Joel Kotkin: The Renaissance of Cities

Joel Kotkin: The Renaissance of Cities

by / February 28, 1998 0
Q:Where is this technological or information revolution going to leave cities? If we look back at the industrial revolution, for instance, we see tremendous impact upon cities and the rise of the industrial city.

A: Cities have always been, in Lewis Mumford's term, symbols of the top. The question is, really: Are they going to be able to rise in this new wave? The information technology revolution has not, in many ways, been very kind to cities. Some like George Gilder believe that it will be the death of cities.

And certainly, if you look at many cities in this country, they have not really enjoyed the changes that are going on. One of the realities of both the computer hardware and software industries is that they have generally both chosen to locate outside of major cities. The growth of these has been overwhelming -- whether population growth or income growth. People talk about Bill Gates in Seattle. Well, Bill Gates is not in Seattle. He is in Redmond, Wash., which is quite some distance from downtown Seattle.

Right now three quarters of all the new office space in the United States is being built in suburban areas. Eighty percent of all the new jobs and most of the high-paid jobs are in these areas. Look at a booming area like Atlanta. The Atlanta area population -- the peripheral area -- has increased by 71 percent. The city of Atlanta, in the last 15 years, has declined in population by 6.8 percent. This is an indication of the real problem in urban America today. I think this new revolution, as it moves increasingly from hardware to software, represents great economic opportunity.

We have to realize that there really are two cultures emerging in the American high-tech or cutting-edge sectors. One is what might be described as the "nerd culture." You visit some place like the SAS Institute [one of the top IT providers in the world] in North Carolina. The techies love it, and I got bored in about 15 minutes.

If you ask the human relations manager at the SAS Institute why people come there, he says people love it because it looks like a college campus. He says that engineers like predictability. They like something that has no surprises. They don't want to go to that weird Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park where who knows what they are going to be served.

Now some of us like the unpredictability, the spontaneity that is part of living in a city like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but the nerd culture generally doesn't like that. And one of the key things that determines whether cities are able to make the great leap into the Information Age, and really take advantage of the Information Age, is whether or not we can create another culture, which I would call the "creative culture," which will be able to bring within it the use of technology.

If Hollywood remained, for instance, a community without technology and remained dominated by the usual things that have dominated in the last 50 or 60 years, then over the long term, Hollywood would lose its control over the entertainment industry. But thank goodness we have companies like Digital Domain, which did the special effects on the movie "Titanic," and others who are bringing new technology into that industry.

Q: What should cities do to ensure that they flourish and prosper in this new age? Is there a model that they can look to?

A: Well first, I think we have to realize that not all cities are necessarily going to survive. Not all cities have tremendous resources of technology. Not all cities have huge creative industries. Those are pretty well concentrated in certain areas. So we have to understand that some cities just are never going to come back, because they simply can't participate in the information revolution. But I think there are cities that will come out of it and flourish and prosper. I'm hoping that Los Angeles will be one of those cities.

Where do we see a model for all this? I think we have to look at the very reason why people came to cities in the first place. I look at the Renaissance as being sort of the key paradigm. If you look back at cities such as Venice or Florence, they provided services which could not be provided in any other way. So the first thing a city has to ask itself is: What can it can provide that Irvine cannot? What can it provide that can't be found in Redmond, Wash., or Boise, Idaho or some suburb of Dallas?

One of the things that the great Renaissance cities had was that they were tremendous marketplaces of cross-cultural trade -- different kinds of people trading ideas and goods. That is something that is very difficult to do in Plain Oaks, Texas. That is one thing that great cities can do. Also, they are incredibly important as cultural centers. That is one of their great strengths. They are centers of painting, music, drama. And if it is going to be true in the future that the great virtual city is going to take place for the creative content industry, and that this is going to be the growth sector of high tech that is really going to make a difference, then I think we can use that as a base to move cities into an advantageous position in the Information Age.

The other thing about the Renaissance city, connected with artisanship and very much the other part of the equation, is the ability to make and design interesting new products, whether it be clothes or furniture or creative ways of being. In the kind of post-industrial city that I'm talking about, the Renaissance characteristics -- cross-cultural trade and development of culture and artisanship -- are going to have to be worked on, concentrated on, as this is where cities can out perform, by their very nature, the more suburban nerd culture.

So really there are two models. They will be able to culturally coexist successfully. But the question is whether cities will be able to incubate this creative technology culture so that they can find a future in the 21st century.

Q: Do you have ideas about how a city might do that?

A: If you take a look at where entertainment and culture employment is in North America, Los Angeles has 240,000, New York has 43,000, Toronto has 28,000 and Chicago has 25,000. If you take a look at the entertainment industry, why did it not move to Irvine or Salt Lake City or Las Vegas or Boise, Idaho?

I've worked in television myself, and I can tell you that the entertainment industry is intensely collaborative. You have to work with the person who edits the film. You have to deal with the people who handle the sound and so on. You have the coming together of different skill sets. And that is what Los Angeles, more than any place in the United States and perhaps anywhere in the world, has. You needed those skill sets to work together and very, very quickly get a project done on time.

So this is one of the areas where cities have a comparative advantage. Now they can blow it. In Los Angeles, for instance, there are a tremendous number of people who work at home and who are making a good living -- the 90,000 freelancers in the entertainment industry in L.A. So what happens? The City Council has decided that -- now people are actually making money, and they are not even getting on the roads, clogging the infrastructure -- they are going to tax them.

What we have to understand is that people working at home -- the artist, the craftsperson, whether it is in entertainment or designing furniture or making pottery -- are going to be the backbone of this new renaissance if there is going to be any renaissance.

Multimedia is a great example of this. The Bay Area Economic Forum did a survey trying to estimate what home media employment was. Again, all numbers in this field are either changing so rapidly or are hard to define, but let's just say what the Bay Area Economic Forum came up with: Los Angeles, 133,000 jobs; San Francisco, 60,000; New York, 60,000. But what was interesting is not just that L.A. is large, but that three big sectors of this new industry are concentrated heavily in virgin areas like Boston. And in other areas, there is a great deal of growth in the home media field.

Why? Because this industry is a transformative industry. It is taking what already exists in the information and culture industry and moving more and more into an intersection with technology. That is where cities have a great future. Each city has a different characteristic to its multimedia industry. New York is tied to advertising and publishing. San Francisco is a little bit more towards marketing and technology. In Los Angeles, entertainment and digital imaging are prominently on the cutting edge. So when you take a look at what cities can do, one thing that can provide high-income jobs for cities in the future is the multimedia and entertainment industry.

You have this huge artisan sector, which again feeds into creating the images that are also used in the entertainment industry. These firms in
furniture and garments and textiles, bicycle parts and the design of bicycles -- these are again classic urban industries which are beginning to come back, particularly in places like Los Angeles and Houston, where we are seeing a strong revival of a certain kind of manufacturing. We have to nurture this new urban economy. We have to begin to rediscover why cities exist. Because cities, without redefining who they are, must begin to understand what they can do that rural areas are not good at. That is the only way they will find a competitive edge.

Q: The population trends show that more people are moving away from the core of big cities. This clearly creates problems.

A: Yes, but that does not mean that cities can't find the right kind of niche where they can flourish in the years ahead. The question is: What do cities need to do to flourish and attract commerce? What is it that will create urban environments that attract people? Take the great people who have made an impact in multimedia in New York City, for instance. Well, a large number of people are attracted to the cultural institutions in New York.

Cities have to think about creating interesting urban environments. You cannot "out mall" the suburbs. But what you can do is create interesting, enjoyable, eclectic, spontaneous urban environments where people want to come to shop. We've seen this effect in Pasadena; we've seen this effect in Santa Monica; and we've seen this effect on streets like Melrose.

I remember one time I had a group from Phoenix, and I was taking them down Melrose Avenue and they said, "Can't we get something like this in Phoenix," as if some developer could come in and create a street with stores like Wacko and things like that. That comes out of the urban culture. It comes out of the kind of people who want to live in cities. And I think if we can create those environments, then we will continue to attract the people we want. It is not by mistake that the new media community in the New York area has really stayed very close to parts of lower Manhattan -- where there is a lot of cultural energy -- or San Francisco in the Market area close to where artists have traditionally worked in San Francisco. And here in Los Angeles, on the west side of L.A., like in the city of Venice where Digital Domain is located, in communities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood where creative people want to go, where they want to shop, where they want to go out to eat. That is going to be one of the critical issues in building the new digital cities.

Q: So really what you are saying is that, even for cities like Los Angeles or New York, where there is a strong cultural base, their prosperity is by no means assured by their history. Cities can blow it big time if they don't recognize what is happening and do all they can to foster environments that attract creative people.

A: That is the danger cities face. They need to guard their uniqueness. Any city has to think about how it can be a unique, interesting experience. It has to understand it is creating an alternative product, not the same product. Don't clean up Times Square so it ends up being as boring as a mall in Orlando. And obviously you have to improve the regulatory climate.

Again, I go back to the whole question of the City Council in Los Angeles trying to tax home-based businesses. I cannot think of a stupider idea if you wanted to concentrate on this artisan-based, highly-creative urban economy. Fundamentally, what you need to do in cities is create an environment for creation, for something that cannot be done easily elsewhere. A lot of times politicians focus on fiber optics and bandwidth and all those technological solutions without thinking about the human condition, about the importance of maintaining, on one hand, traditional architecture, keeping it up to standard. And also creating new, interesting things that will inspire people, whether it is a new cathedral or a Getty Museum.

You have to create excitement. Remember, living in that city is a hassle. It's expensive. It has certain dangers that are associated with it. You have to provide the creative person with things that inspire them and make them want to stay.

And finally, what you have to do is create a new sense of urban purpose. The people who made Venice and Florence and the great cities of the Italian Renaissance had enormous pride in their cities. They were excited about their cities. One of the most exciting things I think is happening here in Southern California, and in other parts of the country as well, is a new sense of networking and involvement. We can't create the new Renaissance cities of the 21st century if we do not have a civic sense of purpose.

Q: For cities to adopt the new kind of agenda you are describing here, strong leadership -- leadership with vision if you like -- is a vital part of the equation. Do you have a sense of how we are going to organize and find the required leadership -- either by mobilizing existing leaders or by bringing new leaders to the fore?

A: I think it is a combination of several things. I hope that some of the old, existing leadership will be involved. But one of the things we are going to have to confront is that we are going to have to have, on a big-company level, leadership by individual. If you talk to even the most civicly-minded executives, you find out that they are under enormous pressure from shareholders to perform. And they are also global businesses. They are not in business to help Los Angeles or Chicago or New York or wherever they might be headquartered. So one of the things you have to understand is that there are only going to be so many corporations who are going to play a big, positive leadership role. There are going to be some individuals who might do it in one city. But the fact is that there are only going to be a limited number. The future of cities, I believe, is going to be developing leadership the way Jim Johnson has done with Lawnmower, the way the fashion industry is trying to do it, the way the furniture industry is trying to do it. We have lots of big industries made up of small companies. There are 150,000 people in the garment industry in Los Angeles.

So we are going to have to create networks, like the Lawnmower network, in every one of those industries as a way to get input -- almost like new guilds, if you look back to the Middle Ages. Because what you have is not a lot of large companies but large industries. Remember, Digital Domain, the second-largest digital effects company, has 400 employees. That is nothing compared to what you would find in traditional industries. So we are going to have to create networks of networks -- getting the multimedia people talking and finding common interests with the furniture industry and the toy industry and so on -- to create new kinds of collaboration that involve the entrepreneurs who ultimately will be the ones who determine whether cities live or die.

Q: Is there a role for the federal government in all this?

A: I believe that we are, as Kenichi Ohmae pointed out, moving into an era of global regionalism. I think over the last 10 or 20 years, and even going back to the Great Society, cities have become essentially addicted to federal transfer payments. Urban leaders would actually get up there and say, "Well, I brought this from Washington and that from Washington." They were so interested in trying to get money out of Washington, they didn't even look at their local economy and how to fix them on a local level. Every city has a different challenge, a different series of interests. Something that might work for New York City -- which is a very concentrated, centralized city -- might not work in Los Angeles. So I think what we need to do is bring responsibility back to urban leadership, to city councils, to states, because that is the only way we can address it.

I mentioned the importance of getting smaller companies involved in decision making. The bigger the level of government the more the domination is by larger companies and by large organizations in terms of lobbyists. The voice of a regional economy, the voice of multimedia in Los Angeles, for example, is not going to be heard very loudly in Washington, D.C. It can make a difference in Los Angeles. It can make a difference, even more so, in a small city like a Culver City or a Burbank. And I think that is the direction we have to go. Because the urban leaders have been very misled by the idea that the federal government is going to save them. The federal government is not going to save the cities. The cities are going to have to save themselves. And the sooner they realize this, the better off we will be.

March Table of Contents

Blake Harris Editor