as Melbourne and particularly Sydney attract praise from Florida and his acolytes. Not surprisingly, planners and policymakers have placed great emphasis on developing dense, arty urban neighbourhoods while objecting to the expansion of supposedly dull, uncreative suburban areas.
This approach has proved no more successful down under than in the US or Europe. Strict land rationing, for example, has bequeathed the Sydney region, as revealed by the latest Demographia survey, grossly over-inflated land prices. As a result, population as well as job growth have stagnated as upwardly mobile people head to more affordable places such as Perth and Brisbane.
City leaders in the private and public spheres need to recognise three basic things about making modern, successful cities. First, cities must be allowed to grow naturally into the surrounding countryside in order to allow the continuous construction of housing for upwardly mobile middle and working-class families. Second, they must provide a tax and regulatory environment that encourages entrepreneurs to build companies and expand employment.
Third, and most important, they need to understand that economic reality matters more than artistic pretence. Perth's growth, for example, has its roots not in cultural genius but in an expanding commodity-based economy and more affordable housing choices. Brisbane, too, is capitalising on lower costs and livability to lure critical technology and entertainment activities away from more expensive, land-constrained cities such as Sydney.
Fortunately, there is no reason for any of Australia's great cities, including Sydney, to fall far behind. Blessed by nature and its history of late development, Australia still has plenty of room to grow. It possesses ample raw materials, a high standard of education and a superb quality of life. You don't have to spend millions selling yourself as hip and cool to get newcomers to settle here.
What is needed instead is an appreciation that the greatest asset of Australian cities -- including Melbourne and Sydney -- lies in the promise of the Australian dream of a single family house and a backyard. Although often anathema to planners, cultural meisters and policy intellectuals, this is the mundane prospect that will attract talent and capital from congested China, India and Europe to this still very lucky country.
President, Save Our Suburbs
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