Why Cyberspace Is Great For City Space


How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape

By Joel Kotkin

Random House -- 242pp -- $22.95

Is the rise of the World Wide Web leading Americans to be less concerned about their physical location, as they look increasingly to the virtual world for community? Are such gadgets as cell phones and laptops, which allow people to work from just about anywhere, causing a further erosion of city life? Not necessarily, says author Joel Kotkin, an economic forecaster and senior fellow at Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Policy. In his timely and insightful new book, The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape, Kotkin says the U.S. is undergoing a tech-driven overhaul, all right--but one that doesn't follow these familiar predictions.

Kotkin contends that technology is allowing Americans to place ever greater emphasis on where they live and work--and that's shaking things up. Rather than killing cities, for example, here and there it's sparking an urban renaissance. Overall, "many of the geographic certainties and delineations that dominated America in the second half of the twentieth century"--such as proximity to raw materials or transportation--"have become increasingly irrelevant."

The ability of New Economy knowledge workers and entrepreneurs to live and work wherever they want has, Kotkin says, caused a bifurcation in high-tech culture. The older tech crowd tends to be more family-oriented and more focused on engineering and products. These workers often prefer sterile, organized office parks and home offices, he says. On the other hand, there's the dot-com world, with its large component of young, mostly childless workers. These folks tend to crave the culturally rich, dynamic city scene, and many flat-out refuse to live or work in nerd-filled, culturally bland areas like Silicon Valley.

In the past, many cities sprang up or grew as companies chose to locate near waterways or raw materials. Now, Kotkin believes, a city's health depends on whether it has found a niche in the New Economic order. Can a region provide young, vibrant knowledge workers with the mix of cultural excitement and visual beauty they enjoy, for example? Has a city moved early and efficiently to wire itself and welcome startups? Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Tex., are both popular destinations for young New Economy workers who like these cities' college-town atmospheres and outdoor recreation options. Santa Monica, Calif., Cambridge, Mass., New York's Silicon Alley, downtown Seattle, and San Francisco are also popular and continue to draw new businesses with their concentrations of smart tech workers.

Manhattan and Chicago, Kotkin argues, have both Old and New Economy characteristics, but it's their vibrancy that will make them prosper. Then there are the urban losers: Newark, Detroit, and St. Louis, among others, which "have become marginalized in the new economy," the author says. "These communities continue to suffer the most dramatic population losses and remain among the least wired areas of the country." Successful suburbs such as Irvine, Calif., and North Carolina's research triangle, he says, will continue to find favor among engineers and scientists, while others, such as Upper Darby, outside Philadelphia, will become stagnant holding zones for unskilled workers stuck in low-paying nontech jobs.

Kotkin applies his own terminology to divergent geographic regions. "Midopolises," the first ring of suburbs to which the middle class fled, are now aging, crowded, and struggling for identities. Then there are "nerdistans," designed communities such as Irvine whose good schools and safe streets attract heads-down tech workers with little time for life and culture beyond their intellectual passions and their families. Finally, there are "Valhallas," remote, beautiful spots such as Camden, Me., or Park City, Utah, to which the very rich can retreat while still working--but out of which they're driving the locals.

Kotkin sounds some alarms. He warns of the high-tech revolution's fallout for police, teachers, and small nontech businesspeople who have served as the backbone of so many communities. He quotes one observer who believes San Francisco is quickly turning into "Carmel and Calcutta," with well-to-do young dot-commers and older elites existing side-by-side with the homeless who fill downtown doorways by night and beg by day. For all the jobs the dot-com boom has created there, few middle-class families can now afford to live even moderately well within the city limits. Most office workers are now commuting in from farther and farther away.

At times, Kotkin digresses. Lengthy discussions on immigration, for example, seem to have drained a notebook or two of research, but his descriptions of how immigrants gained footholds in troubled communities are not clearly linked to the Digital Age.

Overall, though, Kotkin's insights are on target--as are his warnings. Many cities, he observes, are finding that a thriving dot-com economy isn't always blissful: As startups grab former warehouses and light-industrial spaces, population density soars, traffic gridlock appears, parking becomes scarce, and rents go through the roof. Regions benefit from broad and varied economic bases. Unless they provide work and hope for people in all walks of life, they have little hope of long-term vitality.

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