Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented “an inventory of the possible,” a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.Kotkin notes that a major source of the contemporary problem is a shift in the dynamics of class mobility. As in -- it is disappearing; expanded access to education is no longer a sure route to greater prosperity for all. Jobs and income for the upper class are doing reasonably well; for the middle and lower classes, not at all. The problem is exacerbated by housing costs, which are extraordinary in places like London. In the US, one might look at places like Manhattan or the Washington, DC metro area, or just about any large city on the Western edge of California.
What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam—and, later, places such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo—was the size of their property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.
In the twenty-first century—the first in which the majority of people will live in cities—this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility is under threat. Urban boosters still maintain that big cities remain unique centers for social uplift, but evidence suggests this is increasingly no longer the case.
Kotkin is talking mostly about the mega-cities of the 21st century, such as London, but his comments resonate even with respect to small fry such as Pittsburgh:
Broad-based economic growth might seem the most logical solution to this dilemma. In the past, socialists, liberals, and conservatives might vigorously have debated various approaches, but generally agreed about the desired end result: shrinking slums and expanding opportunity for the middle or working class. Today, however, many urban “progressives” do not trouble themselves overmuch about the hoi polloi. Instead, they are more likely to devise policies to lure the much-ballyhooed “creative class” of well-educated, often childless, high-end workers to their cities. This goes along as well with an increased focus on aesthetic and “green” issues. ...Read Kotkin's whole essay here.
Attacking the class gap requires a redefinition of current views about the overused term “sustainability.” This concept needs to be expanded beyond its conventional environmental definition to reflect broader social and economic values as well. It is one thing to consider how, in an era dominated by dispersed work, core cities might still attract those elite workers needing direct “face-to-face contact.” It is quite another to develop strategies so that the vast majority will be able to find work doing anything other than servicing the needs of the upper echelons.
In turning away from the fundamental issues of economic growth and upward mobility, these cities are in danger of permanently undermining the very thing that has made great cities so attractive over the centuries. The ultimate worth of urbanity lies in its ability to deliver a better life, not only to the established affluent and the most skilled, but to that broader population who, like others over the millennia, come to a big city to create a better life.