That was the question I had reading Joel Kotkin’s new and interesting The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. Kotkin doesn’t himself come out and say that, but it is hard to avoid seeing how his arguments point in that direction. He has two powerful arrows in his bow:
1. Birth rates in cities are too low, so highly urbanized countries such as Singapore and South Korea will have difficulty sustaining themselves. Making cities nice, while it brings human benefits, does not solve this problem and in some ways makes it worse.
2. Lots of high-density, vertical building doesn’t really make cities cheaper. In fact it sucks more talent in, and more business activity, and in the longer run makes cities more expensive. Just look at Seoul and Singapore, which have built plenty but are nonetheless considered some of the most expensive cities to live in. After all, isn’t that the increasing returns to scale story?
If I read Kotkin correctly (and this post is my interpretation of him, not a summary), he is not criticizing the policy choices of Seoul and Singapore, which have elevated those countries, or in nerdier terms you could say they have brought significant infra-marginal benefits. He is simply pointing out that liberal building does not solve the problems it is supposed to solve, most of all the margins looking forward.
Perhaps to address those problems we need to look outside the realm of the city. America, by the way, is uniquely well-positioned to do this. Singapore, short of cutting a deal with southern Malaysia, has nowhere to go, so to speak.
I say Singapore should inspire more social science. Pararg Khanna, who lives in Singapore, also has a new book out on cities and the value of interconnectivity: Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civiliation. I haven’t read it yet but here is his TED talk on the same.